How Bama losing to ULM showed what Nick Saban means by 'don't waste a failure'

No game from the upset-filled 2007 stands in starker contrast to today’s standards than ULM 21, Alabama 14.

"Hey, 2007. Was that the year Alabama went 6-6 also?" Steve Spurrier said in the middle of SB Nation’s interview with him about his own team’s year. "Saban’s first year, 6-6, lose to Louisiana-Monroe; two years later, win a national championship. How’s that?"

The Tide, which claimed 12 national titles at that point, and Saban, who’d won one at LSU, were 25-point favorites against the .500 Sun Belt team with a tiny budget and zero postseason history. The unthinkable loss was the third of a four-game losing streak to end Saban’s 7-6 inaugural season.

Fans likely remember the smack talk provided by Auburn, which beat Alabama for a sixth consecutive time one week later, and on its way to play in the Cotton Bowl, helped fund billboards on Interstate 20 in Monroe. Bama fans saw it on their way to the Independence Bowl (again) vs. Colorado.


SB Nation attempted to piece together the how, why, and what-next from Saban’s first Alabama coaching staff, but to no avail.

Five coaches declined to comment. The gist of their refusals: an ambiguous omerta on talking about working for Saban.

So we got a young ESPN analyst named Greg McElroy, a freshman on that team and later a title-winning quarterback under Saban at Alabama, to describe not only what losing to ULM meant at the time, but how the mediocre season made four national championships possible.

When Saban talked about never "wasting a failure" at SEC Media Days 2017, he could’ve been talking about ULM instead of the Tide’s national championship loss to Clemson.

In short, Auburn fans might regret buying those billboards.

Anyway, let’s just turn the mic over to McElroy.

"You can freaking lose to anybody. You can lose even if you have a significant talent advantage and a significant coaching advantage. You can lose at any point. And I remember that from [ULM].

"Later on in my senior year [2010], we’d be playing a team that was 2-8 in the Group of 5 on the schedule in like, Week 11, and I remember thinking to myself — seriously, as a senior starter, played a bunch of games, and at this point, I’d won a championship — I remember thinking to myself, ‘We better freaking play good. Or else we could lose.’

"It didn’t matter that we were better. That’s what he tried to explain to you. You’re not playing the competition. You’re not playing ULM or Auburn or LSU. You’re playing against the standard you’ve set for yourself. It’s not the scoreboard. You should view everything entirely on your performance from whistle to whistle on each and every individual play throughout the course of a game. ‘The scoreboard should never factor into how you execute.’

"That all came from those early collapses and ULM."

Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images
Bama gave up two scores in the final three minutes to lose to Saban’s former team, the eventual national champs

"It’s hard to look back. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’ve just completely stripped it from my memory. We were 6-2, and then we had a bunch of guys get suspended. And then we lost a lot of depth. Guys that started, guys that played. We lost some experience, and the wheels kind of came off.

"ULM was the ultimate. I couldn’t tell you any specifics … I can remember one play toward the end, there was a fourth down we didn’t get, and suddenly there’s a feeling of, ‘Hang on, we could actually lose this one.’ I think that was a key moment toward realizing that, and teaching us, that never-waste-a-failure thing Coach talked about.

"The UL-Monroe game, it was definitely eye-opening in the sense of … just because we’re Alabama, and we have this history and these uniforms, and we have this stadium and we have this coach and these players, doesn’t mean that we were any better than anyone else."

Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

"You just had to experience such bitter, incredible disappointment to fully comprehend what it takes to prepare week to week to be successful. Obviously, that was such a disappointing game, such a disappointing outcome, that I would imagine it sticks with people for a long time.

"I know it stuck with me for a long time, until I told myself I had to get over it. There were signs posted all over the entire facility with the scoreboard of the game, and it was reminded, and reminded, and reminded, and reminded to us over the course of the offseason."

After FSU beat Bama, both would finish 7-6, and then both would have to vacate wins

The calendar year that launched the obnoxious SEC chant

The SEC has a brand: being the best at football via a combination of fan willpower, local athleticism, and the University of Alabama’s membership. That’s the message it’s been hollering for a century now, but not too many had been listening for a while until right around 2007.

