HOOVER, ALABAMA — He’s three years into his gig at the University of Alabama and if his comfort level handling the media is an indicator of the progress he’s made, then it’s safe to say that Mike Shula is feeling very much like he belongs. He enters the 2006 season with a team made up mostly of players he recruited, a coaching staff that he likes and a level of confidence that’s obvious.
As he stood in front of media from all over the nation at Wednesday’s SEC Media Days event, Shula seemed more comfortable than at any time since he took over in Tuscaloosa, the late-spring replacement for a replacement coach that was fired before he ever coached a game. Considering the circumstances in place when he took the job — a team fighting through the effects of a harsh NCAA probation and an embarrassing situation that led to Mike Price getting the axe — Shula has probably handled everything as well or even better than anyone could have expected. On the field, he’s improved from four wins to six and then to 10 in his previous three seasons, steady enough and solid enough that even the fickle what have you done for me lately Bama fans have to give him his due. Off the field, he’s been impeccable and that’s probably the best thing he could have possibly done. There hasn’t been a hint of scandal, his personal life is squeaky clean and he’s graduating players at an admirable rate.
Shula is young, good looking, personable, well spoken and an Alabama grad that most folks in these parts remember fondly from his playing days when he was considered somewhat of an over-achiever of a quarterback. He’s had to use every one of these positive factors to his advantage in the last three years to overcome the negative perceptions of NCAA probation as well as the stratospherically high expectations of Alabama fans. On one hand, Alabama fans were quick to blame the NCAA for the scholarship limitations that brought the football program to its knees. On the other hand, this being Alabama, the school with all those national championship banners and the presence of Bear Bryant, whom a lot of folks are unaware died 23 years ago, a surprisingly large number of the faithful think that diminished scholarship numbers and NCAA sanctions are no excuse for finishing outside the top 10 in the national polls.
Those always-high, no-excuses expectations of Alabama fans have made Shula daily fodder on the talk radio circuit. There may not be another school in the country where every win and ever loss is so thoroughly analyzed. If he wins by one point, people ask why he didn’t win by 21. A loss and the talk circuit is loaded up with callers claiming that their best friend’s uncle’s fourth cousin’s wife is the next door neighbor to a guy who knows someone on the search committee that’s been rounded up to find the next Bear Bryant.
This is that rare southern state where there are more University of Alabama fans than Baptists, a place where folks forget that Bear actually had seasons when he lost games and didn’t win the national title. Let Mike Shula win a national championship and they’ll just be starting to paint the streets of downtown Birmingham red when the phone lines on the talk show circuit start burning up with callers claiming he’s only got five more to go to match what Bear did.
The criticism of Shula was relentless in years one and two when he produced a grand total of 10 wins, the same number, Bama fans will tell you that Bear got in his bad seasons. Getting to 10 wins last year is considered a breakthrough, a sign to the Bama faithful that the good times are back, not just around the corner.
Of course, with good times come those expectations and getting 10 wins last year earned Shula a mulligan until spring practice, which in terms of importance ranks second only to the football in the fall as most important sport in Alabama. The mulligan ended back in mid-April and ever since, the fertile minds and imaginations of Alabama fans have grown wild with expectation.
Alabama fans call Paul Finebaum’s radio show daily peppering him with questions like “Do you think Alabama will go 15-0 and win the national championship this year?” When Finebaum replies that he thinks 9-3 is a realistic goal for Alabama given the fact that there’s a new quarterback, seven new starters on defense and a brutal schedule, the Bama fans in Finebaum’s audience go ballistic and call Finebaum an Auburn homer.
Needless to say, Mike Shula is well aware that however unrealistic the expectations are, that’s just life its own self in Alabama. He knew what he was getting into when he signed a football scholarship to Alabama to play for Ray Perkins back in the 80s and he knew exactly what he was getting into when “destiny” led him to replace Mike Price in the spring of 2003.
This might be where the pedigree comes in to play. After all, he’s the son of Don Shula, the winningest NFL coach ever, and The Bear wasn’t even cold in the grave when Mike arrived on the Alabama campus as a freshman. He’s grown up in high profile environments where expectations rarely connect with reality. The hot seat comes with the territory.
“Maybe I’ve had an advantage growing up and seeing my dad, all the things he’s gone through winning and losing, the media, those type of things help you understand that when you get into this position,” he said.
So he knows the hot seat from several perspectives. Maybe he doesn’t embrace it, but he is aware of it well enough to understand how to deal with it and know that it isn’t going to go away.
“The minute you think you’re not on the hot seat is when you get yourself in trouble,” said Shula Wednesday afternoon.
When he arrived at the Wynfrey Hotel Wednesday, he got a quick reminder of just how hot the seat is now and how hot it’s going to be in September once the season begins. The lobby of the hotel was filled with Alabama fans seeking autographs. Everybody wants a Shula autograph right now. That might not be the case if the Crimson Tide loses a couple of games before November gets here.
In the crowd of fans were several wearing houndstooth hats, replicas of the one that was Bear Bryant’s trademark. The hats were probably purchased at the Alabama football paraphernalia store that’s just 10 or 15 steps away from the hotel lobby in the Galleria Mall.
The hats are a graphic reminder that any level of success he achieves at the University of Alabama will always be measured by the success of Bear Bryant. He can’t control what Bear Bryant did just as he can’t control the unrealistic expectations of this very rabid fan base. All he can do is do the best he can to turn the expectations and the winning traditions established by Bryant into positives that he can use to continue selling his program and motivating his team.
The positives are plenty. He’s had three recruiting classes so the team he will put on the field this fall will be made up mostly of players he has recruited. That’s created a comfort level and there is further comfort in a stable coaching staff that includes old-timers and former head coaches like Joe Kines, Sparky Woods and Dave Rader. Last year he had 14 players on the field that had already earned their college degrees. By the time December rolls around this year, he’ll have at least 11 on the field with a degree. So the positives are plenty.
All those positive elements are good things to have but if Mike Shula doesn’t win, all the positives won’t matter a hill of beans. The same crowds that greet him enthusiastically here at the Wynfrey Hotel might be the same folks calling for his head if he doesn’t win big this year.
“I wish as a player I was exposed to that much excitement in the offseason that I am now as a coach,” he said. “It’s something that with the excitement comes high expectations. Nobody realizes that more than we do as coaches. We remind ourselves that each and ever day, how important it is to come to work and know you have to worry about the things you can control and give your best each and every day and have that be contagious with your players.”
The only kind of contagious that Alabama fans will stand for this fall is winning. They’ll tell you that Mike Shula is a great guy, a nice guy, a heckuva football coach right now. Let’s see what they’re saying when November rolls around.