Commenting on a sad story

No one will ever know if Dr. Robert Witt made the correct decision in firing Mike Price as Alabama's head football coach. And no one save Witt is likely ever to know if he made the decision for the right reason.

Witt said that he elected to terminate Price in order to preserve the reputation of The University of Alabama. The president, on the job a few months less than Price, said, quite correctly, that a position at The University is an honor, and that with that honor comes responsibility. Price's failure to act responsibly, even after a warning from Athletics Director Mal Moore, was cited as the reason for Price's dismissal.

Almost no one expected any other result. Word had leaked out early Friday that the decision had been made, that Price was out. A public forum in which almost all discussion supported Price and Witt's discussion of the circumstances with members of the University's board of trustees was formal window dressing. Witt was given the authority to make the decision and he accepted that responsibility.

In retrospect, the decision may have been an easy one to make. Witt had no stake in the hiring of Price. And if he allowed Price to remain as coach, Witt could be vulnerable. Suppose after a second chance it was learned that there had been other incidents. Or if other incidents occurred later, that could be a reflection on Witt.

Instead, Price is out and Witt has no more Price problem. He may participate to some extent in the process of determining the next Alabama head football coach, but basically that task belongs to Mal Moore.

Certainly Witt's decision is justified on the merits. Price made worse than a terrible mistake in judgment, and he made it after Moore had warned him. Although there had been promises from Price that he would give his side of the story, when he had his chance at the podium following the announcement, Price did not explain, although he implied he has a drinking problem. Although Price had never signed his contract, his termination cost him an agreement expected to be worth $10 million over the next seven years. No severance agreement was announced.

Price had good things to say about Alabama football, including his belief that The University was strong enough to overcome his mistake. He did apologize to all connected to Alabama ­ particularly his players ­ for his misbehavior. Price was harsh in his criticism of Witt for not giving Price a second chance. Indeed, Price probably swatted that dead horse too long. Forgiveness is in short supply, and by the time Price was permitted to publicly ask for it, the decision to fire Price had been made.

Price was all smiles when he first arrived at Alabama.

One of the most curious statements on a curious day was Price saying he had wanted to speak to the members of the Board of Trustees Athletics Committee and had not been afforded that opportunity. If that is accurate, one can't help but wonder who made that decision. Did the trustees not want to hear Price's side of the story? Or did Witt not want that? Price and his family were in the meeting. Strangely Moore also was not at the meeting.

Alabama football now has a new problem. Witt is no doubt intelligent and is articulate. (If Saturday's presentation is any example, personality is not his strong suit.) He made every effort to acknowledge the sparkling reputation of Price and admitted he regretted the obstacles he was putting on the members of Alabama's 2003 Crimson Tide football team. He also ignored the apparently virtual unanimous and obviously sincere and emotional support of those players for their coach.

There's no sense in attempting to analyze Witt's hope that "some of the assistant coaches will elect to stay." That's akin to a member of the Board of Trustees saying on announcement of a new president that he hopes the administrative underlings will elect to stay. Under Witt, a house-cleaning (likely needed) is underway in Rose Administration.

Now attention turns to the future.

Without revisiting the merits of the dismissal of Price, there is little doubt his loss is a critical one for the short term and possibly for the long run. If a new head coach is brought in--and both Witt and Moore said they expected that to be the case--that will almost certainly mean a substantial change in offensive and defensive schemes and/or terminology. A month of spring practice was spent putting in these schemes that players would continue to study in summer workouts, then build on when fall practice begins in early August, leading up to an August 31 game. Anyone who knows anything about football would recognize the handicap a coaching change at this time of year puts on this year's squad.

Ordinarily, football coaching changes take place at the end of the fall season. A new head coach has the ability to mold a staff and implement basic offense and defense in the spring. Not many head coach candidates are available in May, at least under ordinary circumstances.

Is it possible Moore could go after a head coach currently employed at another school? Possible, yes.

Jim Leavitt, the head coach at South Florida, was on Moore's short list last December. Leavitt got a new contract out of the deal, but the new contract includes a very economical buy-out clause. Alabama opens the 2003 against South Florida at Legion Field in Birmingham on August 31.

Moore could go back to Gene Stallings, coach of Alabama's last national championship in 1992. There's little doubt that Stallings' age (68) and time out of football (seven years) are obstacles. But the biggest drawback to Stallings' return might be his part in the NCAA investigation into Alabama that resulted in the first-ever NCAA sanctions against Bama football. Both Witt and Stallings have said there have been no conversations about Stallings' possible return.

There is talk of former Boston College and Jacksonville Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin, but he has the reputation of being difficult in the public relations area, hardly what Alabama needs right now. Former Georgia Coach Jim Donnan had only limited success with the Bulldogs.

Although both Witt and Moore indicated the desire to hire a permanent coach, it is possible that an interim coach could be named. Alabama has two men on the Price staff who are former head coaches (albeit not very successful ones) in the Southeastern Conference. Sparky Woods, who is Bama's tight ends coach, was formerly head coach at South Carolina, while Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines was head coach at Arkansas.

And it's also possible, though not considered likely, that a member of the Bama staff ­Woods, Kines, Assistant Head Coach Kasey Dunn ­ could be elevated to permanent head coach.

Alabama also faces the possibility that only few successful head coaches would consider taking over the reins of a program that has been plagued with a variety of ailments for a decade.

Moore is going to start the search in consultation with Witt. With the exceptions of Dr. George Denny, who hired Hall of Fame Coaches Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas early in the last century, and Dr. Frank Rose, who was instrumental in the procurement of Paul Bryant as Alabama's head coach in 1958, the involvement of presidents in football has not been productive.

Witt did say that Moore's job is not in jeopardy. The former Crimson Tide player and longtime assistant coach will be hiring his third Alabama head football coach. After firing Mike DuBose in 2000, Moore brought in Dennis Franchione for the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Franchione bolted for Texas A&M last season, a decision that brought national derision on a man who had earned his national reputation in two years at Alabama. That was followed by the hiring of Price, who had taken lowly Washington State to back-to-back 10 win seasons and last year's Rose Bowl game.

Both came with sparkling personal reputations. Both disappointed.

Moore will continue work on one project that will be helpful to the coaching search. Alabama's current $100 million campaign to improve and expand athletics facilities will be a positive.

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