Give the man time

Over the past four years, the University of Alabama head football coach has become an overnight sensation. Meaning he's sensational -- overnight. <br><br>After that, it's anyone's guess.

Three years ago, Mike DuBose went from the penthouse of an improbable Southeastern Conference championship and a No.3 preseason national ranking to the outhouse of an ignominious 3-8 season, capped off by an ugly, nasty, sleet-soaked 9-0 loss to Auburn in Tuscaloosa's first modern-day Iron Bowl.

It is still unclear just how much damage DuBose did, but it was considerable.

Dennis Franchione and his Midwest twang followed, and Fran quickly became the man in Tuscaloosa.

He stunned Auburn on the Plains in his first Iron Bowl, then followed it up with a 10-3 2002 campaign.

Just as quickly, however, he was gone, hopping a jet to College Station, Texas days after the season finale at Hawaii, rendering his now infamous principles hollow.

Mike Price was almost literally here and gone overnight -- and he was definitely sensational.

That's why UA President Robert Witt sent him rollin', baby, rollin', right out the door, with a swift kick in the tush and nothing to show for it.

Which brings us to the current man of the hour: Mike Shula.

The boy wonder of Alabama football -- and its latest would-be savior -- is hard at work in a contest he's hard pressed to win -- the race against time.

Shula's unquestioned Crimson pedigree should give him credibility with Tide fans.

His most pressing fight is preparing the Crimson Tide for its Aug. 30 opener at Legion Field against South Florida, an opener that will be judged as harshly as any in recent memory.

The more interesting fight, however, will be just how much time he gets to right the listing good ship Crimson. Let it be said here to all impatient fans.

Give him time.

As hard as that might seem to the segment of the Crimson Nation that wants everything handed to it 10 minutes ago, patience with Shula is absolutely necessary.

Let's face it. Although his bloodlines -- son of NFL all-time victories leader Don Shula -- and pedigree -- 15 years as an NFL assistant, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and a former Tide quarterback -- are impeccable, he lacks college head coaching experience.

There will be lessons Shula will learn on the job, and learn the hard way. All young coaches must travel the learning curve.

Look east, for a moment, at Georgia Coach Mark Richt. Before taking the Bulldogs' job, Richt had never been a head coach, but was well-known as an offensive genius under Bobby Bowden at Florida State.

Richt had his moments his first year -- like that famous game-winning drive at Tennessee -- but he had his pitfalls, too. Remember his poor clock management at the goal line against Auburn? Georgia fans wouldn't let him forget.

With a year of experience, Richt conquered the curve. He rallied past Alabama late in Bryant-Denny Stadium, beat Auburn at the gun in Jordan-Hare Stadium, won the SEC title handily and blasted Daddy Bowden in the Sugar Bowl. Now, he has a lucrative long-term deal with an $8.5 million buyout, and things are looking up in Athens.

Shula faces even tougher hurdles. While his new offense is at least 95 percent installed, it will be skeletal through the first few weeks of the season, with plans to add more as the season progresses and his new team gets cozy.

That could lead to problems against an underrated South Florida team, which has a vicious defense, not to mention Oklahoma, rated by some as the nation's top team and a national title favorite.

There might be some growing pains along the way, and with them, some vociferous grumbles. Let us not forget, though, that a guy named Gene Stallings began his Alabama career 0-3 and 2-4 in 1990.

That turned out OK, didn't it?

Shula is a quick learner. His public profile has taken dramatic leaps forward in his first three months. His opening press conference in May was shaky at best, full of more ums and ahhs than a teenager explaining to his parents why he missed curfew by two hours.

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His much-publicized appearance at SEC Media Days was better, although his opening remarks sounded as if they'd been rehearsed in front of a bathroom mirror.

But he relaxed in the question-and-answer session, and came away with high marks.

As the crowds of reporters have dwindled, his confidence has skyrocketed. He is clearly at ease in post-practice sessions with reporters, often enjoying off-the-cuff chats with scribes afterward -- a rarity in the Franchione era.

Shula has what sophomore quarterback Brodie Croyle calls "a quiet confidence." After a week learning from him, Croyle compares him favorably to Richt -- and he would know, having nearly committed to Florida State while Richt was there.

So far, it appears Shula understands what being the Alabama head coach is all about.

If fans give him a chance, it just might work out.


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