Shula passes the test

It was really rather funny when you think about it, reflecting as it did the dual truths of Tide fans' obsession with the worth of their coach---and rival fans' even greater obsessive need to tear him down. <br><br>Mike Shula had just been introduced as head coach of the Crimson Tide, and apparently the only thing certain radio hosts could find to talk about was the "profound" observation that he appeared somewhat nervous at the press conference.

"Oh, my god!!!" some fans worried. "Shula isn't a good public speaker."

The very idea was ludicrous on its face. Rather like worrying that an Olympic decathlete wasn't coordinated, simply because you spotted him once slipping on wet ice. Look up "heady quarterback" in the Alabama media guide, and you'll find Shula's face. More than a step slow and "blessed" with only an average arm, the Labor Relations major nevertheless made a name for himself as one of the most memorable field generals in Crimson Tide history.

If the game was on the line and the clock was running out, Shula was your man.

But a few "Umms" and pauses in front of the press later (fueled by a radio entertainer masquerading as a sports expert), and suddenly some fans were worried.

"Shula won't be able to handle the press."

Mike Shula frankly admitted to some "butterflies" before addressing the assembled writers at SEC Media Days Wednesday.

The subsequent reaction of other Tide fans was perhaps understandable, but still funny. "We don't want a public speaker. All we want is a football coach." And when someone else dared to point out that a well-spoken coach in this media age was an asset to a program, another responded sarcastically with "I remember a ‘fairly successful' coach who wasn't a good public speaker. And all he did was win six national championships."

First, let's be clear on that point. Long ago head coaches ceased being mere whistle-blowing, rear-end chewing gridiron tyrants. Head coaches at big-time college programs are symbols of their schools, and the best ones invariably are as good behind a podium as they are in front of a chalkboard.

Not to mention that the assertion that Paul W. Bryant wasn't a good public speaker is pure nonsense. Those that remember--and there are still plenty of them around--know that Bryant was a master with the media. Like all great men, Bryant had an unwavering sense of who he was. But he also appreciated good theatre, and was more than capable of providing it. Just because Bryant sometimes talked in a deep growl that defied transcription, does not mean he couldn't also converse with presidents. Which he did--quite often.

Like Bryant, if Shula is to be successful he'll accomplish it by relying on, and playing to, the best traits of his own persona.

Considering that his introductory press conference was Shula's first experience on center stage in the media spotlight, the assertion that he must be a poor public speaker was as unfair as it was wrong. What if four years ago when Antwan Odom first arrived on campus, fans had dismissed him out of hand because he "wasn't ready for the NFL?" It may seem an odd comparison at first, but it applies.

Back then Odom had the look of gawky teenager, resembling as much a forward in basketball as the stellar defensive end he is today. But for anyone with knowledge of football, the potential was plainly there. A legitimate 6-5, broad shoulders and a frame that could easily add strength and bulk. And he ran like a deer.

Shula's potential as a public speaker is much the same. He's bright. No one doubts that. Whether or not he's the smartest head coach in the SEC is a foolish argument, but there's no question the mean IQ of that exclusive fraternity went up when Shula was hired.

He's not likely to ever develop into a quipster like Lou Holtz, but in person Shula comes across as deliberate, even thoughtful. He'll think before speaking (unlike some motor-mouth coaches out there). But when he does talk his comments reflect well on the educational efforts of his alma mater.

In other words, there's no reason to think that he won't get better and better at this media thing. All he needs is practice.

Wednesday's performance illustrates the point. Shula frankly acknowledged that he was nervous at the beginning. Who wouldn't be? Veteran writers in the room couldn't recall a larger crowd on hand to hear an SEC coach. Every step Shula took he was trailed by an entourage of writers holding out their ubiquitous tape recorders and assorted other hangers-on, many of whom pointed camcorders at his face. (Was it really necessary to trail him from room to room with a video camera as he walked down the hall?)

As the morning wore on and he spoke with smaller groups, Shula appeared to be almost enjoying himself.

