At 9 pm Thursday night television crews and reporters crowded the entrance to the Alabama Football Complex. Late-night team meetings are hardly the norm. But given the events of the past week, Shula requested to meet with the Tide players first, before being introduced formally at an 11:30 am (CST) press conference.
Athletics Director Mal Moore spoke first, introducing Shula to the team. University president Robert Witt was also on hand to lend his support, though he did not address the team.
If initial responses are accurate, the late-night meeting was a good idea. "He's a classy guy, and he's ready to get started working," tight end Clint Johnston said afterwards. "His dad (Don Shula) was a great coach. He's got a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge of the game. He's an Alabama guy, and that's a big thing. We're glad to have him here."
"I was just ready to get a coach in here and get this over with--get all the ruckus out of the way," Zach Fletcher said.
For a team frankly demoralized less than a week ago, a young, energetic head coach was just what the doctor ordered. Wesley Britt described the atmosphere. "The meeting was upbeat. Coach Shula knows we've been through a lot. He told us he wants to take Alabama back to the top. He takes a lot of pride in this university, and that's a good thing. He really cares about this university as much as we do.
"The players were in there smiling and cutting up," Freddie Roach agreed, adding that Shula's relative youth (at 37, he'll be the youngest Alabama coach since Frank Thomas) will be an advantage. "That's good. Sometimes older coaches forget what it was like to be a player. In the long run that's going to help us out a lot. He knows what we've gone through. He's seen every level. It's nice to have somebody here for awhile. He's going to be here for many years. We're excited. We're real excited."
Last Saturday Mal Moore had assured the team that he was going to move as quickly as possible to hire a new head coach. And Britt appreciates the effort. "I think the search moved along very quickly, especially compared to the search after Coach Fran left," Britt said. "They've done a great job with the search, handling it in less than a week."
Johnston agreed, "It's good to finish quickly. We weren't wanting them to make any hasty decisions. But they went through their interview process. They found out who they wanted. And they went for him."
The past week was one of the most difficult in Alabama history, but now the uncertainty has ended. "Mainly we're glad to have this thing behind us and have a coach," tight end Greg McLain said. "Now we get to go home, knowing we have a coach. We don't have to worry over the summer."
"We can go home with a little peace of mind," Johnston agreed. "It'll be good to go home knowing who's our head man."
With spring practice long finished, Shula and the team will have their work cut out for them, learning and implementing new schemes. But plans are to streamline the process as much as possible. "Coach Shula said he was going to change the offense and defense up a little bit," McLain recalled. "But the way he was talking we're looking forward to coming back in the summer for two-a-days. Any coach would come in and make some changes on offense and defense, but he said he was just going to do what's best for The University. We're very interested in seeing what he's planning to do."
As a senior receiver hoping to get a chance to play pro football, Zach Fletcher heard what he wanted to hear from Shula. "He's going to pass the football, and that works out best for all the wideouts," Fletcher said. "He'll showcase us for the NFL. The way he was talking we're going to continue to pass the football, which makes sense since he was a quarterback."
Johnston recalled a few more details. "He said we're going to be explosive. We're going to be quick; we're going to be fast. We're going to use a lot of motion and shifting to keep the defense off guard."
Thursday's meeting was not the time to talk about the myriad decisions that face Shula in the coming days. The current assistant coaches all plan to interview, hoping to stay on, but Shula will almost certainly make some staff changes.
However he did indicate that former coach and friend Joe Kines might be safe. "He mentioned Coach Kines, and I hope Coach Kines stays around," Roach said. "He's worked me real good. Me and Coach Kines have a bond now, and I hope it remains."
With a new coach on hand the team's mood was definitely improved, but more than anything else they're anxious to get to work. "The summer is always important but this one especially so," Johnston pointed out. "Physically we need to work out, but mentally this one will be huge. We don't have those 15 practices from spring training. We've got to learn from scratch."
Roach summed up. "Mature people move on. This team is very mature, and we know we've got to move on to be successful. We're the ones that are going to be on the field. Whatever happens is all up to us."