Christmas in Shreveport

For most Americans, the idea of spending Christmas hundreds of miles away from home isn't exactly enticing. But with the Independence Bowl set for December 27th, that's precisely what the Alabama players and coaches are facing this week.

Perhaps surprisingly, Head Coach Dennis Franchione firmly believes the experience is positive. "It's been a great team building exercise for us," he said. "To be together for the holiday."

The truth is that, despite how some fans behave, football is very much big-time entertainment. And bowl games schedule dates with a national television audience in mind.

Which means that athletes must get used to Christmas holidays on the road. "You usually have to make some adjustments every year," Franchione said. "but it's not a bad thing. We've all had a couple of days to have Christmas with our families. And it can be a delight to have it afterwards. My oldest daughter won't get here until Christmas Day. But my entire family will be here to celebrate."

Both Marico Portis and Alonzo Ephraim say that their teammates are family, so why not spend Christmas with the team?

In fact for most of the coaches and support personnel so vital to the Alabama team, this week is decidedly a family affair. Wives and children in tow, the Tide staff has moved en masse to Shreveport.

But Franchione isn't complaining. "To me Christmas is a special day," he explained. "But it's special to be with our football family on that day as well. Having gone through this routine before, it is really a great team-building, team-bonding time. It's great for the coaches and their families.

"We talk about having a football family, and I think that today is special. Spending Christmas together is good. There are a lot of positives about the schedule."

Junior guard Marico Portis agrees. "This is family. We're around these guys sometimes more than we're around our original family. Christmas will be a family deal. I already gave out my gifts and accepted my gifts. I've already had my Christmas at home. This is my third Christmas away from home. I played in the Orange Bowl and Music Bowl, so I'm kind of used to this idea."

"Really we're with our families, now," junior center Alonzo Ephraim added. "At least with our brothers. We're going to have a good Christmas. We're going to swap gifts and celebrate. It'll be good."

Franchione explained how the team spent Christmas Eve. "(Yesterday) after practice we went to (Shriners') hospital to visit some children. We had a team dinner last night. We drew names, and did a gift exchange. The routine is similar to what we did in the '97 Bowl when I coached at New Mexico. That worked well. The players enjoy the gift exchange."

Well, maybe not ALL the players. Sophomore fullback Donnie Lowe explained; "The gifts depended on what you wanted to do. Some are legitimate. But some were probably gag gifts. Some of the guys could be in for some surprises."

Dennis Franchione, Santa Claus (aka Dr. Jimmy Robinson, Alabama team physician) and Santa's elf (aka McCall Robinson.

"Christmas morning we'll get up and have practice in the morning," Franchione continued. "That will be our Thursday-type practice. We'll get that out of the way. At 1 o'clock we'll have our Christmas dinner. They'll get a lot of their bowl gifts then. That's fitting. On Christmas you should get some of your things.

"Then they'll have the afternoon and the evening to themselves. Many of the families are here, and the families are invited to the afternoon meal. They have to pay, according to the NCAA rules. But after the meal the kids will have time to themselves."

Ephraim isn't worried about the team handling practice and Christmas on the same day. "We're going to practice early and it should be short, so we should get out early," he said. "After practice, that will be it for (Tuesday). We'll have time to celebrate. It'll be a Christmas atmosphere. My family celebrated a little early. I mostly already got my stuff, but I think I've got a lot more coming."

Of course every parent that can wouldn't miss his child's bowl game, and the Christmas holiday just makes the trip all the more important. "My parents are going to come up," freshman guard Justin Smiley said. "We'll spend time together as a family. I think a lot of the players' families are going to do that."

"It's going to be different," Lowe said. "But I think it's going to be OK. I'm going to be around a great group of guys and a great group of coaches. That's just one of the things about playing in a bowl game."

All that is fine, but one thing is missing. Who will play Santa Clause at the Chrismas Dinner?

"Oh, Coach North, definitely," Portis said laughing. "It may be typecasting, but he's got the figure for it."

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