Popular S&C coach replaced

Coaching changes, by nature, tend to take a person off-guard. <br><br>They are the end of at least one person's tenure at a particular university or team, and the beginning of what another man or woman hopes is a long and successful stay.

University of Alabama football fans have speculated virtually from the moment 2003's ugly 4-9 campaign ended about changes on Mike Shula's football staff.

But who could have imagined the first change he made?

Surely Shula has his reasons, his druthers for replacing popular head strength and conditioning coach Ben Pollard with Seattle Seahawks strength and conditioning coach Kent Johnston.

Maybe he'll even enlighten reporters with some of them when he holds his first press conference since season's end this afternoon.

Maybe he won't.

Regardless, if Shula was looking to make an impression, he has most certainly made it. It is just one more reminder that in college football, loyalty doesn't matter nearly as much as who you know and what they think of you.

Pollard was regarded as one of college football's better strength and conditioning coaches, and one of the people who helped hold the program together during Dennis Franchione's turbulent departure from Alabama in December 2002.

Now, the cheerful, hardworking Texan is gone -- just as the expanded weight room he had hoped to train his players in is nearing completion.

Ben Pollard talks to the crowd at the Night of Champions weight-lifting exhibition.

It can't possibly be the kind of exit Pollard had in mind. In fact, Pollard probably had no exit in mind, period.

A little more than 12 months ago, Pollard had the chance to follow Franchione to Texas A&M -- located in his native Texas -- with a guaranteed job waiting for him.

Instead, he chose to stay in Tuscaloosa, where he and his family had found a home and community they loved during Franchione's two-year tenure.

Franchione's replacement -- Washington State Coach Mike Price -- kept Pollard on his staff. In fact, Price had little say in the matter.

"(It was) the Wednesday night that we thought Mike Riley was going to take the job," Pollard recalled last spring. "At that point, (Riley) had just called and said he needed to think about it more. We didn't have a head coach, and (Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore) basically said, 'Pollard is going to stay and be the strength coach.'

"He shocked me, and I'm sure put himself in a tough place, too, by making that statement publicly. He and I had talked about it, but it's different when you make the announcement."

At the time, Pollard felt very comfortable with his decision, and who could blame him? When an athletic director mandates the coach he hires keeps you on, your position is a secure one indeed.

"I didn't have a particular peace about leaving right now," he said at the time. "I really do like our kids here. I know it's going to be a challenge (with the effects of NCAA probation), but we're just going to have to see how it goes."

He had no idea what was ahead. When Price was fired in early May for allegations of poor off-field behavior, Shula kept Pollard aboard -- at least temporarily.

It's unclear -- for now -- why Shula decided jettisoning Pollard was the right move.

As much as fans and reporters would like to believe differently, they see little of the day-to-day operations and conflicts that go on inside the walls of a typical football complex.

It makes Pollard's departure that much more puzzling. While with Franchione at TCU, he was regarded as one of the top strength coaches in college football, a reputation that followed him to Tuscaloosa and manifested itself in the bodies and work habits of Alabama's football players.

A team that was weakly motivated and just plain weak under Mike DuBose's staff underwent a metamorphosis under Pollard's methods. Over the past two years, player after player attributed superb conditioning and second-half surges to Pollard and his staff.

In Shula's debut at Legion Field, countless South Florida players wilted in the stifling August late-afternoon heat. Not a single Crimson Tide player joined them.

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It was a shining credit to Pollard and his ways. Ways that apparently just weren't good enough for Shula.

Understand, of course, that this is no indictment of Johnston; it is impossible to judge a man before he has a chance to work his own brand of magic. Johnston certainly has experience at Alabama; he was the Tide's S&C assistant coach from 1983-86 and has an impressive 18-year NFL pedigree.

10 years from now, Alabama fans might point to Johnston's hire as a pivotal moment in Shula's tenure and the Tide's return to college football glory. Or he might just be a footnote in another failed coaching era.

Either way, it won't change the hurt, disappointment and betrayal Pollard is likely feeling right now.

His story is just another reminder that loyalty is nowhere near as important as the name on the head coach's door and what the mind behind that door is thinking.

And that's sad.


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