Shula holds court

Leading up to today's command performance by Mike Shula at SEC Media Days, some Tide fans were concerned about how their fledgling coach would do. But they needn't have worried. After all, he's been there before. <br><br>In 1986 Shula (and a pretty fair linebacker named Cornelius Bennett) were Bama's player representatives at the event.

"Of course it's gotten bigger now," Shula said. "The interest of the media is intense, but that's part of what makes Alabama football and the Southeastern Conference unique. That's what makes this job so special."

For close followers of the program, Media Days rarely, if ever, produces much in the way of major news. And with Shula and his staff keeping mum on the specifics of their new offense, today was certainly no exception. But in his prepared statement and by responding to questions from the writers, Shula did comment on several interesting issues.

Mike Shula wasn't officially scheduled to talk until 10:40, but his early arrival time was taken up doing interviews with various radio sessions in the downstairs hallway of the Wynfrey Hotel.

Taking over a team still on probation, Shula was asked what he could do to overcome the sanctions. "There's not a lot that can be done," he said. "In recruiting you have to be certain on the player's ability, character and academics. We can say that, but everyone knows that doesn't always happen. Still, we have to focus on that more than ever."

The past two years Shula had looked on helplessly as first NCAA probation and then irresponsible coaches plunged his team into turmoil. "Watching what was happening from the outside, the situation tore at you," Shula continued. "As an alumnus you feel for your school. The players and what they were going through were in my thoughts first. Now that I'm here I get a chance to do something about it."

Shula emphasized that surrounding himself with good people would be key to overcoming the problems. "I want to win. And I want to win with class."

Given the recent wire story detailing Sylvester Croom's claims that race was a factor in Alabama's coaching search, the question was inevitably posed. Shula chose his words carefully, but didn't dodge the issue. "First of all, I count Sly as a personal friend," Shula said. "He was a coach while I was here, and we continued to work together at Tampa Bay. I would like to think that I was chosen based on my experience. I was honored to be a candidate with Sly and Richard (Williamson). I know that if either had been selected, they would have had my full support. I hope he and Richard will fully support me."

Speaking to the issue of closed practices, Shula characterized the decision as the "lesser of two evils" with arguments supporting either way. "It was a tough decision," he said. "But we've got to have unbelievable focus during fall camp. And that goes for coaches as well as players. I felt the best way to achieve that was to close practices."

The son of Don Shula (who just happens to be the winningest coach in pro football history), Mike Shula obviously gets advice from his famous father. And he's also acknowledged talking extensively with former Tide head coach Ray Perkins. But when pressed to identify the men he asked for advice about taking the job, Shula named some others. "I talked more with coaches that had experience on the college level than my Dad," he said. "Assistant coaches in (the NFL) that had coached in college. Ray Perkins obviously knew a lot about The University. But I also talked with Ron Turner the head coach at Illinois. He and I have been good friends since we worked together at Chicago; and Pat James, a long-time Miami Dolphin assistant who earlier coached at Oklahoma State."

It wasn't Mike Shula's first experience at Media Days. As a senior he was Bama's offensive representative at the press event.

Pressed to talk about how his background growing up on NFL sidelines with his father, Shula said, "I think it helped me mainly by taking the edge off the expectations. When you've been on the field at packed Orange Bowls, when you've been at Super Bowls and watched them unfold--not just the wins, but also the tough games... You learn to deal with the pressure. I've been lucky in a lot of ways."

Did his upbringing prepare him for what he now faces at Alabama? "It can to a certain degree," Shula replied. "But it can't prepare you for this magnitude. Everything helps. In 15 years of coaching you try to store away all knowledge for future reference."

Shula readily acknowledged his hope that several veteran staff members will help him through the adjustment to being a head coach. "I rely on Joe Kines a lot, especially when it comes to the defense," Shula said. "Dave Rader helped coach me when I was here, and I thought so much of him that I brought him back. He'll be great for our quarterbacks. He'll be great for me. And Sparky Woods has been a head coach as well."

Because he was hired after spring practice, everyone assumes Shula will have great difficulty installing Alabama's offense. "First we've got to find our playmakers," Shula commented. "Without benefit of spring practice, we've got to do that quickly. Then we've got to tailor the offense to get those guys on the field and in a position to make plays."

Shula acknowledged that he would be forced to "grow" the playbook as the season went along, but he's determined not to overload the players in fall camp. "We might not have that much in, but we won't be playing close to the vest," he said. "There might not be as much volume, but there will still be variety. The key thing is that when we kickoff versus South Florida we want the players confident. Instead of thinking, we want them to just react."

The early evaluations during fall camp will end quickly, and from that point on the designated playmakers will get the majority of practice snaps. Shula pointed out that his major concern was that some of his better players might get a slow start, leaving them out of the early plans.

Wednesday was Shula's turn in the media spotlight, as the new Tide coach shuttled from room to room, answering questions from the media.

New NCAA rules will significantly alter the traditional two-a-day schedule, forcing schools to alternate double- and single-practice days. Shula has earlier said that the schedule could work in Alabama's favor. The players will need relatively more meeting time than normal because they're learning a new offense.

He also revealed Wednesday that he probably prefers the new schedule from a physical standpoint as well. "The pros have basically been doing it this way since 1996," Shula said. "I think by the end of the season coaches will find their players are faster. In the NFL we thought that by the end of the season the players were fresher because they didn't beat up on each other every day during fall camp."

In the aftermath of the dual Franchione and Price debacles, many writers assume the Alabama job will be too tough for Mike Shula.

He disagrees.

"I'll never forget that first day when I arrived in Tuscaloosa. That night we went up the back stairs and headed to the corner office. Before when I was a player you only went in there when you were in trouble. Something just felt right about Alabama. When the wheels of the airplane touched down, it felt like I was coming back home--and this is coming from a guy that grew up in South Florida. I want to build on those memories."

Has the Tide head coaching position always been a goal?

"When I first got into coaching with the Buccaneers, people always asked me if I wanted to eventually be head coach at Alabama," Shula replied. "My answer even back then was always ‘Yes.'"


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