MULE': Elvis has left the building

The moment was striking, one of those instances where the capriciousness of life really hits home

Nick Saban was in all his rock-star glory leaving the interview area at the SEC media days in Birmingham with half the reporters from around the South trailing, hoping to get in a last question to the Alabama coach, or another photo. You would have thought it was Elvis caught leaving the building.


Meanwhile, in another interview session, Sylvester Croom was holding court to a half-filled room, discussing the incremental steps of making Mississippi State football competitive.


The oddity of the situation was that it was Croom who was largely responsible for the Saban-mania in the Capstone State.


Think back to last Nov. 4, when Croom's Bulldogs upset the Crimson Tide 24-16. It was that game that set in motion the return of Saban, unhappy in an NFL where he couldn't control everything, to college football.


Does anyone think then-Tide coach Mike Shula, coming off a 10-2 season in 2005, and the recipient of a brand-new multi-million dollar contract, was in serious trouble when his 6-3 team took the field that day?


At the time the outcome seemed like pure justice since Croom, with vast NFL experience after playing for the canonized Bear Bryant at Bama, was passed over four years before for the far less tested, younger Shula.


But that game had the effect of gaining four million new fans for Auburn, the LSU fan base whenever the Tide plays their in-state rival, and gaining for LSU a couple million new fans, the Auburn faithful, whenever Alabama plays Saban's old team.


Coincidently, the same week ESPN commentator Bill Curry was in New Orleans, speaking at the Sun Belt Conference's media get-together.


Curry has had experience dealing with the vagaries of coaching, having headed programs at Georgia Tech, Kentucky and, yes, Alabama. He knows how hard it is to deal with the fans at Bama after the Bryant era. He coached the Crimson Tide to an overall 26-10 record, an SEC championship, and recruited many of the players who won a national championship under Gene Stallings.


He famously also had a brick thrown through his office window by a disgruntled fan after a loss.


Curry, like almost all so-called experts, expects Saban to succeed. "When the Crimson Tide Nation gets behind someone, even a so-so coach, they should do well,'' Curry said. "And Nick Saban is much more than an average coach.''


But Curry also questions the proprieties of a program – and there are more than just Alabama – that hires a man to do a job, then unceremoniously cuts him loose before he can finish it. Curry made note of the fact that Shula took the Crimson Tide job when coaching Alabama was really a tough gig, with Bama on NCAA probation and trying to compete with scholarship limitations. Just remember how this time, as the penalties are lifted, how many people turned this job down before Alabama came up with a king's ransom to lure a qualified coach 


Now that those restrictions are not a handicap anymore, Saban will reap benefits Shula never had a chance to enjoy.


"Is it too much,'' Curry asked rhetorically, "to think the coach who inherited the nightmare situation – when conditions really made it hard to win – deserved a chance to coach beyond the punishment period?''


No, but Sylvester Croom and his Bulldogs changed the course of SEC football on Nov. 4, 2006 – bringing on the current wave of Saban-mania.     




Marty Mule' can be reached at

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