The Ocho

A home away from home for the college football fan who's tired of the talking heads not knowing what they're talking about.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Alabama Coaching Conundrum

So, once again, the brain trust in Tuscaloosa is looking for a new coach (the fifth one in as many years), and have already been spurned by Rich Rodriguez of West Virginia. Now whether it was WVU's ability to must a decent counter-offer, or the tears shed by his wife at the thought of leaving cosmopolitan Morgantown for Tuscaloosa, or the absolute disregard Bama has for its coaches is hard to say. But here are some reasons why Bama has built the bed its currently lying in, and why I'll be surprised if any good coach in anything approaching a good situation will uproot to pace the fields at Bryant Denny Stadium:

1. The treatment of Mike Shula
Was Shula a great coach? No, though he certainly was the son of one. But he didn't deserve to be fired after this 6-6 season. Why, you might ask? Well, I'll tell you. Shula had been coaching since 2003, and prior to this season, had compiled a 20-17 record. When Shula took over for Mike Price (more on him later), Alabama was on NCAA probation. That same probation ended, well, gee whiz, it HASN'T ended yet. In fact, it will end next year. Now, not everyone can pull a Terry Bowden and rattle off the first (before 2004) undefeated season in the history of their school. But to have been a coach entirely during a probation, have a 10 win season, and be over .500 at the end of those 4 seasons should have been good enough. It wasn't, and due to losing 4 in a row to Auburn (who have gone 8-5, 13-0, 9-3, and 10-2 those seasons), he's gone, and any new coach should be leery about jumping into the mix.

2. Dennis Franchione's jump to A&M
What happened that a move to Texas A&M, even with looming probation, was more attractive than staying in Tuscaloosa? I guess it was Alabama fans and boosters. 7-5 and 10-3 in his two years there, Franchione probably would've been able to continue winning, even with the limitations. He's been able to cobble together a mostly successful team, in a Texas recruiting field where he ranks at least fourth (behind OU, UT, and LSU), and possible behind Texas Tech and TCU in recent years, as the most attractive destination for Texas high school players. Meanwhile, in Alabama, aside from the few who have a love affair with some other state's schools, the number one (depending on family affiliation) is always going to be Auburn or Alabama. Trust me, no high schooler in the state decides he'd rather play for Troy or UAB - if it's a Bama family, Bama is the target. Whether it was just a preference for Texas, or whether it was the pressure cooker (and completely unreasonable expectations for the past 25 years) at Bama, Coach Fran chose A&M, much to the delight of Auburn fans year in and year out.

3. Mike Dubose: You can bang 'em, as long as you win
Let's face facts: Dubose faced a sexual harassment situation in 1999, but kept his job because he went 10-3 and beat Auburn. He lost his job the next year due to a 3-8 season, not morality issues. All his dalliances did was get Mike Price fired for his evening with the stripper before he coached a single down.

4. The Rival Problem (or the Cooper Conundrum)
John Cooper got fired from Ohio State for not beating Michigan. Lloyd Carr is under fire in some quarters for not being able to beat Ohio State, and Mack Brown was under a lot of fire until 2005 for his problems with OU. So, as we can see, a coach with an impeccable record at a school not hamstrung by multiple years of probation can face problems when he can't beat the rivals. Now take Bama, which is still on probation, and definitely playing second fiddle to Auburn since the Stallings era, and imagine the difficulty in trying to build a program back to what it's been while facing a desire for immediate success. A new chef isn't going to turn ground check into Kobe beef - what do you expect, Bama fans?

5. Instant Gratification
Tom Osborne coached for 21 years at Nebraska before winning a NC. Joe Paterno coached for 16 at PSU before his first. Bobby Bowden coached for 16 years at FSU before getting one. Lou Holtz had a 19 year career before winning the big one at ND. The Bear had been at Bama for only 4 years before winning one, but he'd been a head coach for 16 years altogether at that point. Let's look at Bama's post-Bear coaches to see why, just maybe, the lack of patience may be working against them:
Ray Perkins: 4 years at Bama, 0 years total prior
Bill Curry: 3 years at Bama, 7 years total prior (winning record at Bama, just couldn't beat pesky Auburn)
Gene Stallings: 7 years at Bama, 7 years total prior (and oh, there were some major NCAA problems during Stallings era)
Mike Dubose: 4 years at Bama, 0 years total prior
Dennis Franchione: 2 years at Bama, 11 years total prior
Mike Price: 2 minutes at Bama (never coached a game, so experience doesn't really matter)
Mike Shula: 4 years at Bama, 0 years total prior

Amazing how the guys who had prior experience had winning records as coaches at Bama. Even Shula did well compared to Perkins or Dubose, but Curry and Shula, while having overall winning records, couldn't beat the Tigers.

So Bama, enjoy your situation - let's see what other rising coach you can wear out in the next three-four years. Don't be surprised if there aren't many takers. But hey, Miami's already hired a coach, so maybe Bernie Kosar is still available . . .


