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Monday, November 27, 2006

Sweet Home Alabama!


Since Bear Bryant retired 24 years ago, the Crimson Tide have given seven men the opportunity to coach the school's beloved football team. Sounds like the succession plan that UCLA tried for John Wooden (where the best of the would-be successors, Denny Crum, bolted Westwood for Louisville and won two national titles of his own). Many tried, but none succeeded.

But lest I digress. . .

Alabama fired Mike Shula today, and the articles that I read made it seem like it was death by 1,000 cuts. The AD praised the now-former coach in many ways, but not in all ways. He was the only Tide coach to lose to Auburn for four straight years, and, well, that was enough for the faithful.

So now Alabama is on the market for a new coach. I am sure that rumors are abounding. I, for one, would recommend Rutgers' Greg Schiano. I know, Coach Schiano has publicly stated that he loves Rutgers, but he has not publicly stated that he would not leave. And, yes, he was the defensive coordinator at Miami and has been linked to that job, but why would anyone want to walk into that hornets' nest, read: clean it up bigtime but you had better win a national title and quickly, too? Alabama is a storied program and one without the warts that Miami currently has. Schiano may be available for this position.

But amidst all of this the one thing I would preach is patience, which is sorely lacking these days in major college revenue sports. The reasons are pretty apparent. First, these sports fund the rest of the athletic budget. Have a slump and the entire department could suffer. Two, they're a certain tonic for alumni, state residents and students alike, perhaps too much so. I don't know about you, but I don't get too down when the home team loses (okay, so I live in suburban Philadelphia, and we've significantly lowered our expectations over the years because we've endured a long championship drought and college football just isn't that big). Perhaps if the students had a little more to do -- like study harder -- and the alumni weren't so involved, things would be different. Third, the teams are inextricably linked to the school's brand name, even if I still would like to see evidence that successful teams add to the school's annual giving and planned giving coffers, increase the number of kids who apply to the school and help the school get a higher quality of applicant. It seems to me like this approach is akin to buying mutual funds by selecting the ones that were on the top ten lists last year, but that's just me. There are other reasons which escape me this late at night, when I'm a bit frustrated because the stuff I want to get the kids for the holidays that came well hyped in the catalog isn't available over the internet.

You have to remember one of the greatest examples in patience, both by the coach and the school. In the late 1940's, the hoops coach at Purdue was looking for a new job. The University of Minnesota had him all but signed up, but they delayed inexplicably, and a nice athletic director at a state university in California pursued the Purdue coach and offered him the men's hoops job. It wasn't that prestigious a job, there wasn't much tradition, the basketball court was an embarrassment, in an old building, and the coach sometimes had to sweep the floor, but the Purdue coach took it. Gradually he worked toward building a better program, and it wasn't until 1965 -- 15 years after this coach got to this California school, that the coach won his first national championship, when he was something like 54 years old. The coach? John Wooden. The school: UCLA. And we all know that Mr. Wooden won a bunch of titles after that.

In today's market, few coaches last that long, especially at schools like Alabama, with their heralded football traditions. There could be an engaging, inspiring 35 year-old coordinator out there who would be deserving of the job, but who might not get it because he doesn't have a high enough profile. That would be a shame -- for the school and for him. But the thing of it is that you have to win pretty quickly or else you'll lose your job. In Alabama's case in the post-Bryant era, you have to win in 3 years or else.

So perhaps the predicament is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don't win because you hire the wrong guys, because you're not patient, or because the coaches feel so much pressure since the administration has such a quick hook that they don't build for the long term. How much of a program can you build in 2 years? Perhaps that means you're not planting proper seeds with high school coaches, or you're not taking the right kids, looking for quick fixes instead of the types of kids that win you titles. I'm just speculating, but given the coaching merry-go-round, how many kids would want to cast their lot with Alabama? How can they be confident that the head coach who recruits them won't get fired in three years, even if he has a five-year evergreen contract (so that coaches can tell recruits that they'll be there in five years)?

They can't be confident, is what, and then you hear the rumors in the recruiting ranks, "well, son, sometimes when a new coach comes in and you're an upperclassman it can be bad news. If the team was losing, the new coach might want to weed out the guys who didn't win. He might bring in a bunch of his own recruits, might not renew scholarships, might want a total re-do. Face it, the seniors could get buried." Eighteen year-old star athletes want to live in a world where fairy tales exist and they'll make the key blocks or catch the important passes, where they escort the homecoming queen during a fun-filled senior year. They don't want to have to worry about coaches getting fired when they're juniors.

So the choice is Alabama's. Who will they hire and how patient will they be? They have to hire a guy with the right motor and tough enough to stand up to the rigors of the SEC. But they also have to give him a chance to build the program the right way.

How patient they are will dictate how successful they become.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is that Mal Moore believes that money can speed up progress.....he's the only common denominator in Bama's decline since 1999

10:55 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

The Wooden story has another angle to it that you won't see any more I don't think. I can't recall off hand where Wooden was when he took the UCLA job, but I don't think it was Purdue. The reason I don't think it was Purdue was because two years into his three year contract at UCLA, Purdue offered Wooden their head coaching job. As you wrote, the UCLA job wasn't good. The facilities stunk, literally. Wooden was a Purdue alum. The Purdue job paid way more than UCLA, came with a house and a car, if I recall.

Wooden walked into the UCLA AD's office and asked if the AD would release him from the last year of the contract. Nope. The AD said that Wooden insisted on a three year contract and they expected him to live up to his end of the three year contract bargain.

Wooden was not pleased. However, he knew that the AD was right and that he had to live up to the contract that he had insisted on and signed. He stayed with UCLA and, as you wrote, the rest is basketball history.

I don't think either the universities nor the coaches take their contracts as seriously as UCLA and Coach Wooden did back in the late 1940s.

2:59 PM  

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