<
>

Tide have struggled to find the right coach

After a week in which Alabama forced head coach Mike Shula to the edge of the plank, the university pushed him off Sunday night, firing the former Crimson Tide quarterback after four seasons. Athletic director Mal Moore made the formal announcement on Monday afternoon.

Shula took an impossible job, replacing a scandalized Mike Price in May 2003. He went 26-23 while trying to rebuild a roster depleted by NCAA penalties. Shula, hired by Alabama despite his lack of head coaching experience, didn't learn quickly enough to suit his employer. He couldn't overcome his poor record against the Tide's archrivals. His last victory over Auburn came in 1985, when he played quarterback.

Speculation over his replacement has focused on Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, both of whom continue to make it clear that they have no intention of leaving their respective jobs. A friend of Spurrier reiterated as much Monday morning, when Spurrier was out of Columbia recruiting.

By firing Shula, the university has guaranteed that whoever replaces him will be a very wealthy man. The university will owe Shula $4 million, according to the extension he signed earlier this year. Any potential head coach out there understands that if Alabama wanted Shula gone that badly, it is ready to pay the next coach at market rate.

That coach will need to come in and resuscitate a program that has spent the last 10 years creating its own problems, chief among them NCAA probation, infighting and bad hiring decisions. The next coach will be the fifth since Gene Stallings retired 10 years ago.

Perhaps the powers that be at the Capstone finally realize what the rest of the college football community understood about three or four Tide head coaches ago. The Alabama name doesn't carry the weight that it once did. Ask recruits, teenagers too young to remember when Alabama ruled the SEC West.

"Alabama is not a factor anymore," said a former Crimson Tide assistant who still actively recruits the South.

The Alabama merchandise is not in the sporting good stores nationwide the way that USC and Notre Dame are. It is not in the ESPN catalog that arrived at my house last week.

"So much is going on out there," the assistant said. "You've got to be able to market your program. With everything that Alabama has on that campus (an expanded football building, new weight room and a Bryant-Denny Stadium expanded to 92,000 seats), and all that tradition, you've got a chance if you can get the kid there (to visit). You've got to be able to get them there."

Perhaps that's why Spurrier and Saban's name came up in Tuscaloosa over the last week. They both have national championships at SEC schools. But here's the thing: They hadn't won those championships when Florida and LSU, respectively, hired them. Pete Carroll had been fired by two NFL teams when USC hired him six years ago. Even Paul "Bear" Bryant himself had not won a national championship when he returned to his alma mater nearly 50 years ago.

It is rare that any coach who has won a national championship becomes available, and no coach has ever won a national championship at two different schools. You can't hire the magic. You have to hire the right man, let him do his job without interference and hope for the best.

Alabama hasn't hired anyone remotely similar to the right guy since Stallings came in 1990. That's Gene Stallings, who had a losing record at Texas A&M and a losing record with the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals. He returned to Alabama, won the 1992 national championship and four of the first five SEC West championships and retired with a 70-16-1 record in seven seasons.

There's no reason to think that Moore or a powerful trustee named Paul Bryant Jr. will hire the right guy this time. They've had more opportunities than most and they haven't done so yet. It comes as little solace to Alabama fans these days, but the right guy is rarely the obvious one.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.