From 2007 until 2015, Kirby Smart loyally served under Nick Saban at Alabama. He was a big part of 105 wins and four National Championships at the Capstone. He even stayed on through last season's playoffs after being hired as the head coach at Georgia and did not miss a step. And now... he is the scourge of many Crimson Tide fans.
This episode reminds me of another Alabama coach who, maybe unfairly, has gone from hero to pariah: Mike Shula. While his coaching stint at Alabama was not a rousing success, let's focus on the good times.
SON OF A LEGEND
Shula was born the son of legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, the NFL's all-time winningest coach (no pressure there). He won all-state honors at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida where he and Alonzo Highsmith led their team to the state championship game.
He chose to further his playing career at the University of Alabama. While recruiting details from 1983 are not as thorough as they are today, Papa Shula's relationship with Bear Bryant, many of the Tide greats that played for the Dolphins (Tony Nathan, Bob Baumhower, Dwight Stephenson, etc.), likely factored in his choice. But the biggest factor was probably new head Tide coach Ray Perkins, who was a star receiver under Don Shula at Baltimore.
Mike's first season saw him complete one pass in four attempts while backing up Heisman runner-up (9th), Walter Lewis.
1984 was a rough season. The #9 ranked Crimson Tide started the season running up a big lead against Doug Flutie's Boston College only to see the lead trickle away after Bama running back Kerry Goode left the game with a injured knee. They followed that up with a sluggish loss to a lame Georgia Tech team and a home loss to Vandy two weeks later. Some observers would point the blame to Perkins' decision to rotate Shula with can't miss freshman QB Vince Sutton seemingly on any whim. Sutton struggled (4 TD, 9 INT) and Alabama would limp into the Iron Bowl with a 4-6 record.
Meanwhile, Auburn was 8-3 (4-1) with hopes of an SEC title still alive. This game became known as the "Wrong Way Bo" game when Bo Jackson ran left while the play went right, leaving teammate Brent Fullwood to be destroyed by Alabama's Rory Turner. Shula did not have a big day passing, accumulating only 73 yards, but his steady hand at the wheel showed he was the leader for this team moving forward.
In his junior year, Shula was the man. The Tide rolled to a 9–2–1 (4–1–1 SEC) record under the guiding hand of Shula who completed 138 of 229 for 2009 yards, 16 TD, and 8 INT. The only losses were two-point defeats to Penn State and Tennessee both of whom would finish ranked in the Top 4. The tie was against LSU in Baton Rouge. Bama would close out the regular season with an upset over Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson's Tigers in the game that features "The Kick." Don't forget that it was Shula who got them into position to kick that field goal.
A 24-3 romp of Southern Cal in the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu brought pride back to T-Town.
Shula's senior campaign kicked off with a high-profile win over Ohio State in a game played in Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. With help from Bobby Humphrey, the Tide reeled off six more wins including defeats of Florida, Notre Dame ("The Sack"), and Tennessee until running into the steamroller that was the eventual National Champions Penn State led by All-American running back D.J. Dozier. They would later lose to LSU and Auburn, both top ten teams. Shula wrapped his career with a 28-6 victory over #12 Washington in the Sun Bowl Stadium.
"I'm glad we don't have to play this Mike Shula anymore. This guy is just a fantastic player. He scares me every time they snap the ball. I'm happy his career is over." - LSU coach Bill Arnsparger
Finishing 10–3 (4–2 SEC), it was Alabama's first ten-win season since 1980. Shula had brought hope back to Tuscaloosa. Unfortunately, Perkins left for the Buccaneers after the season, leaving Alabama with (ugh) Bill Curry. Perkins would go 19-41 in four seasons with Tampa Bay but that is a story for another time.
Shula spent one year as a player in the NFL with Perkins in Tampa. However, his future clearly lay as a coach. He didn't have to go far, working as an assistant in Tampa for the next three seasons until Perkins was canned. He next spent two years in Miami with his father (Pro Bowl years for Dan Marino), three in Chicago with Dave Wannstedt, back to Tampa for four with Tony Dungy, and reunited with Wannstedt in Miami for seasons 2000-2002. Thus is the life of a NFL assistant.
BACK TO BAMA
Bill Curry was a bust. Gene Stallings (1990–1996) would bring Alabama National Championship #12. Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and ever so briefly Mike Price brought shame and scandal. And probation.
Tuscaloosa was embroiled in controversy, disappointment, and anger. Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore was getting some serious heat for his coach hirings. When Price was fired in May of 2003, the pressure was even more intense. Alabama needed to get back to Alabama ways. Alabama needed someone who was a boy scout, a choir boy, a hero, a Bama man - and someone who was available at this late in the game. At that time and in that moment, Mike Shula was the best and right hire.
In the midst of NCAA sanctions, the Tide stumbled to 4-9 and 6-6 in Shula's first two years at the helm. 2005 started out great with nine wins but losses to LSU and Auburn relegated the Tide to the Cotton Bowl - a win over Texas Tech. It was a ten win season but winning the Iron Bowl was a problem.
Instead of turning the corner, Bama fell back to 6-7 the next season and a fourth straight loss to Auburn. Soon after, Moore was on a plane to Miami to help the Dolphins head coach realize where he belonged.
Despite the 26–23 (13–19 SEC) record, Shula ran a clean program. Maybe he was too young when he was hired at age 37. Maybe he needed some experience as a head man. Or maybe some guys are best suited as an assistant.
After being let go in Tuscaloosa, Shula returned to the NFL with Jacksonville and then to Carolina where he currently tutors Cam Newton. Shula may never be a head coach again but he is among the best offensive coordinators in the league.
Despite some animosity by some Bama fans towards Shula for his coaching record at Alabama, he deserves the respect and admiration that any player that dons the crimson and white gets.