But by all accounts (including this one), the first-year head coach did fine. He was well prepared, without being noticeably scripted. And except for momentarily forgetting the name of his second-string punter, he made it through the media marathon essentially gaffe-free.

Listen carefully to the question, and then give a direct answer. And if you can throw in a bit of humor now and then, all the better. Tide fans will cringe at the reference, but one reason Dennis Franchione was so effective with the media was because he had learned the value of a well-placed laugh line.

"Is it a problem that you were only Alabama's third choice, coach?" Fans remember the question, and at the time at least they loved his reply. Obviously coached in advance, Bama's former coach paused, gestured toward his wife and said "I wasn't even Kim's first choice."

The room erupted in laughter, and magically, even though Franchione hadn't really answered the question, the reporter didn't repeat it.

Shula had one (probably) scripted joke Wednesday. When asked about next season's offense, he replied that he couldn't wait to show Brodie Croyle film from when he was quarterback running the option. It got a laugh, as Shula accurately explained that he may have run the option twice in his entire career.

But humor of the self-deprecating variety is the most effective, especially when used by someone with power. "I looked around the room at the recent SEC Meetings, noticing all those veteran coaches with their wins and their bowl rings. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of when they looked at me." (Shula knows he's never coached a single game. No reason to deny it.)

Asked about his relationship with Ray Perkins (notorious for being abrasive with the press), Shula put it this way. "I guess I know Coach Perkins as well as anybody. He signed me, then he played me, then he benched me, then he brought me back, then he drafted me, then he cut me, then he brought me back, then he cut me again, then he asked me if I wanted to get into coaching."

Some coaches take the Bobby Knight route and actively spar with writers. But a dumb question doesn't have to be met with insult. One writer fishing for a negative quote about Alabama's NCAA probation, asked Shula what he thought about the Tide scheduling a final-game contest at Hawaii for the two years of its bowl ban. Not taking the bait, Shula calmly responded "Are you asking me if I'm unhappy about going to Hawaii in November?"

Next question.

Shula began the morning in the main hall, which housed hundreds of writers from all over the Southeast. At first he was a bit nervous, fidgeting with the microphone (the former quarterback is several inches taller than most of his colleagues). He finally gave up, but wanting to be heard he spent most of the session bending down slightly to talk into the microphone.

But as much as anything else he was just anxious to get started. "I felt some butterflies," he acknowledged. "But just like when I was a player, that's good. If I ever reach the point where I'm not anxious about this job I probably need to be doing something else."

As he moved to smaller rooms for television and radio interviews, Shula was noticeably more comfortable. One TV talking head informed him of two quotes from his players. "Shaud Williams says you're a well-dressed guy. And Cornelius Wortham described you as ‘a good-looking man.'"

Believe it or not, that was a potentially dangerous moment. The last thing Shula needs to do is encourage those that would focus attention on his looks rather than his ability. After a pause, Shula again declined to take the bait. "If that means anything as far as wins and losses, then I guess I appreciate it," he said with a chuckle.

As Shula reminded the crowd, this wasn't his first time at Media Days. The young coach also spoke to the SEC writers as a senior quarterback at Alabama.

Later, when another television "reporter" asked the name of his suit designer, Shula very wisely declined to answer. TV personalities can apparently afford to be thought of as frivolous. The head coach of the Crimson Tide definitely cannot.

No one kept official count, but essentially every room he sat down in an intrepid writer would ask Shula about living in the media spotlight. With Franchione now putting out the claim that a lack of privacy as a principal reason why he bolted for Texas, the question was predictable.

Each time Shula patiently said no, nothing can really prepare a young coach for the intense attention, but that was just part of the job--and also part of what made Alabama a special place.

In the final room in front of the final group of reporters, Shula was asked. "Are you more comfortable now than you were at your introductory press conference back in May?"

"The more you do something, the more comfortable you feel," was Shula's sensible reply.

Then with a wry laugh he added, "After today, I should be fine."

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