SCOTT: Shula sitting squarely on the hot seat

It's the time of year when the rumors fly with more speed, intensity and recklessness, where almost no coach is safe from the constant barrage of speculation and conjecture.

With Arkansas' Houston Nutt, Kentucky's Rich Brooks, Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom and Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson helping their causes this season with significant wins, at this point only one SEC coach's rear end appears to be seated directly on the hot seat.


In Tuscaloosa, the heat under Shula is rising faster by the day. It's not likely to lead to his termination following the season, but there's no doubt that Alabama's recent 24-16 home loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago was the last straw for many faithful Crimson Tide followers.


In response to media inquiries, both Alabama athletic director Mal Moore and former Alabama coach Ray Perkins, who was Mike Shula's coach at Alabama, have come out in defense and support of Mike Shula in recent weeks.


Shula may have helped his cause to some extent by opening up his playbook last week against LSU, but the Crimson Tide still lost 28-14. Now Shula must find a way to beat Auburn, something he has never done as a coach.


The spotlight that provides Shula with the opportunity to be a head coach at his alma mater and provide for his family is the same spotlight that will burn a hole right through a coach's career. Shula has seen it up close and personal as the son of legendary NFL coach Don Shula and the brother of former NFL head coach David Shula.


"When I was (young), I thought life was easy," Shula said. "Everybody loves my dad, and all he does is win games and Super Bowls, and it's easy. Then, it becomes not quite as easy. I can remember him coming home after tough losses, all hurt and down. But the only thing you can do is focus on your job and not let those things affect you."


There's a lot a son can learn from a father, especially in Shula's case.


"Obviously it was a disappointment, but you have to put it behind you," Don Shula told the Birmingham News, referring to the Mississippi State loss. "You can't change the score of that game. You'd like to win every game, but it just doesn't happen. You've got to get things together these last two ballgames to give them hope for the future."


Don Shula also wishes his son's critics would remember the past, particularly the difficult situation his son inherited when he took over in April, 2003.


"He came into that program when it was in disarray," Don Shula said. "He got it turned around and had a big year (10-2) last year. But he lost a lot of great defensive players and he's got a young quarterback. There are growing pains."


Most of those pains are evident on offense and Shula is taking the blame for both the game plans and the play calling. Offensive coordinator Dave Rader, who coached Mike Shula at Alabama, is also catching plenty of criticism. Many fans would be satisfied if Shula gave up the play calling, fired Rader and brought in someone new to run the offense.


Alabama fans aren't going be too happy about Shula, Rader or offensive line coach Bob Connelly after former Alabama All-American John Hannah recently told the Birmingham News that the Crimson Tide's offensive line techniques are outdated.


"I can read stances and know what they're going to be doing - pass or run or a sweep," Hannah told Birmingham News columnist Ray Melick. "And if I can see it from the stands, then you know a defensive lineman on the field can see what I'm seeing."


Hannah said Alabama's particular zone blocking schemes were effective when they were first introduced by veteran NFL offensive line coach Jim McNally, but they no longer work against today's defenses.


"If you watch teams now, they're beginning to realize it takes a specific type of offensive lineman to do what he was talking about," Hannah said. "The (New England) Patriots, for example, have gotten away from lateral football, because defenses are being built on pursuit.


"Football is a revolving game. The zone-blocking schemes were big for awhile, because certain defenses were not prepared to stop it. But now you've got light, fast guys on defense, with linebackers backing way off the line to get lateral pursuit. So it's back to being time to run it right down their throat. It's not new. It's just the way football runs in cycles."


Alabama's zone blocking, according to Hannah, is particularly ineffective in the red zone, where the Crimson Tide has been the SEC's most frustrated team. Alabama entered the weekend with 43 trips inside opponent's 20-yard line this season, more than any other SEC team. Yet, the Tide has scored only 15 touchdowns, the lowest percentage in the SEC.


"When you're out in the open field, you've got a lot of field to work with," Hannah said, "but you can't use the McNally approach if you want to score from the 3-yard line. You've got to run power ball."


It's possible someone will ask or demand that Shula make changes but it remains to be seen if the powers that be at Alabama will demand such a move – or if Shula would agree.


