Effort was not the problem

Back in July before the season began, I obviously had numerous people ask me how I thought Alabama would do in 2003.

My standard answer (which I purposely chose not to put into a column) was "anywhere from 10-3 to 4-9, depending on how the season plays out." Remembering 2000, I knew that talent alone doesn't guarantee success. And a coaching transition is always a dicey proposition--even when a team is at full strength. So I was always careful to add, "we'll see how the team reacts."

But to be honest, based on what I had seen from the Crimson Tide in 2002, I expected a record somewhere in the middle, maybe 8-5.

Boy was I wrong.

As a writer (whose job happens to be covering Alabama sports), I tend to shy away from predictions, whether it be for a season or a game. It's not that I don't have thoughts, I just realize that a season or a game can finish in an almost infinite number of ways, depending on how things play out.

I believed back in August that the 2003 Tide was a reasonably talented group of players that needed something good to happen to it early on.

Obviously precious little "good" came Bama's way during the season.

Like most men that actually worked for Paul Bryant, my boss (Kirk McNair) tells relatively few Bryant stories. But he will point out in regard to season predictions that Bryant would often talk about two kinds of luck: scheduling and injury.

Depending on the rating you look at, Alabama played either the toughest or second-toughest schedule in Division 1A NCAA football, including games against three of the Top Five teams in the nation (Oklahoma, Georgia and LSU). Throw in an Ole Miss game in Oxford sporting the best Rebel team in decades, two brutal overtime losses to Tennessee and Arkansas, a veteran Northern Illinois squad spoiling for an upset and an Auburn team playing for its head coach's job, and you're well on your way to Bama's losing record.

Derrick Pope (#6) and DeMeco Ryans (#35) combine to tackle the Oklahoma ball carrier. Pope was the emotional leader of Bama's defense all year, and was named permanent team captain. (Getty Images)

As for injury luck, this year's team was not without talent. But NCAA sanctions guaranteed a thinner Tide than normal, especially vulnerable on the offensive line. Several injuries to key players--both before and during the season--took an inexorable toll.

The nature of our jobs in covering Alabama football means that Kirk and I get to know the Crimson Tide players better than most. Because of that fact, there is no question that I hoped for a good season in 2003, for the players' sake. Given the oft-discussed hardships that they have been forced to endure, this group of seniors deserved some good luck.

But football doesn't work that way.

Players don't go out on the field to collect a "deserved win," like so many children lining up for treats on Halloween. In the harsh world of SEC football, you have to take what you can get--when you can get it. All with the certain knowledge that he who hesitates will lose.

Every time.

Week after week, game after game, Alabama had its chances at a winning record. Oklahoma, Northern Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee, Hawaii and yes, even Auburn... In all six losses Alabama had a better than reasonable shot at winning, had the players only stepped up and made a play.

They didn't.

Like small children standing around on Halloween night, showing off their latest bit of treasure to the "ooohs" and "ahhs" of their small friends--only to have older, more aggressive kids run up and grab the goodie from their hands--Alabama's 2003 team gave up its chances for victory.

Was it fair? No, but it's not supposed to be.

It's football. Tough-minded, opportunistic squads prosper, while those less so walk off the field with their heads down.

What happened last Saturday in Aloha Stadium was nothing new. A reasonably talented Tide team had several chances to take the game in hand, but each time the hard-luck Bama squad failed to follow through.

Shaud Williams fights for extra yardage against the Sooners. Williams was also named permanent captain for the 2003 squad. (Barry Fikes photo)

In the third quarter after going up 21-16 on a terrific special teams play by Anthony Madison and Roman Harper, the Tide once again had the ball and was driving for a score. Ram the ball into the endzone on that drive and the game momentum clearly belonged to Alabama. Instead, Bama's best offensive player fumbled.

Go figure.

Hawaii took over but was quickly forced to punt, which was promptly blocked by Bama's Chris James, setting the Tide up already in scoring position. Again, the opportunity to score and salt the game away was within Bama's grasp. But three plays later (and yet another makable field goal missed) the Tide had squandered another chance.

Grateful to be let off the hook, Hawaii didn't make the same mistake. Three Rainbow touchdowns followed (yes, often aided by the WAC officials), and the game had turned from a "deserved positive ending to an otherwise tough Tide season" into yet another bitter pill to swallow.

Coaches and parents use the line over and over when talking to their young charges. "Play hard. Never quit, and eventually things will turn your way."

For the 2003 Crimson Tide, things never did.


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