Well, the Bamasphere is starting to come down on Mark Gottfried. Everywhere you look: TD, Capstone the Rap Sheet or even Bama Hoops, the consensus seems to be that the Mark Gottfried era is, at the very least, on thin ice.
So I suppose I should weigh in here, given that Mark Gottfried's coaching acumen (or lack of it) has been one of my favorite subjects since before I even knew what blogs were.
I first started to notice it during the glorious 2002 campaign, when Erwin Dudley, Rod Grizzard, Mo Williams and company led Alabama to a regular-season SEC title. As much as I enjoyed the run, it was hard to ignore the fact that Gottfried's offense tended to sleepwalk through extended stretches — not that they didn't score, but they didn't really move, set picks or do anything aside from pass the ball back and forth until the shot clock wound down to 5, when someone would inevitably throw up a terrible shot — that the team got lit up on the road (that was what kept them out of the tournament in 2001) and that they were getting by at home mainly on a combination of tough defense, favorable officiating (SEC officials are terrible and tend to get swayed by vibrant home crowds, which Alabama has for most of its SEC home games) and quality foul shooting.
In fact, the most famous moment of the 2002 season was a broken play.
Obviously, it's a great moment, and Antoine Pettway deserves all the credit in the world for having enough sense to get to the right spot to make the winning basket. But how could there be no play called? No timeout taken? What in the hell was the coaching staff waiting for — the buzzer?
Still, I ignored these questions because, quite simply, my favorite team was winning more than it was losing. Even when they fell flat in the NCAAs (losing to Kent State in the second round) I shrugged my shoulders. Who can argue with an SEC title? And a two-seed! At Alabama, of all places — a 2 seed.
The next season, things appeared to be getting better. Alabama — with essentially the same group from '02, sans Grizzard (who left school for the NBA Draft, which worked out GREAT for him) — opened the fall of '02 ranked in the top-5, then improbably rose to number one in the nation around New Year's after a few other teams lost.
As it turns out, that's probably about where the Gottfried era peaked.
The Tide promptly lost on the road (of course) to Utah, then started SEC play in 2003 by falling back into the old routine from 2001, getting by at home and getting destroyed away from it. There was a stirring comeback at Mississippi State that signaled they'd found their way again — they hadn't. I attended road blowouts at Ole Miss and Auburn in person. They got ripped by Vanderbilt ... twice, the final time coming in the first round of the SEC Tournament, their one and only chance to impress the NCAA Committee before selection Sunday.
And this was when I turned on Gottfried for good — sitting in the press lounge, eating before a game one night, a visiting writer asked what we thought was the problem with this Alabama team. Without hesitating, a member of Alabama media relations (who I won't name on the off-chance they read this there) spat out the word: "Coaching." He then proceeded to vocalize every wart about the team that I'd kept to myself during 2002.
The good news: it wasn't just my imagination. The bad news ... well, you know.
Ultimately, 'Bama did sneak into the NCAAs, long enough to get beaten by Indiana (having its own issues with Alabama alum Mike Davis at the helm) in the first round. Even worse, there were rumors that Gottfried might be skipping town to take the vacant job at UCLA, the school where he'd cut his teeth (under Jim Harrick, who was having pretty good success at UGA before his disregard for the NCAA caught up with him). Sadly, he stayed.
Of course, he wasn't sad he stayed. Alabama slogged through an up-and-down season in '04, trying to adjust to the absence of Williams, Dudley and Kenny Walker. The Tide did beat Auburn twice that season — the Tigers were about to enter their own period of basketball Hell, which they still haven't completely come out of yet — and did beat Tennessee. And Gottfried figured out late in the season that he could spread the floor with Ken Winston, Earnest Shelton, Pettway and friends and basically shoot the lights out.
As it turned out, that's what propelled the greatest postseason run in 'Bama history.
