Sly Croom is doing good things at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have beaten Alabama twice in consecutive years, and this year added cross-state rival Ole Miss, Kentucky and Auburn to its list of wins, finishing with a satisfying 7-win season plus a bowl trip. Eight wins in Starkville? Yes, and with the QB problems they’re having, that’s quite an accomplishment.
And this upward trend of success the ‘Dogs are enjoying prompts the question: What if Alabama had hired Croom instead of Shula? After the Mike Price fiasco, already late in the year and suffering from the shock and awe penalties of the sanctimonious NCAA, the coaching pickings were slim. A proven head coach was out of the question during that time of year. And what it came down to was a choice between Sly Croom and Mike Shula. Croom was an Alabama product and champion as a player and as a coach, with lessons in coaching from Bear Bryant himself. Shula was a Bama product, son of Don Shula, and had great hair. As coaches, both were in the NFL at the time, Croom coaching the running backs in Chicago and Shula the QB coach for Miami.
Ultimately the choice came down to who had the best hair. No, I don’t believe it was a black/white thing, but I’ll grant you it would have made vast inroads if Croom had’ve been hired. It’s one thing for MSU to hire a black coach, but for Alabama, with all its pride and tradition, it would have made a statement for the whole south, to the entire country. In the end, though, they hired the prettier Shula, and damn the championship rings on Croom’s fingers. Shula looked more like a head football coach, didn’t he? Surely if he went into a recruit’s home the parents couldn’t resist his boyish charm, those eyes, that smile, that hair! Oh, if only hindsight were 50/50! (in the words of Pat Dye).
In the following years Shula would have some successes as head coach, including a 10-win season and SEC crown, and I’m sure his gentle good looks won him the hearts of many a recruits’ dear mother. But in retrospect, looking at the complete package, who looks the most like a head football coach? Shula, who is now the QB coach for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, or Sly Croom, who has coached up a team of blue-collar no names into a 7-win season. Croom walks the sidelines with a scowl on his face, with a furrowed brow, and points and shouts. While Shula, when he was at Bama, stared with an often-dazed expression, and was routinely slow in making the wrong decision.
Sure, it’s easy to get on the Croom bandwagon when he’s winning, and I do remember last year, when the only thing he had to hang his hat on was a win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And I’m grateful for the job Mike Shula did; he took a tough job at a school still reeling, still with red butt cheeks from the NCAA’s almighty whooping stick. But Croom, who may not have boyish good looks, does have the classic coach’s stalk when he’s on the sideline, and he’s got rings, people. Championship rings on his fingers, won at the University of Alabama. Rings that I’ll bet shine brighter than Mike Shula’s baby blues ever did.
So in hindsight, maybe it’s possible Witt chose the pretty boy for the wrong reasons. Maybe he should have opted for the grizzled workhorse who is now building a reputation as a coach who not only demands excellence, but will not accept anything less. If he can win seven games at MSU, how many could he have won at Alabama?
Of course, if Croom had been hired and if had had success then Nick Saban would likely be somewhere else right now and all the excitement surrounding the program would be… what?
Few can match Saban as a recruiter, that much is certain. And as a coach he’s got few peers. But he’s not an Alabama product, and that’s his one big detrimental factor. One which, with Alabama fans, will be very easy to overlook if and when he brings home a championship. And it’s true that ‘hiring inside the family’ has bitten Alabama on the butt more times in recent years than the NCAA has. Saban is a gruff man, not personable at all, they say. The media despises him and most other college football fans in the country do, too. But we adore him, we’ve welcomed him, with all his faults, because he brings a foundation to build upon, he brings success, and he has won championships.
For Coach Croom, if he had been hired and not had success, the firestorm would not have been pretty. There’s certainly a faction of fans who would begrudge the decision of hiring a black man, although I believe it’s a small faction, and dwindling. But if Coach Croom took the podium with those rings on his fingers, few could have kept from being dazzled. He’s a product of Alabama and a Bear Bryant Man, a good man, for all accounts.
What happens if Saban bolts, which is been predicted by virtually everyone who isn’t an Alabama fan? What if Coach Saban sees the looming, potential LSU vacancy as a preferable job and grabs it up? For me, I believe Coach Croom would finally deserve the shot at Alabama. I hope him all the success in the world at MSU, excluding of course the one Saturday every year when they play Alabama. I’m not hoping for Saban to leave–God, no–I’m looking forward to this potential #1 recruiting class and I’m looking forward to everything that I think he can do at Alabama. But if he bolts, there’s a Bryant man waiting in the wing, if he’d still have us.
I believe he would.
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