"Somewhere along in the Mississippi State game that's exactly what happened. I wish it had occurred a little sooner, but I think that's all part of the work in progress and the rebuilding of the substance of the program. That's why it took some time to get to this point."
Scant weeks ago following a decisive loss to LSU, the Tide's record stood at 3-5, and the players were staring at a repeat of last season's terrible season.
But somehow the squad gathered itself to finish with three straight victories, including a demolition of ‘that team down the road' on the road in Jordan-Hare Stadium. "I certainly have a great deal of respect and admiration for these players," Franchione said. "I feel like it's a great sign of a belief system that's in place. A belief in each other and in the coaches and in the things that we're doing and in the direction we're going."
In close losses to South Carolina and Ole Miss, the 2001 Alabama team was frankly developing a reputation for folding in the fourth quarter. But the players listened to Franchione as he preached about having a short memory and putting the past behind them. "I believe that," Franchione explained. "You live in the last week sometimes, and when you have a couple of games like those you get labeled. But you have to continue seeing forward and holding together.
"That was probably as challenged as any team that has been out there, and these players handled it well. I think a trust has been developed that was strong enough to get through tough times. If you don't have that foundation, then it's hard to get through those tough times."
After starting for the first time the previous week versus Auburn, Santonio Beard did not play against the Golden Eagles. An arrest for DUI while home over the Thanksgiving holiday prompted Franchione to suspend Beard from the team.
Pointing out earlier that Beard was "a good kid" who had not had any discipline problems before, Franchione had hinted at the next step in the process. And the tailback's possible availability for Alabama's upcoming bowl game now hinges on whether Beard completes a course of discipline set out for him by his head coach. "Santonio was suspended from the last game," Franchione said. "But he knows what he has to do. We'll continue to evaluate where he's at through this period. He will practice with the team but on a probationary status."
With the season finally coming to an end, recruiting has entered a crucial phase. All of next week the Tide assistant coaches will be on the road, visiting and evaluating various prospects. In their absence, Franchione said the team would concentrate its efforts in the weight room, but there would be one mid-week practice held. Franchione; Bama's coordinators, Carl Torbush and Les Koenning; and the two graduate assistants, Mike Bloomgren and Rick LaFavers; will conduct the workout.
During the intensive recruiting period, Franchione plans to practice on Fridays and Saturdays when the assistants are back in town. "Until we know exactly where we're going and who we're playing (in a bowl game), it's difficult to pin our schedule down too tight," he said. "But we'll practice enough to stay sharp and stay in rhythm until we can get to the point where we can start the game plan."
Technically, Alabama could still wind up at either the Independence Bowl (Shreveport, LA on December 27) or the Tangerine Bowl (Orlando, Florida on December 20). But while nothing can be official until after the SEC championship game on December 8, it's essentially a ‘done deal' that Alabama will face Boston College in Nashville's Music City Bowl.
That game will be played in Adelphia Coliseum, the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. And the relatively late December 28 date is especially attractive to Franchione. "I like that aspect. The extra week of practice is more than the average fan might realize."
With the assistant coaches on the road recruiting, final film evaluation from Thursday's game isn't finished. So Franchione was not able to list the various Players of the Week at each position. But he didn't need to check the film to know that Jarret Johnson had a terrific game. "Jarret made a lot of plays," Franchione said. "His last two games have been really, really good. Not that he hasn't been good before, but the last two weeks he has played very well.
In the second half especially, the junior defensive tackle was a one-man, Golden-Eagle wrecking crew, totaling 11 tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble. Franchione commented; "The last two games he's played well. It's not that against Mississippi State he was bad, but the Auburn game and Southern Miss were both outstanding games.
"I don't know if I've had a defensive lineman play much better in back-to-back games than he has."
Against the Golden Eagles, Andrew Zow turned in another solid performance at quarterback. The veteran signal caller played the entire game Thursday, allowing the injured Tyler Watts to continue his recovery from a serious groin pull. But Zow took some hard shots from the tough Southern Miss defense.
Franchione explained; "Certainly when Andrew got hit pretty good there in the third quarter I was wondering just exactly what we were going to do. But Andrew snapped out of it.
Before the game began, Watts told Franchione he would be ready if needed. But the terrible weather rendered that option moot. "That's where you get groin injuries on that type field," Franchione said. "Fortunately Andrew was able to go the distance and we didn't have to do that.
"Now I think that with the rest that Tyler is going to be able to get and the extra treatments, then I think we can have them both ready for the bowl game."