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Turning the Tide
Alexander gives Alabama something else to think about
Posted: Thursday September 30, 1999 03:33 PM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At the University of Alabama, history is never much out of reach. Whether it's somewhere along Paul Bryant Drive, across the street at the glass-fronted Paul W. Bryant Museum or over at newly expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium, the place is fairly dripping with the stuff.
That's one of the reasons Shaun Alexander, an ultra-nice kid from college football-starved northern Kentucky, a young man with a nice smile and a really nice game, decided to come to the Capstone in the first place.
Alexander eats up the whole 'Bama, Crimson Tide, football-is-everything schtick. It's so important to him that he decided to stick around after last season, after he got his degree, even though there have been some very un-nice things going on at Alabama since maybe the greatest running back in school history hit campus in 1995.
"This place is something special," Alexander says, sitting comfortably in a crimson chair in the Crimson Tide suite at Alabama's football complex, a squib kick off Bryant Drive. Sculptures and paintings and photos of legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant dot the room. Trophies sit in a case nearby. "[But] lots of crazy things have happened in this place for me."
Crazy things like a new head coach, a couple new athletics directors and some injuries that have made him miss some significant time. But nothing, of course, has hit Alexander -- and everyone else interested in Alabama football -- like the scandal that is unfolding in Tuscaloosa this season.
It's a story that has rocked the state, cost athletics director Bob Bockrath his job and probably will end up chewing up head coach Mike DuBose, too.
"We talk quite a bit. And not just about football, but about life," DuBose says of Alexander. DuBose, a former Tide player who succeeded Gene Stallings in 1997, apologized earlier this fall for lying to Bockrath and others about an extramarital affair he had with his secretary. "You hope, in your lifetime, you can get an opportunity to coach a guy like Shaun Alexander."
Despite all the assaults on the good name of Alabama football, despite the daily rumors that surround the program and the never-ending queries from the media -- there is no bigger story in all of Alabama than Alabama football -- Alexander is quietly ripping off maybe his best season ever. He is, statistically speaking, one of the best running backs in college football.
And, to those who want to talk football at Alabama, he's a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate.
"Nothing the guy does surprises me anymore," says the Tide's running backs coach, Ivy Williams, who recruited Alexander out of Boone County High in Florence, Ky. "He's gonna prove you wrong. People say 'Heisman ...' You watch. He's gonna prove some people wrong. He's gonna be in the Top 3 or 4 or 5, at least."
Alexander has produced that kind of talk because he has made himself into a solid, all-around back. He was not much of a blocker when he came to Tuscaloosa, and not much of a receiver, either. He'd run routes right into coverage, and was so clueless on blocking that other teams began to blitz Alabama because they knew that Alexander couldn't, or wouldn't, block.
He's progressed now to the point that he not only is blocking well, he's also one of the Tide's biggest receiving threats. Alabama will split Alexander out wide in passing formations, or put him in the slot, maybe five or six times a game. In games like this Saturday's Southeastern Conference must-win against No. 3 Florida in Gainesville, the Tide may get even trickier.
"He's sort of like [Tennessee's] Jamal Lewis, but he is more elusive and he can move around a lot more," Florida defensive lineman Derrick Chambers told reporters this week. "I think he will be one of the best backs we will face all year. He catches a lot of passes out of the backfield. He can just about do it all."
If Alexander continues at his current pace -- 153.5 rushing yards a game -- he'll become the most prolific runner in Tide history, passing Bobby Humphrey. A Heisman Trophy tracking site that polls five Heisman voters in each of six regions of the country (www.heisman.com) puts him at sixth in the chase.
His 153.5 rushing yards a game ranks sixth in the country, while his 204.5 all-purpose yards a game are third in the nation. And his 15 points a game -- he's scored 10 touchdowns, including seven rushing, in the Tide's four games -- put him third.
"He has the best open-field running skills of any back I've ever seen," DuBose says of his 6-foot-1, 215-pound offense. "And I don't know if I've ever seen a player who runs faster with the football in his hands. When he gets the football, it's like he turns it on."
Alexander, who received a degree in marketing from Alabama last year, is glad to talk about the Heisman. But he has other, more important, goals. Like getting into the SEC Championship game. Winning the Heisman is not something he really expects. Plus, "The guy has no ego," Williams says.
"It's not a major, major priority," Alexander says. "But it's neat to be in that kind of talk."
It's probably a testament to Alexander he has people talking about something other than DuBose and the scandal. Everything always comes back to the scandal, whether DuBose can keep his job and the effect all of it is having on the football team.
Alexander, as one of the few seniors on the team and its captain, has been the main player spokesman when it comes to talking about the scandal. But he's also the one coaches lean on to keep the team focused on football.
He handles both jobs as easily as he gets around end. If there is one person associated with the Alabama football team who is actually enjoying this year, it would have to be Alexander.
"We can't control what happens upstairs," he says, motioning toward the athletic department offices. "What's the reason of working hard if you're not having some fun, too?"
Fun, of course, would be a win over Florida. Beating arch-rival Auburn at the end of the year. An SEC championship.
And maybe -- maybe -- being in the Heisman running. In the thick history of football at Alabama, a tradition that includes a dozen national championships, some 17 members of the College Football Hall of Fame and an NCAA record 49 bowl appearances, no Tide player ever has won the Heisman.
Could that change this year? Could Alexander make some history of his own?
Crazier things have happened. Crazier things are happening right now at Alabama.
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