Constancy is a virtue

As Mike Shula sat behind the desk in the Coleman Coliseum media room for his spring football press conference Wednesday afternoon, an unusual feeling washed over me.

I rubbed my eyes, took my glasses off and wiped them on my shirt, making certain what I saw was real, not a vision or an early-onset case of March Madness.

Wow. It really was the same guy who had stood before us in late November, talking about Alabama's 2003 football season gone wrong.

Three months had passed since the Crimson Tide finished a 4-9 season, and Shula had managed to keep his job and not become embroiled in any sort of embarrassing scandal.

Most college football fans wouldn't consider it much.

Alabama followers know better.

They call it stability. And they're right.

After the tumultuous, brief Dennis Franchione and Mike Price eras, Shula has restored a sense of order to Alabama football. The off-season passed with only one minor coaching change, and Shula's on-field staff of assistants remains intact.

Now, he and his staff are preparing for what they hope will be an early, but productive spring. Spring practice begins Saturday, with the usual 15-workout slate concluding with the annual A-Day game on March 20.

As a welcome change from previous years, Head Coach Mike Shula and his entire on-the-field staff return to lead the Crimson Tide. (Barry Fikes photo)

Somehow, spring practice is the closest thing to good news on campus.

Mark Gottfried's men's basketball team is, as most expected at the start of the season, struggling through a rebuilding campaign with a young lineup.

A surprising 70-67 home loss to Vanderbilt Wednesday night means the Tide must likely win at least four of its last five games -- a home-and-home against Mississippi State, at Auburn and Arkansas and against Ole Miss -- for a shot at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

Rick Moody's women's basketball program is also muddling through another downcast season as an SEC also-ran.

Jim Wells' baseball team looks promising, and loaded with left-hand pitching, but it's too early to make any solid judgments. Same goes for Patrick Murphy's softball team, which began the season ranked No.6 nationally and has a 5-1 record.

So Alabama followers are left with spring football, and the natural questions and promise it poses.

This spring is particularly crucial for the program, given the struggles and youth of last year's Crimson Tide team. It was painfully obvious by midseason how much Shula's late hiring hurt.

There was nothing that could be done, considering Price's embarrassing tenure included a spring practice teaching a spread offense that Shula and his staff ditched. But losing a spring of instruction in Shula's system was painful.

Spring has traditionally been a time for polish, for getting fundamentals down pat. Last year, polish and poise were replaced by urgency, cramming months of learning into mere weeks of practices before the opener with South Florida.

Brodie Croyle and Co. did their best, but inexperience and injuries both took a huge toll, particularly on offense.

Several players admitted last season that terms and schemes from Price's offense got jumbled in their minds with what Shula and his assistants were teaching them.

Don't believe it? Watch some game tapes and you just might be convinced.

Those mistakes are understandable. They're also the kind of errors that continuity eliminates.

For the first time since 2002's spring practice, Alabama's players will be running the same offensive and defensive systems that they ran the fall before.

Then, Franchione's schemes begat Price's schemes -- which quickly yielded to Shula's plans. All three are different offenses; Franchione favors an option attack bent on ball control and eliminating mistakes. Price likes an air-it-out, four and five wideout system.

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And Shula's system uses a little bit of everything, from deep balls to sweeps to fullbacks catching the ball out of the backfield. Such is the pro-style offense.

I'm getting confused just writing about the three and thinking about them jumbled in my reporter's head.

This spring, Shula and Co. will banish the other two from their players' heads and focus on learning. Just as spring should be.

Shula spoke Wednesday of a spring practice heavy on continuity, basics and fundamentals.

Sure, there'll be a bit of experimentation thrown in -- like trying right tackle Evan Mathis at left guard and moving defensive linemen Taylor Britt and Kyle Tatum to the offensive line.

But it appears this spring will be rooted in hammering home the basics.

For the Crimson Tide, it's a good place to start.


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