A simple yes and the Tide's man would not be in T'town
by Bran Strickland & Joe Medley
Star Sports Writers
Sep 01, 2010 | 3678 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
There’s a theory that says a butterfly in China can flap its wings, and the chain reaction can cause a hurricane millions of miles away.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But if one believes that, then one should have no trouble buying into the belief that it was nothing short of caterpillars, cocoons and planetary alignment that took Alabama to college football’s summit once again.

People could point to myriad miniscule things that helped to pave the way for Nick Saban’s return to college football and the Crimson Tide’s 13th national championship.

• Mike Shula barely losing the recruiting battle over Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow to Florida coach Urban Meyer.

• Drew Brees failing his physical, and the Miami Dolphins settling for quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

• Even former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams’ love for cannabis.

In their own little way, each one was a factor.

One might even say it was fate dropping hints that Saban would end up with the Crimson Tide. After all, in high school, he wore the same hallowed No. 12 that some of Alabama’s most famous leaders have worn.

And he did win his first title with the Tide at the Rose Bowl, the place where Alabama won its first decades ago.

But amid all that, there’s one single moment in time that is anything but subtle. It’s the day then-West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said, “No.”

* * *

Shula set the wheels into motion, seemingly from the moment he arrived in Tuscaloosa.

After two mediocre years, he looked to be making serious improvement with 10 wins and a Cotton Bowl victory in 2005.

Looks can be — and in this case they were — deceiving. Alabama was back in the very same rut the very next year. With a 1-11 record against Auburn, LSU and Tennessee, Shula’s loss to Mississippi State in 2006 put his exit into high gear.

“The funny thing is, the talent was there,” said quarterback Greg McElroy, whose first year was Shula’s last. “The talent was there in my first year. It was just the mindset.

“You had a lot of negative leadership.”

With Shula gone, names for his possible replacement swirled around college football, ESPN and the Internet. They all but ended with everyone’s hot-shot darling of the day.

Rodriguez is coming to Alabama. If one source reported it, one hundred did.

The Crimson Tide wanted a proven winner, and Rodriguez was it.

He’d won everywhere he’d been, turning around small Glenville State in just three seasons en route to coaching his alma mater. In the end, only Michigan was able to pry him away from his home the next year, much to the chagrin of Alabama fans.

Ever since that one wrinkle in time, their lives have followed the course of polar opposites. Saban put Alabama on the fast-train to success, while Rodriquez has all but derailed the tradition-rich Michigan program.

“Part of the problem was he tried to change the entire culture of Michigan,” said former Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, now an ESPN analyst. “You’ve got to be careful in terms of what you ask for when you’re wanting a change — fan-wise, alumni-wise.

“Basically, a conventional pro-style offense that they’d run at Michigan for a long period of time, and you change the culture in a sense when you go all spread. … It’s the same thing if Alabama had made that hire.”

Rodriquez posted a 3-9 record in his first season, breaking a streak of 33 straight bowl appearances. The next season, 2009, the Wolverines found themselves on the other side of the streak as they limped to a 5-7 record.

And now, he heads into this season with the NCAA breathing on his back. After Michigan self-imposed a two-year probationary period in May, West Virginia was accused of five major NCAA violations on Rodriguez’s watch.

But he still has his job — for now — while Saban likely has one for as long as he wants it.

“There would be a larger backlash on the hire and if the same things were going on at Alabama,” Ware said. “There would be a big to-do, a big cry, much more so at Alabama than at Michigan.

“I’m not sure Rich would still be the coach if it was the same scenario and you flipped it to Alabama.”

* * *

Super agent Jimmy Sexton, Alabama athletic director Mal Moore and Saban — they all tell the same story.

The now-Crimson Tide coach spoke the truth when he stood behind that podium and uttered the words that will likely haunt him every time his name is mentioned in connection with any other job: “I am not going to be the next football coach at the University of Alabama.”

He said it repeatedly in his final weeks as head coach for the Dolphins, but few in Alabama cared. The moment Saban strolled off the plane in Tuscaloosa, the ground kissed him.

Well, an exuberant Alabama fan did, any way.

Saban arrived with a national championship on his resume, that one won at LSU in 2003.

He arrived seen as the savior of a once-proud program that was emerging from the reaching effects of sanctions and years of coaching turmoil. He became Alabama’s fifth head coach since Gene Stallings ended his 10-year run in 1996.

“I don’t think there’s a better guy and a better fit for what Alabama wanted to obtain or wanted to achieve … and in a short period,” Ware said. “You go back and you look at what they’ve done over the past couple seasons, the record they have, their the national title — those just aren’t passed out.

“ … AND he recruited Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner” in running back Mark Ingram, who won it this past season.

Saban has done it with his now-famous “process,” his defensive skills honed while working as an assistant in the NFL, and outworking competitors, whether in preparation or recruiting.

Shula’s process? McElroy just calls the difference “night and day.”

“You had a lot of guys who were not buying into what coach had to say,” said McElroy, the plan B quarterback Shula signed after losing out on Tebow.

That is not a problem now, nor was it before for Saban. Buy-in was the biggest key to the seeming ease of Alabama’s three-year transition, going from 7-6 to 12-2 to 14-0.

The mix of his players and those left over from Shula has been — with minor exceptions — a near flawless diamond mine. Saban has superior talent and the depth that it takes to play both in the Southeastern Conference and for him.

And all because they believed, no matter who promised them what.

“I think the personality of our team has basically come from players buying in, regardless of who brought them in,” he said. “That has never been an issue. We had a lot of good players last year that we recruited and we brought here, and we had a lot of good players last year that were here when we came here who bought in to the principals and values of the organization, and they were more successful because of it.

“I think who brought them in is insignificant. I think it’s what their commitment is and how they buy into the organization, together as a group and individually, that makes the group what it is and what’s going to determine the personality of the team and the identity of the team.”

And to think, what if Rodriguez had been the Tide’s salesman-in-chief the past three years?
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A simple yes and the Tide's man would not be in T'town by Bran Strickland & Joe Medley
Star Sports Writers

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