At 3:58 PM, Anonymous will said...

The problem with the way much of the world is viewing the Alabama situation is that it's shaped by ESPN, and — as you guys figured out long ago, I'm sure — that's a very limited viewpoint.

There are several pitfalls that come with being the head football coach at the University of Alabama. Unrealistic expectations and an imaginary love affair with a coach that's been dead for 24 years are not among them, however.

In Shula's case, there were equally valid arguments on both sides of the aisle, both to keep him and send him packing. In the end, it was his own stubbornnes that did him in; he refused to make necessary changes to his coaching staff (a la Tommy Tuberville after 2003, or Phillip Fulmer after 2005), choosing instead to "re-assign responsibilities" among the staff currently residing in Tuscaloosa. In the ideal world, you employ people you love and stay fiercely loyal to them come hell or high water. In the real world, when your boss tells you to make staff changes, and then you refuse ... YOU become the staff change (for the record, this is also what happened to Bill Curry after 1989).

A realistic Alabama fan doesn't expect to win the national championship every year. A realisitic 'Bama fan expects 8 or 9 wins per season, to contend for the SEC West every year, to be in the SEC Championship Game every two or three years, to NOT get manhandled by his rivals (and by the way, in four years, Alabama won one game — the 2005 game against Florida — in which they weren't clearly the better football team), and to be in the national conversation periodically. No one's expecting a return to the 1970s; a return to the 1990s isn't out of reach.

Mike Shula did an awful lot for the University. I was in favor of retaining him for another year to see if he could turn the corner for good. But here's the thing: if he were going to be fired, he needed to be fired immediately. He couldn't hang around a few weeks, have that speculation swirling around him going into bowl preparations, then finally be brought back for another year with the guillotine hanging over his office door every day. That wouldn't have been fair, either.

As for the new choice, my continual plug is for Paul Johnson, an offensive guru who has dominated his rivals, won national championships (albeit at a lower level) and seems to carry himself with the requisite amount of class indicative of a coach who knows what in the hell he's doing. I never really expected Steve Spurrier to come to Tuscaloosa (though his interest in the job was beyond what I originally believed) and was actually sort of happy when Rodriguez turned it down.

Keep up the good work, by the way, guys. I enjoy reading the site when I have a spare moment. And also, Larry Norman wants a piece of Scott Ellis. Just saying.


At 2:55 PM, Blogger Jimbo said...

Good commentary for the most part, will; however, two things in life are certain:

1. Larry Norman and Scott Ellis are blood enemies, and neither will rest until their feud is settled in a steel cage match.

2. Alabama fans are irrationally obsessed with Bear Bryant.

To wit; I'm sure you were at the 2000 Iron Bowl. Before the game, the jumnotron showed a highlight package of the Bryant era. Then, later on, there was a jumbotron feature about Alabama's "distinguished alumnus." Was it Howell Raines, then editor of the New York Times? Edward O. Wilson, one of the leading scientists in the world? Winston Groom, auther of Forrest gump? Maybe it was Sela Ward? No. Their distinguished alumnus was Paul W. "Bear" Bryant.

At halftime, they brought out onto the field a giant, inflatable houndstooth hat, and had players from the Bryant era emerge from beneath it, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, with giant flags that included their #s and the years in which they lettered for the Tide. They were escorted by a Crimsonette. I clapped for Bob Baumhower b/c I like his chicken wing restaurants, but the idolatrous nature of the spectacle created the aura of the pre-Conquistador era Aztecs engaging in virgin sacrifice to pay homage in preparation for the return of Quetzlcoatl.

Modern day football coaches are ego driven. The great ones want to cast shadows, not live in them.

At 10:08 PM, Anonymous will said...

What I remember about the '00 Auburn game (I'm boycotting the term "Iron Bowl" because the Iron Bowl was played at Legion Field) is that it was cold, raining and most everybody in the stadium (Auburn fans as well) left long before the game ended (I didn't and am still to this day trying to discern why I didn't).

But it's interesting you'd bring up that game for this reason: in the opinion of this small-time sportswriter, that season (2000) was the one that finally showed some of the older 'Bama fans that it was perfectly OK to go outside "the family" and hire a coach. Don't forget: Mike Dubose's in-house hire was over the protests of Bob Bockrath, who intended to go after a bigger name (like Frank Beamer, who was reportedly interested).

And that hire (Dennis Franchione) was working out pretty well, at least in the short term. He won 17 games in two seasons, including a 10-win 2002. More importantly, Alabama fans (including me) loved him, and didn't believe he was leaving us until the moment he stepped off the plane in College Station (which might explain why we hate him so: it's the pain of a scorned lover).

I do think the "irrational obsession" exists, but it's not nearly so passionate as it used to be and will continue to lessen as those old-timers slowly die out (literally). I don't think it had as much to do with Shula getting fired as the reasons I listed in my initial reply.

Word has it Larry's recovering nicely from his heart surgery. Ellis is grass.



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