It was a mere moment — and a fleeting moment, at that — but Saban’s candor on that now-famous flight back from Miami gave Moore a gulp.
“Saban said, ‘Mal, you think you just got a hell of a coach,’” Piedmont native Carlton Rankin, Moore’s Alabama teammate and friend of more than 50 years, relayed Saturday. “Then he said, ‘I ain’t worth a crap, if I ain’t got players.’
“Mal said, ‘My heart just sunk,’ because he said he knew that we didn’t have any players at that point.”
Three national championships after that heart-sinking moment in January of 2007, it’s clear that Moore got a hell of a coach. It’s also clear Rankin is right there with countless crimson souls who are mourning Moore’s loss today.
Moore died Saturday, 10 days after announcing his retirement because of pulmonary problems that sent him to Duke University Medical Center, and four days after new Alabama athletics director Bill Battle told a Birmingham radio station that Moore needed a lung transplant.
Moore was 73 and spent nearly two-thirds of his life as a player, coach or administrator at Alabama.
Rankin and Moore were both on Alabama’s quarterback depth chart in the early days of Bear Bryant’s glorious run as head coach, behind Pat Trammel and Joe Namath. Rankin later moved to fullback.
After Rankin’s playing career, he became an assistant coach at Jacksonville State, then pursued private business, starting in 1968.
Throughout Moore’s two stints as an assistant coach at Alabama then career as an athletics administrator — and throughout Rankin’s time in the coffee roasting business then real-estate in Atlanta — they kept in touch. Rankin said he and Moore talked most weeks, some weeks more than once.
“If he was traveling, he would call me and talk to me,” Rankin said.
When Alabama won the SEC Championship in 1999, Moore’s first year as athletics director, Rankin was among his suite guests in the Georgia Dome.
It’s a friendship that started on the practice field and grew as Moore regaled Rankin and others with stories of his tiny Alabama hometown.
“He always would relate back to Dozier,” said the 72-year-old Rankin, who proudly called Piedmont a “metropolitan area” by comparison. “Dozier didn’t even have a traffic light.”
There were speed bumps in Moore’s rise to legendary status at Alabama, some frustrating.
Moore was Alabama’s offensive coordinator when Bryant retired in 1982, and head coach would have been a natural progression. Alabama hired then-New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins.
“Mal was absolutely devastated, but he handled it like a man,” Rankin said. “He never complained.
“It was a situation where he actually, probably deserved the chance, but I think they were looking for a big name to come in, of course, replacing Coach Bryant at that point.”
Moore left Alabama to become running backs coach at Notre Dame from 1983-85 then joined Gene Stallings’ staff with the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. Moore came with Stallings back to Alabama in 1990, as offensive coordinator.
Moore moved into administration as assistant AD in 1994 and held that job for five years — longer than he had hoped. He wanted to follow Hootie Ingram in 1995 then interim AD Glen Tuckett in 1996 but lost out to Bob Bockrath.
When Moore took over for interim AD Finus Gaston in 1999, Rankin said his friend was “elated.” Moore soaked in the moment as the Crimson Tide beat Florida in the 1999 SEC Championship Game.
“He was amazed,” said Rankin, who watched the game with Moore. “He was just, this was the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
“He always said this was a job he would work for nothing. That’s how much it meant to him.”
Wrenching times followed, starting with a shocking three-win football season and the firing of head coach Mike DuBose in 2000. Then came aggressive NCAA sanctions related to the Albert Means case, and the reaching effects impacted Alabama’s treasured football program on and off the field for years.
The severity of the sanctions prompted then-coach Dennis Franchione to bolt for Texas A&M after just two seasons on the job. Successor Mike Price was fired over off-field headlines before coaching a game at Alabama, and Mike Shula was fired after the 2006 season.
That touched off a manic coaching search, which saw West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez accept then reject the job. Then came Saban’s frequent and blunt statements, saying he would not be Alabama’s coach.
Through it all, Moore had an ace.
“Mal has a cousin, who’s a builder, at the lake where Saban has his house,” Rankin said. “Mal started communicating with Saban through his cousin.
“He would send information related to the university, a brochure and information and all, to his cousin. Then his cousin would, when Saban was at the lake, would go over and talk with him about it.”
That laid the groundwork for Moore’s now-famous trip to Miami to recruit Saban, then the Dolphins’ head coach. Moore convinced Saban to come back to Tuscaloosa with him for $5 million a year and all the control a coach could want over the football program.
It was on that flight back from Miami when Saban, who had won a national title at LSU in 2003, is said to have given Moore that momentary heartache. Again, it was only momentary.
Moore“also knew that Saban could recruit, so it turned out,” Rankin said. “But he said, ‘I was on the line for five million dollars, and that got my attention.’
“It was a good recruiting job on his part to get him down there, but I don’t know. So many people, at that point, were talking about how the university was not one of the top programs that would draw top coaches in. It was probably true at that point.”
Saban quickly rebuilt Alabama’s program. The Tide enjoyed an undefeated regular season in 2008, his second season on the job, then won the first of three national titles in four years in 2009.
In January, Moore returned to Miami to watch the coach he hired guide Alabama to its second consecutive national title — in a 42-14 rout of Notre Dame, no less. The Tide became the first repeat champion in the Bowl Championship Series era, which started a year before Moore became Alabama’s AD.
Then came news that Moore was hospitalized March 13 for the second time in less than a year, followed by more alarming news that he had to be taken to Duke for pulmonary problems. On March 20, he announced that he would relinquish the job he loved for health reasons.
Six days later, Battle delivered the troubling news that Moore needed a lung transplant.
Rankin stayed in touch, mostly through Moore’s administrative assistant, Judy Tanner.
“They wouldn’t let him communicate with people at the hospital,” Rankin said. “They took his cell phone away from him.”
As late as Thursday, Rankin said things seemed “hopeful.”
“The doctors were putting him through some testing and a program they had set up for a couple of weeks,” Rankin said. “Depending on how well he did, he was going to be moved to the head of the line, as far as to qualify for a lung transplant. I talked to a couple of teammates, and it was all upbeat.
“I was shocked today, when I heard he passed away. I was convinced that, within a few months, he was going to be back out with us, but it didn’t work out.”
For the most part, things ultimately did work out for Moore, much to Alabama’s benefit. That’s only appropriate.
“He was always positive. That’s the kind of guy he was,” Rankin said. “Of course, he loved the university.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.