Schmidt: Searching for answers at Alabama

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Unless you’re a die-hard Alabama fan, the team’s 48-17 win over Utah State might have fallen under the radar.

But it was a game that should have been alarming to Alabama fans. The Aggies, 3-9 last year in the Sun Belt, trailed by only seven points at halftime before Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle and the offense turned up the gas and ran away with it.

It was also symbolic of all the problems Alabama has had the last few years. Of the 44 players listed on Alabama’s two-deep roster, only 21 had played for Alabama before Saturday.

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It’s becoming increasingly clear Mike Shula is not the answer. There were doubters when he was hired. He had no previous head coaching experience and no college coaching experience. His playing credentials at Alabama are impeccable, and he certainly has the right last name for a coach.

What he doesn’t seem to have is the ability to turn this program around.

A 4-9 opening campaign was the first real sign of trouble. Albeit, that record was against the nation’s most difficult schedule, including top 10 teams like Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma, other tough competition like Tennessee and Auburn and three of the most difficult mid-major games against Hawaii, Southern Miss and Northern Illinois.

But that’s not going to change. Alabama will consistently have one of the nation’s toughest schedules.

In the SEC, taking a step back is potentially deadly. With national powers like LSU, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn in the SEC, Alabama can’t afford to make bad decisions about the direction of the program. In the past five years, the Crimson Tide has made many.

Alabama could have had Sylvester Croom, whose State team performed better than anyone could have reasonably expected in a 28-7 dismantling of Tulane. Failing to hire Croom may turn out to be a mistake that haunts ‘Bama for years to come.

Croom had all the right qualifications: significant pro and college coaching experience (though no head coaching time), a glorious playing career at Alabama and all the right connections.

The Tide could have had Mike Price, but we’ll give them a pass on that one. But Price was a strange hire to begin with: a man with no ties at all to the South, who had spent his entire career on the West Coast, who had only three really good seasons in his 14 at Washington State.

And then there’s the big mistake. Hiring Dennis Franchione was the right move for Alabama. Franchione was an experienced head coach who had succeeded at every level and was a hot commodity. But Alabama made a mistake.

NCAA sanctions were about to be handed down for violations that occurred under previous head coach Mike Dubose, but Franchione was assured there would not be serious repercussions from the NCAA. When the sanctions came down, Fran took the first flight out.

Mike Shula has 10 more games to prove he’s the answer. After that, Alabama might have to start looking for a head coach. Again.

Christian Schmidt is a sports writer for The Natchez Democrat. Reach him at (601) 445-3633 or by e-mail at