With Gene Stallings set for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame this weekend and the midsummer doldrums in full effect, perhaps now is as good of a time as any to look back on the Stallings era at Alabama. I've argued in the past that Stallings is largely one of the most misunderstood figures in UA history, but I've never expounded upon that argument until now. With that in mind, let's work through the Stallings era with the benefit of hindsight and try to gain some perspective on his tenure at the Capstone.
Starting from the outset with the circumstances of his hire, Stallings took over the 'Bama football program in January of 1990 after the abrupt departure of Bill Curry following a 33-25 loss at the hands of national champion Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Without getting bogged down in the specifics of the search, the UA Board of Trustees actually voted 14-1 on a resolution to pursue Bobby Bowden of Florida State, but UA President Roger Sayers balked at Bowden's $565,000 buyout clause (hard to believe in hindsight, I know). Other candidates drew interest, but ultimately they too went the way of Bowden and UA moved on to other candidates. Eventually the process worked its way to Stallings, who immediately accepted the job.
First choice or not, though, when Stallings inherited the Alabama program there was great success in the early years, both on the field and on the recruiting trails. The first three years of his tenure exceeded even the wildest of expectations, and by January 2nd, 1993, Stallings had already forever cemented him place in UA lore.
His debut campaign in 1990 generally brought a high level of play, even though it was bookended by a slow start driven mainly by injuries and an inexplicable thumping in the Fiesta Bowl at the hands mid-major Louisville. Nevertheless, the defense made tremendous strides and 'Bama won seven of its final eight regular season games with the sole loss coming in a hard-fought game against a good Penn State team. The performances weren't always aesthetically pleasing, especially as 'Bama made the transition from Homer Smith's aerial assault to Mal Moore's power rushing attack, but there was a certain physical style of play, particularly on the defensive side of the ball against better opponents, that was often lacking under Curry.
That following February, on the heels of a stellar in-state crop, Stallings inked the best recruiting class of the post-Bryant era (prior to the arrival of Nick Saban, at least). David Palmer, a star all-purpose athlete from Jackson-Olin High School in Birmingham, headlined the class, and joining him was JUCO defensive end John Copeland, both integral parts of the 1992 national championship team. The rest of the class was filled out with the likes of Shannon Brown, Sam Shade, Sherman Williams, Tommy Johnson, and a veritable laundry list of other standout players during the Stallings era. Of the post-Bryant era, only the 2008 class that featured Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, and Marcell Dareus can compare to the 1991 crop, and that one class positioned Alabama for an extended period of national prominence.
The 1991 season merely continued the rise of the program that had started the previous February. After being trounced 35-0 by Florida in Gainesville, 'Bama finished the season with ten straight wins to finish 11-1 overall and fifth in the nation, upending defending national champion Colorado in the Blockbuster Bowl. The 1991 team clearly overachieved, going 6-0 in games decided by one possession, but even so there were positive indicators moving forward. The offense had finally started to show signs of life, the defense continued to improve, and more importantly nearly everyone returned for the 1992 season.
And, of course, 1992 itself needs no introduction. But the problem comes immediately after the trouncing of Miami.
Given the national championship and the overall momentum of the program to that point, 'Bama was in the perfect position to solidify its status as a national powerhouse for years to come. Making matters even better, the newly-formed SEC West was filled with struggling programs. Auburn had fizzled under Pat Dye in the 1990's and was punished with major sanctions for the Eric Ramsey scandal. Arkansas was largely spinning its wheels making the transition away from the old Southwest Conference. LSU was mired in the darkest hours of program history. Ole Miss was punished with major sanctions in their own right that led to the demise of Billy Brewer, and the player who would prove to be the program's only real hope spurned his father's alma mater to sign with Tennessee. Mississippi State was proving to be a tough program under the leadership of Jackie Sherrill, but at the end of the day they were still Mississippi State, to which little more needs to be said.
Despite the strength of the program and the relative weakness of the competitive landscape, however, Stallings simply could not sustain the success, and in fact the program largely fell apart after the 1993 Sugar Bowl victory.
Recruiting was the first casualty. The 1992 class was quickly revealed as weak, and 1993 was nothing short of a disaster. On the heels of a national championship, Auburn actually snagged many of the state's top prospects, despite having a career Division 1-AA coach and major NCAA sanctions. Included in that recruiting coup were Willie Anderson and Jessie McCovery, both key starters on Auburn's undefeated 1993 team, and both of whom Alabama had recruited heavily. Anderson, in fact, may still be the single biggest in-state recruiting coup Auburn has pulled in the post-Bryant era. Things got marginally better in 1994, to be sure, but Stallings would never again sign a class at Alabama that could even remotely compare to his 1991 haul. Individual great players would make their way from Tuscaloosa from time-to-time -- Chris Samuels, Shaun Alexander, Dwayne Rudd, etc. -- but never with the regularity and the quantity necessary to fuel a legitimate national powerhouse.
And if recruiting was the first casualty, the overall integrity of the program came next. The handling of the Antonio Langham agent saga was botched from the start, which Stallings himself had a direct hand in, and despite a previously clean record the NCAA came down hard on Alabama. The letter of inquiry came in September of 1994, and in August of the following year the NCAA lowered the boom. Finding a lack of institutional control, the NCAA put Alabama on probation for three years, took away 26 scholarships, banned the Tide from postseason play in 1995, and forfeited all wins from the 1993 season (sanctions even more severe than would be doled out six years later in the Albert Means case). Alabama did win back nine scholarships on appeal, but the fiasco nevertheless led to the resignation of Hootie Ingram, and therefore the disastrous hiring of Bob Bockrath, and severely damaged the program both on and off the field for years to come.
