Shula vs. Croom Not Center Stage

Close your eyes and imagine it. A giant reinforced steel cage, rising 20 feet in the air from the script ‘A' at Bryant-Denny Stadium's 50-yard-line.

Inside stand Sylvester Croom and Mike Shula, ready for a no-holds-barred steel cage match as 83,818 fans scream their approval.

First one outside the top of the cage and down the side that scampers to his team's end zone wins. Thomas Yeager is the special guest referee, and Phil Fulmer v. Tommy Gallion and Jackie Sherrill v. David Cutcliffe are on the undercard.

Think that's ridiculous? Then maybe you understand what some people don't: that Mike Shula vs. Sylvester Croom isn't what matters about Saturday's Alabama-Mississippi State game.

Not even close.

Sure, Croom's return to Bryant-Denny Stadium – a place where he played and coached under legendary Tide coach Paul "Bear" Bryant – is something special, especially since MSU made him the first black head coach in Southeastern Conference history less than a year ago.

And Shula only fueled the buzz about the first meeting with the man he beat for the Alabama job in May 2003 by removing and later restoring Croom's name to a formerly anonymous UA spring football award earlier this year. But while Croom and Shula will have significant roles coaching and substituting and strategizing Saturday, they aren't the main event.

Last I checked, neither will take a single snap. Neither will make a block, good or bad. Neither will put on shoulder pads or a helmet or step a single foot inside the painted white lines once the game begins.

When it ends, they'll likely meet at midfield, shake hands and exchange pleasantries before going their separate ways – one to celebrate and one to explain why his team was on the wrong end of the scoreboard. We live in a world today where the spectacular and controversial is celebrated, the ho-hum and drab ignored and banished to the innards of sports pages and the bottom of television sportscasts.

Sex and conflict sells; good-natured banter and sleep-inducing play turns people away.

That's why Croom-Shula is such a big deal.

If Fox ever greenlighted a pilot for "When Coaches Go Wild," Croom v. Shula would be the main event, right after Dennis Franchione v. State of Alabama.

News media constantly seeks angles, twists and conflicts that make their stories interesting. That's what we do, because that's what sells newspapers, website subscriptions and gets television ratings.

And that's why Croom vs. Shula has been all over television and, to a lesser extent, newspapers this week leading up to Saturday's clash.

But it isn't what Alabama-MSU is about.

This isn't the WWE, or the Old West, for that matter.

The loser won't be banished from their respective campus forever, tied to a horse facing backwards with a metal bucket over their head and sent into the wilderness.

Whether Alabama or Mississippi State wins Saturday, the result won't be a judgment on whether or not Mal Moore and Robert Witt made the right call when they picked Shula over Croom in May 2003.

First, a coach shouldn't be judged by a single game in a single season. Shula and Croom will ultimately succeed or fail by what they do 365 days per year, from coaching to recruiting to player discipline.

Second, neither coach should be judged by this game in particular. Neither program is in a position to compete for a national title, an SEC title or even an SEC West title.

MSU is struggling with the serious talent and discipline deficit that Sherrill left behind, while the Crimson Tide is grappling with the affects of NCAA sanctions and devastating backfield injuries.

A victory doesn't say much more than that a team was better on that particular day. If it becomes two, or three, or four, then a coach must face questions about whether a rival (like Croom) "has his number." But that won't happen Saturday.

Alabama's players seemed far more willing to talk about bowl possibilities than Croom's visit this week. Junior free safety Roman Harper, one of the most honest and affable members of the team, said he thought initially that Croom's visit would have more impact, but admitted that it has lost some of its luster amidst the season's grind.

Maybe Harper knows something that those who stick microphones and cameras in his young face don't: that Croom's visit is a sideshow.

An interesting sideshow? You bet.

A meaningful sideshow? Not yet.

Ed. Note: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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