Shula standing firm with staff

Depending on what game was being played, Alabama fans had the Crimson Tide's entire coaching staff hired and fired forty times over by the time the 2003 season mercifully ended in Hawaii.

At the midpoint of the season, Bama fans were certain that one of at least four coaches -- defensive backs coach Chris Ball, offensive line coach Bob Connelly, tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer or defensive coordinator Joe Kines -- would either be let go at season's end or would jump on the first job opening that arose, up to and including fry cook at City Café.

But a month has now passed, and all four men appear to be firmly entrenched in their jobs.

For starters, Ungerer's case is a prime example of how fans don't properly consider circumstances before evaluating coaches. When Ungerer arrived at Alabama in the fall, he had a month to teach his tight ends how to operate in new head coach Mike Shula's offense. When Alabama kicked off the season against South Florida, the Tide was using almost the exact personnel that finished spring training under previous coach Mike Price.

But a funny thing happened once Ungerer was allowed enough time to judge his charges. Film study of punter Bo Freelend -- film which, to that point, didn't exist because Freelend had never played before -- showed a flaw in his drop, and the flaw was corrected. By the final third of the season, Ungerer had made changes to kickoff return and coverage personnel and was slowly making a special teams star out of reserve safety Chris James, who became a punt blocking machine. As a result, special teams went from being a huge liability for Alabama to being one of its greater strengths down the stretch.

In his first season as a head coach, Mike Shula won't be blamed for 2003's lack of success. But fans will expect to see improvement on the field next season. (GettyImages)

Connelly and Ball, refugees from Price's Washington State staff, would certainly take other jobs back out west, fans thought -- but it didn't happen. Ball turned down Price's offer to join the UTEP staff upon his hiring there.

Alabama fans, never ones to shy away from the inexact art of coach evaluation, have reacted to these developments with disappointment. Keeping the staff intact, fans say, is a recipe for disaster in 2004.

And they just might be right.

There is no doubt that Mike Shula is taking a calculated risk by keeping the staff intact. To Shula, the vast amount of turnover experienced by the Tide program over the past three years was already bordering on chaotic, and exacerbating the problem by reshuffling the staff was unwise in his eyes.

Shula, observers say, also felt he needed to evaluate his staff through a spring training period, which he couldn't do last year.

The question is how much patience will Shula have with his assistants, and how much patience the fans will have with Shula.

Because of Shula's inexperience and the dire situation he inherited, 2003 was a mulligan. But 2004 is not.

If Alabama -- who will be clearly better than five 2004 opponents and perhaps better than three or four more -- follows up the 4-9 record of 2003 with another losing season, Shula's leash will be drastically shortened.

So therein lies the gamble. If Shula holds onto his current staff and succeeds in 2004, all will be forgiven and the armchair experts will say they knew it all along. But if the current staff is held in place and Alabama disappoints next season, expect massive criticism heading into 2005.

Adding to the uncertainty of when any changes should be made is the question of where to make them.

Defensive coordinator Joe Kines has been a favorite target of Alabama fans, as much for his age as anything else. The loss to Tennessee was particularly painful, and was one of the few times this year that fans could point out a definitive moment that a coaching decision cost the Tide a game -- specifically, Kines' all-too-predictable call on a key fourth-and-19 play. Tennessee converted, then later beat Alabama in overtime in a game Alabama could have won at two or three different points in the contest.

A check of statistics reveals some interesting figures. Alabama was ranked a respectable 46th in total defense and 36th against the run. The Tide fell to below the midline in most other categories -- 61st in scoring defense, 68th in pass efficiency defense, 72nd in pass defense.

Jess Nicholas, a veteran Journalist and long-time Internet commentator on college sports, will be writing occasional columns for BamaMag.com. Jess is hardly a stranger to the ‘BAMA Magazine family--or to the Alabama Internet community. For the past three years he has been a major contributor to the annual ‘BAMA Football Yearbook, and he has also written for the magazine.

His full-time job as managing editor for The Daily Sentinel in Scottsboro keeps him busy enough, but Jess always finds time to write about Alabama football, a subject close to his heart. An avid sports fan in general, Jess graduated from Alabama and has followed Crimson Tide athletics essentially all of his life.

But compared to the Tide offense, the defense didn't look so bad. Alabama's passing attack was next-to-last in the SEC and ranked 85th overall, while passing efficiency ranked 84th and total offense lagged at 79th. Scoring offense finished 59th and Alabama was in the bottom half in turnover margin, ranked 57th. Most troubling was that Alabama's rushing attack, historically the school's bread and butter, finished 54th in the nation.

It was the only offensive category to be ranked in the top half of Division-IA.

With the offense struggling so, it forces one to ask how much of Alabama's defensive woes can be blamed on a unit already thinned by injuries and scholarship limitations having to take the field more often due to an anemic offense.

These are the questions Shula faces as he begins his second season.

Alabama fans aren't likely to see many changes going into spring practice, if any at all. The jury is still out on Shula and his staff -- but it is also out on the players, as well. The only certainty is that Alabama's 2004 performance will provide the evidence by which Shula, his staff and his players are ultimately judged.


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