Discipline on the team itself also suffered as time went on. The 1995 offseason, in particular, was filled with arrests, including Dennis Riddle, Patrick Hape, and Matt Parker. Others didn't do time, but obviously didn't otherwise commit themselves accordingly to maximizing the most of their abilities (see Kitchens, Freddie).
Staff in-fighting took its toll too. Bill Oliver, the de facto defensive coordinator who had the official title of secondary coach through the 1993 season due to Stallings' dislike for coordinator titles, was grudgingly given the defensive coordinator title in 1994, in no small part due to Steve Spurrier's wooing of Oliver to join him at Florida. Offensive coordinator Mal Moore stepped down following the 1993 season after years of complaints over his offensive strategies that critics claimed were far too conservative, and 1994 saw the return of offensive guru Homer Smith. With Stallings, Smith, and Oliver leading the way, the so-called "Dream Team" coaching staff, as dubbed by fans and several in the media, was finally complete, and expectations ran wild.
Unfortunately, all that promise never came to fruition. The offense never had any real success under Smith, and it was clear that he was never given the freedoms of design and playcalling that he was given under Bill Curry. Likewise, the defense continued a slow but steady decline under Oliver. 'Bama narrowly survived defensive struggles in 1994 against Georgia and Mississippi State, but couldn't put away Florida on a game-winning, last-minute drive by the Gators to preserve an undefeated season. The following year, Peyton Manning and Joey Kent ripped the once-vaunted 'Bama defense to shreds, and it came up lame against both Arkansas and Auburn. As a whole the unit was still highly effective against inferior opponents, but it was routinely exposed when facing top programs.
By the end of 1995, the so-called "Dream Team" officially dissolved. Homer Smith left Tuscaloosa for the final time, and Bill Oliver abruptly resigned after an internal controversy over whether or not he would be named as the successor to Gene Stallings. Providing insult to injury, Oliver accepted the defensive coordinator job at Auburn two days after leaving Alabama.
Even Stallings himself had his hand in the melodrama. He procrastinated on signing a contract extension towards the end of the 1994 season, and there were rumors that he was a candidate for both the Texas and Oklahoma jobs. Obviously he never left for those jobs, but he played it coy the entire way, never expressly refuting their interest in him or his interest in them. From that point on, while he would ultimately return for two more season, his status at UA moving forward was never really certain. In fact Stallings did not even commit to returning for the 1996 season until 'Bama won the appeal with the NCAA in December of 1995.
In hindsight, the successes of 1994 were simply a deceptive mirage. Fans and media alike looked at the 11-0 regular season, combined it with the memories of the 1992 national championship season, and saw it as the definite establishment of Alabama as a powerhouse program that would compete for national championships on a yearly basis. In reality, the program was mired in a clear decline, and it was only some outstanding play by senior quarterback Jay Barker and some great luck in close games that simply hid that fact from the view of most observers. The overall talent level and depth of the roster was declining, there was significant turmoil on the staff, and the botched handling of an NCAA scandal meant that severe sanctions and their negative effects were imminent.
From that point forward the Stallings era was a fait accompli. The team was still playing at a respectable level, but 'Bama could clearly no longer compete with the top programs on a consistent basis. By then, other top programs simply had more talent, better depth, and better coaching. NCAA sanctions, the full effect of which had not been felt yet, made prospects even more difficult looking ahead to 1997 and 1998.
Furthermore, his last major decision in Tuscaloosa prior to his resignation was arguably the most damning, i.e. the promotion of Mike DuBose to defensive coordinator after the departure of Bill Oliver. To be sure, to my knowledge Stallings never actively campaigned for DuBose to get the head coaching job, but even so his decision to make DuBose the defensive coordinator gave him the de facto recognition of rising coaching star in the eyes of the UA fanbase, untrue as though that was. Given the flameout of Bill Curry and the on-field successes of Stallings, the fan base was already convinced that only an insider could truly lead the program, which at the time meant one of "Bear's boys," and with Stallings hovering over the escape hatch his decision to promote DuBose to defensive coordinator all but guaranteed that DuBose would replace Stallings whenever he ultimately resigned. Had DuBose remained defensive line coach in 1996 it's highly unlikely he would have been hired the following season as head coach, but with the defensive coordinator title in the bag he may as well have been named head coach-in-waiting.
And that, in essence, is the legacy of Gene Stallings, insomuch as there is one. He had great success at times and will forever be immortalized for the 1992 national championship, but he squandered an opportunity to reap the long-term rewards of that national championship, and in effect he won a national championship that was of passing historic consequence. In the end, despite the early successes, Stallings probably left the program in a worse position than he found it seven years earlier.
Interestingly, though, Stallings has remained highly popular among those who bleed crimson and white. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, the widespread view still balances the dichotomy of the wild successes under Stallings against the torturous nightmare of events that occurred under DuBose with no overlap between the two. Undoubtedly much of that has to do with the fact that Stallings is such an inherently likeable person. He is widely respected by everyone, friend and foe alike, and it's nothing short of impossible to find someone who will say a negative thing about him personally. I'll gladly concede the point on Stallings the human being, but I'll stand by the notion that his tenure at UA is still largely misunderstood, and for all of the good he did at the Capstone there remains a darkened aspect to his tenure that many still choose to ignore.