On November 15, 1996, the #8 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide traveled to Starkville to take on a 3-5 Mississippi State team. An easy win was expected, but the game was surprisingly close, and in the end the Bulldogs pulled out the 17-16 victory with a fourth quarter field goal. The loss was the Tide's first ever loss in Starkville, the first time State had beaten Alabama since 1980, and only the second time they had pulled off the feat since the late 1950's.
Supposedly after the game, all hell broke loose between head coach Gene Stallings and athletics director Bob Bockrath in the Alabama locker room. Some stories at the time had Bockrath coming into the locker room after the game to talk to the Alabama players, or in other versions to talk to Stallings about his quarterback decision in the game (he had benched Freddie Kitchens following a costly interception deep in our own territory), and supposedly this made Stallings explode like the second coming of Mount Vesuvius. At the very least, the consensus scuttlebutt of the time had a fierce argument between the two breaking out after the loss, one that supposedly ended with Bockrath "running off" Stallings.
It's all a nice little story, but it may very well be untrue, and even if true it probably had little impact on Stallings' ultimate decision to resign.
In reality, Stallings had probably checked out long before the Tide made the trip to Starkville on that chilly mid-November night. Weeks earlier, when Alabama president Andrew Sorensen was in search of an athletics director, Stallings called Sorensen to give him his input on the situation. Stallings told Sorensen that he felt that former Alabama player and assistant Mal Moore should be hired, largely because he knew Moore quite well and thought that he could have a very productive work relationship with him. Moreover, Stallings expressed grave concerns over the potential hiring of Bob Bockrath (who most felt was Sorensen's leading candidate), as many of Stallings' contacts in Texas had some disturbing comments regarding him (Bockrath was previously the athletics director at Texas Tech, which ended with the NCAA investigators heading to Lubbock). Shortly after getting Stalling's insight on the matter, however, Sorensen disregarded all that Stallings had said and hired Bockrath as athletics director.
All told, Sorensen wanted to put the athletic department wholly under his control, and the hiring of Bockrath was the first step in achieving that goal. Together, both Sorensen and Bockrath shared a common belief that the athletic department was corrupt to the core, and controlled by a "good ol' boy" network consisting of former players, coaches, and alums. Hiring a former Alabama player and assistant like Mal Moore would have been the endorsement of the very thing that Sorensen sought to eliminate in the athletic department. Hence the hiring of Bockrath.
Once Stallings saw that he would be locked in a never-ending power struggle for control of the program with Sorensen and Bockrath, he resigned. The loss to Mississippi State likely had nothing whatsoever to do with his departure. Stallings decided to leave the minute that Bockrath was hired. But Gene was a class act about the situation, and only went into detail about his resignation years later after both Sorensen and Bockrath had left the university, so in the meantime the rumors of him being "run off" festered for years and years, regardless of whether or not they had any legitimate factual basis.
Perhaps some other coaches would have stuck around for a couple of more years, particularly considering the NCAA sanctions that were taking effect as a result of Antonio Langham's Bourbon Street bar napkin contract with an agent. But Stallings simply had no reason to stay, he'd done all there was to do. By late 1996, Stallings had been involved in major football for over 40 years, and had added a Super Bowl ring and three national championship rings to his personal collection. He had nothing left to prove, and there was no real reason why he should have stuck around and tried to beat his head against the proverbial wall with Bockrath and Sorensen. The fire was still very much there for Stallings -- if you remember correctly, after the Price firing in 2003 Stallings told Mal Moore that he would return and coach the team for another year or two on an interim basis, if he was so asked -- but he didn't need the headaches, so he rode off into the Texas sunset.
So, with the Stallings era officially coming to an end, Bockrath and Sorensen set out in search of a new coach. In searching for a new coach, generally speaking, they wanted a hire with no real ties to Alabama, an outsider who would come in with a new sense of direction and operation for the program. It has been very well documented that their first choice was Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer. I'm not sure that Beamer was a feasible candidate -- Beamer attended Virginia Tech and played football there three years, it would have been difficult to get him to leave his alma mater -- but nevertheless he was their initial choice. Aside from Beamer, there were very few other names that were mentioned for the job, which was largely because...
To the Alabama fan base, however, there was one choice and one choice only: Mike Dubose. He had all that they (we) were looking for. He was an Alabama graduate, he was one of Bear's Boys, he had been at Alabama forever, he had turned out several great defensive linemen, and he was regarded by many to have been one of the hottest assistant coaches in the country. Moreover, Alabama fans felt it was of the utmost importance to have a degree of continuity from the Stallings era, considering how well we had done during his tenure. After all, why go for a complete makeover of a program that had posted seventy wins in the previous seven seasons? Shortly after the news of Stallings' resignation became official, the university's athletic department was bombarded with letters, phone calls, faxes, and e-mails all urging Mike Dubose to be chosen as the next head coach.
Dubose, however, was the antithesis of everything that Sorensen and Bockrath were looking for in a coach. He was the epitome of everything they sought to eliminate in the Alabama football program. Yet they felt trapped in their decision. They felt that, given the unbelievable amount of support for Dubose generated from the fan base, they had no other option but to hire Dubose, which is exactly what they did. In an ideal situation, from their perspective, Dubose would have probably never gotten a legitimate interview, and certainly would have never been hired. In reality, though, they felt the pressure on them was too great to do so, and they both feared the backlash that would have resulted in going against the current and hiring someone not named Mike Dubose.
The underlying problem was that neither Sorensen or Bockrath were the leaders needed to effectively run a football program. The problems were evident with Dubose, even when only looking surface deep. He had no previous head coaching experience whatsoever, and had in fact only spent one year as a defensive coordinator -- which, incidentally, marked the worst year defensively Stallings had in his tenure at Alabama. Essentially, we just promoted a lifelong defensive line coach, which, for example, is the exact same thing Ole Miss would do with Ed Orgeron eight years later. Despite the adoration for Dubose by the fans, there was simply no reason why Dubose should have ever been selected to lead an elite program in the nation's toughest conference, particularly one that was operating under the effect of NCAA sanctions, but neither Sorensen or Bockrath had the leadership ability, much less the fortitude, to go against the grain, take the heat, and reject Dubose in order to get a quality football coach.
It was simply a case of where the insane took over the asylum. The leadership structure was simply not in place to prevent it from happening. Football fans are just that, fans, not decision makers. They (read we) are not qualified in any way to make football related decisions at the institutional level. They should have had little or no bearing on the ultimate decision as to who would be the next head coach, but the volume of their outpouring of support for Dubose resulted in Sorensen and Bockrath caving to the fan base, which resulted in the hiring of Dubose. They did not want him, and they probably knew his hiring was a mistake, but they did not have the fortitude or the leadership abilities to prevent it from happening. Either way, for better or for worse, Mike Dubose was hired as the head football coach at The University of Alabama.
Next up: A Powerhouse Implodes