When we left in the last installment of this series, the 2001 season had ended with at least a slight uptick. Admittedly, it was not much, but a four-game winning streak to close the season at least gave some hope. Unfortunately, behind the scenes, things were not going well. No one really knew at the time the extent of the activity, but the passing years have provided us with just about all of the information that we need to know.
The Alabama administration was initially impressed with the work that Dennis Franchione had done in his short time in Tuscaloosa. Yes there were plenty of heartbreaking moments in that first year, but after his 31-7 thumping of Auburn in Jordan-Hare, mixed with his late season revitalization of the Crimson Tide, Fran had the commitment of the fan base in a way unlike any Alabama coach in years, perhaps even greater than Stallings achieved during his glory days at the Capstone. As a result of this, the Alabama administration made it a priority to sign Fran to a long-term extension. Bottom line, he was our man, and we wanted to ensure that he stayed in Tuscaloosa for many years to come.
Unfortunately, getting Franchione to agree to a long-term contract extension was much easier said than done. The rhetoric coming out from both sides at the time was all roses, but behind the scenes Franchione was operating on a much more sinister level. On November 11th of 2001, the day after the Alabama v. Mississippi State game, Kansas fired head coach Terry Allen after five consecutive losing seasons. Meanwhile, roughly three weeks later, Notre Dame fired Bob Davie after his second losing season in three years. The two openings proved enticing for Franchione, and in private channels he expressly made himself available as a candidate for both openings. In fact, at one point he even asked the Kansas officials for a temporary delay so he could get a better feel for his chances of getting the Notre Dame job. Ultimately, of course, both institutions chose to go in different directions, with Kansas hiring Mark Mangino and Notre Dame hiring George O'Leary, but nevertheless the point remained. No one really knew of any of this at the time -- some unconfirmed internet rumors were all that really came of it -- but that point notwithstanding Franchione did openly court both jobs (and later admitted it while at Texas A&M). Though the Alabama fan base was clearly dedicated to Franchione, and though the Alabama administration was actively seeking to sign him to a lucrative long-term contract extension, Fran was already looking for the escape hatch after a mere twelve months on the job.
Of course, though, as mentioned earlier, no one in the general public really had a clue about what was going on behind the scenes at the time, and that probably includes the Alabama administration as well.
In spite of all of this, however, more troubles continued to mount, and despite the positive energy created by the late-season surge in 2001, dark clouds were again quickly approaching upon the horizon. Mal Moore and company had gone to Indianapolis to meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions on November 17th, and despite some initial positive feedback, it quickly became apparent that the NCAA saga was not going very well for the Crimson Tide. On December 7th, we self-imposed a reduction of 15 scholarships over the course of three years, and that alone completely destroyed any hopes of mitigating the damages of the NCAA saga. The hope before, no matter how small, was that we would largely be able to avoid major punishment from the NCAA, but once news broke that we were self-imposing major sanctions, it was clear that the game was up. The question was no longer whether or not we were getting nailed, because we had effectively nailed ourselves. The real question quickly become not whether we were getting nailed, but whether we could get away with "just" that little in terms of sanctions, or whether the NCAA was simply going to blow us out of the water. Either way, the outcome was very depressing for the future prospects of Alabama football. Regardless of how things progressed moving forward, it was crystal clear that we were firmly entrenched in a no-win situation.
All in all, hindsight 20/20, it was just a complete train wreck. We wanted Franchione as our coach moving forward, but in hindsight it is obvious that he never wanted us. Moreover, we were going to get nailed with sanctions so severe that they would drastically reduce our ability to compete on any successful level in the short-to-intermediate future. Furthermore, recruiting was not going well at all. It's not that anyone really expected things to be gangbusters given the harsh realities we were facing, but even so we were losing out on the majority of the state's elite prep talent. Jason Allen signed with Tennessee, and Ben Obomanu signed with Auburn, as did Montavus Pitts, Kevin Sears, and Tommy Jackson. The only players Alabama was able to get were prospects in the greater Tuscaloosa area, those who grew up with diehard Alabama allegiances, or players who simply drew no other interest from the major programs. Players who did not fall into those categories passed the Tide by left and right.
