Transition requires patience

Standing on the sidelines of Bryant-Denny Stadium late Saturday night, I stared at the scoreboard and waited for the sonic explosion. <br><br>It was fourth-and-19, and Alabama was one play away from finishing off Tennessee in double overtime, 34-27.

You know the rest. Casey Clausen found C.J. Fayton in a seam of the Tide's zone coverage, he gained 29 yards and the rest is history in what has become a lost 2003 football season in Tuscaloosa.

This week, I surfed the World Wide Web, half-expecting to find firemikeshula.com or, at the very least, firejoekines.com sites claimed for future use -- if opinion being spouted by some fans on message boards and talk radio is any indication.

Those domains aren't claimed -- yet. And that alone brought a smile to my face.

There is no doubt that plenty is amiss with the University of Alabama football program, traditionally one of college football's most storied and powerful. But I maintain that nine games is not nearly long enough to make difficult judgment calls about Shula, his program or his staff. When considering all the turmoil the program has experienced over the past two years, stability -- and Shula -- remain Bama's best option.

Now, don't get me wrong. I, too, have numerous questions about just what has happened to a team that went 10-3 only 12 months ago, claiming a symbolic "Best in the West" title along the way.

Despite returning most of its weapons from a year ago, the offense hasn't been nearly as crisp or effective as one might have expected this season. Even before junior left tackle Wesley Britt's season-ending broken leg, the offensive line struggled with new starters Dennis Alexander and J.B. Closner, who replaced departed veterans Alonzo Ephraim and Marico Portis. Closner in particular has disappointed; he has been pushed hard by career reserve Matt Lomax at center, losing his starting role last week.

Brodie Croyle (#12), Mike Shula, Lance Taylor (#39) and Clint Johnston (#88) confer on the sideline. (Barry Fikes photo)

Starting quarterback Brodie Croyle has been battered all season long while nursing a separated left (non-throwing) shoulder first suffered against Oklahoma. At one point, the only healthy quarterback was third-string, redshirt freshman Brandon Avalos, who promptly engineered a 17-3 homecoming victory over Southern Miss.

A veteran receiving corps hasn't helped as much as some thought. Beyond true freshman Tyrone Prothro, who is only now adjusting to the college game, the unit lacks an exciting playmaker.

Move in front of or behind the linebacking corps, and the defense has its problems, too. The defensive line clearly misses NFL draft picks Jarret Johnson, Kenny King and Kindal Moorehead, the 2002 defense's heart and soul. A line that was two-deep a year ago finds itself sometimes struggling to go one-deep this year.

Kines' linebacking corps has been outstanding; one ‘backer after another has thrived in his attacking scheme. Juwan Garth, Derrick Pope, Freddie Roach and Demeco Ryans have all flashed their talents at one time or another this year, with Kines seemingly able to plug linebackers in at will. And all of this without projected starters Brooks Daniels and Cornelius Wortham. Daniels withdrew from school before practice began for undisclosed personal reasons and Wortham will redshirt after suffering a dislocated left elbow in preseason practice.

The secondary -- particularly sophomore cornerback Charlie Peprah and senior free safety Charles Jones -- has had its moments, but has also given up its share of game-changing plays (see Manning, Eli and White, Jason).

Injuries, nicks, bumps and bruises across the board have also played a factor, but the unspoken demon is a lack of continuity.

This group is working with its third coaching staff in the past 12 months; virtually all offensive players, save Bob Connelly's offensive line, are on their third position coach since last August.

Imagine having three bosses in a year's time. Think about how their myriad philosophies, habits and expectations would mesh inside your head, confusing you and leading to mistakes.

That is exactly what has happened to this Alabama football team. In the past month, the off-season turmoil -- be it Dennis Franchioone's bolt to Aggieland, Mike Price's date with Destiny, or the transition to Shula -- has finally caught up with the Crimson Tide.

Transition troubles are nothing to be ashamed of. In 1999, my senior year of college at the University of Iowa, I covered a rookie head coach by the name of Kirk Ferentz.

The previous fall, college football coaching legend Hayden Fry (a demigod if ever there was one in the vast, empty cornfields of Iowa) had stepped down after 20 seasons of success at the Hawks' helm.

Trouble was, Hayden had gotten lax in recruiting and left the ol' talent cupboard a little bare for Kirk and his new staff. The Hawkeyes were abysmal that fall, limping to a 1-10 record. The only victory came against then still-lowly Northern Illinois.

I will pause to acknowledge two points here:

  1. Midwest football fans are inherently more patient and (only slightly) less rabid than Southern football fans.
  2. Iowa's tradition -- while strong by Big Ten standards -- pales is in comparison to Alabama's.
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.

But know this. Sure, Hawkeye fans and Iowa sports media grumbled about Ferentz, which got louder the following season when the Hawks stumbled to a 1-8 start. But they won two of their last three (beating ranked Northwestern and Penn State teams), and qualified for the Alamo Bowl the following year.

Last year, they were Big Ten champions, an eyelash or two away from the BCS title game, and they've been a top-15 fixture this year as well.

The point is clear: Iowa fans weathered the transition and were eventually rewarded. Can the same happen at Alabama? Possibly. Although Iowa didn't have NCAA sanctions or embarrassing coaching turmoil, Alabama is clearly a superior program when placed on a level playing field.

Are Shula and his staff the ones who will prove it? We still don't know. But a little patience sure wouldn't hurt.


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