In seven years as women’s soccer coach at Clemson University, Todd Bramble never located a mole in the NCAA who would tip him off with inside information.
Bramble really didn’t need the assurances because even though his program never won an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, it always was on solid footing when it came for the NCAA tournament selection committee to hand out at-large bids.
Bramble was in a different spot Monday.
In his fourth season as coach at the University of Alabama, Bramble sat in the recruiting room inside the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility to learn his team’s fate. Thanks to coach Nick Saban, Bramble and his players had a chance to sit back and relax and hope their hard work made an impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee.
“Waiting was as painful (for him) as it was for everybody else,” Bramble said. “I had no idea (if the Crimson Tide would make it). I wasn’t sure if the conference would get eight teams. I was thinking, ‘OK, the SEC is going to get seven,’ and that I hoped we had jumped Georgia.”
Turns out, Alabama and Georgia both received bids as part of a record eight SEC teams that will take part in the 64-team NCAA tournament, which begins Friday. Alabama (10-8-3) will take on the University of Miami (9-7-1) in the first round at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The berth is the just second for a program that made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 1998. Since then, Alabama has had only three winning seasons. Bramble left an established program at Clemson because he thought he could capitalize on Alabama’s name recognition and its resources and build a program that could compete at the national level. With two .500 finishes in his first three seasons, this season has been a huge step forward. In fact, Alabama has reached double-digit victories for the first time since 2004.
Alabama secured the bid thanks to a 4-2-1 record at the end of the season. The run included a victory against the No. 24 University of Tennessee and a tie at the University of Georgia. A victory against Auburn in the regular-season finale proved to be even more impressive after seventh-seeded Auburn won the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Alabama also helped itself by upsetting the top-seeded University of South Carolina in the first round and then battling with the University of Florida before falling 2-1.
“When it ticked down to 1-1 with 10 minutes left in the game I thought in the back of my mind a draw would go a long way in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee,” Bramble said. “Whether we lost to them 4-1, like we did in the regular season, or 2-1, like we did in Orange Beach, Ala., a loss is a loss in the eyes of the committee.”
Instead of looking at the loss like it could have been his team’s final match, Bramble focused on the fact he felt his team didn’t have any “bad losses,” which he considers to teams with RPIs of more than 100, and that the Crimson Tide finished strong with significant wins in the final three weekends.
Still, he wasn’t sure how things would play out Monday afternoon. It didn’t take long for a huge cheer from everyone in the room watching the NCAA tournament selection show to provide the news everyone wanted to see and to hear.
“I had the faith and trusted all along that at Alabama in a reasonable amount of time we should be participating in this tournament,” Bramble said. “With the utmost humility, this is what I expected to happen. I didn’t know how quickly it was going to happen, and if you had asked me five weeks ago if we would be here it would have tough for me to say. But there is a special element to this team that allowed it to happen. “It is not about me. It is a testament to the players and to the program in total — the assistant coaches, the trainers, and the strength and conditioning coaches. It is a team effort.”
Bramble is accustomed to playing soccer at this time of the year. He led Clemson to seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including two trips to the Sweet 16 and one trip to the Elite Eight.
But Bramble had to transform the program and culture at Alabama. He even had to work through problems this season, particularly a five-match winless streak in the middle of the season that left him wondering if his players would be able to regroup. Thanks to an uncommonly strong team chemistry and a “special” element to this year’s team, the Crimson Tide closed with a rush to extend their season.
“There is something special about this team in the way it competes and plays for each other and the way it gets along on and off the field,” Bramble said. “There is a great spirit about this team and I enjoy coaching them. As happy as I am about getting into the NCAA tournament, I really enjoy the fact we get to train for another week.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.