When Charleston Southern takes the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday to face one of the nation’s most successful college football programs, Buccaneers assistant coach Gabe Giardina expects a flood of memories to come rushing back.
CSU, ranked eighth in the latest FCS national polls, visits Alabama on Saturday. The Crimson Tide is the No. 2 team in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, behind Clemson. Giardina, who is CSU’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, knows what to expect on Saturday. He spent four seasons as a walk-on placekicker at Alabama from 2000-03.
Despite earning all-state honors as a high school senior in West Virginia, Giardina was not heavily recruited. He decided that he wanted to go to school away from home and ended up enrolling at Alabama. A decision, he says, changed his life.
“I fell in love with the place,” said Giardina, who has two degrees from Alabama. “I felt immediately it was where I needed to be. It was strictly a God thing for me. He wanted me there.
“If they had 150 guys in the locker room, which they did back then, I was probably 149. My name was spelled wrong on my locker for my whole freshman year but I was afraid to tell anybody. I was so happy to be on the team and to wear that jersey.”
During his time at Alabama, the football program was on probation for NCAA rules violations and went through four head coaches in four years.
Giardina competed for the starting placekicker position every year but never was able to secure the job. He did, however, end up as the holder for field goals and extra points and played in nine games during his final season.
“It worked out great for me,” Giardina says. “I met my wife there, which is most important. I earned two degrees there and it got me started in this profession. It was an awesome experience.”
Giardina spent three years as a graduate assistant at Alabama, leaving for a position at CSU in 2008. He spent three seasons under head coach Jay Mills before heading off to Delta State to join Jamey Chadwell’s staff. When Chadwell was hired a year later as CSU’s head coach, Giardina came with him.
He has returned to Alabama since leaving, but Saturday will be his first experience back on the field, inside the stadium.
“When they kick on ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ 30 minutes before kickoff, I am sure the hair on my arms will stand up,” he said. “It’s a special place and I have nothing but great memories there.
“But then I have to worry about our guys. We still have a football game to play. Most of these kids have dreamed of playing in a big stadium and this is their big opportunity, so we’re excited for them. It’s exciting to be going in there as a conference champion, 9-1, and nationally ranked. It’s been a big season for us and this is part of it.”
The Buccaneers enter Saturday’s game with realistic expectations. Beating Alabama would be the biggest upset in the history of college football. CSU has the FCS national playoffs waiting after Saturday’s game, so being smart with personnel is important.
“Our goal is to compete and to get better,” Giardina said. “You never go into a fight saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to lose this one.’ You go into it to fight and to compete and give it your best shot. We’ll get our butts kicked on a few plays, but can we get back up and continue to compete? That’s what we’re looking for.
“For us, we get to play a team that our guys have been dreaming about playing against since they started playing football. It’s great for them and I know our guys will give it a great effort.”