New Alabama Coach Gene Stallings was standing on the practice field in Tuscaloosa last Friday afternoon in the sweltering late-summer heat, reflecting on having been fired in 1971 from his first job as a college head coach, at Texas A&M. "After it was all over, Ford Albritton, a member of the A&M board of trustees and a friend of mine, asked me if I had to do it over again, what would I do differently," said Stallings. "I said, 'Well, I'd still make the players go to class, I'd still make them work toward their degrees, I'd still make them come to practice and work hard. I guess I wouldn't do anything different.'
"And Ford said, 'We'd fire you again.' "
Stallings, 55, one of the nicest men in college football, shook with laughter at the memory. But the need to do things differently, he said, made an impression on him that he never forgot. That's why he held the Crimson Tide's final practice of last week on artificial turf—the surface on which Saturday's game at Bryant-Denny Stadium would be played. The week before, he said, when 'Bama also played on a rug at Legion Field in Birmingham, "we held our final practice on the natural grass field before the Southern Miss game—and we lost."
Clearly, switching surfaces of the practice field was not a different enough approach. Alabama lost again, this time 17-13 to Florida, whose players had to walk past a sign en route to the stadium that read MAKE LUGGAGE OUT OF THE GATORS. However, it looks as if the Crimson Tide might end up packing its bags for a trip to hell in 1990. With seemingly certain defeats looming to Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn, 'Bama could struggle to a 6-5 finish—and that's assuming it can get by Penn State and LSU. Who knows, Alabama may be on its way to its worst season since 1957, when Ears Whitworth coached the Tide to a 2-7-1 record. Bear Bryant took over in '58.
Crimson Tide fans haven't liked a single one of their coaches since Bryant retired in 1982. His successor, Ray Perkins, who played for Bryant at Alabama, was downright surly and eventually returned to the NFL after the '86 season to chase bigger bucks at Tampa Bay. Basically, 'Bama fans didn't like him because he wasn't Bear.
Perkins was followed by Bill Curry, but he had no Alabama connections and was a poor recruiter. Although he led the Tide to a 10-2 record and the SEC championship last season, he left Tuscaloosa for Kentucky. Basically, 'Bama fans didn't like him because he wasn't Bear. They wanted someone who played for Bear, who coached under Bear, who talks like Bear, who looks like Bear, who has pictures of Bear in his office.
They got what they wanted in Stallings, who had been fired by the Phoenix Cardinals in the middle of the 1989 NFL season after three seasons as head coach. "I love it in his shadow," says Stallings of Bryant. Bear had always wanted Stallings to coach the Crimson Tide someday, and Stallings brought back some of Bear's assistants, including offensive coordinator Mai Moore. But now that 'Bama fans have Stallings, they're still not happy. Basically, they don't like him because he's 0-2.
Birmingham radio talk-show host Ben Cook thinks he knows how to make 'Bama fans happy. "Alabama should drop football," says Cook. "Then every fall, pick a year from the past, put up big-screen televisions throughout the stadium, sell tickets and show a game film each Saturday from the good old days. Bryant would be back coaching, which is what they want, and they'd win all the time. It's the perfect solution."
For sure, the current goings-on are nobody's solution. Some 'Bama fans are apoplectic, others furious, others merely embarrassed. The call-in shows are already heating up with conversation—you better sit down for this—about whether Stallings should be fired. Fans are only slightly less put out with Moore, a rare elevation to public attention—and ridicule—for an assistant coach. Says Stallings, "I'm doing the best I can. The fans remember the glory years. I do too. The fans want them back. I do too."
However, the loss to Florida before 70,123 ticked-off fans in Tuscaloosa—coupled with the 27-24 defeat to Southern Miss before 75,962 equally ticked-off fans in Birmingham—leads one to believe that Alabama's return to glory will have to be put on hold while the issue of survival is addressed. Indeed, the best analysis of this once-proud team—the Tide has won or shared 11 national championships and 19 SEC titles and has appeared in 41 bowl games, tops in the nation—was articulated by F.G. Hocutt, 85, a retired undertaker who has attended every Alabama practice since 1927: "Some of the players are good. There's a bigger bunch that ain't."