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The Dennis Franchione Saga: Starting Anew

When we left off a few weeks ago, the program had essentially imploded and was now at an ebb not seen in almost fifty years. By this point, the terrible triumvirate of Dubose, Bockrath, and Sorensen were all seemingly done, officially with the former two and effectively with the latter. Problem was, things weren't really getting any better.

Almost as soon as Dubose left, the NCAA investigators arrived. We were coming off of a disastrous 3-8 season, were in search of a new head coach, and had the NCAA turning over every stone they could find in Tuscaloosa, or anywhere that we previously had a recruiting presence. Talk about three things that don't go together.

Nevertheless, we had to hire a new head coach. Right off the bat, Sorensen tried to at least partially re-assert his power by trying to organize a committee to search for the new head coach. It goes without saying that had Sorensen been able to pull that one off, he would have been able to wield considerable influence over the selection, hence his insistence for doing just that. To the Athletic Oversight Committee, however, there was no chance in hell that was happening. Sorensen had completely botched  the previous hire, regarding both head coach and AD (Dubose and Bockrath, respectively), and there was no chance they were going to give him the opportunity to do so again. They argued that Mal Moore was athletic director and had been hired specifically to do this type of thing, so just let the man do his job. No shock, the AOC won out, Sorensen didn't get his committee, and Mal Moore was given the task of finding a new head coach.

So who did we turn to? A lot of names have been mentioned over the years, so let's just go through a few names real quick.

Jackie Sherrill, in many ways, would have fit the bill perfectly, and his name was mentioned several times in various circles (mainly by fans). First and foremost, Sherrill had Alabama ties -- he had graduated from Alabama, and won two national championships under Bryant in the early-to-mid 1960's -- and would have taken the job had we offered him. We also had a lot of character cases on the roster and kids that flat out needed to grow up, and Sherrill would have fixed that too. Keep in mind this is the same man who castrated a live bull in front of his 1992 MSU team because he felt they were not "man enough," (naturally they responded with almost a three touchdown victory over Texas the following week). Moreover, Sherrill was very much used to doing more with less after almost a decade in Starkville, a very valuable asset for a head coach who may very well have found himself staring down NCAA sanctions. However, despite how often Sherrill was mentioned in a variety of circles, he was never a legitimate candidate in any way whatsoever because of his past with the NCAA. While head coach at Texas A&M, his Aggies ended up on probation, and that would have barred any opportunity he had to be hired. There was no way we were going to hire a head coach with a history of NCAA violations when NCAA investigators were on campus.

Frank Beamer's name was brought up for obvious reasons, but he was never a legitimate candidate. He was Bockrath and Sorensen's pick four years earlier, but by this point Bockrath was headed to Yavapai Community College to tend his flower garden and Sorensen really didn't have much sway. Moreover, even had we pursued him, there is no way Beamer would have left. It's hard enough to pry a man away from his alma mater, but to do it when that man is one year removed from a national championship game appearance would have been nothing short of impossible. Despite the talk, Beamer was never a candidate.

Tommy Bowden was a much more interesting name. It has been mentioned in several different circles that Bowden actively petitioned to get the Alabama job when it came open, and in all honesty I have never found any reason to believe otherwise. It makes sense on so many levels as to why Bowden would have wanted the job. He was born in Birmingham and spent much of his childhood there. Moreover, his father Bobby grew up a rabid Alabama fan, and actually spent some time as a football player at Alabama. Furthermore, Tommy himself spent time at Alabama as an assistant coach. All told, it just all makes sense. The general story goes that once the job came open, Bowden's agent Ricky Davis -- yet another Alabama connection, Davis played DB in the mid-1970's under Bryant -- tried to get his client's foot in the door as much as he possibly could, but Mal was simply never interested. Again, I have no reason to believe otherwise. And it's actually a bit of an odd situation, really. Bowden would have been a relatively good hire at the time. In 1998, he went 12-0 at Tulane, and in 2000 he went 9-3 at Clemson, turning around a program that had previously been in the dumps. We could have done much worse, to be sure, but one way or the other we never really pursued Bowden.

Butch Davis was really the guy we went after. And we got him. Kind of. There is no doubt whatsoever that we pursued Davis, and that we reached a tentative agreement with him. At one point in time, he was set to be the next Alabama head coach, but ultimately he reneged on the deal. The hot internet rumor then, and now, was that a triumvirate of SEC coaches -- namely Phil Fulmer, Houston Nutt, and Tommy Tuberville -- all called him and informed him that we were about to get hammered by the NCAA and that, considering he just finished rebuilding a Miami program that was devastated by NCAA sanctions, he should steer clear of Tuscaloosa. Shortly thereafter, Davis indeed left Coral Gables, but it was to take the head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns.

