No one in the Alabama camp would be happy today if the Crimson Tide had opened its football season–and the Mike Shula Era–with a loss. But no one would have been suggesting that Bama had made a mistake in hiring Shula, either. Judging a head football coach on one game would be irresponsible. Good coaches–Bryant, Stallings, Franchione–have lost their first games at Bama and gone on to success. But a win is preferred.
It was reasonable to be apprehensive prior to Alabama's 40-17 victory over South Florida. The littany of Alabama problems is a long and familiar one: Dennis Franchione and his staff deserted the Crimson Tide at a critical juncture last December; Mike Price arrived in time to do some preventive maintenance in rebuilding a staff and recruiting (around Rose Bowl preparation by Price and his staff to take on Oklahoma), and then Price frolicked away the Bama job after spring practice. Enter Shula with no staff and no opportunity for spring practice and no head coaching experience. And throw in the distraction that the opening game opponent was being coached by a man that was once on the short list to be Bama's coach, and a man–Jim Leavitt–that many considered a superior choice. Alabama can have no championship goals. The cross-state rival is (or, perhaps, was) a national championship contender.
Thus far, Shula has a good record for saying the right things and (more important) for doing things that are working. He has made what appear to be excellent staff decisions and has put a representative team on the field. Shula retained the defensive staff of the Price regime, and that defense was very good against a fast, well-coached South Florida offense. He selected an outstanding special teams coach and Bama, which probably would have ranked among the worst in the nation in its kicking game last year, got big boosts from its special teams Saturday.
When things went bad in the opening half (and it was inevitable that things would go bad sometime, probably sooner than later), Shula was the calm leader his team–-and particularly his quarterback–-needed. Trailing South Florida by 17-7, Shula gathered the veteran players around and reminded them they had faced tough times before.
Now Alabama's football team faces another tough task, hosting the nation's number one team. And Shula is saying the right things. He points out that one reason Alabama fell behind South Florida is that South Florida has a very good football team. But he said Oklahoma will be better, that the Sooners deserve their number one ranking. And he also says that Alabama players will always go onto the field expecting to win.
Saying the right thing is important. More than that, Shula is determined to do the right thing. "We want to be known as a team that plays for 60 minutes," he said. But that doesn't just happen. He and Strength Coach Ben Pollard came up with a plan to have Bama well-conditioned, and it was obvious Saturday that the Crimson Tide was in better shape than South Florida.
Shula said that his football team will be one that expects to win every time it goes on the field. Not many others will expect Alabama to defeat Oklahoma Saturday. But the Sooners' 37-27 victory last year was by a deceptively wide margin. Oklahoma was ranked second in the nation a year ago and took on an Alabama team that did not appear to be confident. Still, the Tide had forged into the lead until barely two minutes remained when Oklahoma took the lead, then got a final seconds cheap touchdown.
Don't look for Alabama to lack for confidence Saturday. In short time the Shula plan has Alabama performing well on offense, defense, and in the kicking game. First down plays are not predictable. Penalties were at a minimum for an Alabama team, much less an Alabama team in its first game and with little preparation time.
Shula has said what all coaches facing adversity say, that he doesn't worry about what he can't control. What Shula is doing something about is things he can control, and early evidence is that he is doing it right.
Nothing can give Mike Shula the experience of Bob Stoops, who will be coaching Oklahoma. But it wasn't that long ago that Stoops was a young, inexperienced coach who was leading Oklahoma to upsets.
Oklahoma has a veteran team, veterans who will remember how Alabama offensive and defensive lines began man-handling them in the second half in Norman a year ago. And Alabama veterans will remember that, too.
A confident Crimson Tide in its first game of the year in Bryant-Denny Stadium with an innovative offensive coach in charge could mean a very satisfactory Bama Saturday.