Virtually everyone associated with Crimson Tide football believes in winning. Each year during football recruiting, those committing to and signing with Alabama almost always cite the Bama tradition, the chance to win championships, because Alabama has won so many more than others.
But conventional wisdom has it that Alabama should not be expected to win, at least not for the foreseeable future. Part of the reason for that is the turmoil of recent coaching changes, three head coaches in the past six months, many members of the current Crimson Tide squad preparing to work under their fourth head coach.
More than that is the expectation of shortages in manpower owing to NCAA sanctions. Alabama has been under signing and overall scholarship restrictions that continue through the next signing period. Those limits are being felt to some extent now and most expect the cuts to wound more deeply in 2004 and 2005.
Additionally, doomsayers see the recent coaching change as damaging to the 2003 team. Mike Price was fired as Alabama's head coach without ever having coached a game, but he and his staff had been in Tuscaloosa for spring practice, installing a new offense and a new defense. On offense at least, the scheme and the terminology are out the window. Shula will install his own offense and terminology when the team gathers for pre-season practice in August. Alabama opens next season August 30 hosting South Florida at Legion Field in Birmingham.
It should be pointed out that many believed Alabama would not be able to attract a quality head coach following the firing of Price. But University President Dr. Robert Witt and Athletics Director Mal Moore were pleased with the quality of candidates. It will never be known what names were on the long list, but at least three of the finalists are known to have been former Alabama players serving as assistant coaches in the National Football League. In addition to Shula, who came from Miami, Bama considered Sylvester Croom from Green Bay and Richard Williamson from Charlotte.
It is true that Shula is not familiar with members of the current Alabama team. But he and his coaching staff will have ample opportunity to study the videotapes of last year's games and this spring's practices. And that coaching staff will be able to determine the primary components of the 2003 squad.
Football is complicated, but it is not brain surgery. Coaches will be able to teach and players will be able to learn their assignments before the first game kicks off.
Shula might want to have Moore speak to the team before the start of fall drills. Moore could tell the team about Alabama's 1971 pre-season practice work. Beginning in 1962, when a sophomore named Joe Namath beat out Moore for the starting quarterback job, Alabama teams were known primarily as pass-oriented. Namath was followed by Steve Sloan who was followed by Kenny Stabler who was followed by Scott Hunter. But Bama went from national championship-type performances through the mid-1960s to barely break-even standards in 1969 and 1970. Still, there was little change in Bama philosophy through spring practice in 1971.
Then as Alabama's staff gathered to plan for pre-season drills, the offensive coaches – including Moore, who was quarterbacks coach – were given startling news. Head Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was changing the offense.
And it wouldn't be anything as subtle as the difference that will take place from Mike Price spring practice to Mike Shula fall play.
In August of 1971 Alabama changed from a pro-type, dropback passing game to the wishbone. And Alabama wasn't opening with a home game against South Florida. On September 10, the Crimson Tide unveiled its new offense against the pre-season number one team in the nation, Southern Cal. And it wasn't in front of the home crowd. It was in Los Angeles. Alabama won 17-10.
And that Alabama team continued to win. It was 42-6 over Southern Miss, 38-0 over Florida, 40-6 over Mississippi, 42-0 over Vanderbilt, 32-15 over Tennessee, 34-20 over Houston, 41-10 over Mississippi State, 14-7 over LSU, and 31-3 over Miami.
Then came Auburn, also undefeated and featuring the Heisman Trophy winner in Pat Sullivan at quarterback. Alabama crushed the Tigers, a 31-7 humiliation.
And Shula can tell his new Crimson Tide team something about winning. He can tell about a team on the road at Georgia, trailing 16-13 with a minute to play. And he can tell about that 1985 team going 71 yards between the hedges to a winning touchdown with 15 seconds to play. That winning score was a 17-yard Mike Shula to Al Bell pass that concluded one of the great comeback wins in Alabama history.
Or he can tell about the final regular season game that year, against Auburn in Birmingham. The Tigers seemed to have wrapped up one of the most exciting games in the history of the series. With less than a minute to play, Auburn held a 23-22 lead. Here's what ‘Bama, Inside The Crimson Tide reported following the game:
"Since the T-formation was devised, big football games regularly have been won by quarterbacks. Junior Shula, poise personified, didn't score a point and didn't pass for a touchdown, but he directed what would be considered a once-in-a-lifetime winning drive. And it's the second time he's done it this season. Auburn coaches and players said after the game they knew he could do it because they had seen him do it against Georgia. [Alabama Head Coach Ray] Perkins and the Alabama players said they knew Shula could do it because he had done it against Georgia. Shula said when he went into the game with 57 seconds left, 80 yards from the Auburn goal, that it wasn't the situation he would have wanted, ‘but we've been in that situation before. You can't think you're beaten until the game is over, and we didn't.' "
What Shula did was get Alabama to the Auburn 35 with six seconds to play. A key fourth down play in the drive was Bell taking the ball on a reverse and getting a block from Shula to gain 20 yards. The final offensive play in the drive was Shula calmly completing a pass to Greg Richardson over the middle, and Richardson dragging an Auburn defender out of bounds to stop the clock. With only one chance at victory, Butch Lewis made a snap, Larry Abney made a hold, and Van Tiffin made a kick for the ages, 52 yards, through the uprights, and a 25-23 Alabama win.
For Alabama to be a big winner in 2003 and over the next few years will take more than lore, more than confidence. It takes players. And Alabama's cupboard is not as bare as many would believe. It still starts with quarterback, and Shula is bound to delight in Alabama's stable, headed by Brodie Croyle. There is no telling what Alabama teams with Shula at quarterback might have done had Shula had the passing skills of Croyle. Alabama has its offensive line, including two All-America types in Wes Britt and Justin Smiley, intact for the next two years. Bama has more defensive linemen than almost every team in the Southeastern Conference, and outstanding young linebackers.
A key will be recruiting. Alabama adds this year's recruiting class in August, then puts 44 new players in the fold in the next two recruiting seasons, 19 in February then back to the sanction-free limit of 25 in 2005. And there is no reason to believe that Mike Shula won't be a winner on the recruiting trail.
There have been a lot of winning eras in Alabama football. The Crimson Tide has a lot going for it as the Mike Shula Era begins, and not the least of the assets is a proven winner in Mike Shula.