Tide Turns for 'Bama Football Coach Shula

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The University of Alabama fires football coach Mike Shula. He's the latest coach to struggle at a school Paul "Bear" Bryant turned into a football power. Author Warren St. John and Mike Pesca discuss 'Bama football.

MIKE PESCA, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Tomorrow's the last day of college football action before bowl season, but for a few coaches notice has been given that their services will no longer be required. Alabama's Mike Shula was one such coach. His Crimson Tide went 6-6 and his four-year tenure marked at least a partial return to some of the glory that Alabama had lost due to scandal and ineptitude. It was the sort of firing where outsiders said huh, maybe a little hasty, but many of the Alabama diehards supported.

Joining me with an explanation of the Shula-must-go mindset is Warren St. John, writer for the New York Times and chronicler of Alabama football and its fans. Hi Warren.

Mr. WARREN ST. JOHN (Writer, New York Times): Hi there. How are you?

PESCA: Warren, the last game of Alabama's regular season is something called the Iron Bowl. Alabama plays in-state rival Auburn. You chronicled the lives of rabid Alabama fans. Take me inside the mind and heart of an Alabama fan as they headed into this game last week.

Mr. ST. JOHN: This is not a great year for them, so I think there was a fair amount of trepidation. Alabama's one of these interesting places where, you know, there are no NBA teams. There are no NFL teams. There are no hockey teams.

There's really only two significant sporting teams in any sport, and that's college football and it's Alabama and Auburn. So the entire sort of collective awareness of the state is focused on these two teams and in particular this game.

PESCA: And statistics show in the state of Alabama there are more atheists than non-football fans. Is that right?

Mr. ST. JOHN: That's right. I was actually in Birmingham last week at a restaurant having dinner and I looked over, there was this table of four young women - professional women in their late 20s - and they were in a very deep argument about something. And I tuned in for a moment and they were arguing about the starting running back for the Crimson Tide, who should be given that role. So that's the sort of level of penetration we're talking about.

PESCA: Going into the Iron Bowl last week Alabama was 6-5, Auburn was 9-2. Auburn was the favorite and Auburn was the better and you know what, Auburn won. But beyond the records, if you look off the field, Auburn had been mired in scandal all year. They were giving away some grades to football players.

But at Alabama, the coach Mike Shula had taken a program that had fallen on very hard times, had resurrected it, he won a bowl game last year, but it was Mike Shula who was fired. Can you help me understand why that happened?

Mr. ST. JOHN: I think there was a general feeling that things had started to slide in the wrong direction for the football team. And this is both in terms of off the field issues - discipline issues - and also their on the field performance.

I think Mike Shula was a coach who came from the NFL, which is an environment where you, you know, you're working with your peers essentially, the players, and you leave them alone to go do their own thing. And in college you have to be much more proactive and involved in the students lives. Sort of keep them on the straight and narrow. And I think there was a concern that maybe that wasn't happening.

PESCA: It seems to me that Alabama - the ghost of Bear Bryant, the legendary coach and a legendary disciplinarian, hangs over that school as much as anyone. More than even Knute Rockne hangs over Notre Dame. And Knute - and as I said, Bear Bryant was a disciplinarian. It seems to me that Alabama fans want winning, but they want a certain kind of winning, which is where the coach is not afraid to kick the players in the rear.

Mr. ST. JOHN: There's no question that people in Alabama think of football as a sort of reflection of themselves. And in some ways they ask more of the football team than they would ever be willing to sort of commit in their own personal lives towards issues like discipline.

They want the team to project an image of control, success, acumen on the field, and also a kind of charisma and panache. And it's a big ask to put that on a bunch of teenagers.

PESCA: Warren St. John's book about the University of Alabama football culture is called “Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania.” Thanks Warren.

Mr. ST. JOHN: Thanks so much.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: DAY TO DAY rolls on in a moment.

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