Accident or fate?

What if? <br><br>Amid the considerable hoopla, wonder and mystery surrounding new University of Alabama head football coach Mike Shula's first game as Tide leader, set for Saturday at Legion Field against South Florida, the question remains.

What if things had gone differently between Alabama administrators and Jim Leavitt?

What if the hoopla was surrounding Leavitt as he prepared for his first game as Alabama head coach -- and not his first game against the new Alabama head coach?

As questions go, this one is purely hypothetical, strictly for speculation purposes.

Fate and Mike Price's misdeeds have made Shula the protector of the Crimson Tide program for the foreseeable future, and most Alabama alumni and fans, as well as his team, have gotten solidly behind him. As they should -- Shula is a highly capable coach who exudes personality and intelligence, and must be given his proper chance to succeed or fail on his own timetable.

But sit back for a moment, let your mind drift, and wonder: how would the past nine months have differed if Leavitt had been Alabama athletic director Mal Moore's ultimate choice to lead the Crimson Tide following Dennis Franchione's ill-timed leap to Texas A&M?

South Florida coach Jim Leavitt complains to an official after a 69-yard run was called back after an illegal-formation penalty during the first quarter against Arkansas on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2002, in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/David Quinn)

This is not to say that Leavitt was Moore's final choice, or that Leavitt would have accepted the job had it been offered to him. No one beyond Leavitt and Moore know for certain the story behind Leavitt's flirtation with Alabama, and neither man has divulged specific details.

All that is known with absolute certainty is that Moore flew to Florida to interview Leavitt in early December following Franchione's departure. It is unclear whether Moore ever made an offer to Leavitt. On the surface, it appears that Moore came much closer to hiring now-Oregon State Coach Mike Riley, a prominent Alabama alumni and then-New Orleans Saints assistant. Riley withdrew his candidacy for family concerns, and the job ultimately went to Washington State Coach Mike Price.

Had Leavitt been hired, the all-too-short abomination that was the Mike Price era would have been avoided. Price would still be coaching in relative obscurity in the Paulose of eastern Washington, free to live his life as he saw fit.

His date with Destiny in a seedy Pensacola, Florida, strip club, the $1,000 allegedly charged to his Pensacola hotel room by a woman who wasn't his wife and a salacious Sports Illustrated article that coined the phrase "it's rolling, baby, it's rolling," would all have been avoided.

Price's career and reputation would have been saved, too.

Alabama would have benefited as well. The school would have been saved the untold embarrassment which national media heaped on in the wake of the Price scandal. Players would have been spared the stress and pressure of a second coaching search, four months after the last one concluded.

Had Leavitt (or Riley or another unknown candidate) stayed on through the summer months, spring practice wouldn't have been wasted, and a new offense installed during spring practice could have been honed and practiced by players during the heat of June and July.

The high-pressure, high-stress workload, which has characterized preseason practice in Tuscaloosa this fall, would have been depressurized somewhat, and the players would have been slightly more familiar with their coaches.

Understand, this is no knock on Shula or his abilities, or those of his coaching staff. By all indications, Shula has done a marvelous job of pulling a shattered program back together and restoring players' confidence in their coaches.

Shula himself exudes a quiet confidence, and appears to be well on his way to mastering the learning curve that all first-time head coaches experience. We will begin to see how much of that curve remains for him to round Saturday, but he appears on solid footing.

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So far, Shula's players have rallied around he and his staff, and have accepted him with open arms. To veteran observers of the Alabama program, this is hardly surprising; the body blows the program has taken over the past three years (a harsh NCAA probation, Franchione's departure and Price's firing, among others) have created a tough-minded football team which isn't easily shaken.

Things have a way of happening for a reason, and given time, Shula could very well prove to be the right man at the right time for the Alabama football program.

Still, it is interesting to wonder on a lazy afternoon what impact Leavitt might have had. He is a proven program-builder, having built South Florida's program literally from nothing to a Conference USA contender in seven years. His intensity and work ethic are considered solid, and his players swear by him.

It would have been interesting to see how a coach who works out of a trailer and answers his own phone calls would have handled the pressure of rescuing one of college football's most tradition-laden programs from probation.

Interesting, but it won't happen. Some might turn the results of Saturday's season opener into a referendum on Moore's decision to hire Shula, which isn't fair to Leavitt or Shula.

They are two different men in two different situations, complicated by the actions of a man who paid a heavy Price.

Still, you have to wonder: what if?


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