At most schools the various GAs are frankly little more than temporary interns, running errands and shepherding the scout teamers around the practice field. But under Franchione they are considered members of the staff. "He treats us just like full-timers," said Rick LaFavers, defensive graduate assistant. "It helps us as young coaches. You're able to grow and learn more if you're active and in there doing it instead of being on the sideline watching. It's hard to get much better until you actually do it in a game or practice. And of course the other thing is it gives him more eyes on the practice field."
Having worked with Franchione since 1998, LaFavers brings a set of unusually experienced eyes to the role of graduate assistant. He's had chances to leave for full-time positions elsewhere, but the native of Amarillo, Texas has chosen to stick with Coach Fran. "The day he left for Alabama he sat down in the staff room and said that everyone was welcome to come," LaFavers related. "Then he pulled me aside and said that I had a job as well. He was being loyal to me, so I figured I'd return the favor. I know that Fran is a winner, and I wanted to continue with that."
Like many of the best coaches out there, LaFavers was hardly the most physically gifted athlete during his career. A football, track and basketball athlete from the Texas panhandle, he wasn't highly recruited out of high school. "I didn't get a single recruiting letter or anything from anybody," LaFavers related. "But I had a dream of playing, so I walked on at TCU."
There followed a classic rise through the ranks. Redshirted that first season, LaFavers contributed on special teams initially to earn a scholarship before battling his way onto the starting lineup as a "just fast enough" safety. By his senior season the former walk-on was team captain and second-team Southwestern Conference. "What helped me out more than anything was I tried to be a student of the game," he said. "I tried to study and give myself a mental edge to overcome the other stuff. I was a sure tackler, but I wasn't what you'd call a knockout hitter. I just tried to not make mistakes."
With two parents in education, LaFavers began college with plans to become a doctor. But his love of the game soon changed that goal to coaching, and while teaching and coaching on the high school level in Fort Worth, he talked himself into a job when Franchione arrived to take over at TCU. "This business is hard to get into," LaFavers explained. "I immediately went over to see him. I went to the office at least once a week to let them get comfortable with me and was able to get hired. It's been a great ride ever since."
Actually, with New Mexico and TCU regular-season opponents, LaFavers had ‘crossed swords' with Franchione as a player. But working with him on staff has given LaFavers a unique perspective. "From the outside some people see (Franchione) as hard," LaFavers said. "But he's not hard. He's just fair. He expects things to be done right, and he has a certain way that he wants things done. Obviously that formula has been successful, so when you jump on board things are fine. It's when you try to do things your own way that there are problems."
Of course the whole purpose of working as a graduate assistant is to prepare for full-time coaching in the future. And by following Franchione to Alabama LaFavers is now working under one of the top defensive coordinators in the country. "Coach (Carl) Torbush is just phenomenal," LaFavers said. "I don't think I'm here at Alabama by accident. I can't tell you how awesome it's been to learn under Fran, and then for him to hire who has become a defensive legend in Carl Torbush.
"For a young coach, he's been tremendous to work with. To watch how he deals with kids, coaching them hard on the field and loving them up off the field. There are no egos with Carl, which affects staff camaraderie. He's been a coordinator for a long time, yet he's been open to new ideas. No ego and a tremendous Christian man, he's a great role model for players and young coaches."
And Torbush returns the compliment. "In my opinion Rick LaFevers is further along than any graduate assistant I've been around," Torbush said. "I really consider him a full-time coach. He's just not getting paid full-time. For what he does for our defense and the responsibility he has on and off the field, there's no question that he's a Division IA football coach on and off the field."
At practice LaFavers helps with the scout team, but he also has primary responsibility for the defensive tackles, a role that continues from the days at TCU. During the season he'll help with opponent breakdown as well as self-scouting, helping to ensure Alabama doesn't become too predictable. The full-time assistants are each assigned specific recruiting territories, but LaFavers and Mike Bloomgren (the offensive graduate assistant) have what is termed ‘the ozone,' which is basically anything beyond those assigned areas. "We're not able to go off campus, but we'll watch them and call recruits," LaFavers explained. "Then if a kid comes in from Pennsylvania, Oklahoma or wherever, the tape is sent to us and we're required to evaluate them just like a full-time would. We give them a grade, and it then goes on through the process."
"And anything else," LaFavers continued. "From running copies to doing the defensive playbook and weekly scouting reports. (Graduate assistants) are active in the off-season conditioning program with Coach Pollard. One thing that Fran says is that no job is too small or too big for anybody. His basic philosophy is that nobody is above doing anything."
It's a philosophy that has paid off in the past for Franchione, and LaFavers is convinced it will be successful at Alabama as well. And having a part in returning the Tide to past glory is a main reason he is here. "Growing up, I knew that Alabama was one of the big ones," LaFavers explained. "There are a handful of schools around the country, the Notre Dames, the Alabamas, the Michigans--the ones that have had histories. I remember in '92 as a player (at TCU) watching George Teague, Eric Curry and those guys. And everybody knew about Derrick Thomas and Alabama's tradition of defense."
And though the former Horned Frog will always be proud of his own past history, LaFavers is wearing Crimson now. "(Alabama) really is like a family," he explained. "When I first got here, every time I'd meet a fan or alumni that was the first thing they'd ask. ‘How is your wife? How is she adjusting?' It's like we're adopted children. (The fans) brought us in, no questions asked. The reception has been extremely warm--especially the people in Tuscaloosa.
"Around the state when people find out you're a member of the Crimson Tide in anything, you're welcomed. Of course being on the football staff adds icing to the cake, but the greeting is open arms."