And finally, on February 1st, 2002, the NCAA lowered the boom. After an extensive investigation that spanned well over two years, the verdict finally came in... twenty-one scholarships reduced over three years, five years probation, two year bowl ban. And the kicker of it all was that despite the extreme severity of the sanctions, the NCAA minced no words in letting us know that we should nevertheless be kissing their proverbial asses for not giving us the death penalty. The NCAA's definition of leniency in our case was simply that they were going to continue to allow us to exist.
Once the news broke of the sanctions, the entire fan base was in a state of complete shock, and rightfully so. Perhaps we should have all known better given the severity of the sanctions that we self-imposed, but people nevertheless held out hope, and even days before the sanctions were announced some people thought we would get off with no added punishment (such as former Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter). The news of February 1st, though, quickly brought an end to such thinking.
Once the sanctions were announced, Franchione and company immediately went into damage control. They had to convince every upperclassmen on the roster to stick with the Tide -- they could have transferred to any other SEC institution with no penalty thanks to the sanctions -- and he also had to hold together the recruiting class. After all, probably by design, the news came at the absolute worst time in terms of recruiting... five days before National Signing Day, and right before the dead period began. It was at this point that the much ballyhooed "hold the rope" line was trotted out by Fran, and to the great credit of the 2002 senior class, those guys held up their end of the bargain. Many of those seniors were incredibly talented and could have easily transferred to any of the nation's elite programs, but ultimately they chose to stay with Alabama, even with all her flaws. Likewise, not a single member of the 2002 recruiting class reneged on his commitment to Alabama, though in all fairness I suppose it should be pointed out that, as hinted earlier, the entire class consisted of prospects who would have signed with Alabama regardless, and prospects who frankly had no better offers, so the mere fact that none of the commitments reneged on Alabama perhaps doesn't say as much as you think it would.
One way or the other, at any rate, Dennis Franchione had to approach just about every single current and future member of the Alabama football program and ask them to renew their commitment to the University of Alabama, Alabama football, and Franchione himself. And in a resounding voice, every single person asked to make that commitment ultimately did so.
And despite the crimson hell created in that stretch, the Alabama football team effectively put it all behind them. Thanks to great leadership from the senior class, and from Fran himself, all of that was put in the rear view mirror. The common thread that kept coming up in player quotes was that the NCAA mess was beyond their control, they couldn't do anything about it, and they were focusing all of their efforts on doing all that they could in the interim, which in real terms meant winning as many games as possible. And it wasn't just rhetoric either, the players and the coaching staff worked very hard over the next several months to get ready for the 2002 season, and by the time August rolled around, the team had good talent, good senior leadership, was in good physical condition, and was frankly very focused on the goal of simply going out and winning football games.
The 2002 season kicked off in late August on a blistering afternoon in Legion Field against Middle Tennessee State. The game turned out much closer than expected after a quick start by Alabama, but at any rate it was clear we were focusing on the following week's showdown with Oklahoma. We traveled to Norman and, despite having the worst start imaginable, took to the Sooners to the very brink of defeat in a game we rightfully should have won. Unfortunately, it all imploded late and the Sooners pulled it out, but notice was served that the Alabama football team was going to be much improved over the previous two years. Wins over North Texas and Southern Miss followed, and one week later Alabama stomped a hole in Arkansas in a key SEC West match-up. Brodie Croyle, filling in for the injured Tyler Watts, had the finest debut performance of any Alabama quarterback since Joe Namath in 1962 against Georgia, and Shaud Williams broke things open on the very first play with his 80-yard touchdown run.
