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The Importance of Leadership

One of the pieces of writing I've always enjoyed reading and re-reading over the years is The Future By Way of the Past series posted many years ago by an anonymous member of Tider Insider. Now, admittedly, I have no clue who wrote those pieces -- obviously, though, it was someone with a fairly decent degree of insight-- and admittedly I don't agree with everything written, but even so I tend to think the series as a whole does a nice job of summarizing many of the issues at play from the end of the Stallings era throughout the collapse of the Dubose regime and the Albert Means scandal.

Perhaps most importantly, I think it addresses the importance of leadership within the university and the athletic department and how a lack of leadership played such a crucial role in the collapse of the program starting in the mid-1990's. Specifically, two quotes stand out from the final piece:

I’m a great proponent of moving on past Coach Bryant. But one thing he provided that we haven’t had since was unquestioned authority and leadership over our athletic dominion. To this day we have yet to find a way to fill the vacuum left by Coach’s retirement and untimely death.

And what are the results of the past decade under this void of leadership – infighting, factionalism, stasis, half measures, poor on the field product, a soiled national image – in short disaster. Too many people in the Alabama orbit like to point to one event, or person as the cause of our troubles. But it’s far too complicated for that. Without a strong leader with people to follow his direction you get the factionalism and infighting that inevitably lands you in the jailhouse. It produces disgruntled people who pursue narrow agendas without accountability. It breeds disharmony and discontent that our enemies exploit and feed off of. We don’t have a good ole boy problem, or a booster problem, or a coaching problem, or a management problem, or an academic problem, or a financial problem. We have a leadership problem. Without a strong leader with the authority and power to back up what he says – good people become mediocre, weak people become useless, and bad people become cancerous.

He (or she) is absolutely correct on the leadership aspect in the post-Bryant era. Prior to the arrival of Nick Saban, not a single one of the seven post-Bryant coaches even came close to having the authority and the credibility necessary to lead the program. Perkins was divisive and was forever defined by what he wasn't (i.e. Bryant), and Curry was loathed at worst and merely tolerated at best. Dubose couldn't even command the respect of his own players, much less the institution as a whole or its fan base. Everyone clung to Fran (irrationally so, in hindsight) but no one with one foot already out the escape hatch can lead forward. Price was an unconvincing hire that imploded quicker than a drive-thru marriage in Vegas. Shula was an emergency hire who was treated as such. Stallings came closer than anyone, without doubt, but ultimately he too failed. After the national championship in 1992 the program disintegrated in a perfect storm of compliance incompetence, staff in-fighting, lingering questions over Stallings' own future, and meddling from above.

Likewise, we've experienced much of the same leadership void on the administrative side from both the university president and the athletics director. In the president's mansion Roger Sayers may have been well enough, but Joab Thomas was more focused on fundamentally restructuring the football program and its relationship with the university, and Andrew Sorensen was even more vehement in his efforts to do just that. Particularly in the latter case, we were saddled with "leaders" who could not understand the fundamental importance of football to the University of Alabama and how the success of the football program and the university as a whole were interrelated. The athletics director position has been just as dicey. Steve Sloan was largely a figurehead, and while many good things can be said for Hootie Ingram, his handling of the Antonio Langham scandal is simply damning. Bob Bockrath was a disaster in every way imaginable, and even Mal Moore has spent much of his time as AD being hamstrung from above and by the consequences of the actions of his predecessors.

Again, the singular theme of the post-Bryant era has been a lack of leadership within the university.

In hindsight, perhaps the single most important hire that resurrected the Alabama football program was not Nick Saban in January of 2007. The single most important hire, arguably, was Robert Witt as university president in March of 2003. I'm not going to claim that Witt is perfect and that some valid criticisms cannot be made of his tenure, but Witt deserves the credit for understanding the interrelation between the success of the football program and the university as a whole. If nothing else, he understands that his career as president or the university itself cannot succeed while everyone is up in arms over the football team getting smoked on Saturdays. It was his leadership that ultimately helped finish the facilities upgrade -- which Sorensen attempted to stall at every turn -- and it was his leadership that allowed tough (though ultimately correct) decisions to be made on Mike Price and Mike Shula. Furthermore, it is also to his credit that he properly realized a situation in which the correct move would be to delegate power and to largely relinquish his own control over the football program (and that can be contrasted to many administrators who merely look to aggregate their own power at any and every opportunity).

Nick Saban was the crowning jewel of it all, of course, but realistically Saban would have never been a possibility without Witt. If Alabama would have had anything similar to the "leadership" that it had in much of the post-Bryant era, rest assured that Saban would have never even entertained the notion of coming within a country mile of Tuscaloosa. Had Mal Moore flown to Miami with Andrew Sorensen in tow, the pilot would have probably been ordered to return to Tuscaloosa mid-flight.

Now, Witt has effectively delegated his power to Saban, under the relatively straightforward caveat that he cannot get the university in trouble. Likewise, Mal Moore is athletics director in name only at this point, he know longer handles day-to-day operations of the athletic department and his real job is fund-raising; Saban makes the decisions that impact the football program. Simply put, Mal and Witt do not interfere, Saban is by and large allowed to do whatever he wants and whenever he wants to do it. Anything that Saban wants to do comes with the full support of those above him within the institution.

Make no mistake about it, Alabama is a tough job and it is one that -- despite all of its vast potential to be a national powerhouse -- is probably ill-suited for most coaches. Bryant himself once said regarding Texas A&M, something to the effect of, "Texas A&M is a tough son of a bitch and it takes a tough son of a bitch to win there." He was talking about the Aggies, of course, but I think that statement applies equally well to Alabama. Ordinary coaches need not apply, and the Alabama job has a tendency to chew up ordinary coaches and spit them out on short order. Make no mistake, in many ways Alabama requires a particularly special coach, someone with the authority and the credibility to align everyone and have them fighting with all their might towards a common goal. That may sound simple enough, but that does not come easy in Tuscaloosa. And that, in many ways, is the single greatest asset that Nick Saban brings to the table for Alabama. Aside from him being a defensive mastermind and his recruiting prowess and all the rest of his abilities as a football coach, most importantly Saban leads without question. All the in-fighting and turmoil that existed in the past and dominated coach after coach in the post-Bryant era has largely gone away. Saban says go, and everyone else follows.