Shula Finally Gets It Right

At its absolute best, it was ill-advised. At worst, Mike Shula's decision to remove Sylvester Croom's name from a little-known spring award (well, a formerly little-known spring award) reeked of pettiness and immaturity.

At least Shula–Alabama's head football coach–made the right call Monday when he announced in a statement that he was returning Croom's name to the "Commitment to Excellence" award and giving Bart Starr (who briefly replaced Croom on said award) his name on the new "Most Improved Quarterback" award.

The silly part of this all, of course, is that the controversy surrounding Shula's decision should never have happened at all.

Because Shula should never have taken Croom's name off the award.

His rationale–that an opposing Southeastern Conference head coach shouldn't have an Alabama award named after him–was rather shortsighted.

Did Shula actually think that Croom would use the honor as a recruiting advantage against Alabama?

How?

Let's imagine Croom in the home of a prospective student-athlete considering the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide next winter.

"You know, son," Croom might say, "Alabama has great facilities. A fine new weight room. Sparkling new football facility. And I hear they're expanding their stadium.

"But come to Starkville, and we'll play ‘em every year. And we'll make their "Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence" award seem downright cheap."

Yeah, right.

Or imagine Croom's pre-game speech inside a rabid Bryant-Denny Stadium this Novemberr 6 before his Bulldogs meet Alabama for the first time under his watch.

"Men, we have a great challenge today. You're playing inside one of the most storied stadiums of all-time. I know. I won championships here. Played for one of the best coaches of all-time here. Spent some of the best years of my life here.

"You know, they even have an award named after me–the ‘Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award.' It's not a regular-season award, just a minor award nobody has ever heard of given at the end of spring practice.

"But it means a lot to me. So go out and show them what that ‘Commitment to Excellence Award' is made of!"

Uh-huh.

If using a little-known spring award to motivate his team is the best Croom has to motivate and recruit with, Mississippi State hired the wrong guy.

Coaches have motivated with flimsier ideas (see Dennis Franchione, the Internet and an innocent LSU locker-room observer), but a spring football award is way, way, way down the list.

Croom has so much more going for him. He is reportedly one of the most down-to-earth coaches in the league with a great personality. As the first black head football coach in SEC history (and one of only five in Division I-A), he has a built-in recruiting advantage with many of today's athletes–SEC rosters last season were more than half black.

Furthermore, Mississippi State has plenty rising against it in the near future. The Bulldogs were one of the SEC's worst programs the past three seasons and are facing serious NCAA sanctions in the very near future. A below average 4-9 Alabama team handled them 38-0 last season in Starkville.

Given all that, it boggles the mind why Shula did what he did.

Now, that anonymous spring award will be on the lips of every reporter and media type come the first week of November. And Croom has a legit reason to use it as pre-game motivation inside Bryant-Denny Stadium November 6.

It didn't have to be that way, of course.

At least Shula made the correct move in restoring Croom's name to the award following his return from a week-long cruise with his staff and fans in the Caribbean (which benefited the Crimson Tradition capital improvements fund).

"We would like to publicly apologize to Sylvester Croom and his family for changing the name of one of our spring awards," Shula said in a statement released through the UA athletic department. "I have personally spoken to Sylvester (Sunday night) and told him there was no disrespect intended toward him and that there was no intention whatsoever to take away from the importance or prestige of the spring award named in his honor."

That move shows the maturity that Shula didn't display when he quietly changed the award in the first place. It took guts to call Croom (who was reportedly hurt by the move) and explain his decision.

Shula is, after all, just beginning his second season as a college football coach. These are the kind of lessons young coaches learn the hard way. Shula has done plenty right in his short tenure, including helping put together what was widely considered an outstanding recruiting class.

This controversy got bigger than it should have partially because it happened in Alabama–where fans obsess over everything football-related–and partially because Shula was out of the country on a cruise ship. (OK, so he probably could have afforded 15 minutes on an on-board satellite phone to resolve the situation. Could've even charged it to his company credit card).

But at least he got it right in the end–which is more than we can say for the last spring controversy Alabama fans experienced. And if this is the biggest flap we hear about before now and the opener against Utah State, it will be a quiet football summer in Tuscaloosa, indeed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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