Tale of two coaches?

What should Shula send? <br><br>A nice box of Godiva chocolates? Three roses? Three dozen? Maybe a gift certificate for a nice dinner out with his wife -- you know, a little stress reliever.

At $900k per year (plus incentives), Mike Shula can afford the expense. It would be proper -- no -- mandatory -- for him to send a nice thank-you gift, accompanied by a properly addressed card. To: Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville.

Sacrilege, you say. Why would an Alabama coach send anything but a sound whipping an Auburn man's way?

Two words: stress relief.

During his first two weeks, Shula has done an admirable job of keeping the good ship Crimson afloat, routing South Florida and taking No.1 Oklahoma down to the wire before losing 20-13 last weekend.

But the most amazing part of it is how little critical attention Alabama has received within the state of Alabama's borders, specifically within the bounds of opinion columns and on the airwaves of sports radio.

So far Alabama and its new head coach have received nothing but positive press. Tuberville on the other hand... (AP photo)

Shula and the Tide have essentially flown under the venom radar, and for that, they can thank one man: Tommy Tuberville.

The Tigers' surprising 0-2 start has taken them from national media darling (The Sporting News ranked them as its preseason No.1 team, and both major polls tabbed Auburn sixth nationally) to current media whipping boy.

Tuberville looked like the man of the hour at the end of last season after winning five of six games, including an Iron Bowl upset of Alabama and a Capital One Bowl victory over Penn State.

But this season, Tuberville, new offensive coordinator Hugh Nall and quarterbacks coach Steve Ensminger have managed their talent so poorly, one would think Toonces the Driving Cat (of Saturday Night Live fame) is at the wheel of the Auburn program.

One second, Toonces -- er, the Tigers' coaching staff was in control. Now, although only two weeks of the season have passed, Auburn has driven off college football's proverbial cliff, and certainly straight out of the college football limelight.

Meanwhile, Shula has said little about his program and the way he has implemented it, but all is smooth sailing in Tuscaloosa. Following a very slow start against South Florida, Bama's young coach preached relaxation. His team responded, reeling off 33 unanswered points in a 40-17 victory.

Last week, four plays -- two long Oklahoma completions for touchdowns over the top of the Tide secondary, a second-quarter sideline near-completion to Zach Fletcher along the left sideline and a Brodie Croyle interception inside the OU 30 late in the third quarter -- swung a 20-13 decision Oklahoma's way. But the margin of victory was just as narrow as the score. Alabama had 19 first downs to Oklahoma's 13, held the ball longer than the Sooners and was out-gained only 355-303 while going against what many consider the nation's best defense.

This summer, Shula stayed out of the spotlight and worked instead of fueling expectations for his team. As a result, expectations were modest, which, in turn, left a surprisingly low ceiling for the 2003 Tide.

So far, Shula and his staff have exceeded it.

But down on the Plains, Tuberville and Co. are experiencing the phenomenon's opposite, ugly side. All summer long, Tuberville and his players sat for every interview, fueling the hype that they were fully confident they'd fulfill come September and beyond.

Now -- after three points in eight quarters -- the hype machine has turned on them. Talk radio hosts and columnists are aiming barbs at Auburn, writing parody songs about Tuberville, and generally dissecting every aspect of the program's problems.

Although Auburn does not appear to have internal strife -- yet -- the rest of the picture is eerily familiar to what the Alabama program experienced in fall 2000.

The Tide began the season ranked third nationally, but fell apart immediately after an opening-game loss to UCLA, bottoming out at 3-8 with a 9-0 Iron Bowl loss to Auburn in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Tuberville's large, guaranteed contract and Auburn's previously stable status make it incredibly unlikely he'll meet Mike DuBose's fate at the end of the season.

But he must begin a turnaround quickly to avoid losing much of his fan base's confidence.

BamaMag.com is pleased to feature regular columns from Greg Wallace, one of the most talented writers on the Bama beat.

An avid sports fan whose job "just happens" to give him a seat in the front-row, Wallace is entering his third year writing for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a journalism and history major.

You can contact Greg at: gwrite1178@aol.com, and read his work daily at PostHerald.com.

Which brings us back to Shula. Until Auburn turns itself around -- if that happens this year, which is no sure bet -- the Crimson Tide will likely fly under the radar of the state's sports fans and its own fan base.

It's all part of the state's never-ending football cycle. When Alabama is up, Auburn is down. And when Auburn is up, Alabama is down--but only temporarily.

Along the way, both sides snipe, bicker and revel in their side's success and the other side's misery -- usually at the same time. Like it or not, it is this state's football culture.

Amazingly, the cycle has made a full revolution this year alone -- from Mike Price, to the endless questions about Alabama's offense and troubled program while ESPN splashed Auburn on its college football preview cover -- to Auburn's current problems and Shula's quiet confidence.

The season is young, and plenty can happen before Alabama visits the Plains for November 22's Iron Bowl. But who could have imagined this?

On second thought, Mike, send Tommy a bottle of NyQuil. He could probably use it by now.


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