Players whose teams are banned from bowl play for the remainder of their careers may transfer to another school without the penalty of having to sit out a season. That means that Alabama's juniors and seniors could have gone to another school. None has taken that option and all current scholarshipped players are in Tuscaloosa for summer school and/or off-season workouts. Several players were strongly recruited by other schools trying to take advantage of Alabama's misfortune.
"I don't know if ‘surprised' is the right word," Franchione said in answer to a question Wednesday. "I'm certainly pleased. I'm proud of these young men. It's very gratifying to me and special in how this group has stayed together. They have taken pride in being Alabama football players, which has been exhibited in their work habits and in their focus. There is pride in wearing that crimson jersey."
The Tide coach added, "I think there is a good chemistry between our coaching staff and the players. And the coaches have earned the trust of the players."
Franchione and a handful of players met with members of the press Wednesday for a little summer football talk. He discussed a number of subjects, including academics, injuries, and expectations of this year's team.
Although some 135 players (including a large number of walk-ons and incoming new players) are currently in the off-season program, actual football work is still a few weeks away. Over the next two weeks the Alabama coaching staff will have a series of "retreats" in which personnel and other decisions will be made. Franchione said the coaches have had some time off. He said his vacation was a trip to the West Coast, to San Francisco, the wine country, and to famed Pebble Beach Golf Course. He said, "I hadn't even gotten out of my car in the parking lot at Pebble Beach and two Alabama fans came up to me."
New players report August 4 and practice August 5 and August 7. Returning players (up to a total of 105) report August 7. The entire squad will practice in the first of three shorts days beginning August 9. Full gear practices begin August 13. From the opening of practice until classes begin on August 21, Bama will practice twice each day. The squad is limited to 105 until the start of classes.
Alabama opens the season Saturday, August 31, hosting Middle Tennessee State University in Birmingham's Legion Field in a game that will be televised regionally by Jefferson Pilot and kick off at 11:30 a.m. CDT.
The Tide head coach said that Alabama's decision to add Hawaii as a 13th game at the end of the regular season has been met with good response. "Our fans are excited," he said. "The timing of the game (November 30, the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend) is good for many of them." He joked, "I don't know how the RVs are going to get there, though." Alabama's football team is ordinarily followed by a large group who travel in recreational vehicles.
Franchione said the players are excited, even though he has assured them it will not be all play. He said he told them that it would be difficult to rebound after the Auburn game on November 23; that the trip to Hawaii is a long, hard one; and that Hawaii will have a good team. He said before he could even finish putting the question to a vote that every hand in the room shot up in favor of playing the game. And, he said, "After the meeting some of the players came up to me and said, ‘Thank you, Coach, for doing this for us.' "
While there have been insinuations that Alabama is "getting away with something" by playing Hawaii in a year when the Tide is currently banned from bowl play (that penalty is among those being appealed by The University and which is expected to be resolved by October 1), Franchione disputed that. "We're not ‘getting away' with anything," he said. "We're not doing anything that the other 116 schools couldn't have done. Coach Moore (Athletics Director Mal Moore) cleared this with everyone. If we weren't supposed to do it, we wouldn't have done it." He suggested there might be some envy at other schools.
Franchione had a good report on academics. Although Marvin Brown, who would have been a senior linebacker, has been lost because of academic deficiencies, Franchione said that Bama Director of Academic Services Jon Devor had reported that Alabama football was in the best shape it has been in several years. Although he did not reveal specifics, Franchione said five returning Alabama players had work to do in the remainder of this summer and that two of those five had considerable work to do. He did say, in answer to a question, that wide receiver Antonio Carter is eligible. Carter missed Bama's Independence Bowl game at the end of last season for academic reasons. As for incoming players, he said junior college transfers Ahmaad Childress and Derek Pope were finishing up some work. The coach confirmed that signees Henry Smith, Chauncey Malone, and Titus Ryan would begin their careers in junior college. And he said there is "an interpretation question" for one other signee. That usually means clarification of a course for the NCAA Clearinghouse. He added there had been no unexpected problems.
Things also look good on the injury front. He said that defensive end Todd Bates, who had surgery in early May, is making good progress and "should be available for two-a-days." Both offensive tackle Evan Mathis and wide receiver Antonio Carter had rods inserted surgically into broken lower leg bones and both are on track to be full speed in August. Cornerback Hirchel Bolden, who played all last season with a separated shoulder, had arthroscopic knee surgery. Franchione said, "It's close on him, but he has a chance to be ready when practice begins."
Franchione said he and his assistant coaches "have a much better feel for our players than we did last year at this time after only 15 (spring 2001) practices. We are much more settled. We can direct our thoughts more accurately this year because there were so many unknowns last year. Last year we spent so much time on how we would move the ball with such a young offensive line. We're still young -- three of our returning starters are just sophomores -- but we're more experienced."
Franchione said it will be difficult to settle on the 105 because of the quality in the walk-on ranks. He said he expects to bring in one long snapper (Nick Ridings), punter-kickoff man-holder Lane Bearden, and three other kicking specialists among the 105. He said place-kicking is an area of concern as Alabama must replace Neal Thomas. "I wish there had been more separation in the spring," Franchione said.
Franchione is not surprised that Alabama is not ranked high in pre-season polls. For one reason, Alabama has a difficult schedule, one that Franchione said was the most difficult he has faced as a coach. He said he has been told that at least one football magazine rated Alabama's schedule the most difficult in the nation. He said another reason for Alabama not being ranked in the top 25 in a number of pre-season polls is that the Tide is still young. And, he said, "A lot of people probably can't figure us out; how we're going to respond (to the NCAA penalties). I understand that."
He said he wouldn't use Alabama's lack of high ranking as a motivational tool and said that he would prefer "to be ranked number one and have every gun loaded."
In any event, he said, "Our fans are going to have high expectations. Our players have high expectations."
Franchione is motivating his squad with a challenge. He has told them that few Alabama teams have a chance to be special because of so many accomplishments by previous Crimson Tides, including 12 national championships and 21 Southeastern Conference titles. But, he has told them, if they can overcome the adversity, they will be remembered as a special team.
As for goals, Franchione said, "We have 13 games to play. We can still win the (SEC) West. We may not represent the West (in the SEC Championship Game), but if we can't go we want the team in Atlanta to be not the best team."