Conversation with Fran: The turning point

Like most successful coaches, Dennis Franchione spends most of his time worrying about the future. But his perspective on the past season is fascinating, especially his thoughts on November fourth. <br><br>Having just seen his team embarrassed by LSU, 35-21, Franchione frankly acknowledged, "It's not a lot of fun to be 3-5 at Alabama."

"But it would have been harder, it would have been no fun--if I didn't think we were going the right way and that we could succeed."

In what ranks as one of the all-time worst games in Alabama defensive history, LSU set multiple offensive records while moving the football seemingly at will against a hapless Tide secondary.

Fans were angry. And Bama's critics in the media were having a field day.

But in the staff meeting Sunday morning following the difficult defeat, Franchione was calm. "I said that I still believed in them. I believed we could win the last three games.

"I knew we had limitations. I knew we had some problems that we needed some more time to cure. The secondary was struggling and inexperienced. Their self-esteem was shattered a little bit.

"I didn't know if we were going to be able to get it back in order this year, but it was important that all the coaches stay solid."

Shown conferring with Safeties Coach Ron Case, Franchione did not panic, even during the season's lowest points.

As Franchione pointed out in our previous article A Conversation with Fran, he and his staff began by concentrating on what he calls the "substance issues," instilling a work ethic, developing trust and fostering accountability in every aspect of the program.

The LSU offense had just finished exposing his team's shortcomings on television, for the entire nation to see. But Franchione wasn't about to panic. He instructed his coaches to "keep doing the solid things. I knew the substance issues were going the right way, and I knew the coaches were doing the right things."

The Alabama coaches may have been calm, but quite the opposite was true outside the Tide Football Complex. Newspaper columnists, talk-radio, Internet message boards, you name it. Everywhere it seemed that friends and foes alike were roasting the Tide defense.

Franchione talked about the team's mood. "After the LSU game, I think we were all in camp together. We knew that. We only had each other to look at. The coaches did a great job of holding the kids together, and the Leadership Council did a great job."

Alabama's record stood at 3-5, and every pundit in the state was pointing out the unfortunate coincidence that Mike DuBose's final squad had owned an identical record at the same point in his last season.

That 2000 team didn't win again, finishing up a horrific season at 3-8.

But under Franchione, things would be different. "The players never thought of themselves as like the previous year's team," he said. "Even though a lot of people tried to make that analogy.

"The LSU game really hurt our team. They were backed into a corner. They didn't feel like they had a lot of friends. As I told the kids, ‘It's just us. Nobody understands what's going on except us.'"

So what made the difference, Coach? Just what was the turning point?

"It would have to be the period between LSU and the fourth quarter of the Mississippi State game," Franchione replied. "The Mississippi State fourth quarter has to be the point where I felt like we had it turned."

Andrew Zow came off the bench to help lead Alabama to victory over Mississippi State.

Heading into that turnaround quarter at Bryant-Denny, Alabama trailed the Bulldogs by a touchdown. After losing Tyler Watts to what turned out to be a season-ending injury, the Tide offense was sputtering.

And more than one Bama fan had thoughts of "here we go again."

But thanks to a gutty performance by Andrew Zow, coupled with an in-your-face sideline meeting between Saleem Rasheed and the Tide defense, Alabama claimed a satisfying 24-17 come-from-behind victory.

"Coming off the LSU game and then in the fourth quarter of the Mississippi State game, that was the turning point," Franchione said. "Had that fourth quarter not gone our way, I don't know if we win any more games.

"But it did go our way."

In that fourth quarter, squad leaders like Zow and Rasheed rallied their teammates, something Franchione had been waiting for since September. "All season I felt like if we were to have something good happen, then we'd be fine," he explained. "If it had happened in the South Carolina game, then we might have won a few more games. But it didn't happen as soon as I wanted it to.

"But at least it did happen, and it got us going back in the right direction. Fortunately we were able to win in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State. And that proved a catalyst for us for the rest of the season."

A less experienced head coach might have been tempted to enjoy the moment. But Franchione knew it was no time to celebrate. "I think we handled them right the next week, getting ready to play Auburn," he explained. "We won the Mississippi State game, and from the very moment I talked to the team I congratulated them. But then I said, ‘OK, it's rivalry week.'

"I never let them sit around and feel good about the win. I made them focus and go on."

For most Tide fans looking back on the 2001 season, the dominant memory will be ‘31-7.' And why not? After all, that exhilerating victory over a heavily favored Auburn squad on enemy turf was a season-defining moment.

But Bama's veteran coach understood what it took to get to that game. Franchione explained; "When you're struggling, you have a tendency to savor the wins too long. After Mississippi State, we didn't do that. I thought we had a great week preparing for Auburn. It paid off.

"We played well."

EDITOR'S NOTE: will continue our conversation with Dennis Franchione.

Next topic: Just what were you getting yourself into, Coach?

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