Sunday, December 13, 2009

"what-if," 'Bama style

As you can imagine, I've been thinking a lot about Alabama football lately (shocking, I know), particularly what this last decade has been like for us as fans.

I've been a fan of 'Bama football, of course, since the 3rd grade (the year I finally decided to stop trying to please my mom and dad at once and commit to one side or the other — my teacher at the time had a lot to do with this). But this decade has involved my coming of age as a 'Bama fan, partially because I became an adult this decade (graduated from college, got a job, got married, got a mortgage and so forth), partially because of media proliferation and the digital age (which allowed us access to message boards, team-specific sites and even the blog you're currently reading). So I feel I'm in as good a position as any to assess the decade from the perspective of Tide fans.

Unfortunately, assessing the decade is already a played topic — as evidenced by the myriad "Best of the Decade" posts at Dr. Saturday. Even I got into the act during the summer.

Originally planning to do a retrospective of the entire decade, I boiled it down to four different "what-ifs" for the decade. This post is inspired partly by Paul Finebaum's recent column regarding the thank-yous we all owe in the wake of the championship, partly by Bill Simmons' "What-If" NBA column from last summer. Consider yourself warned.

1. What if Dennis Franchione had never left Alabama?
Hired from TCU to replace Mike Dubose in the wake of the embarrassment that was 2000 (and really the entire tenure in Tuscaloosa had a twinge of embarrassment), Franchione was universally beloved by Alabama fans pretty much from the moment he took the job. It's worth noting, for the sake of honesty, that Fran was actually the third choice of Mal Moore and the UA administration that winter: originally the university wanted Butch Davis from Miami (who spurned the university by saying he was "happy at Miami," then fled for the Cleveland Browns two weeks later), then Frank Beamer from Virginia Tech (it's not clear how serious this was at any point), both of whom were scared off by the internal problems with the administration and the trustees and the pending NCAA probation.
So Mal and Dr. Sorensen decided to cast their lot with Coach Fran, who won our hearts and minds by a) immediately establishing a plan and organization within the department and b) actually making the players work hard during the offseason (legendarily lagging under Dubose). I can't emphasize this enough: he owned Tuscaloosa from the moment he got there. His Web site, (doesn't exist anymore), made him the first coach I ever knew of to communicate with his fans directly. He brought all kinds of ridiculous slogans with him, like "Hold the Rope" and so forth, which Alabama fans ate up like cotton candy. His wife, Kim, was treated like royalty (we later learned she was unhappy with the move almost from the moment it happened). And when ESPN's Gameday broadcast came to Tuscaloosa for the 2001 season opener vs. UCLA, Fran came to visit the set to an ovation that hadn't been seen in some time.
As for the actual on-field results, those actually weren't bad, either. Blessed with a relatively talented roster in 2001 (Lou Holtz famously said "You don't go on probation for recruiting bad players" before his South Carolina team played 'Bama that season), the team struggled to a 4-5 mark through 9 games, including down-the-stretch collapses against Carolina and Ole Miss. They limped into the Auburn game after having to come from behind in the fourth quarter at home to beat a putrid Mississippi State team.
Then came this.

