Be Thankful For Shula

Mike Shula is Bama's driving force

Except for the number 19 men's basketball team playing in the Great Alaska Shootout, all is quiet on The University of Alabama athletics front this week and weekend. Which is about as it should be. A mostly empty Crimson Tide athletics schedule gives players, coaches and fans time to focus on what is most important: their families during this Thanksgiving holiday.

Most of you, I'm sure, were able to gather with family and friends and give thanks Thursday before digging into turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

Most of us will have more pressing and worthy matters on our minds than the sports world, but if you find room (as I'm sure some of you will) to give thanks for sports, be sure to include Mike Shula on your list.

It might be hard to see, what with the 6-5 record and disappointing Iron Bowl defeat to Auburn, but Shula definitely has the Alabama football program moving in the right direction. In his second season, the young Tide head coach has turned a program flailing in turmoil into a bowl team, and a team with potential to burn.

Sure, the bowl will have "Music City," "Independence" or "Peach" attached–not "Orange" or "Sugar" or "Fiesta" as the other "school down the road" will, but considering the past three seasons–and a 4-9 record in 2003–any bowl must be considered significant progress.

The driving force behind it all? Shula.

In May 2003, he flew in from Miami and picked up the pieces of a program that had been shattered by NCAA probation and the untimely departures of Dennis Franchione and Mike Price.

He cobbled together a coaching staff and offensive system and then suffered through predictable results last fall.

While some less-than-informed fans called for the heads of Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines, Secondary Coach Chris Ball and Offensive Line Coach Bobby Connelly to be brought on sticks to a bonfire under Denny Chimes, Shula stood pat, saying enough change was enough.

His only change was swapping Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Pollard for Kent Johnston, a move that has yet to produce huge dividends, considering the amount of injuries on the Tide roster this fall.

Otherwise, his call for consistency paid off. Under Kines, the Tide developed into one of the nation's stingiest defenses this fall. Ball (who turned down Price's offer to become UTEP's defensive coordinator) and Connelly turned their units into two of the team's steadiest this season.

Alabama's players on both sides of the ball seemed far more comfortable this fall than they did a year ago, a sure sign that a second season under Shula's systems made a big difference.

Good thing, because far more Tide players needed a comfort level this fall.

Starting with Brodie Croyle's torn right anterior cruciate ligament and continuing right through the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl, injuries ravaged Alabama all season.

Key player after key player limped off the field with injuries big and small on both sides of the ball.

By the second half of the Iron Bowl, this was the Tide offense: a third-string quarterback (Spencer Pennington) throwing to a group of freshman and sophomore receivers with a third-string freshman tight end (Trent Davidson) and second-string running backs hobbled by injury (Kenneth Darby and LéRon McClain).

Yet Alabama was a recovered onside kick away from potentially tying the nation's number three team and ruining an undefeated season?

Not bad.

Shula proved this season that he can work well with a bad hand; he and his assistants plugged player after player into the starting lineup, usually seamlessly. Probation has caused major depth issues, but they're nothing a few full 25-scholarship recruiting classes can't solve.

Most of us considered Shula a quiet, laid-back coach, but he's proving that he's anything but. I personally witnessed one of his outbursts on a Friday afternoon in late August after several fights marred team work during a hot, steamy practice.

He called the entire team into a huddle around him, screaming a tirade that would make a sailor blush interspersed with phrases like "show your class" and "we don't do things like that around here."

The practice finished without incident.

Suffice it to say it didn't exactly surprise me when Shula berated referees after Corey Webster's controversial interception at LSU that turned a game the Tide controlled into a Tiger blowout.

Shula has fire and passion for college football, and he's not afraid to show it. Give him time, and he'll do great things with Alabama football.

And while the job isn't finished yet, having Shula on the job is definitely something Crimson Tide fans should be thankful for.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for BamaMag.com

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