Review of We Want Bama: A Season of Hope and the Making of Nick Saban’s Ultimate Team, by Joseph Goodman

11 Jan

Alabama’s national championship-winning 2020 football team set numerous records and won every game on its schedule. It is not the first time the school has fielded an undefeated championship team, but the circumstances of this season, happening as it did during a global pandemic which threatened to cancel the entire season and did result in the cancellation or postponement of several games, made it completely different than any other. Players and coaches, including head coach Nick Saban himself, missed some games along the course of a brutal all-conference game schedule played in almost empty stadiums. Journalist Joseph Goodman sees that magical season as uniquely important for more than what was accomplished strictly on the field of play, though. Making a connection between nationwide racial unrest and the quest to for a more equitable society and the special team unity that propelled the Crimson Tide to a title, he attempts a chronicle of the 2020 team and its times in We Want Bama: A Season of Hope.

This is not your typical football book. While it contains plenty of information on Alabama’s players, coaches, and the special sense of togetherness and commitment they shared in their quest for a title, the book is best understood as a statement on Alabama’s football culture set against the backdrop of a troubled past. One is reminded early and often of the racism which once characterized Alabama’s politics and society in the pages of the book. Nearly half of it, in fact, seems to be a polemic on the outrageous racial inequities which defined so much of Alabama’s early and mid-twentieth century history. There is an equal amount of space in the book devoted to examining the exuberant, almost irrational enthusiasm of the large and loyal Alabama football fan base. The result is a book that is part history lacking contextualization, intriguing biographical investigation, humorous examination of outrageous fandom, partisan political diatribe, and chronicle of a memorable football season.

Each component of Goodman’s narrative has its merits, and parts of each are genuinely entertaining. But none are developed fully, and forced together they make for a discordant mess of a read. At times the speed at which the author changes gears and focus is disorienting and his over-the-top writing style—at moments humorous but in large doses grating—loses punch the deeper one goes into the book. The slapstick-style description of boisterous bars on gamedays in Tuscaloosa that comes off as light-hearted writing which one might read in a periodical article seems poorly suited for a book-length narrative, especially when dealing with weighty issues. The stream-of-consciousness, hyperbole-filled, rapid-fire style becomes wearisome pretty early, in truth. But it is Goodman’s attempt to make a symbolic rally by the football team in support of social justice the central event to his story where the book’s shortcomings are most noticeable. The pre-season march to Foster Auditorium—the site where George Wallace once made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door”—was an important statement of unity and progressiveness in a year of many similar events. But to insinuate that Alabama’s racial climate was so similar to that of the early 1960s that such an occurrence could be remembered as a turning point in the state’s history is a bit naïve and terribly uninformed historically. Goodman has many worthwhile points to make in a narrative, but the attempt to make that summertime march the central event in a football season which will be remembered for any number of other on-the-field events—including the winning of a Heisman Trophy and the hoisting of a national championship trophy—seems more than a bit of a stretch. In candor the event is even lost in the shuffle of the book’s spasmodic narrative. If you have an interest in any of the multiple points of focus addressed in this book, you are likely best served by looking elsewhere for them. Goodman is original and at times incredibly entertaining, but this book seems to somehow be a bit less than the sum of its parts.

JMB

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