May 2003. Mike Shula becomes the head football coach of his Alma Mater, the University of Alabama. A place that needed stability. A tank of a program who’s national championships and dominating teams of the past were now just tiny specks in the rearview mirror of tradition. Alabama Football was now just football. Just another team.
Sure, the 2002 team won 10 games and seemed to be on the upswing until Dennis Franchione left skid marks in the halls of the athletic office on his way to Tuscaloosa Regional to catch the next flight to College Station, Texas. ‘Bama’s next move was to hire Washington State head coach Mike Price in hopes winning the conference with a fancy offense just like his Cougar team did 2002. Price’s 2002 season was so successful, in fact, that he was allowed to coach the Cougars in the Rose Bowl before heading over to Tuscaloosa. Upon his arrival, Price shouted, “It’s rolling, baby!” at the wrong place and wrong time and he was history.
Enter Mike Shula. The hire took place over a month after the A-Day game had been played and just a little over three months before the 2003 season began. It was awkward from the moment Shula accepted the job.
Not only did people question Shula’s head coaching experience – he had none – they questioned why he was hired. Many believed Shula had one thing going for him. He was white. Sylvester Croom, who played center and was a captain as a senior in 1974 for Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Crimson Tide team, was black. If Shula had Croom’s resume, people would have never questioned the hire. Croom was an assistant at Alabama…when Shula was a quarterback. Even with the glaring difference in resumes, Shula was the right hire.
Croom was a great candidate for the job, but this was not the time to make this hire. It would not have been fair to Croom. Croom didn’t deserve the Alabama job. He deserved better. Alabama was in a lose-lose situation and while hiring Croom would have looked good at first glance, it would have been viewed as a PR grab for the ‘Tide. If ‘Bama hires Croom, it’s a desperate move to deflect attention from the crumbling infrastructure that was the Alabama Family. If ‘Bama doesn’t hire Croom, it’s just the same old Good Ol’ Boy Network of the South. George Wallace might as well have been standing in the doorway of the athletic office to prevent anyone with dark skin from sitting at the desk reserved for the head coach. It was June of 1963 all over again. Awkward indeed.
So here’s Mike Shula. He looks about two years removed from his playing days at Alabama. If nothing else, he had aged well and nothing seem to bother him. His mostly calm demeanor drove the fans of a rough and tough Southern-type coach absolutely nuts. However, looking back, it was that calm demeanor that saved the program.
Like a doctor calmly handling an emergency room when the frantic screams of a gunshot victim ring throughout the hospital, Mike Shula stayed cool and stopped the bleeding when the Crimson Tide’s jugular had been sliced with a ginsu knife. Looking back at Shula’s record at Alabama will show that he was not ready to be a head coach. Especially a head coach at Alabama. But at the time, he was ready to be coach of this Alabama. This wasn’t Bear Bryant’s Alabama nor was it the Alabama that Nick Saban has built today. This was an Alabama that was hemorrhaging and the damage was self-inflicted.
The Crimson Tide couldn’t get out of its own way. Booster Logan Young’s love for the program and love for winning nearly sent Alabama down the same path as SMU (see also – DEATH PENALTY). Thanks to Young and the likes, the 2003 season was the first of a long probation period that decimated the program’s depth and made Alabama mediocre at the very best.
When diehard members of ‘Bama Nation look at Shula, they point to the “deer in the headlights” pose that seemed to burden the coach in every fourth quarter of every big game. Especially the Iron Bowl. They will also point to the 26-23 overall record (Officially 10-23 – NCAA textbook scandal sanctions vacated 16 victories) in his four seasons at Alabama. The reasonable fans see the bigger picture. They see a coach that set the program up to succeed.
Would Shula have been as successful as Saban? No one knows, but smart money says no. However, looking back at Shula’s final two recruiting classes gives credence to Shula’s recruiting ability. The classes weren’t littered with five-star studs, but not every major contributor of the 2008 and 2009 undefeated regular season teams was recruited by Saban. Shula’s 2005 and 2006 classes included Glen Coffee, John Parker Wilson, Javier Arenas, Cory Reamer, Bobby Greenwood, Brandon Deaderick, Roy Upchurch, Lorenzo Washington, Preston Dial, Marquis Johnson, Greg McElroy, Andre Smith, and Justin Woodall. This doesn’t even count the 2007 class. Although Saban gets credit for signing this class, Shula set the table and did the majority of recruiting. Marquis Maze, Rolando McClain, and Kareem Jackson are just three names from that class.
Let’s just give Saban the 2007 class and count Shula’s ’05 and 06 classes – which were smaller classes because he never had a full allotment of scholarships due to NCAA sanctions. There are no Julio Joneses or Mark Ingrams, but there are plenty of guys that made a difference for the Tide after Shula was fired. Ask the defensive line if they missed Lorenzo Washington in 2010. One of the most eye-opening facts is that 2011 will be the first season Saban will have to rely on a quarterback from his own recruiting class. McElroy and Wilson were both Shula signees.
Shula is not the only SEC coach of the 2000′s that recruited players that were good enough to combine with great talent and win big. No statues are being bronzed in Gainesville for Ron Zook, but he recruited well enough to set up Urban Myer’s 2006 and 2008 national titles. Myer and Saban are tireless recruiters AND great game-day coaches. Shula and Zook could recruit well enough to compete in the SEC, but game-day coaching ultimately sealed the fate of both.
Is this meant to imply that Alabama is better off with Mike Shula than Nick Saban? No. Is this meant to imply that Alabama was better off having Mike Shula than not? Absolutely, yes. Nick Saban has built Alabama to what Alabama fans want to think it has always been. The ‘Tide is back on top and it’s like they never left. Yet, it was only five years ago that Alabama was getting ready to take the field in 2006 and complete a disappointing 6-7 season. It was only four and a half years ago that Mal Moore was begging Nick Saban to get on a plane to Tuscaloosa after Rich Rodriguez – RICH RODRIGUEZ! – said yes and then decided to stay in Morgantown, West Virginia
Mike Shula deserves to bring out the game ball at Bryant-Denny Stadium one November afternoon in the future. But when? 2011? 2012? 2027? Who knows? This we do know – Mike Shula left the university in much better shape than he found it on that awkward day in 2003 when he was hired.
No statue is needed, but maybe a thank you would suffice.
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