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Shula Hopes to Turn the Tide

Walking in the shadow of Bear Bryant, first-year Alabama coach tries to restore a program that has been in decline for 10 years.

August 17, 2003|From Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nine-year-old Mike Shula tagged along with his famous father to the 1975 Orange Bowl between Alabama and Notre Dame.

Standing outside the Irish locker room before the game, Mike Shula looked down a long, dark corridor and saw the shadow of an imposing figure in a houndstooth cap.

The figure, of course, was Bear Bryant, the coach who built the Crimson Tide into one of college football's premier programs.

Bryant's shadow will be tough to avoid these days for Shula, the new Alabama football coach. It's everywhere he goes on campus.

Shula will coach his games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, located on Bryant Drive just a stone's throw from Bryant Hall, Bryant Convention Center and the Bryant Museum.

"We all know the standards Coach Bryant set and it's something for us all to shoot for," Shula said. "We're no different. No one will ever be Coach Bryant and no one will ever try to be. I will try to be the best coach I can be and lead this team to the national championship."

A walk through the Bryant Museum offers a quick reminder about how hard that's been. There are displays for each of the school's six national titles -- five won under Bryant but only one in the 20 years since he left.

The mural honoring the men who followed the Bear in the most important job in the state offers a telling story.

There's a tribute to a champion like Gene Stallings, an outsider like Bill Curry and even a failure like Mike DuBose. But for now, there's no mention of the two coaches who made this past year so difficult for what once was one of college football's premier programs.

As easy as it may be for a museum to avoid the history of Dennis Franchione, who sneaked off in the middle of the night for Texas A&M last December, and Mike Price, who was fired after partying with strippers in May, the memories are impossible to erase for Alabama fans.

"Alabama football is something for people to be so proud of," said former Tide player Mike Flax, the author of the book "Crimson Slide," which chronicles the program's fall from glory.

"You can say what you want about the state. You can call us rednecks, talk about our racial problems, say we can't read and write. But we could always beat you in football. When the football team has problems, people don't have much to be proud of."

Never before has the fight song that proclaims "You're Dixie's football pride Crimson Tide" been less apt.

From the Waysider Diner in Tuscaloosa where Bryant used to eat breakfast to the malls outside Birmingham where fans purchase their latest Tide gear, Tide fans are searching for something to be proud of.

"Just when it didn't seem like things could get any worse, we were slapped in the face twice. Hard," said Clem Gryska, a former Tide player and longtime assistant to Bryant.

Alabama is in a 10-year slide that began just hours after its last national championship when Antonio Langham signed with an agent on a cocktail napkin. The program is at its lowest point since Bryant arrived in 1958 to revive a team that won four games the previous three years.

Two probations for breaking NCAA rules have led to three bowl bans and crippling scholarship reductions that will take years to overcome. Facilities were allowed to slip behind the times as the Tide's weight room and practice facilities were ranked among the worst in the SEC.

Then there were the problems with the coaches. DuBose lied about a relationship with his secretary and then resigned in the middle of a 3-8 season.

Many prominent coaches didn't even want the job, leaving the Tide to go after Franchione. As quickly as Franchione became beloved in Alabama, he broke the fans' hearts with his midnight escape to Texas A&M.

Then Price capped it all off with his scandal that made the Tide a laughingstock.

"It has been a black eye for the program," said athletic director Mal Moore, who played for and coached under Bryant. "It's been tough for the alumni because they have so much pride in the university. It's been tough for me, no question. But the people I felt for most were the players."

The players have endured, working even harder to get ready for the upcoming season. Their travails have even generated pity from their intrastate rivals at Auburn.

"They went through a lot of adversity," Tigers linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "I'm just glad I'm not there."

Building the Tide back up from the depths of the past few years will be a weighty task. Especially for a man who has never been a head coach at any level and wasn't involved in college football from his final game as a player in 1986 until he was hired May 8 -- less than four months before the season opener.

Shula will get a "honeymoon period" because of the circumstances he inherited, said Curry, who was always viewed as an outsider in his three years in Tuscaloosa.

"People say, 'Mike Shula, he's one of ours. He lined up for the Crimson Tide. He's a great person. He's smart and by golly he does have an amazing coaching pedigree. His daddy happens to be the winningest coach in the NFL,' " Curry said. "If he has a couple of rough years, he will get the support through the hard times that someone else wouldn't."

"But sooner or later, you have to beat Auburn, and you have to win SEC championships and be in the hunt for national championships fairly regularly."

That's pressure that Shula understands and embraces. "We're at Alabama. We should go out and take the field thinking we can win every week," he said. "If we don't we shouldn't be here."

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