While the entire program was in a state of disarray, Dennis Franchione had a football team to fix. When he first arrived in Tuscaloosa, things weren't pretty. The team as a whole was overweight and out of shape, and bad attitudes were everywhere. Players were sulking and still in shock over the collapse of the team -- everyone truly thought they would be preparing for the BCS Championship Game in the Orange Bowl at this time of the year, and to be sitting at home in the chilly Alabama winter with a new head coach was simply a thought that most could barely even begin to grasp. And beyond that there were a lot of academic cases, too. Many players were borderline on being academically ineligible.
National Signing Day was also upon the horizon, and Franchione had some big battles to fight there too. Brodie Croyle was arguably the top player in the country, and nearly all thought he was a longshot for 'Bama; most had him FSU bound. But after talking with Franchione and having some midnight revelations from God, Croyle suddenly had a change of heart and said that Alabama was the place for him. Franchione had scored his first major victory, and everyone in the fan base took this as a sign of a major positive early in the Franchione era. But things weren't that easy, as we found out shortly thereafter, when Carnell "Cadillac" Williams decided to go to Auburn.
Once the ink had dried on National Signing Day, the preparation for the 2001 season began in full force. And in all fairness, Franchione did a lot of positive things. The academic cases largely went away and players got their grades in order. The S&C program was put back into effect and it was highly demanding. The overweight and out of shape Crimson Tide began to work itself back into shape. Slowly but surely, Fran was starting to get the team headed back in the right direction. At the end of Spring practice, the A-Day game drew a brisk crowd, and nearly everyone was overjoyed when they saw the Crimson Tide again running the option. No, it wasn't exactly the wishbone of the Bryant days, but no Alabama fan with any awareness of the program's history could ever watch the Tide execute the option and not crack a smile and have a few pleasant memories run through their minds.
If nothing more, after all of the hell the program we had been through the past four years, it was just nice to see a few positive developments, and not have depressing thoughts every time the topic of Alabama football rolled around. No one was fooled by the progress we still had to make, but at least we had started to climb out of the cellar. With all we had gone through, at this point the SEC Championship in 1999 seemed like centuries ago. At least now we seemed to be moving in the right direction again.
Of course it wasn't all bad for Fran. People love to neglect this, but the truth is he inherited a roster that was absolutely loaded with talent. It is true that many of Dubose's vaunted recruiting classes had a number of academic casualties and questionable characters, but to say those players defined the classes he signed is simply not accurate. There was also a ton of good kids, a lot of kids with a good work ethic, and a lot of kids that were frankly as good as they were advertised to be. Just looking at the roster from 2001, you see countless players who either spent several years in the NFL, or who are still playing in the NFL today. The lines, in particular, were extremely talented, which probably isn't much of a surprise given Dubose's history as a defensive line coach. Just look at some of the names... Justin Smiley, Wesley Britt, Evan Mathis, Kindal Moorehead, Kenny King, Jarrett Johnson, Antwan Odom, Alonzo Ephraim, Reggie Myles, Jason McAddley, Saleem Rasheed... every single one of those guys ended up playing on Sundays, and several are still raking in the millions today.
Even without considering those players, though, the roster was nevertheless loaded with talent. Freddie Milons was probably the most dynamic receiver we had since David Palmer, and he was highly productive. A.C. Carter would have re-written the Alabama receiving record books had a chronic leg injury not cost him his senior year. Ahmad Galloway was one of the conference's most dependable tailbacks before he tore an ACL in his senior season in 2002. Santonio Beard probably had more raw talent than even Shaun Alexander, and only a poor work ethic and a few bad decisions kept him from being a first round NFL draft pick, but even so he was highly productive in his two years at Alabama. Ray Hudson was extremely explosive and highly-touted, and always did well with the ball in his hands; his biggest problem was all of the talent in front of him. Sam Collins was a great possession receiver who could block, the perfect fit for the option. Tyler Watts never lived up to his recruiting hype as a pocket passer, but he was an absolute dream quarterback to anybody looking to run the option. Cornelius Wortham was a highly-touted recruit, and he was an All-SEC linebacker. The exact same thing went for Brooks Daniels. Naughtyn-McKay Loescher never lived up to the recruiting hype, but even so he was a very valuable situational pass rusher. You get the idea. None of these guys went on to play in the NFL, for whatever reason, but they were nevertheless very good college football players.
Bottom line, as I said earlier, Fran inherited a team that was absolutely loaded with talent. He didn't know it at the time, and neither did we, but it would easily be the most talented team he would ever coach. We probably had more talent at the time than we've had at any time since the national championship in 1992..
Anyway, talent discussions aside, after a long year, the 2001 season opener was quickly approaching.
Finally, on an unusually cool Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium in early September, a new era of Alabama football began. The Tide lost that night to UCLA 20-17 in a close game, marking our sixth straight loss, but there was a night and day difference from the debacle of a year earlier. The team was clearly in much better physical condition, and simply played harder. We quickly jumped out to a 10-0 lead, and actually dominated the game in terms of total yards and time of possession. It looked like we may very well pull out the upset when a perfectly executed hook and lateral late in the game had a chance for a huge play, but a UCLA defender barely hung onto the jersey of Ray Hudson long enough for his comrades to arrive, and that was the end of it. Nevertheless, though, a loss notwithstanding, no one could deny how much better things looked than the previous year.
The first year was tough, though, and it wouldn't be an easy season, as we all soon found out. The end result would be much better than a year ago, but there were so many frustrating moments. For all of the positives of the UCLA game, the following week against Vanderbilt was ugly, and we squeaked out a 12-9 win on a last-second field goal. After events that no one could have predicted temporarily delayed the season -- the September 11th attacks -- we beat Arkansas in the best game we had played in some time. But the struggles immediately returned. We had a fourth quarter meltdown against South Carolina, and lost a game we should have easily won. Two weeks later, the exact same thing happened again with Ole Miss. Following that, we were seemingly taking control of the Tennessee game when yet another fourth quarter implosion hit. The following week's LSU game was fairly close, but nothing short of an embarrassment for reasons I need not remind anyone of. The Mississippi State game the following weekend didn't go well, either, at least for a while. The Bulldogs were terrible that year, but going into the fourth quarter we trailed by a touchdown and MSU had the ball, driving, in our territory.
And out of nowhere we went off. We hadn't won a game in over a month, and yet suddenly things started to click. We completely dominated the fourth quarter that day, and won 24-17. We headed to Auburn the following weekend for the Iron Bowl, where everyone expected a blowout victory for the Tigers, but out of nowhere we dominated. Zow was highly efficient as a passer, and they could not stop our running game if their lives depended on it; hell, we picked up a 3rd and 25 on a simple draw play. Twelve days later, we played Southern Miss in Legion Field, and in one of our best games of the year, we pulled out a comfortable win -- though one in truly miserable weather conditions -- to become bowl eligible. A month later, we went to Shreveport and beat Iowa State to finish up 7-5.
It was a far cry from what we Alabama fans were used to, but it was nice to see us mount a winning streak, annihilate Auburn on the road, and pick up a bowl victory. It was a small amount of success, to be sure, but it was a positive, and it was a step in the right direction. At least we weren't 3-8 and sitting at home watching other teams play in bowl games.
In the background of all of this, of course, our case with the NCAA was finally moving towards its conclusion.
Next Up: The NCAA Destroys, a comprehensive look at the case against Alabama, our response, and the sanctions imposed.