Turning the Tide? By hiring dashing young coach Mike Shula, Alabama meant to calm the storm swirling around its football program. Instead, it created a new controversy

May 18, 2003

The University of Alabama's decision to hire Mike Price last
December was bold, unexpected and more than a little
controversial. Price, then 56, was an offensive guru coming off
great success as the head coach at Washington State, but he had
no ties to Tuscaloosa, much less a working knowledge of the SEC.
And so, when Alabama fired Price after the coach's recent
strip-club adventure--Alabama President Robert Witt said Price
did not meet the responsibility of "conducting [his] life in
accord with appropriate standards" (SI, May 12)--it was not
surprising that the university wanted a replacement who would
raise as few eyebrows as possible. In 37-year-old Mike Shula, the
brand-named and boyishly earnest former Tide quarterback,
officials got Price's opposite--for better and for worse.

Supporters of Shula--who spent the previous three years as the
Miami Dolphins' quarterbacks coach--say the proof is in the
pedigree. Alabama athletic director Mal Moore, announcing the
hire on May 8, suggested that Shula's experience as the son of
football legend Don, as well as his tenure as an all-SEC
quarterback at Alabama in the mid-1980s, would help him deal with
the scrutiny that comes with representing the Crimson Tide. Ray
Perkins, who coached Mike in college and played for Don in the
NFL, sees similarities between the Shulas. "He's got an excellent
football mind," Perkins told the Tuscaloosa News of his former
pupil. "He's very organized, and he's a tireless worker. Of
course you know he's a great human being."

But take away the bloodlines and the Alabama background, and the
Tide's youngest head coach in 72 years is less obviously the man
for the job. In 15 seasons as an NFL offensive assistant, Shula
has served just one stint as a coordinator--with Tampa Bay, which
hired him in 1996 and let him go in '99 after the Bucs finished
28th or lower in total yards three of four years. He has never
held a head-coaching position at any level and has never been on
the staff of a college team.

These shortcomings are fueling just the sort of controversy that
Alabama had hoped to avoid. Moore confirmed late last week that
well-regarded coach Sylvester Croom, an African-American,
interviewed for the job on May 5, the day after Shula was
screened. Croom, 48, an All-America center under Bear Bryant who
has 10 years of college experience (as a linebackers coach at
Alabama) and 16 years of NFL assistant coaching on his resume,
seemed to be equally or more qualified than Shula. Although Moore
pointed out that Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome,
who is black, "supported Mike" when Moore consulted Newsome
during the hiring process, critics say that Croom didn't stand a
chance in the SEC, which has never had a black head coach in
football. "It's a sad day for Alabama," State Senator Charles
Steele said after the selection. Jesse Jackson, meanwhile,
announced plans to protest the university's failure to give due
consideration to minority candidates.

In the shadow of this criticism--which coincided with the
emergence of additional accounts of Price's fateful trip to
Pensacola, Fla.--Shula gave a press conference on Friday. His
voice often quavered. And he described a talk he had with his new
team. "I told the seniors that I don't want to hear about a
three-year or four-year plan," said Shula. "I want to win next
year." The statement might be idealistic, especially given that
due to NCAA infractions, Alabama has been stripped of 21
scholarships between 2002 and '04. But it also suggests that
Shula grasps this certainty about coaching the Crimson Tide: The
leash he is on is a short one. --Kelley King

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"David was a gifted, intelligent athlete, but he
suffered."--REMEMBERING DAVID WOODLEY (1958-2003), PAGE 26

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