The following week Georgia came to Tuscaloosa in what was arguably the biggest SEC game of the year, and despite a late surge by the Tide, the Dawgs held on for a narrow 27-25 victory in a classic battle. The loss moved Alabama to 5-2, which was a bit disappointing on its face, but it was clear that the team was playing very well and looked to win a lot of games. The two losses were in extremely close games to elite teams, and with an off week to heal, Tyler Watts would return to the starting lineup.
With Watts healthy once again, Alabama annihilated the Eli Manning-led Ole Miss Rebels 42-7 to avenge the heartbreaking loss from a year earlier. One week later, Alabama went to Knoxville and thoroughly smoked the Tennessee Volunteers, ending the Vols seven game winning streak over the Tide, and by this point the Alabama fan base had bought into Franchione hook, line, and sinker. We were playing our best football since perhaps the height of the Stallings era, and we were seemingly only getting better as the season went on. For almost every Alabama fan with a pulse, Fran was clearly the right man for the job.
And in the weeks immediately following the domination of Tennessee, things were seemingly continuing to go well. Easy wins over struggling Vanderbilt and Mississippi State were next, moving the Tide to 8-2. It was during this general time frame that we began hearing rumors linking Franchione and Texas A&M, but at the time to the general public there seemed to be little underlying validity to those rumors. Those rumors reached a crescendo after Texas A&M fell to 5-4 with back-to-back losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma State, but when the Aggies pulled off a stunning upset against #1 Oklahoma the following week in College Station, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that R.C. Slocum would remain at Texas A&M for at least another year.
And speaking of Internet rumors, the same week of the Alabama victory over Mississippi State and the Texas A&M upset of Oklahoma, LSU beat Kentucky in Lexington with a shocking Hail Mary as time expired. All week, the Internet and all of talk radio were abuzz regarding a tirade supposedly launched into by then-LSU head coach Nick Saban, talking about how he was not going to let their SEC championship (LSU was defending SEC champion at the time) be taken away by a bunch of cheaters. The story ultimately turned out to be apocryphal -- as the events of January of 2007 would eventually show us, clearly Saban had no ill will towards the Tide -- but it nevertheless created a massive amount of tension around the game.
Making matters even more interesting, as nightfall descended upon Tiger Stadium and the Tide took the field for pre-game warm-ups, there was something in the south end zone that would definitely make an Alabama fan look twice. It was Dennis Franchione... leaning against the goal post, and I don't think I need to remind any Alabama fan of the significance and the symbolic nature of what that entails. When the game began, Alabama administered a physical beatdown of the Bayou Bengals, ending in a 31-0 victory that was probably the finest game Alabama had played in years. After the clock hit 0:00 and the band began to fire up Rammer Jammer, Franchione confronted Nick Saban at midfield with a fiery outburst and apparently some harsh words. No one ever really knew exactly what Franchione said -- and his actions became downright incomprehensible given what would occur in the following weeks -- but the thinking at the time was that Franchione was giving Saban a thorough browbeating for his supposed comments after the Kentucky game.
Sufficed to say, by this point, the Alabama fan base was absolutely head over heels for Franchione. He had quickly turned Alabama around, and we were thumping opponents left and right. We blew out Auburn, blew out Tennessee, blew out LSU, clinched the SEC West, he was standing against the goalpost, shaking down opposing coaches, you name it. What more could you want? Given the despair that permeated Tuscaloosa in December of 2000, twenty-three months later the arrival of Dennis Franchione almost seemed like divine intervention from the football gods.
Of course, though, as is the somewhat general theme of this installment, things just weren't as rosy as they seemed. The Texas A&M rumors should have seemingly gone away with the upset of Oklahoma, but it just did not happen that way. The same weekend that Alabama traveled to Baton Rouge to face LSU, the Aggies lost at home to a 5-7 Missouri team, and Slocum moved right back on the hot seat. That moved A&M to 6-5 with one game remaining against a very strong Texas team, and many were still thinking that, barring another big upset against the 'Horns, Slocum was on his way out. As a result, the Franchione to A&M rumors continued to be churned as Alabama prepared for the Iron Bowl the following week.
