At the time Nick Saban was hired, I couldn't help but think about Mike Shula.
I know, I know. That makes no sense whatsoever. Alabama, at the time, was mired in the morass that had been the decade of the 2000s. Saban was the fifth coach we had hired since the decade turned, and emotions were running high, either because a) Alabama fans were positively ga-ga over the guy or b) everybody else was fuming.
So it made very little sense to think about Mike Shula, the guy we'd just fired. Still, I couldn't help but think about him.
I swear I wrote some version of the following at the time (although I've looked and can't find the exact wording): "When Nick Saban turns Alabama around and we start winning at a high level — and rest assured, this man is going to win and win big — I hope Alabama fans won't forget the contributions made by Mike Shula, a guy who took a job nobody else wanted in 2003, made the best with what he had and never stopped being a positive symbol for the university and the program."
Of course, as I'm sure you're aware, it's all happening. After three seasons under the Saban regime, Alabama is the defending national champs — you may recall reading something about this earlier — and the consensus preseason No. 1 going into 2010 (a terrifying notion I'd really rather ignore at the moment).
Furthermore, most people have completely forgotten about MIke Shula. Which is really a shame.
Anyway, since I thought of this while I was cutting the grass today, and since it's a relatively slow news week; and, more importantly, since I'll be in radio silence for the next week, I figured I'd give you my extended thoughts on Shula. Or, as I termed him not long after his departure, The Rebound Guy.
Every woman out there knows about The Rebound Guy. They've just come out of an emotional breakup with someone who was probably terrible for them but they shared strong feelings for them (in Alabama's case, Dennis Franchione burned us and then Mike Price used up our good feelings and split) ... and then The Rebound Guy comes along. And he's a nice guy who says nice things. Makes her feel better about herself. Listens to all her gripes about how she feels about the ex, never complains when she ditches him to go hang out with her girlfriends, calls to see how she's doing, that kind of thing.
Of course, no one ever settles down with The Rebound Guy. Eventually that ends, she finds the love of her life and The Rebound Guy's there, raising a glass with everybody else.
That's who Mike Shula was for Alabama fans. After having our hearts stepped on by Franchione and then being totally embarrassed by the Mike Price scandal, Mike Shula seemed like the perfect candidate to make us feel proud of Alabama again. A good-looking guy with a gorgeous wife and wholesome family, Shula also had the benefit of a quality pedigree (do I have to spell it out?) and his identity as a former Alabama quarterback, during which time he did this:
Really, the only thing anyone could say negative about Shula was that he wasn't Sylvester Croom, one of the other finalists for the job that spring (along with Richard Williamson). A few things were said about Alabama's unwillingness to hire a black coach, but everyone agreed to be happy with who we had and move on.
And the truth is, even the most ardent of Alabama fans intended to give Shula a pass for anything that happened in 2003. Without the benefit of a spring practice, leading a program that was still under the gun of NCAA sanctions, against a difficult SEC schedule, the consensus was that, so long as they were competitive, Alabama in 2003 didn't have the loftiest of expectations.
What's easy to forget, now, is how good that team actually looked in Week 1. Brodie Croyle was the perfect quarterback to run Mike Shula's system (when he was in the lineup, more on this later) and he had senior tailback Shaud Williams (more on him in a minute, also), along with a veteran receiving corps and offensive line. On defense, 'Bama had Antwan Odom, Ahmad Childress, Freddie Roach, Roman Harper, Charlie Peprah, et al. It wasn't a bad team.
For a fleeting moment, the team really looked like a team that could achieve much. The Tide dismantled a decent South Florida team in Birmingham (the last game ever at Legion Field, it turned out), then played a No. 1-ranked Oklahoma team to the hilt in a night game in Tuscaloosa. That was a surreal moment in Alabama history: ESPN Gameday was in town, the atmosphere was a fever pitch ... and 'Bama played the absolute best it could, with Oklahoma making a handful of plays down the stretch to seal a hard-fought victory.
As it turned out, 2003 was full of those kinds of games. After beating a decent Kentucky team in Tuscaloosa to go 2-1, the wheels fell off for Shula's squad: Alabama lost at home to Northern Illinois (employing MIchael "The Burner" Turner), lost at Ole Miss and Georgia in blowout fashion, and lost multiple-overtime heartbreakers to Arkansas and Tennessee in Tuscaloosa. It was here that Alabama's lack of depth showed: Croyle separated his shoulder (but somehow kept playing), and Alabama's backfield was whittled down to the point that Shaud Williams was the lone reliable ballcarrier (Todd Bates' preseason suspension for ephedra use didn't help the defense, nor did Ray Hudson's suspension for marijuana possession).
Moreover, the disturbing pattern that would dog Shula's teams for most of his tenure at 'Bama showed in that stretch: his teams simply never rose to the occasion. The Arkansas loss was the most galling of all: Alabama led 31-10 in the third quarter, faltered down the stretch, made a few key mistakes and ultimately lost in double OT. That pattern repeated itself in the season-ending loss to Auburn: Alabama played gamely, couldn't hold off the Tigers and lost by 2 (a disinterested Tide team also lost its "bowl" game at Hawaii to finish 4-9).
The tragic figure of the '03 season, of course, was Williams, who transferred from Texas Tech to Alabama to play for Dennis Franchione (after Leach was hired at Tech), had to sit out the '01 season, had to deal with the announcement of the sanctions just after he arrived, finally broke into the lineup as a situational back in '02 ... and then the coach he came to play for fled the scene like the place was on fire. Williams also ardently spoke up for Price during that saga, openly weeping in front of the media when news of his ouster became public. And he played his absolute maximum for Shula on a terrible team that was doomed before it ever started.
