Good progress, but work remains

Oral commitments are rolling in, almost faster than Mike Shula and his staff can count them.

The NCAA has finally closed the book on a four-year-old investigation that stripped 21 scholarships, cost the program two seasons of post-season play and possibly a very talented head coach.

And the 2004 schedule looks inviting -- well, at least when one compares it with its immediate predecessor.

So the question must be asked and asked now:

Is the University of Alabama football program back to its old self again?

The answer, in short: No. Not yet.

But Shula and his staff -- which despite the pleas of some very outspoken fans on talk radio and Internet message boards remains almost intact -- are doing an excellent job of breathing life back into Crimson Tide football.

Check out the signs of life:

1. A much-needed $20 million renovation to the 20-year old Alabama football/athletic complex, which will bring an expanded weight room, training room, locker room and a new recruiting area into use, among other things. It will also provide for a total renovation of the existing office space and clear the way for a new practice field directly behind the renovated building.

Some areas of the new building are almost ready for use right now, and the rest of the renovations should be finished by the time 2004 preseason practice begins in August.

2. The NCAA's four-year investigation into the program, which began under the watchful eye of Mike DuBose in early 2000, has officially ended. UA Athletic Director Mal Moore announced the news last week in the form of a letter from Committee on Infractions Chairman Thomas Yeager.

As well as Alabama is doing this year in recruiting, you have to wonder how many blue-chip athletes Mike Shula and his staff could sign coming off a settled, successful season. (Barry Fikes photo)

The investigation -- which centered on the recruitment of former Tide defensive lineman Albert Means out of Memphis' Trezevant High School -- has blossomed into a federal case involving disassociated UA booster Logan Young and former Trezevant coaches Lynn Lang and Milton Kirk. Both Lang and Kirk have already pled guilty to federal charges, but Young's pending trial hung like an albatross over recruiting efforts.

Now, the NCAA has concluded that if new revelations against the program come out at trial, they will not be used to pursue further penalties against the program since, as Yeager's letter read, "a reasonable time" has passed since probation and penalties were handed down in February 2002.

3. That two-page letter was very good news for Shula's recruiting efforts. For the first time in four years, Alabama can recruit without the NCAA subject coming up. Think about it:

In 2001, the case was pending when then-new coach Dennis Franchione put together his first class, which surely hampered his staff's efforts.

In 2002, the NCAA penalties came down a full five days before national signing day, which pushed several recruits in other directions and forced Franchione's staff into desperation mode just to keep the oral commitments they had before the news became public.

In 2003, the lingering NCAA cloud in Memphis, among other things, had already chased Franchione out of town and to what he felt were the safer environs of Texas A&M University.

Then-new coach Mike Price began his recruiting efforts in early January and didn't make much of an impact with prospects. He, too, was lucky just to hang onto the oral commitments Franchione had cultivated with only a few exceptions. Even with only 18 scholarships available, he and his staff signed just 17 players on national signing day, adding defensive lineman Keith Saunders a few days later.

This year, Shula and staff have 19 scholarships to dole out, but they're at 24 oral commitments and counting three weeks before national signing day, with at least a handful of additions expected before Feb. 4.

Funny what a couple of measly sheets of paper signed by the right people will do, isn't it?

4. Despite an ugly 4-9 2003 season marked by injuries and instability, a turnaround looks possible in 2004. Non-conference foes Oklahoma, Northern Illinois and South Florida are gone, replaced by Utah State and Division I-AA Western Carolina. Also, a reeling South Carolina program replaces SEC East champion Georgia on the schedule.

Consider that 2003's youngsters will be a year more mature and 2003's injured will have had an off-season to heal -- and that everyone will have had a spring practice to learn from a stable coaching staff -- and a six-victory season and post-season berth seem well within reach.

Of course, there are still a few clouds on the horizon.

Expect the lingering effects of the NCAA sanctions to have a definite impact next fall.

The sanctions are progressing exactly as they were designed to; each player who leaves early creates a gap that is tough to fill without 25-scholarship classes.

Since the beginning of last spring, the following players have left early for one reason or another -- junior linebacker Brooks Daniels, junior offensive guard Justin Smiley, junior defensive end Antwan Odom, junior defensive tackle Ahmad Childress and freshman defensive back D.J. Chambers.

In addition, rising sophomore quarterback Brandon Avalos has left The University and enrolled at Shelton State, where he will play baseball. It's possible Avalos could return to Alabama in the fall, but almost certainly he would be a baseball-only athlete.

Counting Avalos, there are six scholarships that left unexpectedly. Those grants can be filled by walk-ons that have been in the program for two or more years, but in terms of bringing in new talent, they are essentially lost to Alabama.

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It leaves the Tide's roster even thinner than it was a year ago. Even if all 19 scholarships are filled with academically qualified freshmen, scholarship numbers will drop by at least three next fall, placing them squarely in the mid-70s.

Alabama also needs a much healthier roster next fall; right now, the depth chart is too thin to absorb a large number of injuries. Look no further than 2003 for proof.

Once again, the Tide will also be very young next fall, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines -- two areas where experience is crucial to a football team's success.

These are all serious concerns for Shula, but if he and his staff can recruit several solid classes once the scholarship limitations pass, Crimson Tide football will once again have a solid foundation on which to build.

No, Alabama football isn't back yet. Probably won't be for a couple of years.

But Shula and Company are clearly on the right path.


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