Shula enjoying Crimson Tide's strangely quiet offseason
Posted: Tuesday March 16, 2004 2:29PM; Updated: Tuesday March 16, 2004 2:41PM
You wonder why some of the fine football coaches, particularly at Alabama, can't get their seasons right. Mike Shula & Co. got a jump on March Madness that would make Dickie V proud, kicking off spring practice in the midst of winter -- Feb. 21, to be precise.
No one is alleging any monkey business with the rules, a welcome relief for Alabama. Shula is just cramming in the allotted 15 days of drills before the start of spring break. Give him credit for holding off until Saturday, the official arrival of spring, to close out drills with the annual A-Day game.
If this is as controversial as Shula gets, folks in most precincts would be willing line up to elect him governor. The Bama faithful are dying for a good ol' boring coach. They're tired of the NCAA gumshoes lurking around Tuscaloosa. They're tired of the lawsuits and headline-grabbing attorneys. Tired of coaches acting like frat boys.
Since Paul "Bear'' Bryant's last season in 1982, Alabama is on its seventh head coach. The only one fully embraced, Gene Stallings, won a national championship but also steered the program onto its first NCAA probation. And when you're on a third coach in 15 months, it might explain why your storied program seems to be hyperventilating.
So this spring practice, his first since being hired last May, Shula is bent on calming things down. The offense and defense installed on the run before last season are being honed in a relaxed setting. No fresh wrinkles. The coaching staff is on the field intact, with the exception of the hiring of strength and conditioning coach Kent Johnston.
Miami transfer Marc Gullion is getting a chance to shine while starter Brodie Croyle remains limited following offseason shoulder surgery, but there's no suggestion of a quarterback controversy. Shula is more concerned with overall depth coming off a 4-9 season. Because of sanctions, Alabama won't have the full complement of 85 scholarships until the 2005 season. So Shula talks of possibly playing 10 true freshmen this fall, double the number from last season, which speaks to the quality of his first recruiting class and the lack of depth.
"It's important to bring some continuity whether it's the NFL or college football, but probably so much more here at Alabama because of what has happened,'' said Shula, the youngest of Hall of Fame coach Don's offspring. "Just to have everyone catch their breath is nice. We talked to our players after the last game last year, talking about what has gone on in their lives and how much change there has been in the last 365 days.
"I told them, 'We want to make it awful boring around here compared to what you have been used to.'"
If you follow Alabama football, the program has long been embroiled in a juicy soap opera, or so it seems. The latest episode began with Dennis Franchione's flight for Texas A&M after the 2002 season, frustrated by NCAA sanctions leftover from the Mike DuBose era. Mike Price was lured from Washington State but never coached a down. Price was run off last May for embarrassing the university by allegedly cavorting with dancers at a Florida strip joint.
Granted, some have argued it was a reach hiring Shula, who had no head coaching experience. Then again, this was a job that cried out for an Alabama guy, a straight-laced soother. He fit the bill much like Butch Davis did at the University of Miami, where he took over sans head coaching experience as the NCAA was slapping the program around.
The comparison is not lost on Shula, who kept track of the Miami program while an NFL assistant. Davis and Shula's older brother David both coached on Jimmy Johnson's staff in Dallas.
If the Miami example holds true, Shula won't be an overnight miracle worker. It likely will take three or four years before the depth and talent level is rebuilt. As Larry Coker well knows, Davis bolted for the NFL before Miami played again for another national title.
Shula can take solace in the NCAA's recent decision not to levy additional sanctions against Alabama, based on unresolved lawsuits that are floating around. If the natives stay patient, the 38-year-old may hang around long enough to bring the stability lacking since Bryant stepped aside.
"When I was considering this job and talking to my wife [Shari],'' Shula recalled, "one of the things we talked about was, 'You don't go to Alabama for a stepping stone. You go there and plan on being there.' I said, 'Now, if we go, we're going to go.' And she was all gung-ho. That is how we feel about this place. None of us can predict the future or what is going to happen, but this feels like home.''
At least for now.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.