Has a rookie head coach ever faced more first-year challenges than Mike Shula ? Maybe not.
No spring practice. Inheriting someone else's coaching staff (with a few alterations - if your last name was Price or you accompanied your boss to a certain Pensacola nightspot, it was time to start sending out resumes). Three weeks in the fall to install your offense, teaching it to seniors who will be playing for their 4th head coach at Alabama. Names to learn. A coordinator to hire. An NCAA rulebook to digest (something Shula never had to worry about in the NFL). Oh, and don't forget your team's on probation , you can't go to a bowl game and the full effects of scholarship reductions are about to kick in. And on and on it goes....
So Alabama's going to be in for a long season, right? Not necessarily. There are still plenty of fine football players in Tuscaloosa. Brodie Croyle can throw it from one end zone to the other (at least it seems that way). Shaud Williams averaged 7 yards per carry in '02. Wesley Britt, Justin Smiley and Evan Mathis pile up the pancakes. Seven starters are back on defense.
Coach Shula says the trick will be to keep it simple . "The main thing we want to do is make sure it's easy for the players to learn," Shula says, "so when we go out there and kick it off on August 30th, they're not going to be thinking. They're going to be playing, reacting, not having to worry about what their assignment is. That's our job as coaches. That's what we owe the players."
Here's what I owe you: My predictions for the first season of "Shula Ball." Drum roll, please....
Aug. 30 - South Florida - Birmingham - Legion Field
South Florida is a program on the rise. But they're not there yet. Talent takes over and Mike Shula wins in his head coaching debut.
Sept. 6 - Oklahoma - Bryant-Denny Stadium
It's not that hard to make the transition from being an assistant coach to being "the man." Just ask Bob Stoops. His Sooners hand Bama's young coach his first defeat.
Sept. 13 - Kentucky - Bryant-Denny Stadium
Mike Shula is not the only SEC head coach with NFL experience. Kentucky's new man, Rich Brooks, was the St. Louis Rams head coach in the mid '90s (just a few years before they won the Super Bowl). Antwan Odom (6'5", 273 lbs.) spends the afternoon chasing Kentucky's quarterback Jared Lorenzen (who at 6'4", 275 lbs. outweighs Odom by 2 pounds - according to the SEC's media guide, but it's probably more like 20). Odom takes down the "Pillsbury Throwboy" 6 times, and the "Hefty Lefty" can't wait to get back to Lexington.
Sept. 20 - Northern Illinois - Bryant-Denny Stadium
Backup quarterback Spencer Pennington has been waiting for this week. He knows he'll get to play - a lot. Brodie throws 3 quick touchdown passes and takes the rest of the day off.
Sept. 27 - Arkansas - Bryant-Denny Stadium
Five straight home games (four on campus after the season opener in B'ham) is not a bad way to start. Winning four of them is even better. But next week promises to be a wild one.
Oct. 4 - Georgia - Athens
Coach Shula's baby is due this week. It's a girl! But what happens when the beeper goes off during pre-game warmups? Get ready for the debate around the water cooler: "What would you do if you were in Shula's shoes? Go to the hospital? Or the Stadium? Hey, that's why you promoted Joe Kines to "Assistant Head Coach." I might be in the minority here, but there are 12 other games on the schedule. Your baby will be born only once. That's the ultimate no-brainer. Coach Shula passes out those little pink gum cigars, but they're not "victory cigars." Wouldn't have mattered if Coach Shula would've been there - he can't cover Fred Gibson.
Oct. 11 - Southern Miss - Bryant-Denny Stadium
Back at the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny, Bama's now sleep-deprived coach leads his team to victory over the always-determined Golden Eagles.
Oct. 18 - Ole Miss - Oxford, MS
42-7. That was the score last year in T-town. Homecoming. Eli Manning spent the day on his backside. Most of the guys who put him there are now in the NFL, going after Peyton. Eli gets his revenge.
Oct. 25 - Tennessee - Bryant-Denny Stadium
Okay, it's not the 3rd Saturday in October - it's the 4th. No matter. It's still Alabama/Tennessee - one of the SEC's best rivalries. More cigars in the dressing room (hey - it's a tradition - you don't have to light them).
Nov. 8 - Mississippi State - Starkville, MS
By now, the NCAA's investigators have spent so much time on State's campus, they've moved into their own dorm room. The impending sanctions are about to signal the end of an era. Phillip Fulmer will soon be the dean of SEC football coaches. But the Bulldogs return 17 starters, including 8 on defense. Points will be hard to come by.
Nov. 15 - LSU - Bryant-Denny Stadium
Three straight close SEC wins would be a great way to go into the Iron Bowl, but this one gets away in the 4th quarter.
Nov. 22 - Auburn - Jordan-Hare Stadium
Bama fans will never forget Shula's last-minute drive in the '85 Iron Bowl. Unfortunately, Van Tiffin's eligibility ran out awhile back.
Nov. 29 - Hawaii - Honolulu
There's a new dance craze on the islands. The locals call it the "Shula Hula."
There you have it. 8-5. Not bad. Under the circumstances, most Tide fans are pretty pleased. The 38-year-old coach can tell recruits they'll be able to play in a bowl game every year. And brighter days are on the horizon.