Mike Johnson looks at Alabama football and worries. He sees the obvious talent the Crimson Tide have but wonders if they still have the edge it takes to win championships. Do they know what it's like to feel genuine pain over a loss, to hit rock bottom and have to get back up?
From the fifth-year seniors to the true freshmen, the worst defeats these players have suffered have come in the Sugar Bowl, he points out, laughing at the absurdity of such a thing.
A former All-American guard at Alabama, Johnson knows that's nothing. He experienced the joy of a national championship in 2009, but before that he had to go through what he calls "the worst day of my life." It was November 17, 2007 and he could do nothing to stop one of the biggest upsets in Alabama and college football history.
The Crimson Tide struggled in Nick Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa, owning a 6-4 record when Louisiana-Monroe came to town as a 25-point underdog. Trailing by a touchdown, Alabama RB Jimmy Johns fumbled in the red zone with 4:41 left, Alabama's fourth turnover of the game. "My heart just sank," Johnson said. The Tide would have one last shot at tying the score with less than a minute remaining but would ultimately turn over the ball on downs. Louisiana-Monroe would go on to win 21-14.
"It was a tough walk off the field," Johnson said.
On Saturday, Alabama welcomes Louisiana-Monroe back to Bryant-Denny Stadium (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network) for the first time since Crimson Tide football hit rock bottom in 2007.
It was an embarrassment that players and coaches took personally. In one of the strangest news conferences ever, a confrontational Saban invoked 9/11 and Pearl Harbor when discussing the loss. He said it was like an alcoholic finally hitting rock bottom. Tuscaloosa went into full meltdown.
"We played as poorly as any team I've been associated with," Saban said this summer.
But out of one of the darkest days in Alabama football history came one of its greatest runs. A little more than two years later, a dynasty was born that would result in three national championships.
"Thank goodness that happened," said Drew Davis, who was a sophomore on that 2007 team. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back.
"The phoenix rising from the ashes is way overused, but it was like the last ash to fall. We're done, and obviously doing what we want to do doesn't work. It was time to wake up."
* * *
"We felt like we could play with anybody," ULM coach Charlie Weatherbie said.
"We said, 'Hey, if they overlook us and don't prepare for us, we're going to shock them.'"
Weatherbie was four years into his tenure at Louisiana-Monroe. His teams had knocked on the door of beating a few BCS-level programs and all that was missing was the confidence that they could finish the job.
So the night before the game, Weatherbie had the assistant chief of campus police address the team. According to Weatherbie, the officer handed out a small stone to each player signifying the battle of David and Goliath.
James Truxillo, a redshirt sophomore and native of New Orleans, grew up an avid LSU fan. That LSU's former coach, Saban, was on the other side made the prospects of a win all the more appealing.
"I remember the feeling of, 'You know what? We're in this thing. Let's finish it for once!'" he said.
During halftime, Weatherbie vividly remembers fans cheering on the Crimson Tide. But when ULM took the lead in the third quarter, the tone changed.
With less than a minute remaining, Truxillo ended the game with a pass breakup on fourth down.
"I was just able to read the quarterback's eyes," he said. "He turned his shoulders to the sideline and I buzzed the flat and was able to get my hands on the football. I knew it was over after that."
In the locker room, Weatherbie told his players, "I knew we were capable of doing this. It was something that you'll remember and be able to tell your kids and grandkids about."
Looking back, he laughed.
"It was fun to get paid $1 million to play them and come out with a victory," he said.
"After that game was a crazy environment," Truxillo said. "Crazy. People celebrating. We picked up Coach Weatherbie and put him on our shoulders."
Truxillo still has the newspaper clipping from the game. It's framed and hanging inside his home in Illinois today.
"It's always good to say when I watch Alabama play that we were able to beat them back in 2007. Makes you feel good."
* * *
Everyone in the Alabama locker room was stunned. It was eerily quiet, except for a few seniors with tears streaming down their faces. For that to be their final game in Bryant-Denny Stadium was unfathomable.
"Kind of like shock, aftershock," former receiver Brandon Gibson said.
