Shula can't escape Croom's shadow
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- As if Mike Shula doesn't have enough to do to rebuild Alabama from the wreck left behind by the three coaches before him. Shula, it became more evident than ever Thursday, must continue to deal with the looming presence of the man he beat out for the job of coaching their alma mater.
For 20 years after Paul "Bear" Bryant died, Alabama chased after coaches who could bring him back to life. Only former Crimson Tide players need apply, as Bill Curry learned. Curry won 26 games in three years and couldn't leave fast enough. Before Curry, Ray Perkins won some, and after Curry, Gene Stallings won a lot, including a national championship. Not until Mike DuBose served as chief executive of Bama Nation, one of the worst four-year leaders of any nation since Herbert Hoover, did Alabama put aside the Bryant pedigree as a prerequisite for the job.
Now Tide fans wonder if they were too hasty.
Sylvester Croom appeared at SEC Media Days on Wednesday, the day before Shula, and sounded as if he were channeling the Bear. Sly Croom's voice is a low rumble, somewhere in the register of an 18-wheeler beginning to climb, and his gaze is clear and steely. The only things missing were a houndstooth hat and a pack of Chesterfields.
And a job at Alabama.
After being passed over in his hometown, Croom took a job 90 miles west, at Mississippi State. He sounded Wednesday more like the man who made him an All-American center three decades ago. Croom quoted at length from the Gospel According To Bryant, speaking as much about developing young men as he did about developing a football team.
Take what he said to the players he inherited in his first meeting with them.
"I asked them quite simply: 'Do you want to win?'" Croom said. "They all raised their hands. Good. I hope so. I asked them, 'Are you willing to pay the price to win? In the next six or seven months, you'll show me whether you're willing to pay the price.'"
"We want to get discipline back in the program. It's taking pride in the little things you have to do without someone standing over your shoulder. The ultimate goal of all our efforts is to prepare these guys more to win in life. I don't want a Mississippi State player to play four years for us and he is not capable of providing for his family."
Paying the price. Win in life. Those words haven't been heard around these parts in a quarter of a century. Croom's words would be mother's milk to Alabama fans of a certain age, if Mama weren't in Starkville.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about my dad and Coach Bryant," Croom said. His father, Sylvester Sr., served as the team chaplain for Bryant in the latter years of the coach's career. "They are the only two men I ever cared about what they thought of me. Every day I'm still trying to measure up to what they expect from me."
Bama fans don't hear those sorts of words from Shula, who starred for the Crimson Tide at quarterback under Perkins a decade after Croom graduated. Shula appeared much more comfortable at SEC Media Days this year than last, when he had spent fewer than 90 days as the replacement for the disgraced Mike Price.
But Shula is not a spellbinding speaker in front of a group. He is much more effective in a one-on-one conversation, which may explain why his coaching interview went well enough that the university selected him, and not Croom.
Shula has a warm demeanor, and though it may pain fans in red-state Alabama to hear it, he brings to mind the personal qualities attributed to Bill Clinton. Shula makes the person he is speaking to feel that he is not only equal, but important.
Shula has been given a pass on last year's 4-9 record. As he said Thursday, "I can remember standing up here and trying to remember everybody's name."
"That's just our coaches."
He continued. "The comfort level everywhere is greater," Shula said, "and hopefully we'll see the results this fall of everybody being around each other."
The problems at Alabama are obvious. They will have only 74 players on scholarship, and Shula expects that the number of freshmen who must play this year will be "in double digits."
They are not unlike the problems Croom is facing at Mississippi State, where the NCAA has yet to announce penalties for NCAA violations committed under former Bulldogs coach Jackie Sherrill.
No matter how the teams fare -- and Alabama is expected to contend for a bowl bid, while Mississippi State is expected to do little -- Crimson Tide fans will keep one eye peeled toward Starkville. Until Shula wins and wins some more, they will continue to wonder whether Croom should be wearing crimson instead of maroon.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.