SEC FOOTBALL: Color Mike Shula Crimson Fried

So Mike Shula up and says at SEC Media Days, right there in Birmingham and the shadows of Legion Field, the site of many great Bear Bryant triumphs, that he's been on the hot seat since he took the head coaching position at Alabama.

A rather curious statement, dontcha think?

Yes, it could be a typical example of a coach trying to take the heat and shift the focus from his players.

Yeah, it might be a case of a coach wanting to forthrightly acknowledge expectations so that no one else has to remind him of them.

And okay, it could be a situation where Shula wants to prove to Tide Nation that he wants to win just as much as they do.

Any of the three above motivations could be in play, but let's remember: Shula didn't just reference this season; he said that Old Demon Pressure has been in existence since day one. Why air that particular statement in public? Why choose that specific phrasing? It sure raises some questions, doesn't it?

Was Shula a splash hire for the Tide, or just a fill-in before a bigger fish might become available? Was he viewed as the kind of person who could lead Alabama from the Mike Price mess, or was he hired precisely because the Price passion play would further cripple Bama's ability to compete, which was already hampered by the announcements of NCAA penalties that drove former coach Dennis Franchione to Texas A&M? Maybe Bama hired a high-character guy with less than substantial head-coaching credentials because the program didn't want to lure a coaching superstar to Tuscaloosa in the midst of controversy and limitations on the program.

These questions have legs --- and are legitimate --- because it seems clear that Alabama has had trouble deciding its identity as a program for quite some time. Mike DuBose had a long affair with his secretary, but that didn't get him fired before the 1999 season, when the Tide won the SEC. It was only after the Tide's ship sank the following year that Dubose got dumped. For Mike Price, however, a night at an exotic dancing club got him fired before he ever coached a game for Bama. Forget the fact that he was an established winner in his profession who made lemons out of lemonade in the tiny outpost of Pullman, Wash.; no, Price's Washington State achievements were huffed and puffed at, as Alabama administration blew Price's house down after less than five months on the job. One act of sexual immorality wasn't as equal as the other in Tuscaloosa.

Shula, then, was picked to restore order and dignity to the Tide program, while also --- oh-by-the-way --- trying to win some ballgames. But given the emotional, psychological and public relations damage done to the Bama football operation, it was unreasonable to expect this unproven head coach to immediately turn things around. Add in the absence of a continuously battered and broken Brodie Croyle body, and the Tide have had few weapons to offer their opponents in Shula's first two seasons. Expecting improvement this year is justified; expecting this to be a make-or-break year doesn't give Shula much of a chance.

But that brings us back to Shula's statement: if he's been feeling the heat since he took the job, and if he's being honest about it (and not merely trying to play mind games with his team, fan base, and his own competitive mindset, or a combination of the above), that suggests that this year IS, in fact, a do-or-die proposition. It sure seems as though this was an example of a coach being candid to a fault and perhaps, in his relative inexperience, revealing more insecurity than he needed to in a public forum. This gives any vultures an excuse to begin circling the moment the Tide takes a nasty tumble this season. This could have been a bit of emotion-manipulating, season-related gamesmanship on Shula's part, but the pros in the media game know how to finesse and phrase better than Shula did.

If this perception --- that Shula really is feeling the heat this year --- has any legitimacy, then shame on the Bama program. Shula, with all the limtiations faced on and off the field, has had his team competitive... competitive not in the sense that the Tide have been playing for Atlanta in late November (let alone getting there), but competitive in that they've fought like the devil in every game, competing tooth and nail with Tennessee, Auburn and frankly everyone on their schedule. If you took off Crimson-colored glasses for a bit, an objective analysis would say that Shula has motivated his players extremely well and gotten his boys to get off the deck each Saturday in his first two years on the job. Those feats alone represent a commendable job in the face of overwhelming obstacles that only the giants of the coaching profession might (might!) have been able to overcome.

Before year one, he had only a few months to prepare, given the Price firing and his late-cycle hire.

In year two, he lacked Brodie Croyle.

In year three, could he be gone?

If so, Alabama football --- unable to decide its identity as a program --- would make the wrong decision.


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