As the long and difficult season winds down to a merciful end, reporters have taken to asking Mike Shula about his staff, wondering if any changes will be made. Most of the time he deflects the question, explaining that his total focus is on next week's game.
Again Sunday he was asked if he would take time to evaluate the entire program in the off-season.
"Oh yeah, we'll do that," he replied. "But I don't know when that is."
Don't expect Shula to make the same mistake Mike Price did by boxing himself in with unnecessary (and potentially damaging) artificial deadlines. Plus, Bama's young head coach is absolutely telling the truth when he explains that he simply has more important things on his plate right now.
First deal with a dangerous Hawaii team, which will undoubtedly be hoping to use its rare moment in the ESPN spotlight to pull off an upset on national television. And even after Saturday's final game, recruiting duties cannot be ignored.
As a veteran college coach recently observed, "Mike Shula is going to have to recruit himself out of this situation."
"The first thing we're going to do when we get back from Hawaii is recruit," Shula said. "Coming back from Hawaii we're going to be a little bit late. (Our staff) is not going to have the same chance to get on the road that other coaches will that won't be traveling back from Hawaii."
Will Bama's current assistant coaches be evaluated in the cold light of post-season? You bet.
Has Shula begun that process already? Maybe and maybe not, but either way he's not talking. "I haven't even thought about any of that stuff," Shula said Sunday, repeating his standard line from recent days. "Our focus has been on each game each week, just like it will be this week with Hawaii."
If the Tide's losing record of 4-8 isn't bad enough, consider these numbers. A Bama defense that only a year ago was considered among the best in Division 1A football now ranks 46th in the nation, sixth in the SEC. And offense is even worse. Alabama is 81st out of 116 NCAA programs in Total Offense, with just two conference teams ranking behind the Tide in that category.
"If you look at our record, that's how it's been; there doesn't need to be much more said," Shula commented. "We're disappointed. We felt like we lost some games (this year) that we should have won. That's not what we expect at Alabama by any stretch of the imagination."
Rushing offense: 54th nationally, fifth in the SEC. Passing offense: 86th nationally, 12th in the SEC. Scoring offense (25.17 points per game): 72nd nationally, ninth in the league.
Rushing defense: 39th nationally, fifth in the SEC. Passing defense: 68th nationally, 10th in the SEC. Scoring defense (Bama is yielding 24.67 points per game): 56th nationally, eighth in the league.
"We've got to get better," Shula said. "We've got a lot of work to do. And yet when I say that, yes, we've got a lot of work to do. But we can get there in a hurry. I truly believe that."
With a 13th game still left to be played, now is certainly not the time to be singling out coaches. Instead, Shula took the chance to praise the job his assistants have done under difficult circumstances.
He commented, "I'll say this. I think (the season) would have been a lot more difficult if we had not had the type guys we have here as coaches. We've got a lot of coaches that have done a great job when they haven't known each other or known some things that we're teaching."
Shula is honest in his praise. But he also doesn't deny that the current Tide staff was hardly assembled under optimum circumstances. Hired in May, months after the normal period for football staff changes, Shula chose to keep numerous members of the previous coaching staff in place, including all the defensive assistants. Only Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer was hired away from another school (California). Both Charlie Harbison (wide receivers) and Dave Rader (offensive coordinator) were out of football when approached by Shula.
Just three months before their first game, the Tide assistants had to adjust to each other and their new head coach on the run.
"Similar to players, coaches have things that they coach," Shula said. "Our guys have done a great job of knowing and picking things up fast. In coaching a lot of times it's reaction on the looks that you get from the defense. Then you start to learn what to expect and how to react."
Would the winter off-season months and spring practice to install his schemes and learn about his personnel have helped?
"I'd be lying if I said we didn't think that," Shula replied. "But that never took away from any preparation. It's just something you know, especially with our younger guys."
Shula is far from happy with the on-the-field results, but he still makes a point of praising the staff's effort.
"I think our coaches and players have done an excellent job getting focused and ready," he said. "The results have not shown what we wanted them to show. People may argue with the way this team--coaches and players--has prepared itself. But that's my opinion.
"If someone's asking my opinion, that's my answer."