Tough times require tough people

Saturday in Tuscaloosa dawned to the early-morning rumbling of thunder and rain. If Mike Price was looking for omens, that one at least couldn't have been good.

To say that the previous week had been a nightmare for Mike Price, his family and the wider Alabama fan base would be an understatement. Having acted foolishly and embarrassed himself, his family and The University of Alabama a few weeks back, Price wanted nothing more than to speak publicly about what happened. An open, even gregarious man by nature, Price knew instinctively that the Tide fans around the state (and nation) needed to hear from him personally.

But ordered to keep silent by The University administration, Price and his family faced an incredibly frustrating Catch-22 situation. Speak out, and he would anger the very men who would decide his future at Alabama, almost certainly dooming his chances to stay on. So Price did what he was told, and offered little or nothing to the press.

From The University's point of view, the policy made sense. Much better to find out for certain the actual facts of the case, than to speak out too early and end up being hung out to dry by unfolding events. Price had spoken candidly to both university president Robert Witt and athletics director Mal Moore about what had happened, but all the facts had to be corroborated.

In that regard, the Mike DuBose saga (has it only been four years?) essentially dictated the course of action. After being so publicly betrayed in 1999, there was no way that Alabama administrators could simply take Price at his word this time around.

Facts had to be checked and rechecked. But as The University's investigation drug on, the rumor mill spiraled to dizzying heights.

What by itself was an extremely embarrassing situation, marked from beginning to end by foolish action and clear-cut errors in judgement, grew exponentially in the public imagination. Fed by irresponsible talk radio hosts and frenzied, over-the-top speculation on many Internet message boards, the story--and the situation--spun out of control.

By the end of the week, the conversation had taken an ominous turn. Questions of ‘What happened?' and ‘How could Price have been so foolish?' were replaced by ‘Can he survive?' ‘Will he survive?' and ‘Should he survive?'

Factions formed among Tide fans, with different groups arguing vehemently for their respective position. As quickly as you can say "media feeding frenzy," the situation had transformed from what might have been viewed as a personnel issue to a full-fledged morality play. And if there's one thing that 21st Century America (especially the Deep South) loves, it's an argument over public morals.

One group was certain that Price had to go. After all, how could he be an effective leader of young men after embarrassing himself so badly? Others pointed out that it was essentially a private matter--no laws were broken, and the Tide head coach deserved a chance to redeem himself.

Convinced of the "rightness" of their side, predictably those two factions quickly started talking past each other. Which of course guaranteed that the respective groups could never reach a consensus on the question.

Less predictably (though then again maybe not), arguments grew up based on less high-minded grounds. Some argued that Price and his mainly West Coach assistants were a "bad fit" from the beginning, and Alabama should seize the opportunity to undo what that group believed was a bad hire to begin with.

For others it came down to football--or more specifically offensive schemes. If fans believed Alabama must always be a "run-first" team, then they lined up on the "must go" side. If fans welcomed an opening up of the offense, arguing that it was long past time for the Tide to enter the 21st Century offensive scheme-wise, then they pulled for him to stay. (Interestingly, the great majority of Tide players clearly fell into the second camp.)

Of course the very fact that factions formed and began arguing back and forth is an almost more important problem than even the Price issue itself. The Alabama family had taken far more than its share of body blows over the past several years, and everyone agrees the fan base needs to come together.

Obviously the process cannot fully begin until Coach Moore and president Witt select a new head coach. Both say they hope to have a new man on board as quickly as possible, hopefully within two weeks. But whoever is selected--whether established head coach of fresh-faced assistant--the job of uniting the Alabama family will be daunting.

And honestly, after the pain of the past several days, is that even possible?

After all, in the wake of Price's firing many national pundits are labeling Alabama as the black hole of coaches, a place so unforgiving in its expectations and judgments that it chews up and spits out even veteran coaches.

The honest answer is that by himself the new coach won't be able to bring together the various factions of the Crimson Tide fan base. But thankfully, whoever he turns out to be won't be alone.

Many fans have applauded the firm, decisive action taken by new university president Robert Witt. Fine. That's as it should be. But now Witt needs to apply that leadership to supporting the athletics program, not tearing it apart. If changes need to be made, make them. But with a demoralized team and staff a reality--and a full slate of football games just months away--support rather than political posturing is what's most needed now.

Coach Moore has also come in for his share of criticism. Some fans and pundits reason that since his two coaching hires (Dennis Franchione and Mike Price) both turned out badly, Moore should be required to fall on his sword. Maybe yes, maybe no. Personally I find that reasoning both simplistic and unfair, but either way fans should recognize that Moore's future should be left in the hands of those tasked to make that decision. In other words, if the Board of Trustees and/or president Witt believe a change should be made, let them act. Otherwise, Moore--like the rest of the athletics program--deserves unequivocal fan support.

It's a tough time to be an Alabama fan. There's no arguing that fact. After the events of this past Saturday, it can no longer be denied that the past five to seven years have been the most difficult in Crimson Tide history.

A storied program has absorbed blow after blow--to the point where the very future of Alabama football is at stake.

Crimson Tide fans love their history. In fact according to rival fans, they revel in it. That being the case, a line from the past is applicable now.

"Mama's calling."

Only this time, she's calling you.


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