After surviving a first-round game against Southern Illinois — and the cry for Mark Gottfried's head was getting louder before that win happened — Alabama improbably got scalding hot from 3, beat top-seeded Stanford in the second round (they were the top seed overall that year) and then completely took apart defending NCAA champs Syracuse (and their vaunted 2-3 zone) in the Sweet 16.
Incredibly, Alabama was in the Elite 8, a place Alabama basketball had never been. And who really cared if eventual champ UConn (featuring Emeka Okafor) destroyed them in the Elite 8? Mark Gottfried was back, baby!
Sadly, that's not the case.
Alabama basketball went through a general malaise in 2005 (first-round loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and followed that up with a somewhat-inspiring 2006 (second-round loss to UCLA, a Final 4 team that year, and that was after the best player on the team — Chuck Davis — was lost to a season-ending injury). And, of course, there was 2007, when Alabama played most of January and February like a team that didn't enjoy basketball, getting swept by Auburn for the first time since 1999 (Gottfried's first season) and failing to qualify for the NCAAs for the first time since 2000.
The defining moment of that season, for me, was the regular-season finale at Mississippi State. With a chance to impress the committee away from home with a win or at least a quality performance, Alabama barely registered a heartbeat, losing 91-67.
The biggest problem of the Gottfried era, to me, is that his biggest deficiencies as a head coach are the same deficiencies that existed in 2000. In order:
• Lack of movement on offense. This has been a constant criticism since he set foot on campus, to the point that my brother Whit nearly had an aneurysm screaming at the team to "MOVE!" during a home game last season.
• Poor performance on the road. Not just a poor record, because it's hard to win away from home in the SEC (mostly because of the aforementioned officiating problem). No, the trouble with Alabama is its tendency to get pulverized on the road, to get beaten like one of those hapless WCW wrestlers who used to get jumped by the NWO in the back.
• Steady stream of excuses. In 2003, the problem was that Grizzard left early. If Grizzard hadn't left early, the offense would be fine. In '04, Alabama was a young team (they actually weren't, but whatever). In '05, they were a young team again. In '06, it was Chuck Davis' injury that was the problem. Then in '07, Ronald Steele's injuries were what hampered the team.
There's already been a few of these in 2008. Steele decided to redshirt before the season started (don't be surprised if he doesn't test the NBA waters this summer). Hendrix has been hampered by injuries (and the flu). The shots just aren't falling when they need them.
And always, always, always, there's this one: "I really like our effort ... we just need better execution."
Translation: it's not my fault. I can't play for them.
Now, here's where it gets interesting. Non-Alabama fans don't believe this, but there's a group of Alabama fans who will remain loyal to their coaches no matter what. Mike DuBose had people willing to kill for him until sometime in the middle of 2000. Alabama fans adored Dennis Franchione right up until the day he stepped off the plane in College Station. People defended Mike Price rigorously — I even remember being at his hearing and seeing an Alabama fan get up to speak "on behalf of the fans" in Price's support. And Alabama fans insisted that Mike Shula "needed better players" right up until the day he was fired, as well.
(Note: many of these same people immediately burn that bridge the second the new coach is hired, then pretend they never liked that guy in the first place. Seriously — some of Shula's biggest supporters started hating on him the day the Saban era began. I'm not kidding. Alabama fans are weird people.)
Want to know a secret? I'm in this camp. I don't like the idea of firing a coach. I like Mark Gottfried as a person, and hate the idea of subjecting him to the ignominy of a public termination. Even though I've slammed him in journal form, I'm quietly rooting for him to succeed at every turn.
I just don't think it's going to happen. The man's peaked as a head coach. He's taken Alabama as far as it can go. He'll never be better than what he's been — a few big wins, a few embarrassing losses, 8-8 or 7-9 in SEC play, maybe an NCAA Tournament appearance (maybe) and nothing more.
So I guess that's the biggest question facing Alabama basketball. Is what you have now a satisfactory product? Because if not, well ....