Sports Year Wrap-Up

Just average. That's the only way you can look at the University of Alabama's 2004-05 sports year.

As the College World Series winds to a close this weekend, so does the Division-I sports year, and that leaves us a perfect chance to reflect on what is past and what lies ahead.

If you're a Crimson Tide fan, you'd probably rather look ahead. There wasn't much memorable about 2004-05.

According to the SEC's All-Sports standings, tabulated by the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group (which includes the Tuscaloosa News and Gainesville Sun, among others), Alabama had the sixth-best overall athletic program, behind Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn and LSU, and ahead of Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.

The Tide was eighth on the men's side, and seventh on the women's side.

The numbers are improved from 2004 – when Alabama ranked seventh among women, last among men and 11th overall – but they still seem humdrum and boring, as middle-of-the road as a turkey sandwich with light mayo or a Jay Leno monologue.

Those numbers aren't exactly surprising, considering the turmoil that has reigned in UA athletics the past six years or so, especially in football, the program's premier sport.

Since the Tide's last SEC football title in 1999, the program has gone through four coaches – Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula – and won a grand total of one postseason game, a 14-13 Independence Bowl squeaker over Iowa State.

Such futility is partly blamed on probation – the NCAA's 2002 ruling stripped 21 scholarships over three years from the program – and partly on subpar facilities that lagged well behind much of the SEC.

As we turn the clock from 2004-05 to 2005-06, both of those problems are fading away. While two years still remain on the probation, the NCAA's scholarship limits are over. Alabama signed a 33-man football class last February, and is steadily replenishing its roster with solid talent.

And the $100 million Crimson Tradition capital campaign has already completely renovated and added onto an outdated football building, adding new offices and a sparkling weight facility, revamped Bryant Hall into a state-of-the-art academic center and begun renovations that will kick Bryant-Denny Stadium's capacity from 83,000 to over 90,000 seats.

It has helped other sports as well, building new soccer and tennis stadiums and giving giving Coleman Coliseum a boost into modernity (although tearing it down and starting over would have been a better option).

Those new perks will help the program in the years to come, but they obviously couldn't give Tide teams much of a boost this past season.

And it showed.

Sarah Patterson's gymnastics team was a few balance beam stumbles away from a national team title on Super Six night in Auburn, but that group was the exception, not the rule.

Patrick Murphy's promising softball program made its third Women's College World Series trip, but didn't make much of a dent in Oklahoma City, sandwiching losses to Texas and – gulp – Tennessee around a victory over unseeded DePaul.

And his group has to be considered one of the most successful among the flagship sports.

The No.1 moneymaker, football, showed marginal improvement in Year Two of the Mike Shula era. Despite a boatload of injuries – mostly in the offensive backfield – Alabama improved from 4-9 to 6-6, qualifying for the marginal Music City Bowl, where it lived down to expectations and lost 20-16 to Minnesota.

That let everyone focus on men's basketball, which had another solid season that ended badly under Mark Gottfried.

The Tide was a top-25 team all season long, winning the SEC West title on the final day of the regular season at Mississippi State. But Gottfried's group disappeared when it mattered, flaming out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in chilly Cleveland against upstart Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Two hours after the Big Dance kicked off, Alabama was kicked out. At least the men made it, though; Rick Moody resigned as his contract expired, his women's hoops program having fallen from a national contender into the SEC's bottom tier.

The spring's major program – baseball – made big strides under Jim Wells. A year after an embarrassing 11th-place SEC finish, Wells guided a modestly talented group to SEC and NCAA Tournament berths.

A horrible NCAA draw sealed Alabama's fate; the Tide's poor RPI earned it a trip to the tourney's No.1 overall seed, Tulane, who eliminated Wells' group despite a pair of solid efforts.

It was a fitting end to the Tide's sports year.

Good, but not exactly anything to write home about or hang from the rafters.

This year's overall improvement shows that good things are ahead for Crimson Tide athletics.

In 2004-05, though, they were still just that – ahead, waiting for the program to catch up.

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


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