Pressure comes with the job

Now that the ugly abomination that was the 2003 University of Alabama football season has finished, the pressure will -- yes, will -- inevitably build on Mike Shula. Pressure to improve on the Crimson Tide's 4-9 record, the worst mark the program has seen since J.B. "Ears" Whitworth led Alabama to an 0-10-1 record in 1955.

So-called pundits across the state have already broken out the cliche's, saying Shula's "honeymoon" and "grace period" are over.

Maybe they're right. But Shula does not deserve to be judged as harshly as your average first-year coach.

The circumstances and situation Shula walked into when he was introduced as Alabama's new head coach May 8 make him somewhat immune from some of the criticism that has been leveled on him before, during and after this season, which concluded with last week's dismal 37-29 loss to an average Hawaii team.

Does Shula deserve to be graded? Of course. But in his case the proverbial grading curve stretches from Pensacola, Florida, to College Station, Texas.

Dennis Franchione's ugly exit and Mike Price's bizarre departure after his "date with Destiny" left the Alabama football program in a state of disarray. Few programs have ever endured the nightmare scenario Mal Moore stared down when UA President Robert E. Witt fired Price on May 3 after his alleged objectionable behavior during a mid-April golf trip to a Pensacola golf tournament, which has been documented and re-documented in countless media outlets.

Not only did Moore have to hire a coach, he had to hire one who would have no chance to work with his players and install an offense before preseason practice began in early August.

Shula, a former UA quarterback in the mid-1980s, took the plunge into what he recently called "the deep end of the pool," with only 26 days to prepare his offense before the August 30 season opener against South Florida.

Mike Shula shakes hands with Athletics Director Mal Moore at the press conference last spring held to announce his hiring as head coach.

"And we haven't come up for air yet," he added just before the season's conclusion.

A first-time head coach, Shula was forced to work with a staff largely not of his own making. Since he was hired in early May, he brought on board only three of his own assistants -- offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dave Rader, wide receivers coach Charlie Harbison and special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer.

Shula inherited a team just beginning to reel from the effects of 2002's NCAA probation, which cut scholarships given in 2002, 2003 and 2004 and adversely affected recruiting classes in 2000 and 2001.

Oh, and 10 of 22 projected preseason starters missed at least one game with injury, and two -- linebackers Brooks Daniels and Cornelius Wortham -- never played a down.

And Shula was expected to succeed why?

The odds were clearly stacked against the fledgling coach before he ever coached a down this season.

This is not to say he didn't make some inexplicable mistakes. Like putting Brodie Croyle -- injured left shoulder and all -- into the game at Georgia with Alabama down 30-3.

Surely Shula winced along with the rest of the Crimson Nation when Bulldog linebacker Odell Thurman blasted Croyle -- left shoulder first -- into the Sanford Stadium turf on his second play, ending Croyle's day almost before it began, and nearly ending his season.

And Shula, who was never known as an offensive genius in the National Football League, never really managed to improve the Tide offense as the season moved along.

Hawaii was a perfect example. Midway through the third quarter, Alabama held a tenuous 21-16 lead thanks to Roman Harper's blocked-field goal return for a touchdown.

But two trips into Warrior territory gave the Tide nothing, thanks to a missed field goal and Shaud Williams' fumble at the Hawaii 14.

This, of course, was nothing new; the story was that it happened in the 13th game the same way it happened in the first and second and third and fourth... You get the idea.

Contrast that with Dennis Franchione's first season. In 2001, the Tide offense struggled through a 3-5 start, but flourished over the last four games on the way to a 7-5 finish.

The difference can partially be attributed to the chaos last off-season brought, but also to coaching experience -- or lack thereof.

It is unclear how Shula will address his staff in the off-season -- or if he'll send half of them to new addresses. He has had little to say on the subject of staff changes. And while an argument can be made for promoting continuity, a similar argument can be made for feeling comfortable with the people one works with.

Shula must decide whether he wants to gut his staff and start over, make minimal changes, or even keep his entire staff around.

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He also must decide what changes -- if any -- he will make in his coaching and strategic philosophies. Despite what fans want, he'll likely keep Joe Kines, a trusted confidant and experienced coach who had a very young defense this season (two freshmen and four sophomores started on defense at Hawaii).

He provided a hint on his plans late in the season when asked about his off-season motives.

"I think as coaches it's important to put things in perspective," he said, "so you don't make wholesale changes on what you're doing, and who you're doing it with."

If that statement is to be taken literally, then it will be an off-season of calm contemplation and subtle changes in Tuscaloosa.

If that's what Shula wants, he deserves the right to test it out.

If it fails against a much softer schedule next fall, he will hear the boobirds and naysayers again.

By then, he'll truly have run out of excuses.


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