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Tide Is Out

Tradition goes only so far at Alabama, with Franchione jumping ship and Riley not jumping at the opportunity

December 14, 2002|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

They got a name for the winners in the world;

I want a name when I lose.

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide.

Call me Deacon Blues.

-- Steely Dan, 1977

*

Classic rock, indeed.

A generation later, the eighth day of a mighty rough patch in Alabama's decorated football history passed Friday with another loss.

Suddenly, those looks of pity and mocking laughter aren't reserved exclusively for Southeastern Conference weakling Vanderbilt anymore.

Instead, the Tide has turned -- crimson, in anger and embarrassment:

* A steamroller has crushed the bobble-head dolls made to resemble former coach Dennis Franchione, who shocked the school by resigning Dec. 6 to move to Texas A&M.

* The school chose Friday to tell alum Mike Riley to get lost after he'd requested four more days before deciding if he should accept a coaching contract worth $1.3 million annually.

* And the "Bama Village" chat room topic with the most responses is titled, "Arrogance is killing our football program."

As the days dwindle to the 20th anniversary of famed Crimson Tide coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's final game, the mood surrounding the Tuscaloosa faithful has become as dreary and cold as on that 1982 night in Memphis when the frigid, aged Bryant paced away the final seconds of his career in the Liberty Bowl.

"We have a proud fan base," said Tommy Ford, director of the university's donor club, Tide Pride. "What has happened this week is a sensitive, emotional issue. Maintaining the tradition since Bryant left ... things haven't gone our way. We have to get over that and look to the future."

Doing so hasn't been made easier with so many significant public slaps in the face of one of the nation's most accomplished football programs.

Franchione was only days removed from his second season when he announced last week he was leaving. Weeks earlier, Franchione, who led the Crimson Tide to a 10-3 record, had turned down a 10-year contract extension.

That burned several 'Bama followers for several reasons, beyond the betrayal many felt at his unexpected departure as the team confronts four more years of NCAA probation, 21 lost scholarships and bowl game bans this year and next.

One Alabama fan said: "It's settled in my mind -- the dude knows he's a fraud, he's a liar, and no one trusts him at all."

When about 3,000 Franchione bobble-heads showed up in stores for Christmas sales, customers bought them, then disfigured them, swatting them at driving ranges and positioning them in the path of a steamroller.

Perhaps the biggest insult to Tide fans is that Franchione backtracked Bryant's steps from Texas A&M.

Bryant's time at Texas A&M, to be reenacted tonight in an ESPN movie, "The Junction Boys," ended in 1957, when he left the Aggies for Alabama. When asked why he would depart A&M for 'Bama, Bryant, who'd played at Alabama, replied with a legendary answer: "Mama called."

He then took the Tide on a 232-46-9 run that featured 13 SEC titles, 24 consecutive bowl game appearances and six national championships.

"An Aggie?" a Tide fan wrote of Franchione's move. "What is that?"

Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, acknowledged the elitist edge to Alabama followers.

"You know what the expectation and the standard is here," Gaddy said. "What college team doesn't put a national championship on top of their goal chart each year? That's reasonable here, and that's a positive -- to know you're a little higher up on the hill than everyone else."

Yet, Tide Pride's Ford conceded there is a second school of thought emerging: How the mighty have fallen.

South Florida Coach Jim Leavitt, a potential replacement for Franchione, declined to pursue Alabama's interest, accepting a $2.8-million, five-year deal at his school that left university President Judy Genshaft taunting, "Alabama, eat your heart out."

Wrote Kevin Scarbinsky of the Birmingham News: "Ouch. Dissed by a school where the coaches work in a trailer park. Someone might want to remind USF's madame president to look at next season's schedule. The Aug. 30 opener: South Florida at Alabama."

Scarbinsky lamented the Crimson Tide's dose of humility, adding, "The [NCAA] death penalty might not be as cruel and unusual as what's happened."

The Riley episode was more salt in the wound.

Riley, an assistant coach with the New Orleans Saints who was a Crimson Tide defensive back under Bryant and is a nephew of former Alabama basketball coach Hayden Riley, was the pick, despite his 1-15 record as the San Diego Chargers coach in 2000.

Instead of accepting a contract offer from Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore, Riley asked for a delay -- to consider the offer of a dollar-pinching West Coast school. With his family living in Southern California, Riley is expected to meet with UCLA's Dan Guerrero sometime after Sunday's Saints' game against Minnesota.

The Bruins' offer is expected to reach a maximum of $1 million, with incentives.

Time was, coaches would leave their families for a chance to lead 'Bama.

"Being a coach here is the top job in the state," Gaddy said.

Remaining candidates for the position include Washington State's Mike Price, Oklahoma State's Les Miles, Oklahoma assistant Mike Stoops and West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez.

In announcing Riley's elimination from consideration, Moore said, "There's been a lot of interest in this job -- I mean, a lot of interest -- from all over the country. It just takes time.

"It is imperative that we hire the best possible coach, someone who is a good fit ... and often that does not follow a set routine."

Meanwhile, Alabama is engaging in spin control.

"Hey, Notre Dame took three weeks to find its coach last year, and they ended up in a good situation," Larry White, Alabama's sports information director, said.

"Contrary to what might be perceived nationally, the sun has still risen all eight days we've been without a coach."

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