Tough Times For Crimson Tide Football Program

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn and Southeastern Conference athletics.

These are dark days for University of Alabama football, in many ways the darkest ever. It's not about winning and losing. Losing is disappointing, but questions of character and integrity are much worse and much more damaging.

Athletic director Mal Moore, a good man who I have called a friend for more than 30 years, must wonder what he's done to deserve it. Every big decision he has made--decisions made in good faith--seems to have blown up in his face. He made the tough decision to fire Mike DuBose. Facing sanctions that made hiring difficult, he landed Dennis Franchione and Franchione became wildly popular with Alabama fans.

As the NCAA closed in on the Alabama program, Moore carefully followed the instructions of faculty representative Gene Marsh, a man respected within the NCAA. The result was one of the harsher penalties in NCAA history. Then, after last season, Franchione suddenly bolted for Texas A&M. With Franchione gone, another frustrating coaching search followed. Moore made a deal with Mike Riley, but Riley backed out. Finally, he got Mike Price. It seemed like a coup. Price was well-respected. He took Washington State to the Rose Bowl last season. And now this.

Exactly what happened at the Emerald Coast Classic Pro-Am in Pensacola isn't totally clear. I'm not about to speculate, but it obviously was not the kind of situation in which you want your head football coach, the man charged with leading and being a role model for young men, to be involved. It would be naive to think the next move is up to Moore. It isn't up to Moore anymore than it would be up to David Housel if this were happening at Auburn. This decision will be made at higher levels.

There is, I suspect, a yearning that it could all be handled behind the scenes and just fade away. It's not going to happen. The longer Alabama officials stay quiet, the more the controversy will grow. It is imperative that they either say Price is their coach and they are behind him or that they are going in another direction. That could happen at anytime, but there's no indication that any statement is forthcoming. It is well-known that Price has not signed his contract, but there are serious legal issues involved here that could, in fact, determine what course is available.

Clearly, Price has a verbal agreement. Is that binding? I'm no lawyer and I don't know, but if it is, Alabama is in a mess. In desperate times, a most unwise decision was made to guarantee every cent of Price's seven-year deal at $1.5 million per year. Yes, there is a morals clause in the contract, but invoking such a clause could be difficult without concrete proof. If that agreement is indeed binding minus a signed contract, Alabama could find itself with a $10.5 million bill to a man who has never coached a game there. No school could take that kind of hit, much less one that already has financial problems because of NCAA sanctions.

And if he goes, what then? Do his sons go with him? And who comes? Gene Stallings? That might give a lot of Alabama fans a warm, fuzzy feeling, but I don't believe it would be to the long-term benefit of the program. Could Moore remain as athletic director if Price goes? There are no easy answers.

If Alabama decides to keep Price, there is another set of problems. How will he explain this situation to the parents of Bible Belt recruits? How will he explain it to the players from whom he must demand discipline? With dwindling numbers because of NCAA sanctions, his job was difficult enough already. It could become virtually impossible.

Rumors are swirling everywhere. Some say Price is on his way out. Some say he will be reprimanded. Some say it's a situation that has been blown out of proportion by talk radio and Internet message boards and that nothing will happen. I don't know what's going to happen, but I know this: Alabama officials need to address it sooner rather than later. Their silence only fuels the fire that already threatens the very core of Alabama football.

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