By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
Mary Ann Strong stayed home and watched Alabama defeat Texas to win the national championship in 2009.
That was almost too much for her to take. She decided that if Alabama reached that point again, she was going to be there.
Who knew that would mean two years in a row.
The Strong family was there last year when Alabama won in New Orleans, and will be there on Monday when the Crimson Tide plays for a third championship in four years against Notre Dame in Miami.
While the match-up between the two most storied programs in college football is getting plenty of attention, Strong is just glad the Crimson Tide is playing in the most important game of the year … again.
“I think it will be an exciting game, but I don’t care who they play,” Strong said. “After we did not go in 2009 and I had to sit here and the days leading up to that and watch all that on TV here in my office leading up to it, I swore right then I would never miss another one.”
She is as Strong as her word. Strong, her husband, Brad, and sons, Bradley and Reece, enjoyed a rare family outing last January when the Crimson Tide beat LSU, and expect the same good time in South Beach.
“I think Bradley and Reece would tell you this. As a family that (New Orleans) was one of our best trips ever because we don’t get to do summer vacations anymore with them playing summer ball,” said Strong, the CLU at Mulco Insurance and Properties, a business located in downtown Richlands for 29 years. “This is special for us as a family.”
Another championship game win would make it even more special.
“I think we will. I am not as confident oddly enough as I was last year because everybody was like ‘I don’t know Mary Ann, LSU’, but I knew last year without a shadow of a doubt that (LSU coach) Les Miles could not beat Nick Saban three in a row,” she said. “That is why I had such confidence last year, but this year if they just play disciplined Alabama football, we can wear them down in the end.
“One of my best friends in the world is (Richlands resident) Bob Nassif. He is a huge Notre Dame fan, he knows I am sticking with my team and I know he is sticking with his.”
So is Brad Strong. He is the head baseball coach and assistant football coach at Richlands, who won’t make any predictions, but expects to see a good game and hopes to see the Tide come out on top.
“I am a typical coach, Notre Dame has got a lot of tradition, so does Alabama,” Strong said. “I think Alabama has the better players, but when it comes down to it, tradition is something you hold dear and I think (Notre Dame’s Brian) Kelly and Saban are two good coaches.
“I want to see a great ball game and I am sure I am going to see a great ball game. Who do I think is going to win? I think Alabama will win.”
Brad does appreciate the Notre Dame mystique, having grown up in Tazewell watching the Fighting Irish when no one else was on.
“Growing up here, Channel 6 news was all we could get back in the day and on Saturday afternoons Notre Dame was on that channel so we got to watch Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz and all those coaches,” Strong said. “It is a great tradition and we are looking forward to going and enjoying that day.”
Alabama athletics has long been a family affair for Mary Ann, whose father, Bob Mullins, was an avid Crimson Tide fan living in Richlands.
“Actually growing up my dad has always been a huge Alabama fan,” she said. “I can remember him not being home over New Year’s because he was at an Alabama bowl game...He was a huge Bear Bryant fan.”
Imagine Mullins’ excitement when his daughter, a talented high school tennis player at Richlands, decided to continue her career at Alabama.
“I wanted to go to UNC-Chapel Hill to play tennis and the coach told me I just wasn’t quite enough,” Strong said. “I had connection with the coach at Alabama at the time so she recruited me and one visit to a football game and they had Charlie Daniels in concert that night and the campus so I was sold...
“My dad tried to let me make my own decision and he didn’t influence me.”
Strong attended Alabama from 1981-85, playing tennis for three years, while growing attached to the close-knit Tuscaloosa community like no other place.
“I just love the friendliness so it would be the people, it is like home, and the people are very friendly...,” Strong said. “I went through some difficult times, my mom passed away while I was there and after that I struggled with tennis.
“I guess it was a place that was very good to me during a difficult time in my life...Tuscaloosa is just home, it is the friendly people.”
Mary Ann’s office — and the Strong home — is a shrine to Alabama football, along with her sons, who were baseball and football standouts at Richlands, and are now playing baseball at Western Carolina.
Among her most prized possessions — along with office walls painted in Crimson and art prints of many great moments in Alabama football — is an autographed photo of Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant, which she got prior to Bryant’s final game at the Liberty Bowl in 1982. He died just over a month later.
“I got Bear’s autograph there in ‘82 in December so that is real significant and of course he died in February of the following year,” Strong said. “I was there in his last two years, he died my sophomore year and then we got Ray Perkins. When I was there unfortunately it wasn’t in the glory years of Bear Bryant and Alabama football.”
