Recently, a BamaMag.com board poster (bamanooga) raised some provocative questions, and it occurred to me that they might be of interest to all our readers. His post follows:
"Ok, insiders... Jay, Kirk, dbtide, anyone. How is Mike Shula doing?
"I know this season hasn't gone like we wanted, but do you guys have an honest assessment of how things are going for our new coach? Are you willing to share it? Do you think next year will be better? Do you think we have the right guy, or is it still to early? Do you expect another down year with the sanctions kicking in full or not? Have you got more access to the program now? I don't ask for much do I?
"I can't remember when I've been this disinterested in a season."
Whether they're answers or not, only time will tell. But here is my response:
bamanooga, I understand your frustration, but the hard truth is that like the use of illegal steroids by athletes in sport, serious NCAA sanctions like the ones levied against Alabama are employed for a very good reason:
They work--usually quite well.
Alabama had a decent chance to weather its probation with at least reasonable success. But the double-debacles of Franchione and Price leaving pretty much killed those hopes...
In my opinion Shula has done an excellent job off-the-field, better than most fans know. He's had his share of attitudes to adjust on the team, most of which haven't seen the light of day even on the Internet--much less in newspapers or on TV.
Why have those stories not been reported? Precisely because Shula himself set the tone early for keeping in-house problems in-house.
In interacting with alumni, recruiting high school athletes and dealing with the press, he's got to be given an A, B+ (still not decided, could end up higher) and A-. And those aren't bad grades.
On-the-field coaching has sometimes been inconsistent, but again, most of that "story" isn't accurately known by the fans. Specifically, Alabama was hurt FAR more by its lack of adequate practice time last August to install Shula's offensive system than was realized at the time.
Ironically, the reason most fans don't comprehend the extent of the problem--or were late in coming to that conclusion--is because Shula and his coaches were unremittingly optimistic in their public comments on the subject last August.
Looking back, it's quite obvious that the staff made a conscious decision before the start of fall camp to be positive on that subject. I don't necessarily disagree. It was important to set a positive tone for the team and the fans. But it is ironic that now they're taking more heat than they probably deserve for Bama's inconsistency on offense.
Is Shula an experienced on-the-field head coach?
But frankly, anyone that thought he wouldn't have a significant amount of on-the-job learning to do this season was being foolishly naive, whistling past what is turning out to be a graveyard of a 2003 schedule.
Whether or not Shula learns from the mistakes made and finds ways to avoid them in the future will tell the tale for him and his future as head coach at Alabama.
My guess is that he will.
A Labor Relations major in college, Shula is genuinely smart. And just as importantly, he is wise enough to listen to more experienced coaches and mentors that he trusts and work to learn from their counsel.
Does that guarantee he'll necessarily develop into an outstanding head coach for the Tide?
No. Unfortunately, it does not. Plenty of very smart coaches can't get the job done in the lead role. Building and maintaining a successful big-time college football program is about more than just IQ. But IQ certainly doesn't hurt.
bamanooga: "Do you think we have the right guy or is it still too early?"
I like most of what I've seen from Shula, surprisingly finding little to quarrel with in that regard. But yes, it's still too early for that judgement.
bamanooga: "Do you expect another down year with the sanctions kicking in full or not?"
Honestly, it would be foolish not to expect precisely that. Though I do genuinely believe that the team can be more successful next year than this, mainly due to Shula gaining more and more control over the program and putting his imprint on the squad.
Frankly, this year's team is made up of a roster-full of hard-working and sometimes talented players. But they have not yet demonstrated the ability to make the plays necessary to win close games. It's my hope (perhaps foolish, though I don't think so) that next year will be better.
bamanooga: "Have you got more access to the program now?"
Yes and no. Shula himself is very accessible after practice, clearly working hard to maintain good media relations. Hopefully that determination won't change once he settles in, as it does with some coaches. (One of Shula's key Tide mentors, Ray Perkins, was an unfortunate example of that dynamic.)
Shula's assistants are also accessible, though they're not always willing to be completely candid. "Determinedly cautious" is probably a good way to put it. Hopefully, that will change as they become more comfortable in their role and with the media.
But in some other ways there is a higher level of secrecy surrounding the football team than is necessary--or even, frankly, useful. Again, hopefully that will improve as Shula himself becomes more comfortable in his role and with his beat writers.
bamanooga: "I don't ask for much do I?"
That's what this website is for.
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