Now, whether or not that rumor is true is not known by me, and probably not known definitively by most of those who would vehemently argue one way or the other regarding it. At the very least, however, we can say a few things. First and foremost, no one could have blamed Davis for turning down the job in such a situation. And moreover, you really cannot blame Fulmer, Nutt, or Tuberville for their phone calls, if they did take place. After all, as sinister as their actions may have been, there was not a single word said by any of them that did not turn out to be entirely true. They said we would get hammered by the NCAA and we were ultimately hammered by the NCAA; a painful truth is nevertheless the truth. Finally, if Davis really was shying away from taking over another program mired in NCAA sanctions, then he was not a good fit, and in the long-term it was probably best that we went our separate ways. Either way, Davis went to Cleveland, and Alabama moved on.

Once the Davis melodrama ended, the search moved quickly, and shortly thereafter Dennis Franchione became the name with all of the buzz. Franchione had spent several years in the lower levels of college football before getting the TCU job in 1998, where he inherited a 1-10 program that had been run into the ground by former Auburn Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan. His debut campaign saw 1-10 go to 7-5 with a victory over USC in the Sun Bowl. The second year was even better, as they won another bowl game and a share of the WAC Conference championship on the way to an 8-4 season. Finally in 2000, during the time in which Alabama was imploding, Franchione led the Horned Frogs to a 10-1 regular season that saw him emerge as one of the hottest young coaching prospects in the country. Mal had seen enough, and zeroed in on Franchione. He was a tough, disciplinarian coach who had a history of building up programs and doing more with less. This was exactly what he was looking for in a head coach.

Mal worked quickly in his pursuit of Franchione. In a matter of days, Franchione was on a plane leaving Fort Worth with a Tuscaloosa destination. After touching down in the worst possible weather to tour the campus and the facilities -- there were severe thunderstorms and tornados in Tuscaloosa that day -- Mal made Franchione an offer he simply could not refuse. The man had literally spent his entire professional lifetime fighting uphill from one-red-light Kansas towns and no-name colleges... places like Peabody High, Tennessee Tech, Pittsburgh State. And now Alabama, yes Alabama, was knocking on his door. He knew it didn't get any bigger than this at the collegiate level, and he knew that everything he had worked for almost 30 years for was now in his grasps. For all our faults at the time, there was no way he could turn it down, Mal simply had an offer that he could not refuse. And so it came to pass. On November 28th, a mere ten days after the depressing loss to Auburn amid the rain and the sleet, Dennis Franchione became the head coach at The University of Alabama.

Meanwhile, in the background of the coaching search, the situation with the NCAA was developing. The rumors kept growing louder and louder, and it seemed like something was coming to a head. In January of 2001, several media outlets published stories that alleged Albert Means' high school football coach Lynn Lang had accepted a payment of $200,000 to steer Means to Alabama. All hell broke loose.

In February of 2001, mere weeks after the Means story broke, a preliminary letter of inquiry from the NCAA arrived. Almost instantly, NCAA investigators were swarming everywhere, and they left no stone unturned. They interviewed coaches, players, former coaches, former players, administrators, boosters, academic support personnel, you name it. No exact number on the number of interviewed has ever been given, but it easily had to be in the hundreds. There is no doubt that it was and is the biggest and most intensive investigation in the history of the NCAA. They were even interviewing potential recruits that not only we did not sign, but recruits that we never even showed any interest to in the first place. It was nothing short of one giant circus.

With all of the turmoil encompassing the football program, and to a lesser extent the university as a whole, suddenly Andrew Sorensen once again found himself in a position of power. If you remember from the last installment, Sorensen effectively became a lame duck after the formation of the Athletic Oversight Committee following his handling of the Debbiegate Saga, but all of the chaos in Tuscaloosa suddenly put him back in a position of power. I don't think it was that anyone was overly happy about Sorensen's refound power, but for better or worse -- and it ultimately was for worse -- he was president and therefore the man we turned to for leadership in a time of crisis.

From the very the beginning, Sorensen thought that a policy of cooperation would be the best way to limit the damages. Simply put, Sorensen didn't want to fight the NCAA. He thought that playing hardball with a tough defense would only dig ourselves a grave -- apparently he did not think much of the fact that a vigorous appeal five years earlier earned us back nine scholarships and reduced probation by a year. A key element in this strategy was Gene Marsh, a professor at UA law. After several years of serving on various SEC and NCAA committees, Marsh was ultimately placed on the NCAA's Committee on Infractions (COI) in 1999, and the plan was to use his position of power to influence the final decision of the committee. At bottom, the basic strategy was to admit fault, throw ourselves at the mercy of the NCAA, kick out the bad seeds, and use the influence of Gene Marsh on the COI to limit the damage.

At the end of the day, in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 season, we found ourselves facing two major issues: (1) we needed to find a new head coach, and (2) we needed to formulate an effective strategy to defend ourselves against the NCAA's charges. Now, with Dennis Franchione in Tuscaloosa, we had our head coach, and with Andrew Sorensen suddenly back in power we had a strategy to fight the NCAA.

Next Up: Fran Rebuilds, and the NCAA Destroys