'Bama fans like me were willing to forget about '03, for the most part, because of the promise '04 held. Everyone forgets this now. Croyle was returning as a junior (limbs intact). Hudson, Ken Darby, LeRon McClain and Timmy Castille were all back in the backfield. The offensive line was a veteran group. Tyrone Prothro was a breakout star. The defense, it turned out, was the best such unit in the country for much of the year. With a full year under its coach, '04 should've been a breakout year.
It was fun for about 15 minutes. Alabama dusted its first three opponents: Utah State, Ole Miss and Western Carolina. The offense looked sharp, particularly Croyle, who looked comfortable and playing in an offense he was born to quarterback.
Except the injuries kept coming. 'Bama lost Croyle, Hudson and Castille to torn ACLs. Croyle's loss was particularly crippling, as it left poor Spencer Pennington to quarterback an offense he never had any business running. To be completely fair to Pennington, he was a fantastic athlete who Franchione recruited to run the option. Given the right system and coach — Urban Meyer, for example — he probably would've been a perfectly adequate playmaker, someone who could make plays with his feet and freelance in the open field.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the situation in 2004. Pennington was a square peg in Shula's pro-style offense, which required precision timing and an accurate arm, two things he simply couldn't do. Even more befuddling, his head coach refused to do anything (seriously, not a frigging thing) in the way of adjustments that might've helped. I'm not kidding: no rollouts, quarterback draws ... nothing. The head coach just kept throwing him out there and crossing his fingers.
And so the 2004 season became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: opposing defenses stacked the line against Darby, who had no choice but to take his licks and come back for more. And Joe Kines' defense played as well as it could, kept every game close ... only the offense couldn't rise to the occasion at any point. This will become familiar.
(Note: Spencer was the tragic figure in '04, looking lost for most of the year, unable to make big plays vs. Tennessee, LSU or Auburn, then gave up football after the season to go play baseball.)
Conversations leading up to 2005, then, took on a familiar tone: no one was sure whether Shula could ever be a big-time head coach in the SEC, but no one knew exactly how much coaching prowess he had because his two teams had suffered so many injuries. He'll be fine, he just needs some players.
(Note: Around this time was when I moved back to the state after two years in Georgia. I was firmly in the "give him some time to get some players" camp, until multiple writers reminded me that he appeared to have no adaptive skills. I watched with great interest.)
The 2005 season was, of course, the one most people considered the "make or break" year for the head coach. Alabama solved its lack of a "signature win" under Shula by beating South Carolina and undefeated Florida (31-3), survived road tests in Mississippi (including a tough game vs. State led by, yes, Sylvester Croom) and finally exorcised the demons vs. Tennessee.
With Croyle finally healthy (really this time) and the backfield looking good, the offense finally clicked on all cylinders once or twice (vs. Carolina and Florida) and the defense was every bit as good as it had been the season before. The day of the Florida game, in October that year, Alabama looked every bit the part of the best team in the country.
Injuries cropped up again, though (of course they did). First it was Prothro, who suffered the most gruesome leg injury I ever remember watching live (seriously, it was so bad I didn't believe it happened at first). In November the offense lost J.B. Closner, which became a huge issue in the final two weeks of the season against blitz-happy LSU and hard-rushing Auburn.
The LSU game was the next "BIGGEST GAME EVER" that season: the Tigers were 9-1 that year, and Alabama was ranked third in the country. And like always, Alabama hung tough, couldn't make a play when it mattered and ultimately lost in overtime. The next week, Auburn thumped a disorganized Alabama team 28-18.
And it was here that the tide really started to turn against Shula, even after the dramatic bowl victory against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Even though he was unequivocally a nice guy, his teams kept falling short in big games. Even though he was a purported offensive guru in the NFL, his offenses had never performed at a high level. The defense had carried the offense on its back for two solid years, and — with the exception of the Florida game — his teams never beat anybody in anything that might be considered an "upset."
And so, 2006 played out like more of the same, as Alabama seemed best by a combination of lousy play-calling and pure bad luck. The famous "Leigh Tiffin Game" in Arkansas set the tone, followed by losses at Florida and Tennessee, a ghastly home loss to MIssissippi State and loss No. 5 to Auburn. In each and every game, the defense fought gamely to give the team a chance. In each game, the offense simply couldn't make a play when it mattered most.
There was speculation upon speculation after that. Some believed he'd be fired on the spot (you forget this now, but the blog we now call "Capstone Report" was originally called "FireShulaNow.com"). Others said he would relinquish his play-calling duties and get another year.
My wife actually woke me up the night it happened. "They're reporting coach Shula's been fired." I didn't really know how to react. I was, among my friends, one of Shula's most vocal critics, noting he was always getting outcoached, his teams always a play short where other teams weren't. Once they said he was gone for sure, though, I couldn't help but feel for a guy who had made the best of a bad situation.
To his eternal credit, he handled his termination like a class act to the very end: never had a tearful press conference downing the university, never wrote a damning tell-all book or gave a vindictive interview with ESPN and always talked about how much he loved Alabama. You don't really hear much anymore from the guy, now an assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars. I'd like to think he's happy for Alabama and its fans, now that we're back to the top of the mountain.
And if I ever see him, I guess I'll have no choice but to thank him. Doesn't seem like anybody else is going to.