A season to itself

Mike Shula's calm, even laid-back demeanor is becoming legend among Tide fans. But as he prepares to coach his first game against Auburn, Shula understands completely its importance. <br><br>"It's like life in general," he explained. "You have to keep things in perspective. But if there's anything that comes second, it's probably this game."

After signing with the Tide as a youngster out of Columbus High School in Miami, Mike Shula quickly learned about the importance of the rivalry. "Every (in-state) player on both teams has friends that they grew up with and played against on the other team," he said. "It's fun to play in a game like this where it's covered by the national media and talked about all week. Coming from South Florida, I didn't understand right away, but you learn in a hurry.

"I didn't know how big a rivalry it was until I stood on the sideline my freshman year."

In 1983 Shula watched as Ray Perkins' first team dropped a close 23-20 decision to the Tigers. But the next three years he took a direct hand as quarterback, finishing 2-1 against Bama's arch rival.

One reason Alabama's administration hired Shula was because of his deep roots at The Capstone and his comfort level with Crimson Tide traditions. As a quarterback in the mid-80s, Shula was 2-1 versus Auburn.

"The biggest thing that I realized is that it doesn't matter what your record is when you play in this game. These two teams with a lot of the players having grown up together, playing with each other and against each other, and with what football means to this whole state...

"That changes the magnitude of the game and makes it a season to itself."

As a sophomore QB, Shula led his squad to an improbable 17-15 win over a heavily favored Auburn team, soothing the pain of an overall losing season.

"You throw out all the other games and the momentum that was created or not created (during the season)," Shula said. "It goes out the window. It's an exciting game to be in and play in. You've got to make sure you control your emotions and continue doing your job. You can't let yourself lose your composure to where you don't play or execute well."

Of course back in the mid-80s when Shula was playing, Alabama/Auburn faced off in Birmingham's Legion Field. Everything from seating to concessions to revenue was split equally down the middle. Claiming they couldn't get a fair shake in their state's largest city, Auburn would soon move to kill that tradition. But it's not a change Shula necessarily likes.

He commented, "It's good for each school to have it on campus, but I'll admit I liked it at Legion Field. Ideally you'd have both teams at Legion Field where there wasn't a bias either way. I liked that part of the tradition. Play at a neutral site, so neither school would feel they have an advantage or a disadvantage."

Now the two teams alternate home-and-home in the series, with campus stadiums packed full of partisan fans screaming at the visiting squad. But interestingly, for the past four years the visiting team has come away a winner.

"That says a lot about both schools," Shula said. "Maybe there is less pressure on the away team."

Shula in unabashed in claiming that the Alabama/Auburn rivalry is the greatest in college football. (AP photo)

It may be hard to believe, but the players actually relish the challenge of playing at Auburn. Asked to explain the recent outcomes, several Tide players commented that there is simply nothing in the world like silencing a hostile crowd on the road.

"That's one thing I remember," Shula agreed. "I'm sure the players will say the same thing. It's a unique feeling to win SEC games on the road."

Heading into the game Auburn's overall record is slightly better than Bama's. But before the season began, the Tigers were predicted to win the SEC and contend for national honors. Given the level of pre-season expectations, the Tigers' up-and-down season has been even more disappointing than the Tide's.

But Shula knows he'll get Auburn's best game.

"We've seen them on film throughout the year on both sides of the ball," Shula related. "We've seen them play real well and win some games--and where they haven't won games. But that's one thing I've learned. We know we're going to get their best shot.

"We study all their games where they're playing as good as they've played all year, because that's what we're going to get."

Two years ago Dennis Franchione's coaching staff led the Tide to a 31-7 upset win at Auburn. It was a shocking defeat for the Tigers, immediately placing head coach Tommy Tuberville and his staff on the proverbial "hot seat."

Afterwards, more than few members of that former Tide staff expressed privately their surprise at the visceral emotions expressed by losing fans. Shula's credentials as a former star player at Alabama, who understands the unique nature of the job, played a key role in his hiring.

"That's what makes (the Auburn game) special," he said matter-of-factly. "That's why we can brag about this rivalry being that great. You know (its importance) coming into this job, or at least I did. I know what this game means to this university, what it means to the coaches and the players. Whether or not that's fair or not, it's exciting.

"When you win it's a great feeling. If you lose, it's something you'll have to deal with in the off season."

Forced to play catch-up from the start, his first season has hardly been a walk in the park. But Shula has never flinched. (Barry Fikes photo)

Even if Bama can manage to win both its last two games, the Tide will still finish with a losing record. Many fans claim a win over Auburn would wipe all that away, cleaning the slate so-to-speak. But Shula must maintain perspective.

He explained, "From my experience coaching over the last 16 years, I would say ‘Yes, it's a big game, but we've had other games (that were important).' But the winner of this game does change the complexion of their season. As coaches and players we know we've got a lot of work to do, but it can help with momentum going into the off season for either school."

That may sound like heresy to the more rabid fans out there, but Shula wasn't hired just to coach in 2003. He's in for the long haul.

"Sure this game weighs more in a lot of peoples' minds, and it does for us, too," he acknowledged. "But when you look at wins and losses, it doesn't weigh any more. It's one game, an SEC game. But our losses aren't going to go away."

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