Saban didn't explode when he addressed the team. In fact, he was almost consoling if not for his matter-of-fact tone.
According to Davis, Saban said, "I hate that you're feeling this pain right now, but I did everything I could to stop you from it and you kept going over the cliff. ... So maybe now you'll start listening."
Saban was done in under a minute.
"It was just one of those things where everyone quietly took their tape off and their pads off and a lot of guys sat and talked about it for a while and some guys wanted to get out as quick as they could," Johnson said. "There wasn't any yelling going on. I just remember wanting to know, where do we go from here? I just wanted to head straight back into the weight room right then and work on getting better."
John Parker Wilson, the starting quarterback, said, "We were sick and tired of losing to Louisiana-Monroe, losing close games like that."
The transformation that began upon Saban's arrival hadn't taken yet.
"Our mindset hadn't changed from what it had been," Davis said. "Leading up to the game in practice, it was more nonchalant and less focused. We're just playing Louisiana-Monroe, what's the big deal? Why would I kill myself?
"The mindset was broken that day."
That night, Davis wouldn't leave his house.
"You don't want to hang out with anybody. You don't want to see friends," he said. "Because that's the No. 1 thing on everyone's minds: 'What happened? What caused this catastrophe?'"
On Monday, Davis arrived at the football complex and said hello to former Alabama great Steadman Shealy. He got silence in return.
"I could just feel the utter disgust from him," Davis said. "I thought in my mind, that's eating at him and he's embarrassed because he's tied to the program. If you think of it as a ripple effect, all the good players that made Alabama the dynasty it was and built the program the first time, how they must have felt. The sickening, disgusting feeling that their alma mater, this team they left to us, in total disarray, in total chaos where it shouldn't be."
That morning, Johnson walked to class in a daze.
"The air had just escaped the entire campus," he said. "It almost felt like everyone went home. It was quiet. There was no life. ... I can just remember crossing the quad. I kind of hid from the televisions Sunday and Saturday night and it was complete -- like a balloon had busted. It was a complete negative feeling walking across that quad."
Some called it a slap in the face. Others called it a wake-up call. But to a man, they all listened to Saban. And whoever didn't was gone.
Soon after the loss, Saban addressed the team. According to Johnson, Saban told the players that if they didn't get on board, they would be replaced.
Players either left or transferred, and the 2008 signing class brought in new life with the likes of Julio Jones, Marcell Dareus and Mark Barron.
"It was a first-year team," Saban said, looking back on the 2007 season this past July. "We didn't have guys that we recruited."
Of the Louisiana-Monroe loss, Saban said, "Those kinds of things makes people realize we can't continue to do things the same way that we've always done them because we're going to continue to get not-so-good results. It made a lot more people in the program a lot more willing to change."
* * *
The change was immediate, Davis said. Alabama would lose a close game to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, but end the season with a win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl.
Throughout the offseason, players were reminded of the loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Posters of the scoreboard were hung in lockers. The game was replayed on televisions inside the complex. When coaches felt players were losing focus, they'd ask, "Hey, do you remember how bad that felt? Do you want to do that again?"
"That in their back pocket, what Coach Saban and [strength] Coach [Scott] Cochran were able to do was kind of show us what it's going to take," Johnson said.
Alabama began the 2008 season by beating No. 9 Clemson. It won 11 straight before dropping the SEC championship game.
The next year, the Tide won the first of three national titles under Saban.
On the heels of a heartbreaking loss to No. 15 Ole Miss last weekend, it will be interesting to see how this year's squad fares against pesky Louisiana-Monroe. Alabama is currently a 38-point favorite.
If Johnson could speak to the team now, he'd tell them to be careful and "step out of the small window you're looking through."
"Look at the big picture because that was something that I don't ever want to go back to," he said. "It was such a dark time. It was something that they've never had to deal with, but I have.
"I just want to tell them to make the people who wore that uniform proud and not give an embarrassment to the fanbase like we did. It's something that needs to be learned from and I hope it's still around that building."