An Aug. 7 Sports article incorrectly described former University of Alabama football coach Bill Curry as a former Alabama player and a favorite of longtime coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Curry played at Georgia Tech. (Published 8/9/2005)
When the University of Alabama football team finished with one of the worst records in school history in Mike Shula's rookie season as a head coach in 2003, the former Crimson Tide quarterback didn't receive much of the blame. When Alabama limped to a 6-5 record in the regular season last year, and then lost to Minnesota in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, some college football observers commended Shula for one of the better coaching jobs in the country.
But as Shula prepares for his third season at Alabama, his grace period may be nearing an end. Finally, after five years of NCAA probation that included the loss of nearly two dozen scholarships and a two-year bowl ban, the Crimson Tide is nearly back at full strength. With 77 scholarship players (the NCAA maximum is 85) on its roster, including nine starters back from a defense that ranked second in Division I-A in 2004, many believe the Crimson Tide could challenge Auburn and LSU in the Southeastern Conference's West Division.
"I think we're close," Shula said during last week's SEC preseason news conference. "But close is a dangerous word. Close can get you fired, too. Close can get you on the hot seat if you don't think you're on it."
Shula, the son of NFL Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, is probably on the hot seat at Alabama, which has had seven coaches since Paul "Bear" Bryant retired after the 1982 season. Shula's 10-15 record in two seasons is the worst start by a Crimson Tide coach since J.B. "Ears" Whitworth went 2-17-1 during the 1955 and 1956 seasons. When Alabama finished 2-7-1 in 1957, Whitworth was fired, and the Tide hired Bryant, who led the team to at least a share of six national championships and 13 SEC titles.
Crimson Tide fans have showed more patience with Shula because they consider him one of their own and because they had grown tired of coaches they considered "outsiders." Dennis Franchione bolted for Texas A&M after only two seasons because he found the task of rebuilding the Crimson Tide too great. Alabama then hired Mike Price from Washington State, but he was fired for his off-field behavior before coaching a game.
Enter Shula, who had never been a head coach and whose coaching experience had come entirely in the NFL. Shula's Alabama roots and famous last name helped him get the job over NFL assistant Sylvester Croom, another former Crimson Tide player and now the coach at Mississippi State. But being a former Alabama football star gets you only so far with the school's fickle fan base -- Ray Perkins and Bill Curry, two of Bryant's favorite players, were forced out after each won 10 games in his final season as the Tide's coach.
During his first two seasons, Shula often seemed to be a deer stuck in headlights. He was uncomfortable speaking in front of media and alumni groups, often stumbling through his speeches. He made coaching mistakes and sometimes seemed overwhelmed on the sideline. One of his worst errors came during his first season, when he inserted injured quarterback Brodie Croyle into a bad loss at Georgia. Croyle separated his shoulder on a vicious tackle and was lost for the rest of the season. The Tide finished 4-9 in 2003 -- only the second time it lost more than eight games in a season -- and was beaten by Northern Illinois and Hawaii.
But Shula, 40, seems to have grown into the job. He is more comfortable speaking in public after working with public relations specialists, and he and his staff continue to out-recruit rival Auburn, despite the Tigers finishing 13-0 last season. In June, Alabama gave Shula a one-year contract extension through the 2010 season but didn't increase his $900,000 salary. So for the first time, the Tide's basketball coach is being paid more than the football coach. Mark Gottfried received a new six-year contract in June that pays him more than $1 million annually.
"At Alabama, you're always on the hot seat," said Croyle, now a senior. "You can win the national title the year before and you can win eight games the next year and you'll be on the hot seat. That's what makes it fun about coaching here and playing here. You better perform every week or you'll be on the hot seat."