Though many Sikh travel to the Golden Temple of Amritsar, Guru Nanak told the faithful that the “real pilgrimage” is to meditate over the word of God. They’re the minority though. Islam has the Hajj. Masada and the Wailing Wall are polestars for Judaism. Jerusalem grabs top billing in a triple-header. Every cult rebuilds Heliopolis to its own floor plan. For example, it’s homecoming weekend in Tuscaloosa.
However, as the homers stumble between the bars and barbeque stands, they know that the real pilgrimage, the real return to hallelujah, took place in last week’s victory over hated rival Tennessee. Cornelius Bennett was there. Barry Krauss was there. But my attention turned to another man who was there and to the men who were not.
In 49 states, Alabama’s head coach is best known, if known at all, for his last name, for being Don’s son. In Alabama, his last name might as well be “Georgia” because before he came home as the coach that’s how the fans remembered him. “Mike Shula? Yeah, he beat Georgia!” Even now, the pull between the player and the coach can be seen, not surprising in a town so anchored in the past. At his weekly press conferences, populated by some beat reporters who’ve seen him on a football field since he was in high school, Mike Shula is not afforded the title of his office. The old men with digi-recorders and memo pads never call him ‘coach’ – every question begins “Hey, Mike…”
Perhaps the press is gun shy. After all, the rogue’s gallery of post-Bryant coaches is mostly a forgettable lot. Among them are occasional bright spots, but mostly it is a long, cold shadow, stretching into the horizon to snuff out the sun.
Ray Perkins (1983-86)
As taciturn as he was aloof, Perkins is best remembered for tearing down Bryant’s observation tower on the practice field and for telling callers to the weekly Alabama head coach’s radio program, “Hey Coach,” that their questions were stupid.
Bill Curry (1987-89)
Bill Curry and his sweater vest never won over the home crowd. Some say it was because of his superior air when dealing with the public. Others say it was because he came from Georgia Tech, a school whose fans once threw whiskey bottles at Coach Bryant and then accused him of playing dirty. All agree the jinxed know-it-all should have beaten Auburn at least once!
Gene Stallings (1990-96)
The only post-Bryant coach to win a national championship (so far), Stallings was like the methadone version of Bryant – looked like him, talked like him, coached like him. He is also the inspiration for the cruelest football comment I’ve ever heard when a fellow Bama fan stated, after Terry Bowden had be fired from Auburn, that Stallings’ kid would have a better shot at a head coaching job than Bobby Bowden’s.
Mike DuBose (1997-2000)
We all have our favorite DuBose moments, but deciding on just one is both, as he used to say (and say and say again), “a challenge and an opportunity.” Perhaps it was his winning an SEC title by beating Florida twice in the same year. Perhaps it was when he lowered his big ol’ Elmer Fudd-ish dome in shame, admitting to diddling one of the secretarial pool? No, I think his representative moment came during a post-game press conference where this strange little snake handler from Opp blamed Jesus for a loss.
Dennis Franchione (2001-02)
Many locals harbor ill will toward Texas A&M’s current coach, labeling him a self-centered, lying, hypocritical fraud – but not I. Why just this morning, as I strolled through the neighborhood, taking in a refreshing autumnal breeze, and led my dog for a walk, she sniffed a clear spot of grass, arched her back, lifted her tail, scrunched up her hind legs and I thought of Dennis Franchione.
Mike Price (A-day game, 2003)
In perhaps the oddest libel case ever, Mike Price accused Sports Illustrated of lying when they published a report that he became intoxicated at a strip club, paid dancers to return to his hotel room, and then engaged in sexual activity with them. His defense? He claims he became intoxicated at a strip club, paid dancers to return to his hotel room, and then was too drunk to engage in sexual activity with them. We wish Coach Price well… elsewhere.
Mike Shula (2003 – Present)
Perhaps it’s just as well that Mike Shula is on a first name basis with the press. In fact, hardly anyone calls him “Coach” and if when people mention “Coach Shula” it means his dad is in town. He is so thoroughly a “Mike” – an ordinary guy working under extraordinary circumstances. His postgame effervescence after the Ole Miss win, where he gave a shout-out to hospitalized Tyrone Prothro and called him “buddy” wasn’t the kind of stoic coach’s stance Alabama fans expect, but there were no complaints. In fact, it only endeared him to the fans more. What did you expect? That’s Mike for ya.
When Bear Bryant died, author Allen Barra wrote that now future generations of Alabamians will grow up without knowing what it’s like to have John Wayne as their grandfather, but this didn’t stop them from trying. This didn’t stop them from being disappointed. Perkins and Curry didn’t stand a chance. Stallings was an adequate substitute, but that didn’t prevent him from throwing a hissy fit with the AD and walking out the door. DuBose was woefully unprepared for the main stage, which hamstrung his tenure from the start. Franchione, for all his belly aching, was accepted by the faithful – you don’t hang a man in effigy when you don’t care. The less said about Mike Price, the better.
So here we are. So we don’t have John Wayne for our grandfather anymore. But we do have something. Future generations may now know what it’s like to be Don Shula. There’s Mike, doing the best he can with what he has. There’s our boy. And don’t fuck with him.