Shula's Seat is Not Hot

Let's get one thing straight right off the top: Mike Shula isn't going anywhere. Not if he loses to Auburn, LSU and Tennessee. Not if Alabama finishes with a losing record and misses a bowl game. Not if ESPN cameras catch him unleashing a sideline torrent of language so foul it would make Chris Rock blush.

Pretty much the only way Shula's third season at Alabama will be his last is if he goes 0-11 – including a 20-point Homecoming loss to Utah State – and gets busted taking a Louisville Slugger to the Bear Bryant statue outside Legion Field the night before the Iron Bowl.

So there's no chance of Shula getting fired.

As a journalist who has covered Dennis Franchione and the aborted Mike Price Era, I never say never. But planning to cover Shula's fourth Crimson Tide season is a pretty darn sure bet.

That said, he still must show improvement this fall to ensure that there is, in fact, a fifth season to cover in the fall of 2007.

The third season of any head coach's regime – particularly one who has struggled like Shula has – is crucial.

Ron Zook couldn't talk his way out of losing to Sylvester Croom's Mississippi State team.

Tyrone Willingham learned that not having a personality really does matter if you can't deliver results at Notre Dame.

It's no surprise that both have taken a step down this fall – Zook from Florida to Illinois and Willingham from Notre Dame to Washington.

Three years on a college campus has become, fair or not, the litmus test for whether a coach can be successful.

A coach has three years' worth of recruits. The players he inherited have three years in his offensive and defensive systems. And it's usually become obvious whether or not he's made an impact.

With Shula, though, these categories just don't apply.

He inherited a complete mess, thanks to a serious NCAA probation and the chaos left behind by the ill-fated Franchione and Price eras.

Even after signing his first full 25-scholarship class in February, he'll begin his third season with only 77 scholarship players. Only a small, 15-member senior class (and minimal attrition) will allow him to reach the 85-scholarship limit by next fall. In other words, it's hardly surprising that Shula is 10-15 with no victories over Auburn, LSU, or the arch-rival Vols in his two seasons.

He's been competing with what has been a shell of a typical Alabama program. Alabama has been Alabama in name only.

Sanctions and turmoil knocked the program to its knees, and it has become Shula's mission to get it back on solid ground – and then some.

Look past the record, and you'll realize he's actually doing pretty well. Shula and his staff have signed consecutive top-15 recruiting classes, and players are comfortable with his staff and the high expectations placed upon them.

And don't look now, but the young head coach who sported a deer-in-the-headlights look at his introductory press conference in May 2003 is getting comfortable with the media. Last week's SEC Media Days appearance was a perfect example.

Shula was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., but as he stepped to the podium in the main media room, SEC media relations director Charles Bloom – who typically introduces each coach – wasn't in the room.

So Shula took matters into his own hands.

"Well, I guess we'll get started," he said. "I'm Mike Shula, and I'm the head coach at the University of Alabama."

Laughter ensued, and 17 minutes later, Shula was done with his opening statement, which seemed far more polished than his previous two Media Days trips.

He was cogent and interesting, even deflecting a question about the cliché "hot seat" he's allegedly on by quipping he'd been on the seat "from day one."

It was proof he'd learned from his previous tentative meetings with the media.

While he'll never be a Sylvester Croom (who could command a pulpit as easily as a press box) before the media, he's getting better.

Handling sportswriters isn't a be-all, end-all for a coach, but it's proof Shula is getting a little more comfortable with running the monster that is Alabama football.

This fall will give us a valuable look into whether he's grown that comfortable on the field.

The Tide's depth should be far better than it has been the past two years. Key offensive cogs Brodie Croyle, Kenneth Darby and possibly Tim Castille will start essentially healthy, and a tough, stingy defense returns 10 starters (and plugs freshman All-SEC defensive end Wallace Gilberry into the only gap).

The schedule is extremely favorable, with Florida, LSU and Tennessee visiting Tuscaloosa; the only real road test is the Iron Bowl at Auburn.

All the pieces are in place for a turnaround season, if the injury bug stays away and a reshuffled offensive line keeps the talented-but-injury prone Croyle in one piece. Maybe then, that "hot" seat will get a little cooler.

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


BamaMag Top Stories