The University of Alabama men's basketball coach showed up for his weekly press conference/teleconference with writers and media types 20 minutes early in an expensive-looking tan suit, complete with pocket square and equally nice dress shirt underneath. This was a strong contrast from his usual press conference attire of Alabama emblazened practice warm-ups.
It was Valentine's Day, so, naturally, he was taking wife Elizabeth out for a nice dinner, right? Nope.
"Going recruiting tonight," he said with a wry smile.
Talk about courage. Who among us would dare blow off their wife/girlfriend/significant other on the most holy of commercial romance holidays?
That kind of dedication and enthusiasm for recruiting – and his job – is a big reason why the Crimson Tide is once again one of the SEC's best teams and a budding national power.
Going-on seven years after taking over a moribund program nearly ruined by David Hobbs, Gottfried has turned the Tide into a force to be reckoned with.
Following Wednesday's 72-63 victory over Arkansas, Alabama is 20-4 overall, 9-2 in SEC play, and has assured itself of the program's fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
Thanks to Kentucky's loss at South Carolina Tuesday, the Wildcats' Feb. 26 visit has turned into a de facto SEC championship game. Take care of business against the ‘Cats, and everyone else, and the program will have its second outright league title in four seasons. Regardless of what happens then, an SEC West title and first-round SEC Tournament bye seem formalities, considering Alabama's two-game lead over its closest West competitor, LSU.
Under Gottfried, the program is, for the most part, healthy. Large, enthusiastic crowds are flocking to Coleman Coliseum, having discovered the Tide as usual following the end of football season. Wednesday's crowd of 9,410 was an exception, not the rule, of what has been a strongly attended SEC season.
And recruiting is healthy, too; if Athens forward Richard Hendrix spurns the NBA for college next fall, Gottfried will have one of the nation's best incoming recruiting classes.
But if you really want to judge how Gottfried is doing, take a look around the league, north and then west. When Gottfried arrived seven years ago, Alabama basketball was an afterthought. Hobbs' boring style and poor coaching had turned the program into an SEC laughingstock. Nobody cared, the worst fate for a program that even in its best days operates in Bryant-Denny Stadium's considerable shadow.
Little by little, Gottfried has guided his program upward with strong scheduling and stronger recruiting, reeling in players with good skills and great character.
18 consecutive players who have stayed all four seasons have left with their degrees, and transfers from the program have been few and far between, although this season has seen three leave in freshman forward Akini Adkins, freshman point guard Glenn Miles and walk-on point guard LaKory Daniels. Of the three, only Miles would have been a major contributor in the foreseeable future.
Even without them, it's obvious that Alabama has rocketed past programs of similar stature into the SEC's stratosphere.
Gottfried and Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes were hired within weeks of each other, and it can be argued Barnes got the better deal. He took over an NCAA-caliber program built by Rob Evans, and went to the Big Dance his first several years in Oxford. Now, the Rebels are floundering, a borderline NIT team that gets beaten with regularity by far more talented teams.
To the north in Knoxville, Buzz Peterson took over an NCAA-caliber program (albeit one of questionable character) from Jerry Green. In four years, Peterson has three NIT appearances and emptying orange stands to show for it. At 11-13, 4-7 in league play, the Vols are going backward if they're moving one inch. In four years' time, Gottfried had Alabama's first SEC championship in 15 years.
Not bad, huh?
Gottfried is comfortable in Tuscaloosa, and if UA officials keep him happy, the program has a chance for heights it's never seen before. In seven years, he's already won an SEC title, attained the program's first-ever No.1 national ranking and made the program's first-ever Elite Eight NCAA appearance.
Although nothing in March is certain, the Tide appears set for an even better tournament run this year. A strong finish could earn a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, perhaps even in the same time zone as Tuscaloosa. And its veteran mentality – plus grizzled freshman point guard Ronald Steele – could pay gigantic dividends in pressure situations.
Seasons like these lay the foundation for a special program, thanks to the exposure and recruiting advantages they afford. They're further proof that Gottfried is the right man for Alabama basketball.