Going into that week, most Alabama fans were extremely confident. The team was playing better than it had in many years, and Auburn had been decimated by injuries to their offensive backfield. Far from the possibility of defeat, most Alabama fans -- and football pundits for that matter -- expected the Tide to roll just like it did the previous year. Oh sure, you still had the Franchione to A&M rumors floating around, but surely not, right?
Unfortunately, the 2002 Auburn squad was not one to underestimate. They came into the game with a 7-4 record, but that does not tell the tale on that team. In reality, they were a far better team than their record indicated. They lost the season opener in a close contest, on the road, to USC, when no one understood the Trojans were on the brink of a dynasty. Furthermore, though they did get roasted by a good Arkansas team in Fayetteville, they lost to Florida in Gainesville in a game they should have won, and it took a prayer heave into the end zone for eventual SEC champion Georgia to knock them off. Truth be told, injuries and 7-4 record damned, this was a very good football team.
And the Tide learned that lesson the hard way very early in the 2002 Iron Bowl. Auburn jumped out to a dominating start, building up an early 17-0 lead, and never looked back. Alabama scored a touchdown in the third to keep things somewhat interesting, but could never mount a serious challenge. Despite playing so well prior to the game, Alabama simply came out and laid an egg. At the end of the day, there was no one to blame but ourselves, Auburn had simply came out and played better, particularly dominating us in the trenches.
After the initial shock of that loss faded, things quickly took a turn for the worse. Some people began putting two and two together on the A&M rumors and the laid egg in the Iron Bowl, and couldn't help but wonder if there was a connection to the two. And then things got even more interesting as the Franchione to A&M rumors persisted... there were rumblings in several areas, including talk radio, that Franchione himself had missed several team meetings during the week of the Iron Bowl, a rumor that was later confirmed by several Alabama players.
At this point, it was clear that this entire situation was quickly getting out of hand. The A&M rumors simply would not go away, Slocum looked more and more like a lame duck, we laid an egg against our in-state rival who was decimated by injuries, and now we find out our head coach wasn't even attending meetings during the week of the game? Something was amiss here, no doubt about that at this point. Franchione continued to deny the A&M rumors as nonsense and continued to renew his commitment to Alabama, but that never stopped the rumblings.
A week later Alabama arrived in Hawai'i to play in the "Probation Bowl," and the existing situation only worsened. The day before our game against Hawai'i, A&M was annihilated by Texas in Austin, and Slocum's firing became imminent. The following day, the previously strong Crimson Tide struggled yet again, this time eaking out a 21-16 victory over the Warriors in a game where Alabama constantly shot itself in the foot. All in all, things just didn't add up, and it was becoming increasingly clear that there was far more substance to the A&M rumors than any Alabama fan wanted to admit.
On the following Monday morning, Texas A&M fired R.C. Slocum, all the while Franchione continued to deny the rumors. However, at this point, those denials seemed to be more unbelievable than ever. Franchione did have speaking engagements scheduled in Montgomery and Columbus that Wednesday and Thursday, but suddenly those were canceled with no reason given. More smoke.
The Aggies moved quickly after Franchione with Slocum being given his pink slip. On Tuesday the rumors hit their peak, and by late that night there were reports in several outsets that A&M was entering into contract negotiations with Franchione. That same day, A&M also hired former Nebraska athletic director Bill Byrne, a long-time friend of Franchione, to the same position, and by Wednesday the end seemed to be clear.
When Thursday morning came, Franchione stepped on a plane heading to College Station, still publicly denying that he was taking the A&M job, and instead stating that he owed it to himself and to his family to see what the Aggies had to offer. Of course, though, like all of the other denials, this one too was a lie. By the time his flight touched down in College Stadium, Franchione was effectively signed, sealed, and delivered. A few Alabama sports reporters were on the ground trying to get a comment, but Franchione quickly scurried away from all of them, running 'til the end. At last, after months of rumors of speculation, Dennis Franchione was the head football coach at Texas A&M.