In May, 2003, Alabama Athletics Director Mal Moore was faced with having to find a new head football coach after University President Dr. Robert Witt fired Mike Price for off-the-field conduct. (Price, incidentally, has become one of the big stories in college football this year for having led lowly UTEP to a top 25 national ranking.) Moore looked at a number of possibilities and among the finalists were Mike Shula, then an assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins, and Sylvester Croom, then an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions. Another finalist was Richard Williamson, who is an assistant for the Carolina Panthers. All were former Alabama players.
Moore picked Shula to be Alabama's head coach. Croom was selected at the end of last season to replace Jackie Sherrill as head coach at Mississippi State.
It has been the politically-correct opinion (which is not necessarily the same as correct opinion) for most media to criticize Alabama for not choosing Croom, who is older and more experienced as a coach and who is from Tuscaloosa and who had previously been an assistant coach at Bama. And there are some who seem to think that the result of this weekend's game between Alabama and Mississippi State might somehow validate either Moore's decision or the opinion of his critics.
The Crimson Tide will host the Bulldogs at 5:30 p.m. CST Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game will be telecast by ESPN2.
Alabama is 5-3 overall and 2-3 in Southeastern Conference play. The Crimson Tide had its lone open date of the regular season last Saturday while Mississippi State was rolling to a 22-7 win over Kentucky in Starkville. It was State's second consecutive SEC win and lifted the Bulldogs to a 3-5 record, including a 2-3 mark in SEC play.
Alabama needs one victory to be eligible for post-season play. The Crimson Tide has been out of the bowl picture the past two seasons because of NCAA sanctions. Although Mississippi State is not likely to reach the six-game win plateau to be bowl eligible, it would not matter for the Bulldogs this year. Although Mississippi State was pretty much given a slap on the wrist for its violations of NCAA rules when the NCAA Infractions Committee delivered its sanctions last week, among those penalties was that State would not be allowed to participate in a bowl game this year.
Obviously, no one in Starkville or Indianapolis or anywhere else thought that State would make it to a bowl game anyway, but the penalty is not a hollow one. Mississippi State will not be allowed to participate in SEC bowl revenue sharing, a significant hit to the State athletics budget.
Mississippi State's back-to-back wins, including the unexpected 38-31 win over a reeling Florida team two Saturdays ago, along with the light NCAA sanctions, have given the Bulldogs a great deal of enthusiasm. "They are one of the hotter teams, now," Shula said.
Although Shula knows the game is for the players, he is aware of "the perception that it is Coach Croom vs. Mike Shula. I look at it as competing against someone I respect. Sly was a coach here when I played and he was one of the coaches the players had respect for. I coached with him for Coach (Ray) Perkins at Tampa Bay. And I think it motivates me more for our team to play against a coach I respect. I want our guys to play well against a team I know is going to be well-coached. I know his team is going to be ready to play for 60 minutes, hit for 60 minutes."
Shula added, "I hope the attention will be on the players on both teams."
In his weekly meeting with the media Tuesday, Shula said, "They've got two straight wins and momentum. We've got to get it back after a tough loss two weeks ago. We're working hard to get our sixth win and overcome the injuries we have had. Our guys have shown a lot of leadership. Hopefully the hard work will pay off Saturday."
Shula said, "It's an SEC game and we're trying to get that sixth win, so it's a big game for us. And we were off last week and couldn't do anything about that loss two weeks ago (to Tennessee in Knoxville, 17-13). I think we're a better team than we were last year, but we're 5-3. We have an opportunity to get to 6-3 this week. I don't think the 5-3 record shows how hard they've worked."
While that sixth victory is a focus of coverage of the Crimson Tide this week, Shula is avoiding bowl talk. "Our players know what is at stake," he said. "We have three weeks left. We have to be totally focused on one game at a time."
The Alabama coach said the three keys to success are avoiding turnovers on offense, continuing to play sound defense without giving up big plays, and avoiding the big plays that have marred overall good special teams play.
Shula said that his team had a good week in the open week. He noted that the plan to rest those who had played a lot this year–particularly offensive linemen and secondary players–had gone well and that some back-up players had gotten good work. He noted that the second offensive line was able to "get a lot of rep[etition]s," and particularly mentioned true freshmen center Antoine Caldwell and tackle B.J. Stabler, both of who are being redshirted this year. He also mentioned back-up tackle Chris Capps, freshman tight end Nick Walker, back-up defensive tackle Curtis Dawson, and back-up strong safety Marcus Carter. And, Shula said, "Simeon Castille got a lot of reps last week. The week is going to help us with guys who are going to be playing the rest of the year and with some guys who will starting trying to win jobs in spring ball."
Shula seemed to have to reach to find drawbacks to having an open week. "If you lose (before the off week), it's something that hangs with you. And sometimes if you're playing well and winning games, you can get out of rhythm a little bit. But as long as I've been in it, an open date has been beneficial, a chance to rest guys. And for the coaches, it was a chance to review what we've done and plan what to do the rest of the year with our personnel."
Since an injury in the third game of the year to quarterback Brodie Croyle, Alabama's passing attack has not been good. Shula said that quarterback Spencer Pennington, who was third team to start the season, "continues to feel more comfortable about what we are doing. He picks things up quicker, things like reads and blitzes. In practice his accuracy has improved. We've had some throws that if we had made them, they might have helped us. He knows it and the receivers know it and we have to get better. For the last three weeks we've been close (to making those plays). That's the bad news. The good news is we're not that far off."
Also on the quarterback front, back-up quarterback Marc Guillon seems improved after taking off last week to rest his ailing back. Guillon started the year as Croyle's back-up, started the Arkansas and South Carolina games, and has not played since. "He's not 100 per cent," Shula said, "but he threw more Sunday than in the last three weeks. It's more than that, too. He's got to beg back into the groove, his timing, his footwork, his reads."
Shula said that Croom's pronouncement that Alabama's defense (currently ranked first in the nation in yards allowed) ranks with Bama's defense in the 1992 national championship season is "a compliment. But," Shula added, "we've talked to our guys about reading papers and the internet and listening to talk shows. They know they've got to do it every week. It doesn't matter what you did last week. Each week we have to build on the good and correct the bad."
In answer to various questions, Shula said:
Fullback/halfback Tim Castille's knee injury, suffered against Tennessee last week, is more serious than some other knee injuries and his status for spring football is not yet known. Shula also said that Castille's absence has Bama looking at other personnel groupings, including two tight ends with fullback LéRon McClain in a one-back offense; the use of back-up halfback Aaron Johns more and earlier; and the use of walk-on fullback/halfback Josh Smith. He said Alabama needs to be prudent in use of halfback Kenneth Darby, who replaced Ray Hudson as the number one runner, but that the Tide also needs to utilize Darby, who ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing.
He thinks placekicker Brian Bostick is a player that Alabama's other players look up to. "He has worked hard," Shula said. "He has overcome things on and off the field. And we know we are going to need him."
He said he has "respect" for Cornelius Wortham, who sat out last season and was a member of the scout team, and who has come back as a fifth-year senior to be a top player for Bama at middle linebacker.
Shula said he is not sure about the status of weakside linebacker Juwan Garth insofar as returning to his starting job, but said Alabama will continue to use a number of players at linebacker and on the defensive front. "One of the best things we've done is play a lot of guys on defense," Shula said. "They have come in fresh and played well."