The 2003 season–the Mike Shula Era of Alabama football–begins at 2 p.m. CDT Saturday when Bama hosts South Florida at Legion Field in Birmingham. The game will be telecast by ESPN.
Alabama will go to Birmingham Friday evening, have dinner and a meeting, and then may have a final meeting Saturday morning. Reporters had asked if his Friday night routine would include a movie, as it had in the Mike DuBose Era (and before), or if it would be the lockdown that was the Dennis Franchione method of the past two years. “Something in between, I guess,” Shula said. And, a reporter wanted to know, “The players will be allowed to talk during dinner?” Shula laughed and said, yes, they would.
”It’s finally here–Game Week,” Shula said in opening his weekly press briefing. “It’s something we’ve all been looking forward to. I can see the players are a little more excited than they have been over the past three weeks. You can feel it on campus.”
He added, “We need to play a game. And we want our players to go out and just play–not think, but just play and have fun.”
The first-year head coach said that for him personally he expects the excitement to grow each day towards the weekend. “We’re excited that it’s here,” he said. “We’ve been through a summer and a fall practice camp that we’ll never forget. The guys have done everything we’ve asked of them.”
It has been difficult for the coaching staff. “We have been detail-oriented,” Shula said. “Every decision we made we were making for the first time, so we went over things very thoroughly. Our staff meetings have run longer this year than they will be later.” And while everything is new to Shula as a first-time head coach, he said he is enjoying it and looks forward “to all the newness of this job.”
He also said that he is happy to be back at his alma mater, where he has “so many great memories.” And he said that fan support “has been unbelievable for me, my wife, and family. It’s one of the reasons we came here. But now we’ve got to win games.”
Shula said game-week preparation means the Tide “will be doing a little less physically insofar as conditioning and hitting. It’s more mental now.”
He said that the emphasis had been on the players and staff coming together as a team, every many doing his job. “We’ve talked to our guys about the feeling that comes from winning,” Shula said. “We have 13 opportunities this year, and we were going to prepare as hard as we could for the seniors. And that’s what we’ve done.”
There is a perception that Alabama will not have an extensive offensive package this year because this staff was not in place during spring practice. But Shula said he is satisfied that Alabama has an adequate plan and that the players will be prepared to execute it.
Shula is also aware that he is considered a young coach. “This is my 16th year of coaching and this is far and away the greatest age ap I’ve had with my players,” the 38-year-old Shula said. “In fact, I coached 10 years (in the NFL) before I coached a guy who was younger than me.”
Alabama is fast running out of games at Legion Field. The current contract calls for three more Alabama appearances–Saturday’s game, the 2005 opener against Middle Tennessee State, and a final game in either 2007 or 2008. Shula admitted that he had “a lot of great memories of Legion Field. We had some disappointing losses, too, but mostly great memories. I’m sure that will mean more to me when we go out on the field Saturday.”
Shula isn’t thinking about “holding anything back” against South Florida. “We’ve got to prepare for this game and do whatever we can to win it,” the Tide coach said. “This is a very good South Florida team. They were 9-2 last year with the only losses road games at Oklahoma and Arkansas. They have great speed. And they were 16th in the nation in defense last year.”
Shula was an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Bucs when the South Florida football program was begun. Although he said he does not know South Florida Coach Jim Leavitt well, Shula said he has great admiration for what Leavitt has done in establishing the Bulls. (A little sidenote is that Leavitt was one of the men considered for Alabama’s head coaching job following the departure of Dennis Franchione at the end of last season. Leavitt was not offered the Tide job and has since signed a new contract with South Florida.)
Shula is not going to be trapped into saying that any player is destined for a redshirt season, because circumstances can change the status of a player. However, he indicates that at least three offensive linemen and three wide receivers are likely to be held out. He also said he did not foresee freshman defensive tackle Dominic Lee being redshirted, that Lee has moved into the rotation.
He also said that redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark would start at defensive tackle, ahead of Ahmad Childress, who has been absent a great deal with an ankle problem. Shula added that he expects all of the defensive linewmen to play about an equal numbe of snaps.
Although a depth chart was issued Monday, Shula said there is “a lot of flexibility” in that listing and that some who are listed as starters might not be when Saturday arrives.
Shula reiterated that the coaches and players are anxious to get the season underway. He added, “If the team meshes as well as the coaches have, we’ll be fine.”