Former head coach Mike Shula was placed in a nearly impossible position when the Crimson Tide hired him in May 2003 to coach at a level in which he had no experience, in his first head coaching role, with a team that had seen the NCAA levy the harshest post-SMU sanctions upon them, that had lost not one, but two coaches in abrupt, disruptive fashion in a mere five months, and — frankly, one that had lost its way since beloved head coach Gene Stallings retired/was forced out by the insidious Bob Bockrath cabal in 1996.
However, despite the knack on Shula for his pedestrian recruiting, he did score one triumph on the recruiting trail...for the next three years he would keep a lightly-regarded defensive back from Prattville enrolled at Alabama. The overachiever that Shula re-recruited every season would go on to have a fine career in Crimson before creating one of the more momentous turnovers in recent Alabama history.
We, of course, are talking about Roman Harper.
The gem of the 2001 recruiting class was the state’s No. 1 prospect, and the nation’s No. 2 overall player, quarterback Brodie Croyle. Little did we know then that an unranked, undersized safety, who received no other major school offers, would become a star in his own right and a leader on some Alabama teams that had two identities: offensive struggles and a thin, but well-coached defense. And, like those defenses, Harper would grow to become better and better every season.
Roman Harper redshirted his first year on campus. Since he arrived at 6’0, 180 pounds that’s not much of a surprise either. Even by the standards of Karl Torbush’s undersized units, Harper did not have the size to play in the SEC.
Harper’s 2002 redshirt freshman campaign saw him play in all 12 games, becoming more productive with each contest and eventually earning a start in the Tide’s finale at Hawaii. Then, as now, Harper was known for being around the ball and making plays. He had 42 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and 2 PBUs. Not bad for a skinny backup.
Harper’s next two campaigns would see him shine, as he became an all-conference performer and a household name in the SEC. In 2003 Harper tallied 3 PBUs, 5 QB pressures, 1 Int, and a FR. He also rang up 114 tackles on the season, being pressed into many more snaps because of the Tide’s scholarship restrictions. Harper’s Junior season, 2004, saw him elevate his play further still, as he recorded 7 TFL, 1 sack, 4 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 INTs, and 77 tackles. He was rightly named all-conference by the league’s coaches.
This brings us to 2005, where an early season injury to phenom WR Tyrone Prothro turned Alabama into the very definition of a one-dimension ball club. Unfortunately, that dimension was mostly to play defense and hope for some very ugly Jamie Christensen field goals. The Tide did both, led by preseason all-Americans Demeco Ryans and Roman Harper. Harper, particularly, continued his career-long knack for being a playmaker: he tallied 74 tackles, half a sack, 6.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 7 PBUs, 1 FR, and one very special forced fumble.
That year’s installment of the Third Saturday in October was not a game for the ages. The Tide came in psychologically defeated by the Volunteers, having lost 10 of the previous 11 contests...and it showed. Still, the defense made the most of it, holding the Vols to a single field goal in a contest where both offenses sputtered, kicks were missed, and opportunities lost.
Late in the 4th quarter, the Volunteers finally established some rhythm, and, on the Tide’s home turf, looked to again rip Alabama’s heart out with more late game heroics. Inside Alabama’s redzone, UT QB Casey Clausen dropped back and hit fullback Corey Anderson on a screen pass from the Tide 15 yard line, catching every one in a red jersey off guard. With blockers and an endzone in front of him, Anderson was about to write his name into Third Saturday lore if he could just beat the one man in front of him: Roman Harper.
What followed next were heroics borne of desperation and a refusal to lose.
Harper’s perfect placement of the helmet on the ball left Anderson a broken man on the field, as the ball squirted out of the back of the Tide’s endzone for a touchback. Brodie Croyle would connect with DJ Hall for some heroics, and Christensen would bury a deep FG with the clock all-but expiring to secure a 6-3 Alabama win.
More importantly, that turnover restored some pride to a program that had seen most of it stripped away in the previous decade. And, because the football gods have a cruel and delicious sense of irony, that very same forced fumble would mark the beginning of the end for the hated Phil Fulmer — the same man who had placed Alabama in such dire NCAA straits to begin with.
Fulmer would be fired two years later, and a decade after Harper’s forced fumble, the Volunteers are still wandering in the woods.
41 days ‘til kickoff