New Alabama Coach Gene Stallings was standing on the practice field in Tuscaloosa last Friday afternoon in the sweltering late-summer heat, reflecting on having been fired in 1971 from his first job as a college head coach, at Texas A&M. "After it was all over, Ford Albritton, a member of the A&M board of trustees and a friend of mine, asked me if I had to do it over again, what would I do differently," said Stallings. "I said, 'Well, I'd still make the players go to class, I'd still make them work toward their degrees, I'd still make them come to practice and work hard. I guess I wouldn't do anything different.'
"And Ford said, 'We'd fire you again.' "
Stallings, 55, one of the nicest men in college football, shook with laughter at the memory. But the need to do things differently, he said, made an impression on him that he never forgot. That's why he held the Crimson Tide's final practice of last week on artificial turf—the surface on which Saturday's game at Bryant-Denny Stadium would be played. The week before, he said, when 'Bama also played on a rug at Legion Field in Birmingham, "we held our final practice on the natural grass field before the Southern Miss game—and we lost."
Clearly, switching surfaces of the practice field was not a different enough approach. Alabama lost again, this time 17-13 to Florida, whose players had to walk past a sign en route to the stadium that read MAKE LUGGAGE OUT OF THE GATORS. However, it looks as if the Crimson Tide might end up packing its bags for a trip to hell in 1990. With seemingly certain defeats looming to Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn, 'Bama could struggle to a 6-5 finish—and that's assuming it can get by Penn State and LSU. Who knows, Alabama may be on its way to its worst season since 1957, when Ears Whitworth coached the Tide to a 2-7-1 record. Bear Bryant took over in '58.
Crimson Tide fans haven't liked a single one of their coaches since Bryant retired in 1982. His successor, Ray Perkins, who played for Bryant at Alabama, was downright surly and eventually returned to the NFL after the '86 season to chase bigger bucks at Tampa Bay. Basically, 'Bama fans didn't like him because he wasn't Bear.
Perkins was followed by Bill Curry, but he had no Alabama connections and was a poor recruiter. Although he led the Tide to a 10-2 record and the SEC championship last season, he left Tuscaloosa for Kentucky. Basically, 'Bama fans didn't like him because he wasn't Bear. They wanted someone who played for Bear, who coached under Bear, who talks like Bear, who looks like Bear, who has pictures of Bear in his office.
They got what they wanted in Stallings, who had been fired by the Phoenix Cardinals in the middle of the 1989 NFL season after three seasons as head coach. "I love it in his shadow," says Stallings of Bryant. Bear had always wanted Stallings to coach the Crimson Tide someday, and Stallings brought back some of Bear's assistants, including offensive coordinator Mai Moore. But now that 'Bama fans have Stallings, they're still not happy. Basically, they don't like him because he's 0-2.
Birmingham radio talk-show host Ben Cook thinks he knows how to make 'Bama fans happy. "Alabama should drop football," says Cook. "Then every fall, pick a year from the past, put up big-screen televisions throughout the stadium, sell tickets and show a game film each Saturday from the good old days. Bryant would be back coaching, which is what they want, and they'd win all the time. It's the perfect solution."
For sure, the current goings-on are nobody's solution. Some 'Bama fans are apoplectic, others furious, others merely embarrassed. The call-in shows are already heating up with conversation—you better sit down for this—about whether Stallings should be fired. Fans are only slightly less put out with Moore, a rare elevation to public attention—and ridicule—for an assistant coach. Says Stallings, "I'm doing the best I can. The fans remember the glory years. I do too. The fans want them back. I do too."
However, the loss to Florida before 70,123 ticked-off fans in Tuscaloosa—coupled with the 27-24 defeat to Southern Miss before 75,962 equally ticked-off fans in Birmingham—leads one to believe that Alabama's return to glory will have to be put on hold while the issue of survival is addressed. Indeed, the best analysis of this once-proud team—the Tide has won or shared 11 national championships and 19 SEC titles and has appeared in 41 bowl games, tops in the nation—was articulated by F.G. Hocutt, 85, a retired undertaker who has attended every Alabama practice since 1927: "Some of the players are good. There's a bigger bunch that ain't."
Last year 'Bama led the SEC in total offense, piling up 434 yards a game. Against Florida's admittedly tenacious defense, it got just 304. Tide quarterback Gary Hollingsworth, the conference's Offensive Player of the Year in 1989, completed a so-so 14 of 28 passes for a paltry 162 yards and looked lost. He threw three interceptions, all of them to Gator safety Will White, who said Hollingsworth made his job simple. "He really looks at his receivers," said White.