She still has a few memories of Bryant, who continues to be an icon in Alabama. She can still recall a few rare moments when he could be heard yelling from his tower high above the football practice field, a structure that has been preserved to this day.
“I can still remember him, the tennis courts were right beside the football practice field and he would be up in that tower,” Mary Ann said. “Sometimes we would hear him yell out something and we all would kind of stop, it was as if God had spoken.
“The day he died, I can remember it very clearly too, you could have heard a pin drop in the dorm, people were shocked.”
It was during a visit home during Mary Ann’s sophomore year that she met Brad at a birthday party in Bluefield. He was a Tazewell graduate, who ‘tried to play’ baseball at Ferrum and finished up at East Tennessee State.
He was able to attend his first Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham, one of two stadiums that used to house Crimson Tide football games. Today, Tuscaloosa is the lone home of the Tide.
“That was a great experience,” Brad said. “I still remember walking down on the field level and walking underneath and we always got there early and they were playing Lynyrd Syknyrd, and I walked in and I was like ‘daggone.’
“I still remember that day and how awesome it was. The stadium at Tuscaloosa is no doubt the best place to watch a game, but Legion Field is neat.”
After three years of tennis at Alabama, Strong gave up her senior season and finished up her degree in Human Resources Management, wanting to get back to Richlands, the family business and Brad.
“I had decided at the point it wasn’t going to be my career and I regret it now,” she said. “I was determined to graduate in four years which being an athlete, that is hard to do, plus my mom’s death…
“My dream was always to come home and work in my father’s family business. I had met Brad and wanted to come home to him and to work in the family business.”
The business is still going Strong and so are the Strongs. They have been married 26 years, and have two sons who are also fans of the Crimson Tide.
They might not even remember one of their first bowl experiences, which might be a good thing. It was the inaugural Music City Bowl in 1998 in Nashville, Tenn.
“I don’t like to bring this up, but when we lost to Virginia Tech in the Music City Bowl, we took the boys and they actually fell asleep,” Mary Ann said. “They were that young, we just covered them up from all that terrible weather.”
“It was miserable,” added Brad, who was a Nebraska fan at one time, having followed the career of Tom Osborne. “We had to walk maybe two miles back and we were both carrying them. The weather was miserable, the game was horrible.”
Yet, that hasn’t slowed their allegiance to Alabama. Bradley, 20, and Reece, 18, will greet anyone with a hearty ‘Roll Tide’. They even took a recruiting visit to Alabama, but decided to play for the Catamounts.
“Obviously Western Carolina is their school, but when it comes to football, I think they are definite ‘Bama fans,” Mary Ann said. “Their baseball coach when we go to Western, he will usually yell ‘Roll Tide’ to me so he knows.”
Sports fans have to be a patient bunch. Mary Ann arrived in Tuscaloosa two years after their last national championship, and the next one didn’t come until 1992. That was followed by a 17-year drought, which is finally over and would become three titles in four seasons with a win over Notre Dame.
As with any loyal fan, Mary Ann never doubted the Tide. She just never would have imagined what has happened in the last four years.
“I was confident just because we were Alabama that we would get back to the top, but, no, I wouldn’t have dreamed of possibly three in the last four years,” Mary Ann said. “I did get frustrated. I have always been loyal.
“That is my school and Tuscaloosa is my favorite place in the entire world. I mean world. I would rather go there than Paris or Hawaii.”
Mary Ann understands that this particular contest might not be real popular with many fans, some of whom are tired of Alabama and the SEC, and Notre Dame has always had a love-hate relationship with fans.
“Most of my friends know how much it means to me so I think they are happy for us, but I do also think as would be natural, there are a lot of people that would like to see Alabama knocked off, they are tired of us being number one,” Mary Ann said. “I have been surprised, there have been far more people locally that have told me I hope you kill Notre Dame.
“Again, one my best friends, Bob Nassif, it is hard, I love him, but I don’t want his team to win this one.”
The Strongs left for Florida on Saturday, and hope to return on Tuesday having witnessed a national championship. If Alabama does get back to the final game again in the future, you can bet she will be there once again.
“If the Lord blesses us so we can financially continue to go and Brad and the boys will go with me, we will go,” said Strong, who added with a smile. “If not I guess go by myself.”
That probably won’t be a problem. Brad Strong is now all about the Tide, with it all starting when he first walked into games at Birmingham’s Legion Field or Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
“And then he saw the light,” said Mary Ann, with a smile. “He’s a ‘Bama man now.”
— Contact Brian Woodson