Everything — I mean everything — was falling into place for Fran after that game. The team finished 7-5, beating Southern Miss (postponed after the Sept. 11 attacks) and then Iowa State in the Independence Bowl. Alabama responded by offering Fran a massive extension, essentially making him and his family the kings of the state.
But then fate (and the NCAA) intervened.
After the threat of NCAA sanctions hung over the program for over a year (beginning in earnest after the Albert Means scandal broke), the hammer finally came down in January 2002, bringing on the phrase "staring down the barrel of the gun" and a host of debilitating sanctions.
(Note: The worst part in the aftermath was hearing the university's compliance department pat itself on the back, as though they'd somehow saved us from ... I'm not sure. Something worse than what we got.)
Anyway, the upshot of the sanctions from Fran's perspective was simple: the coach said Moore and the university hadn't been entirely honest with him regarding the severity of the NCAA case, and then Fran said he heard "rumors" that more sanctions might be coming down (ridiculous, but he apparently believed it, giving him reason to start looking for other jobs).
The '02 season dawned with a ton of promise, sanctions or no. 'Bama scheduled Hawaii as a de facto "bowl game," and carried on with a commitment to play for pride and pride alone. And it worked: the Tide played second-ranked Oklahoma off its feet in Norman, then proceeded to win the SEC West (on the field). The team broke a 7-game losing streak to Tennessee and looked like the best football team in the SEC for most of the conference.
In fact, the Franchione era peaked in mid-November of that season: playing a Nick Saban-coached LSU team in Baton Rouge, Alabama played its best game all season, whipping the Tigers 31-0 on a frosty night in Death Valley (note: not only was that LSU team the defending SEC West champs, they actually won the national championship the following season). I remember going to that game: Fran actually came out in pregame warm-ups and leaned against the goal post, Bryant-style. I'd like to argue he didn't know what he was doing, but ... well, he did.
That was as good as it got for Franchione — at some point in '02 rumors cropped up about Texas A&M preparing to fire the benevolent R.C. Slocum, and Fran emerged as the school's leading target. Originally dismissed as far-fetched, the rumors gained steam as the team prepared to face Auburn, a game they ultimately lost 17-7 (the beginning of the infamous 6-year losing streak). The coach deftly ducked any job-related questions after the game, and after the following's week win over Hawaii in the "bowl game."
The next week, he was in College Station in front of the media.
(Note: Obviously, there was no nice way to handle this situation, if you're in Fran's position. But he and A&M handled it in the worst possible fashion, refusing to answer any questions from anybody about the manner in which he left Alabama, even telling reporters from Alabama he'd meet with them after taking the job and answer all their questions ... only to blow them off two hours later. I can't forget the look on Mike Raita's face while he was reporting live from College Station. I thought he was going to throw up on live TV.)
(In fact, the only time Franchione ever addressed his departure from Alabama was in a self-serving tongue bath written by Ivan Maisel on, which made it seem like 'Bama fans drove him away and were mean to his wife, who never wanted to leave Texas in the first place. It was more than a little embarrassing.)
(As you can tell, I've never really gotten over this chain of events.)
So what would've happened had Franchione stayed? We (sort of) have an answer to this question: Franchione was exposed as a fraud in five seasons at A&M, going 32-28 and never seriously challenging for any title of any sort (they did beat Texas in his final two seasons, which is a little unbelievable). Further, his two recruiting classes at Alabama (2001 and 2002) gave us the seasons that were 2003, 2004 and 2006.
But you can kind of blame those aborted recruiting classes on powers beyond his control, right? His first class was the result of an accelerated timetable (taking over in December as he did), the second the result of scholarship limitations and Alabama's tainted reputation. And would he have done any better with the resources provided by Alabama, as opposed to what was offered at A&M?
We'll never know — he fled for A&M's lucrative deal, paving the way for the next stop on our tour ...

2. What if Mike Price never took that trip to Pensacola?
So a wounded Alabama program chose to cast its lot with Mike Price, easily the most successful coach at Washington State. He was coming off a season in which the Cougars reached the Rose Bowl vs. Oklahoma, and had finished 20-5 in two seasons. It's an impressive enough mark on its own, but at a football graveyard like Washington State? It's arguably the best coaching job anyone did anywhere for those two seasons. There was no doubt he was going to win at Alabama, and win big.
Then, of course, the famous "golfing trip:" Price's ... whatever it was in Pensacola came to light, and he was fired within 10 days. A few thoughts about that:
• The day Price was canned remains, to this day, the weirdest thing I've ever covered. First, the Board of Trustees convened a farcical "meeting" in public at the Capstone Sheraton, took "public comments" (which came from Shaud Williams, some dude from the crowd who "speaks for the fans" and Cully Clark, speaking for the faculty) then adjourned into executive session for most of the rest of the day. We couldn't leave for fear they'd come back while we were out. Finally Dr. Witt came back and announced he'd decided to fire the guy, took questions ... then walked off the podium and actually ceded it to Price and the heartbroken players. Who gives a forum to a guy they just fired?
• The main reason Price was fired, instead of just being publicly reprimanded or penalized like Mike Dubose ... was because of Dubose. The university decided, in the wake of the scandal in 2000, that CMD had lost the respect of his players in 1999 when he was caught in his own web of lies. They were determined not to go through that again. Consequences be damned.

Whether Price would've won at Alabama remains one of the more fascinating "what-ifs?" on this list. Since leaving Alabama — and let the record show he sued Sports Illustrated for the story that smeared his character and received a settlement — he's overseen a program at Texas-El Paso that started awfully strong (two 8-4 seasons, two bowl bids) but hasn't registered a winning season since (this season they're 4-8). Could Price have recruited well at Alabama? Would he have lost four straight to Auburn, the way his successor did?
We'll never know. Price got his walking papers, and we got another huge "what-if" ...

