There’s a Virginia Tech football fan across the street, and an Auburn University supporter lives nearby. But only Johnny Nicola flies a University of Alabama flag and has a patio set with a Crimson Tide umbrella at his King of Prussia home. He also has a beagle named Dixie, and another was once named Bama Bell.
On Nicola’s fireplace mantel sits the most recent national championship football, signed by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. There have been 15 national titles—seven since 1971. That same year, Nicola and his Alabama Booster Club of Bridgeport made their insane devotion to the school’s storied football team official.
Now 70, Nicola recalls the first time he and his largely Italian booster club asked to see legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in his office. “We didn’t know what he would think, so we thought maybe only a couple of us would go in,” Nicola says. “He said, ‘No, bring them all in.’”
While his late brother, Jerry, was chief of police and then mayor in Bridgeport, Nicola may well be the unofficial mayor of Tuscaloosa. For five years, his boosters had an uncanny relationship with Bryant, paving the way for decades of first-rate treatment—like a VIP state escort from the hotel to the stadium. “If not, it would take a couple hours to go the three or four miles,” says fellow booster George Lombardo, who’s wearing a Tide T-shirt and sun visor.
When the troupe heads south, about half the 16 members travel. Local newspapers call them the “Italian Battalion.” They always take out an ad in the program for the games they attend, sitting to the left of the band in the Tide Pride section between the 35- and 40-yard lines. “It’s like being in your living room and watching it on an 80-inch screen,” says Bob Ruggiano, another longtime booster, who also lives in King of Prussia.
Bryant even paid the club a visit in Bridgeport at its annual banquet in December 1979. “It was my Christmas present that year,” Nicola beams.
When Bryant arrived, there were 18 inches of snow. The university flew in Bryant by jet, and 500 guests packed Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bridgeport. When the entourage left for the airport, Nicola was asked if there was anything to tide over Bryant for the trip. Two fifths of his favorite, Johnnie Walker Red, left with him. Not a drop was left by the time the jet landed.
Alabama won the 1979 national title in an era when it was awarded before bowl games. After the Tide beat Arkansas in the final game of the season, the press asked Bryant if the win was enough. “He said he didn’t know, but if Bridgeport, Pa., thinks we’re number one, then we’re number one,” says Nicola.
While Alabama had surrendered its top spot in the BCS standings this past fall, “this is still the heyday,” says Nicola. “But we loved Coach Bryant. He meant the world to us—and we all know what he did for the club.”
Nicola first visited Alabama in 1968 with his brother. Nicola’s brother-in-law played for Bryant at Kentucky in the ’50s, and he convinced the two that the only good football was in the South.
Former Kentucky player Lawrence “Dude” Hennessey was a Bryant assistant at Alabama. He set up the initial meetings on the practice field, where boosters remarked how hot it was. “It ain’t hot enough,” Bryant quipped.
“Dude said, ‘No doubt, Coach Bryant will want to greet you,’” Nicola remembers.
“We didn’t understand a word he said. I don’t think he understood us either.”
In 1970, five guys went down. Upon returning home, Nicola had an epiphany: Why not start a booster club? “Maybe we started on a wing and a prayer, but coach Bryant liked it,” Nicola says.
The boosters now have four endowed scholarships, but things have changed over the years. Members no longer wear crimson sports coats and specialty ties, and there’s no longer a clubhouse in Bridgeport. Mass-invite parties the Thursday before the game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., once drew as many as 500 guests. They ended in 1993. University officials and coaches, cheerleaders, the mascot, and others crashed the gig. “Yeah, we’re out of the party business,” says Nicola.
The club bylaws still stipulate that every time the Tide wins a national title, it erects a congratulatory billboard in Bridgeport and in Tuscaloosa. But that’s been expensive of late. The local one is always over the DeKalb Street Bridge. Since last year’s victory came over Notre Dame, a 42-14 drubbing, the billboard featured shamrocks—in crimson.