The modern era goes back to Auburn finishing No. 3 in 2004’s BCS standings after beating two more top-10 teams than No. 2 Oklahoma did, awakening the SEC fan’s regional resentment. That went back to when Alabama won the 1926 Rose Bowl as a mocked underdog and returned as a provincial hero.

So, heading into 2007, SEC fans had spent somewhere between three and 80 years bragging about their conference’s brutality and/or complaining about influential Yankees who didn’t appreciate it. Local confidence was soaring, thanks to the 2006 BCS upset by Florida over Ohio State after voters had agreed with Gators coach Urban Meyer’s argument about tough SEC schedules trumping BCS No. 3 Michigan’s "style points."

Years later, Meyer QB Tim Tebow still cites depth and physicality:

"Starting that run was really special," he tells SB Nation, "because leading up to us winning in 2006, 'SC was very dominant; they had won a couple of titles. Texas won the year before that in a big game against 'SC. So it was really special, just showing how many great athletes were playing in the SEC and how it was stacked from top to bottom. And every single team in that league could compete, and the league had a lot of physical players."

Wherever the S-E-C chant began, UF fans and players did it during the end of 2006’s championship in January 2007. It started echoing. Everyone hated it, which made it louder.

But for long stretches of the greatest season in football history, it looked like the SEC wouldn’t have a two-year championship streak, let alone seven.

"It wasn’t that we couldn’t win in 2007; it’s just that we didn’t. It’s just hard to win. That was something that had been lost for a while. In ‘07, a lot of the leadership came from the coaching staff. There were some leaders on the team, but it wasn’t the same.

"Now, the accountability comes from the players. I think the leadership shifted over time from the coaching staff trying to hold players accountable to then players taking that on. I can remember vividly, in 2009, getting in verbal arguments, and there were the occasional physical altercations. It is football, after all. I really don’t think a lot of programs are like that.

"I think Saban does a really good job of identifying naturally competitive people in recruiting. So when you have that hypercompetitive locker room, where you’re always at it … honestly, we really didn’t like the defense. We’d be friends in the offseason and friendly in the locker room and be buddies and stuff later, but I wanted to kill the defense. Every practice. Ask Kirby [Smart, Georgia’s head coach and Saban’s former coordinator] that.

"Honestly, he basically makes you think that every single time you step on a field, you’re capable of losing. If you don’t play well, you can lose, no matter what. I don’t know about now, though, because they’re just so much more talented than everyone else they play more often than not. Even the ‘09 championship team had a blue-collar feel. There were a lot of three-star guys playing significant roles."

"I remember Nick Saban’s first day and the tone that he tried to set with the team as he got ready to go out recruiting. It was basically, ‘Get ready to work.’ That was the long and the short of it. ‘Hey, welcome to the real world,’ I guess. With all due respect to Mike Shula — he recruited me, and without him, I’d never get a shot at Alabama —but it was a whole new ball game."

"I wouldn’t point so much as to ULM as the turning point, but Shreveport. I can remember it vividly. It was actually in the bowl prep. We went to Shreveport, which meant we’d been invited to the Independence Bowl for the second consecutive year. It would’ve been really easy for a lot of guys to say, ‘Hey, we’ve already been here. We’re finishing the regular season on a four-game losing streak. What a bummer season.’

"But when we came into bowl practice, the level of intensity was different. Losing four in a row is terrible. And losing to your archenemy for the sixth time in a row is maybe the worst feeling in the world, even though some of us had only experienced it once or maybe two or three times.

"The seniors and the upperclassmen and that new leadership group, the level of intensity in those practices were on a different level. That’s when the switch flipped.

"It was very obvious guys were fully invested. From that point on, we won that bowl game, we won 12 games in row the following year, we won 14 the year after that, 10 after that, and then however many after.

"People always ask when this dynasty got started. It wasn’t 2009. It was 2007 in bowl prep in Shreveport."

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Two years after ULM

This story's author and Podcast Ain't Played Nobody co-host Bill Connelly talk the 2007 season's madness and the year's actual best teams: