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Crimson Pride

After a tumultuous off-season at Alabama, Mike Shula faces the uphill task of restoring ...

September 06, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama named Mike Shula its 26th football coach May 8, but don't get caught up in the numbers.

For example, Nos. 24 and 25 have all but been expunged, Soviet-style, from the historical records, banished to the punt, pass and kick gulag.

Punch in Mike Price's name on the "digital archive" computer screen at the Paul W. Bryant Museum and watch a tiny houndstooth hat icon scurry across the screen and produce ... nothing.

Price was coach No. 25.

Walk into the Bryant Museum's research wing and ask for information on Dennis Franchione, and watch the receptionist recoil at the sight of a reporter's notebook as she suggests, "You're trying to get me fired."

Franchione was coach No 24.

Although the Bryant Museum represents itself as a monument to Alabama football -- witness the Waterford crystal replica of Bear Bryant's hat that sparkles and spins on an axis like a car on a showroom floor -- there is not a single item associated with coaches No. 24 and 25.

Accident?

Think again.

The Franchione exhibit was ripped down shortly after the Crimson Tide coach abruptly left Alabama for Texas A&M last December.

As for his memorabilia, one museum worker said, "We use it to throw darts at."

Francione's two huge mistakes were:

* Leaving Alabama for A&M in a cruel, inverted twist of fate. In 1958, of course, Bryant left A&M to coach Alabama and led the Crimson Tide to six national titles.

* Not saying goodbye. Franchione never returned to Tuscaloosa to address the team after taking the A&M job and, thus, has forever been branded a coward.

"Never said anything to the public, just total abandonment," student Brian Jones said Thursday after picking up tickets for today's Oklahoma game.

Price, the ultimate outsider from Washington State who was named to replace Franchione, never coached a game at Alabama, having been fired in May for an alleged fling with a strip-club dancer in Pensacola, Fla.

There is one mention of Price's name in the 2003 Alabama media guide, on Page 293, summing up his stay as you might a death on a headstone: December 19, 2002, until May 3, 2003.

Enter Mike Shula, quarterback at Alabama from 1983 to '86 and son of the famous Don.

Mike was summoned to this Crimson inferno the way they used to call Red Adair to oil fires.

Alabama football was wounded and embarrassed, the players walking around in various states of moping.

"They had their guts cut out," one administrator said.

Shula had no previous head-coaching experience and only 115 days from the day he was hired until last week's opener against South Florida, but those shortcomings could be overlooked in the short term because Shula, more than anything, felt Alabama's pain.

He was, after all, one of them.

"I just think of myself as an alumnus," Shula said. "I was that way too. I felt for the players. Here I am, standing in front of my players, first time I ever met them. The seniors, redshirt juniors and seniors, I'm the fourth coach they're looking at."

That's right, four coaches since 1997: Mike DuBose, Franchione, Price and Shula.

Shula, 37 at the time of his hiring, is the youngest football coach at Alabama since Frank Thomas, who was 32 when he got the job in 1931.

Shula will have to get old in a hurry if he is to shepherd Alabama through one of its most turbulent patches.

The program is on probation for the second time in a decade, down 21 scholarships, and serving the second season of a two-year bowl ban.

Shula's opener was a success, as Alabama rallied from 17-7 down to beat South Florida, 40-17, last week at Legion Field in Birmingham.

Tonight, though, No. 1 Oklahoma arrives for a national TV game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It will be the first time Shula has trotted on the field here for a game since his senior year in 1986.

Shula says his return has sparked a flood of memories.

"I know we've got to win games, and do all those things," he said, "but it kind of feels, in a sense, that I've been in a time warp, a time capsule for the last 15 years."

Shula has spent his coaching life in the pros, most recently as the Miami Dolphins' quarterback coach. He said Alabama was the only college job he would have considered.

Shula is up against plenty as he takes over a program reeking in tradition but, more recently, just reeking.

For a school that has won 12 national titles and considers football success a birthright, a 42-31 record since 1997 is not tolerable.

It's different here; always has been.

Shula's insider pedigree helps, but it is no guarantee of success.

Alabama's most recent problems began in 1997 with the hiring of DuBose, who'd played for Bryant. It was under DuBose that the Crimson Tide began to list, on and off the field. It was DuBose who tainted the program, first with an extramarital affair, then as the coach of record during an NCAA probe that led to probation.

Alabama finished 10-3 last season under Franchione, the noted program builder, which made his abandonment tougher to take.

"We wouldn't be mad if he was a bad coach," one student said.

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