Hollingsworth's second completion to White is what really did in Alabama. With 3:35 left in the third quarter, the Tide had rolled down to the Gator 14 and looked to be heading for a touchdown that would give it a commanding 17-7 lead. But then Hollingsworth, looking at tight end La-monde Russell almost constantly from the time 'Bama left the huddle, tried to throw him the pass. "It was easy to intercept it, really," said White later.
Still, White was dropped on his own two-yard line, meaning that the Florida offense would be operating from decidedly disadvantageous field position. On first down, Gator quarterback Shane Matthews dropped back into the end zone, planted his right foot and heaved the ball as far as he could. It landed in the soft hands of wide receiver Ernie Mills for a 70-yard gain. Six plays later, Florida settled for a 33-yard field goal, which evened the score at 10-10.
Just 1:43 after that, Alabama's Stan Moss, who had dropped a snap from center in the Southern Miss game, stood ready to punt from his own 15. The snap arrived only momentarily before corner-back Jimmy Spencer did. Barely brush blocked as he sliced in from the right side, Spencer got both hands on the punt. "I was standing in front of him when he tried to kick it," said Spencer after the game. "He was kind of fumbling with the ball, and I got to thinking maybe it was a trick play."
It wasn't. The blocked kick popped 12 feet into the air and floated down into the waiting hands of cornerback Richard Fain, who was standing in the end zone. Fain, who spent 10 days vacationing during the summer with fellow Fort Myers, Fla., schoolboy pal Deion (Prime Time) Sanders, is called Cable Ready by his friends. This, however, was a Prime Time play. Suddenly, Florida was ahead 17-10, having scored 17 points in slightly more than eight minutes. From that point on, the Crimson Tide's punchless offense could only muster another field goal.
Alabama has plenty of excuses for its lackluster start. The best one is that tailback Siran Stacy, the SEC's leading scorer last year (18 touchdowns), is out for the season after tearing ligaments in his right knee against Southern Miss. But Crimson Tide fans are into winning, not excuses. Some consider it an omen that Stallings's career coaching record—with Texas A&M, the Cardinals and Alabama—is 50-81-2. Says Stallings, "I don't think it's very good, either."
What is good is the magic Florida coach Steve Spurrier—he's such a magician that last season he led Duke to its first bowl appearance in 29 years—is working with the Gators. He won the Heisman Trophy as Florida's quarterback in 1966 and is still the biggest sports hero ever to come out of the school. Most important for the university's reputation, he is said to be squeaky clean.
Former coach Charley Pell, who was fired in '84, besmirched the football program during his six-year tenure, and the NCAA ultimately found Florida guilty of 59 recruiting violations. The Gators were on NCAA probation for three years, '85 through '87. Pell's successor, Galen Hall, also got into hot water with the NCAA. Before resigning under pressure last October, he admitted to having paid two of his assistants a total of $22,000 in bonuses from out of his pocket between '86 and '88. The NCAA is expected to hand down its verdict on this violation and a number of others, including several committed by the Florida basketball program, as early as this week. Additional sanctions are considered very likely.
Overriding all else in Gainesville has been the serial slayings of five students in late August. No one had been charged by week's end, and the town remained manifestly fearful. Said Spencer after Saturday's game, "The players, like everyone else, were completely depressed. So we just tried to stick together. But I admit it has been very hard to keep our minds on football."
Nonetheless, Spurrier has done a masterly job of installing a sophisticated passing offense—and calling the plays for it. Matthews, who was only the fifth-string quarterback last spring, is extraordinarily calm but throws an extraordinarily soft ball. He must develop zip. With Spurrier, plus two other former standout Florida quarterbacks, John Reaves and Kerwin Bell, on the staff, Matthews says he has no excuse for not improving.
Back are the Gators' traditional blue home jerseys, which were replaced by garish orange ones more than 20 years ago. Back is the natural grass at storied Florida Field, put in at a cost of $610,000 after a two-year-old artificial-turf field was ripped up. Says linebacker Jerry Odom, "It's like Coach Spurrier is bringing back everything that was good."
Certainly the 2-0 Gators have been good so far. Exactly how good they are is a determination that will await more Saturdays. They're surely not as good as the USA Today computer concluded when it ranked Florida No. 1 after its 50-7 blowout of Oklahoma State on Sept. 8. "That's really funny," says Fain. "But fun." Presumably, USA Today technicians have been working day and night on that recalcitrant computer.
Meanwhile, outside Bryant-Denny Stadium after Saturday's game, a disgruntled vendor admitted she had not sold even one of the bumper stickers on the table in front of her. The stickers read, IT'S HARD TO BE HUMBLE WHEN YOU'RE FROM BAMA. It's getting easier—fast.