"Right now, people have different levels of blame, and that's not right," Don Shula said. "Everybody is in it together. You put together a staff and succeed as a staff. If you don't succeed, you don't pick out one guy and blame him.


"He's had success calling the plays. He bounces things off his offensive coordinator, but somebody's got to make the final decision. I'm sure he'll take all of that into consideration."


In the meantime, the Crimson Tide takes a 6-5 record (2-5 SEC) into Saturday's home game against Auburn. Shula is 0-3 against Auburn and Alabama is o-for-forever against the Tigers in Tuscaloosa.


Alabama's improved performance against LSU and Auburn's disturbing 37-15 loss to Georgia changes the outlook of the game for both teams, but the Crimson Tide still has a lot to prove in this game.


"There was a lot that our kids were motivated by this week," Shula said after the LSU game. "You aren't going to have to motivate our kids for Auburn."




While Auburn is no longer a factor in the national championship race, both Florida and Arkansas remain in the hunt. Then again, so does Rutgers, undefeated at 9-0 after defeating then-No. 3 Louisville 25-22 last week.


Three weeks ago, coaches and pundits argued about the worthiness of West Virginia as a legitimate national championship contender. Two weeks ago, it was Louisville after the Cardinals beat the Mountaineers. This week, it's Rutgers.


Before we take another step, let's try this: remove three teams from the SEC. Any three. Just for argument's sake, make it Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina. Now, replace them with West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers.


Do any of those three Big East teams go undefeated in the SEC this year? Ever? How about ... never.


"Well, I think anybody would see that the schedule in the (SEC) is tougher than probably the schedule in the Big East," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said last week. "Louisville has played extremely well and won the games that they need to play. I think it will just all take care of itself as we finish the season."


Fulmer was right about Louisville, but now the SEC and other major conferences will have to worry about Rutgers rising through the ranks of the polls and the BCS and becoming a national title contender when either Ohio State or Michigan loses on Saturday.


Florida coach Urban Meyer has been in Rutgers' shoes as the coach at Utah in 2004. Back then he wanted his Utes involved in the BCS debate but he understood why they weren't.


"I was on a team that went 12-0 and we were denied an opportunity to play for the national championship," Meyer said. "Probably deep in my heart I felt that we did not necessarily deserve (to play for the championship). I felt that we had one of the best teams in the country, and on any given day we could play with anybody.


"But to think that that Utah team could make it through the Southeastern Conference undefeated, anybody with any knowledge of football and any common sense would know that wouldn't happen.


"Louisville looks like a fine, well-coached team. But week in and week out, the struggles you go through in a conference like the SEC, or the Big Ten, certainly would have a wear and tear on you. It would be tough for any team in the country to go through this league undefeated."




One thing that would make the SEC so much more difficult for Louisville, West Virginia or Rutgers is the parity in the conference. The improvement of Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State hasn't made the job of winning any easier for SEC coaches.


"I don't know if it's good for the league, but it's good for those programs," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team lost to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky this season.

It's certainly made life better for Brooks, Croom and Johnson to show some tangible progress.


"It's been fun to watch," Johnson said. "Everybody had been down on Coach Brooks and Coach Croom. I've admired them for staying the course and staying with their plan. It's great to show people your hard work is paying off.


"It takes the pressure off. It shows people they're capable coaches and they have a good hold on their football program."


Last year at this time the rumors flew about Brooks being fired after just three seasons on the job, but Kentucky's improved recruiting (despite the harsh NCAA sanctions Brooks inherited) is finally starting to take hold and the Wildcats are 6-4 and bowl eligible after scoring 21 fourth-quarter points for a 38-26 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday.


"The fact that we were able to come back again speaks volumes to where the team's heads are at mentally," Brooks said. "When something is going wrong for us, we can make things start going right. You have to have ability and confidence to be able to do that, and this team has both of those things."


Add a win this week against Louisiana-Monroe and the Wildcats are assured of a winning regular-season record.


"It hasn't been an easy 3 ½ years, but you better believe we have the program headed in the right direction," Brooks said. "We've got a shot in this league now. We don't want to be cellar dwellers anymore."




Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at

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