Old nemesis challenges Shula

One of the reasons fans were excited about the hiring of Mike Shula as head coach of his alma mater was the widespread belief that an outsider--a head coach without direct knowledge of Alabama and its storied history--could not quickly handle the unique demands of the job.

Tennessee arrives on campus this Saturday, raising the stakes on Mike Shula and his already beleaguered squad.

Shula talked about the rivalry. "Until you go through it the first time as a player you don't understand how big a rivalry it is. The intensity throughout the week of practice and the focus on the game..."

The son of legendary pro coach Don Shula, as a boy Mike didn't grow up bleeding Crimson. His early years were spent on various NFL sidelines, watching and absorbing all he could from his famous father. But he recalls that it only took one week on campus for his Alabama-bred teammates to bring him up to speed.

"Our players, especially the older guys, understand," Shula said of Bama's inborn hatred of all things orange. "The young ones coming into it will learn when they get out there for sure. You can throw out the records.

With Mike Shula in uniform, Alabama lost three close games to Tennessee before starting a new winning streak in 1986 with a 56-28 blowout.

"Both universities and both sets of fans are great. They're always louder for this game than any other. (As a player) you're always going to have to play better against Tennessee."

As Tide fans know all too well, Alabama/Tennessee has been a series of streaks. First one school will gain the upper hand then the other. During Shula's time as a player at The Capstone the Volunteers extended a four-game mini-streak (1982-1985). The last three of those losses Shula experienced personally. From '83 to '85 Alabama's total margin of defeat was ten points.

"We had lost three times prior to (1986)," Shula recalled. "Those first three years were tough when we lost some tough games."

His senior season Shula took a talented team to Knoxville that ran over, around and through the Vols for a dominating 56-28 victory.

He commented, "It was exciting to win there on the road. That started a streak for Alabama the other way where Alabama won several in a row. It's been that type of series."

That Shula-led win kick-started a nine-year run for the Tide in which its on-the-field record versus Tennessee was 8-0-1. Last year's 34-14 win by Bama in Knoxville snapped a seven-game losing streak, the longest in Crimson Tide history.

"As an alumnus you follow (the Tennessee game) maybe more than any other game other than Auburn," Shula said. "Everyone knows ‘the third Saturday in October.'"

Thanks to recent SEC scheduling, that designation is no longer hard and fast. This year the showdown falls on the fourth weekend of October. But this season the SEC schedulers did continue the modern-day "tradition" of awarding Tennessee an open-week before playing the Tide.

The Volunteers were off last week, while Alabama will be playing its ninth straight game without a break. But Shula is making no excuses.

"That's just the way it is," he said. "(Tennessee) had the off week. Great. We've got to get focused. If our guys get worried that ‘Well, they've had some time off, and they'll be fresh,' we're going to have trouble again.

"We've got to get ready to play, and play a lot better than we did last week."

Bama's record now stands at 3-5, and barring a miracle turnaround Shula will end up presiding over only the fourth Alabama losing season since 1957. But again, Shula has other things on his mind.

Shula's first season as head coach has unfortunately been marked by more lows than highs. (AP Photo)

"It doesn't matter," he said. "It's Tennessee coming in. You've got to play your best. We've got to be prepared as well as we've been all year."

In seasons past when Bama was dominating the series, Tide coaches marked Tennessee week with various rituals that lent an almost festive atmosphere. Scout team members decorated their helmets with homemade orange ‘Ts', and sideline and locker room speakers incessantly blared the grating Vol fight song. But in recent years those sometimes annoying traditions have died off--with the approval of Tide players.

Shula isn't likely to revive them this year. "I'm not sure we'll play Rocky Top. If we were playing on the road at Tennessee we might do that.

"Our upperclassmen will get the message (of the importance of this game) to the guys that haven't been through it before. They'll help us with the younger guys."

At this point Tennessee would appear to be the stronger club. Still struggling to find an identity on offense, the Tide is frankly reeling from last week's 43-28 embarrassment at the hands of Ole Miss. Logic says the home team will need some football luck to pull out a win. But as Shula knows all too well, this hard-fought series has rarely been noted for its logic.

Shula commented, "After Saturday, we've got a lot of work to do ourselves. We've got to concentrate on ourselves. We've got to totally focus on doing everything exactly right."

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