Is the squad's ability to endure turmoil infinite?
Alabama fans would love to respond with a quick "Yes!" and move on, but reason says otherwise. The current Tide players have almost certainly gone through more nonsense and controversy during their careers than any other group of Alabama athletes. We won't list all the serial body blows inflicted over the past four years. There's no need. Unfortunately, Tide fans know them all too well.
Up to this point the players have held together. With each new adversity, their response has been to work even harder. First Dennis Franchione, then Mike Price and now Mike Shula--each head coach in turn marveled at the courage and resiliency of this group of athletes. But everyone has a limit--even Crimson Tide players.
If the 2003 season starts off badly (and it could), how will the seniors respond?
A better question would be how will the seniors and NFL-quality juniors respond? Not that many years back, a senior defender on the team who was projected as a high draft choice made a statement. By that point in the season it was clear the team would contend for no championships, and the future pro essentially told his teammates "You're on your own. The rest of the way I'll be protecting myself for the draft."
There's no reason to assume the worst. If the 2003 season plays out reasonably well, then we'd honestly predict no cracks in the player ranks. But on the other hand, there are certainly no guarantees on how the season will play out.
How long will it take for the players to "adopt" the new staff?
Without doubt that emotional bond will form. The only question is when?
Of course many fans will assume it's already happened, taking as evidence the unremittingly positive comments over the past two months made by the players concerning their new head coach and staff. No one's hiding anything. And certainly those players are telling the truth. But developing that deep sense of trust between a player and coach simply does not happen overnight.
Look back just two seasons for an illustration.
From the moment Dennis Franchione took over in December of 2000, he and his staff were well-received. Say what you will about Franchione's character (or lack thereof), but he conducted himself as a well-organized, professional coach. And the players responded.
However, it was almost two-thirds of the way through the 2001 season before a genuine, deep-seated bond of trust developed. Former Defensive Coordinator Carl Torbush said many times that the players didn't genuinely trust the staff until after the LSU debacle, when a firestorm of criticism directed at both the players and coaches solidified the mutual relationship.
If it took 11 months and eight games with that proven and veteran staff, is it reasonable to think the process will move along more quickly this time around?
Interestingly, Mike Shula is under no illusions on the point. Asked about developing that mutual bond of trust between coaches and players, he said it would "take as long as it takes." He went on to add that genuine trust cannot be given--only earned.
What about game-day adjustments?
Mike Shula has done all the right things.
In assembling his staff, the first-year head coach surrounded himself with veteran coordinators that he can trust. Joe Kines (defense), Dave Ungerer (special teams) and Dave Rader (offense) are all very good at what they do.
Kines and Rader enjoy the added advantage of having a long history with Shula, dating back to his playing days at the Capstone and including time together in the pros. Because of that, we're frankly not particularly concerned with game-week preparations.
But what happens on Saturdays is another subject.
Military strategists are fond of saying that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Analogies between football and war are overused, but the principle still applies.
Getting the squad ready for Saturday is only part of the job. Once the team hits the field, countless unpredictable situations arise, calling for a quick decision by the head coach. Many problems can be handled by your coordinators. But unless Shula wants to be viewed as a figure-head (he definitely does not), then the head coach must weigh in forcefully.
Inexperienced or not, Shula has all the makings of a very good head coach. Nobody that knows him doubts that fact.
Interestingly, Mark Richt--the current "golden boy" of SEC coaches--frankly admits he made several game-day mistakes his first season in charge at Georgia. Given their Florida roots and youthful good looks, Richt and Shula have often been compared. And most pundits just assume that Shula will experience similar problems during his first season.
Arguably, Shula's NFL pedigree, including a stint as offensive coordinator for Tampa Bay, has him better prepared than Richt was when he took over the Bulldogs. But until Bama's fledgling coach proves his decision-making ability in the heat of battle, the question will remain.