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Shula more comfortable entering fourth season

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Shula more comfortable entering fourth season


Advocate sportswriter

Published: Jul 27, 2006

HOOVER, Ala. — Alabama football coach Mike Shula seems much more comfortable heading into his fourth season with the Crimson Tide than he was before his head coaching debut in 2003, Alabama senior cornerback Ramzee Robinson said Wednesday.

“He’s a lot more relaxed,” Robinson said at Southeastern Conference Media Days. “He isn’t sweating as much.”

If Shula ever sweated the small stuff, he doesn’t appear to be anymore. Sometimes he seems so focused, what is obvious to others sails past him.

A reporter asked Shula if he thinks message boards are a distraction, and Shula had no idea the question was about Internet discussion groups.

“You’re probably asking the wrong guy,” Shula said, “because unless it’s right next to the game clock, I probably don’t look at it much.”

No, coach, not the scoreboard message board; the online sites where fans anonymously post gossip about players, coaches and programs.

“Does that affect our players?” Shula asked, setting up his own answer. “Does it affect our team? You know what? I don’t know.

“Guys that want to read a lot about themselves, it probably would.”

Shula, 41, seems able to let most unsubstantiated reports and innuendo roll off his back. He suggested his players would do themselves a favor if they treated it the same way.

“You can’t control what people are going to say about you,” Shula said.

Shula found out how true that is when the May 15 issue of Sports Illustrated published this sentence as its weekly sign of the apocalypse: “Alabama football coach Mike Shula had to switch churches after being hounded by autograph seekers, including one who was waiting at the end of the communion line with a football.”

Shula said Wednesday that never happened.

“No, I was never approached,” Shula said. “No, I’ve never changed churches.”

That didn’t stop dozens of newspapers, magazines, Web sites and television and radio stations from reporting it as fact. Shula said one out-of-state reporter — from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — called him for verification. Shula told him it wasn’t true.

What sounded in May like another illustration of the football-crazy, religious-like zeal of Alabama football fans is today an urban legend. Shula said he is too busy doing his job to worry too much about how fans see him.

“You know, if I talked about what I thought the perception of me would be, it would be the first time I’ve talked about it, really,” Shula said.

He spoke more about the preseason excitement level among Alabama fans after the Tide won 10 games last season. He wasn’t ready to say that measure of success bought him more time.

“The minute you think you’re not on the hot seat,” Shula said, “is when you get yourself in trouble.”

Alabama lost 24 lettermen from the 2005 team. Seven were defensive starters. Quarterback Brodie Croyle is gone. Star wide receiver Tyrone Prothro is recovering from a serious injury, and Shula said he doesn’t know when Prothro can return to the field.

Linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach are gone. Robinson is the lone returning starter in the secondary.

“It’s all on my shoulders,” Robinson said. “I have high expectations, and I know we’re capable. We want to be successful this year.

“We haven’t gotten the credit we deserve. I took it upon myself to push the team.”

Robinson called senior running back Kenneth Darby his best friend on the team. Darby and his many talents are also back this season.

He said he’s becoming more accustomed to the high expectations at Alabama.

“When I was a freshman, I wasn’t used to it,” Darby said. “It doesn’t take long, though, before you’re around so much that it isn’t as big a deal.”

The same can’t be said of the need to defeat arch-rival Auburn. The Tigers have won the last four games against Alabama, and T-shirts touting Auburn’s desire to win “one for the thumb” made the offseason nearly intolerable for the Crimson Tide.

Robinson said Alabama players heard and saw constant reminders of Auburn’s recent domination after last year’s Iron Bowl. The taunts and questions dogged the Tide even in Dallas while they celebrated their 13-10 victory over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.

“That’s more motivation, more fuel to our fire,” Robinson said.

How much motivation?

“How badly have you ever wanted something you’ve never had?” Darby responded.

Shula said the offense needs to shoulder more of the load this season with the defense breaking in so many new starters. That means new starting quarterback John Parker Wilson will be under the Alabama microscope.

“He’s maturing faster than I expected,” Darby said. “He reads defenses better, and he’s really getting a feel for what the college game is like.”

Shula is three years ahead of him, having survived the initial transition from being an NFL assistant coach to the boss in college.

He’s not just any boss. Reminders of the footsteps he follows surround him. Alabama fans at the SEC Media Days hotel Wednesday gathered in the lobby to see Shula’s entrance.

One was holding two hound’s-tooth hats, symbolic of the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, the most revered coach in Crimson Tide history.

Shula knows in more than one regard what it’s like to follow a legend. His father, Don, won more games than any other NFL coach. Coming of age on the sideline with his father prepared him well for this walk in the Bear’s omnipresent shadow.

“Maybe I’ve had an advantage growing up and seeing my dad, all the things that he’s gone through with winning and losing,” Shula said of the intense scrutiny as Alabama football coach. “The media, those type of things — you kind of understand that when you get into this position.”

Of course, it always helps when your players do their part to keep you grounded. Robinson said Alabama players enjoy seeing Shula’s TV commercials, which he said are rife with comic relief.

“There was a hot dog commercial,” Robinson said. “He was making hot dogs or selling weenies — something like that. It was real funny just to see his face. You could tell he was really acting. It was really funny. Really funny.”

Folks around the state of Alabama take the role Shula plays on the sideline much more seriously, even if Shula doesn’t always appear to be sweating it as much these days.

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Alabama fans at the SEC Media Days hotel Wednesday gathered in the lobby to see Shula’s entrance.

One was holding two hound’s-tooth hats, symbolic of the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, the most revered coach in Crimson Tide history.

I thought the memory of Bear Bryant was something only Auburn people brought up. Bammer fans had long ago let him rest in peace. Isn't that what we are told by our resident bammer fans?

Poor Shula, a pleasant man whose body language in public settings screams, "I will give you my courtesy car and half of my annuity package if you come no closer," had to duck down a hallway and into a private elevator so he could escape the chair-hurdling females, whose Southern accents were as thick as pom-poms (and waistlines as thick as tree trunks, I'd wager). Only Bama women can stretch the word, "Coach," into nine syrupy syllables (that is the unfortunate byproduct of their 8th grade (on average) education).

One of the women got his autograph, thanks to a bull rush around the corner and then over a radio guy sitting at a table. Too bad Bama doesn't need help on the D-line. Also in the crowd was a guy holding a stack of houndstooth hats (can't they let the Bear rest in peace?), a codger wearing shin-high Crimson socks and shorts (pause for fashion scream), and assorted people wearing T-shirts that generally made fun of Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.


Wojo on ESPN noticed the same thing. I believe our resident bammers are full of caca.

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