3. What if Alabama had hired Sylvester Croom instead of Mike Shula?
Three candidates emerged in the proceeding coaching search after Price was canned: Richard Williamson, a Bryant disciple then coaching with the Carolina Panthers; Sylvester Croom, also a Bryant disciple, coaching in Green Bay; and Mike Shula, considered a capable young assistant with the Miami Dolphins.
Williamson was likely never a serious candidate, though he did have the support of a number of old-timers. That meant the two main candidates were Shula and Croom. At the time, Croom seemed like the better hire: his and Shula's resumes were basically the same, except he had more experience.
What else? Oh yeah: Croom is black.
To me, it looked ideal: Alabama could hire a perfectly capable black coach, the first in SEC history, and turn the negative media firestorm (from the Price scandal) into a positive one. Also it was believed he would be a boon to recruiting, since he provided something more players could readily identify with (note: this might have been true if this were 1980, instead of 2003).
Anyway, Alabama ultimately hired Shula, who labored for four unimaginative and dull seasons before his ouster in November 2006. After some moderate negative attention from the national press (I think Jesse Jackson even passed through town briefly) Croom ultimately got the job at Mississippi State in 2004, where he served five seasons before being forced out last year (combined record of Shula and Croom: 47-61).
Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Croom had been offered that job in 2003. Would it have worked? The results say no: Croom's teams at State were almost exclusively all-D no-offense, and the one successful season he had — the 8-5 team that won the Liberty Bowl in 2007 — lived almost exclusively off turnovers and the other team's boneheaded mistakes.
So let's just say UA did hire him in '03, then circumstances played out exactly the way they did under Shula, only with Croom as the head coach. And let's say the administration decided to fire him, just the way they did with Shula.
That's a fascinating "what-if," right? Alabama's reputation might have never recovered. Sometimes the moves you don't make matter more.
It's worth noting, though, that Shula might have come back for one more run at it, except ...

4. What if Nick Saban had signed Drew Brees in the summer of 2006?
I don't need to sell you on Nick Saban's chops as a college football coach, not with his team at 13-0 and gunning for a national championship (currently on a 25-2 run the last two seasons). In fact, about the only thing anybody can say negative about Saban, looking over his career, is, "Well, he failed with the Dolphins."
It's true that Saban will be remembered as a failure in Miami, mostly because of the messy way he left town (which I just can't defend).
But did he really fail? Saban's first Dolphins finished 9-7, even closing the '05 season on a 6-game win streak (concluding with a two-point upset win over the Patriots). In fact, going into the '06 season, the team was considered by some a sleeper pick for the Super Bowl.
However, he needed a quarterback — despite having Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and a rock-solid defense, Miami was playing with a huge hole at QB (Gus Frerotte, with a little Sage Rosenfels sprinkled in). Fortunately for the 'Fins, two marquee quarterbacks were on the market that summer: Daunte Culpepper (Minnesota) and Drew Brees (San Diego).
Both were considered risks: Culpepper had just come off an unhappy season with the Vikes in which he'd been part of the surreal "Boat Trip" scandal, and had shredded his knee midway through the season; Brees was already considered trade bait because of Philip Rivers' impending ascension to the QB spot in San Diego, and then capped off '05 by destroying his shoulder in a nasty injury.
So Miami basically had to choose. Culpepper was the more athletic of the two, and had the bigger upppside (people forget this, but Culpepper could throw the football three miles). So Miami, at Saban's behest, grabbed him up.
To quote the Knight in "The Last Crusade," he chose ... poorly.
With Culpepper as their quarterback — trying to run the West Coast offense, which DC simply wasn't equipped to do — Miami was a mess in 2006, opening 1-6 (for more, read this Simmons column from that time period), with an "injured" Culpepper eventually giving way to Joey Harrington. They finished 6-10, the 'Bama job came open ... well, you know the rest.
So, what if? Suppose Miami had signed Brees — still lighting it up and setting all kinds of passing records with New Orleans, who's already been to the NFC Championship Game once and is currently undefeated? Wouldn't they have been a better team? Would Saban have been so willing to skip town with a team that had a chance to be a perennial power?
Somehow I doubt it. Which, obviously, is why, as my mother says, "Something good comes out of everything."

No comments: