Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Challenges Awaiting the New Coach

As many of you know - I try to post something about Coach Bryant on the anniversary of his passing away on Jan 26, 1983. The site I have dedicated to Coach Bryant is full of special memories.

With so much happening right now, I thought I would give a brief preview of the challenges in the current Bama situation and will still post something with a little more Coach Bryant flavor a few days from now, including a recap of my experience sitting through Coach Bryant's retirement in 1982.

We all know the difficulty Alabama had replacing the legend.

But I do think there are STARK differences when I think about the end of the Bryant era and the end of the Saban era.

Facilities: The facilities at Alabama had fallen behind many other schools when Coach Bryant passed away.

Program Success: The program was not operating at the level we would call “Alabama standard” when Coach Bryant retired, he knew it more than anyone.

Sudden loss of Coach Bryant: In my opinion, this was also tough in that the traffic death of the beloved coach put a hamper on the program. If handled correctly, the previous coach can help... as well as hurt. But I think both men have enough humility to make it a positive.

School and Athletics Leadership: The actual school leaders were not perceived to be strong when Coach Bryant retired. A lot of the power was held by trustees and boosters. In fact, until Coach Saban came, that weakness at the top created a fragile and unstable environment.

These factors could play a role in allowing Coach Deboer to have continued success, but we all know it is a fragile time. The success rate of following a legend is not very high, but it is doable.

Things that could hamper Coach Deboer are somewhat out of his control and that is the difficulties of recruiting and retaining elite players in this age of the portal and NIL difficulties.  Mass communication has given naysayers and negateers way too much access to voice opinions that are at times ludacris and juvenile.

But that is the soup that all coaches have to navigate….. It is not for the faint of heart!

A few years ago, I posted a short analysis of the Bryant vs Saban debate (Saban vs Bryant 2016- Jayopsis ) and  I wanted to update some of the thoughts now that both men have bookends on their amazing careers.

I will comment a little more about this on the 26th.

Here is what I posted in 2016

I have no clue WHEN (Saban retirement) that may happen... but Coach Saban himself this year hinted that even he knows that it will come at some point..... and it will be a great challenge for him to stay the course.


In 1969, Coach Bryant's Alabama team went 6-5, was only 2-4 in the SEC (they even lost to Vanderbilt) and was beaten 47-33 by Colorado in the Liberty Bowl.

Can you imagine what a Paul Finebaum show would sound like during that stretch?

To make matters worse, the 1970 team went 6-5-1 including the famous opening loss to Sam Cunningham and USC. USC outgained the Tide by more than 300 yards (559 yds of total offense) and whipped the Tide 42-21. Cunningham ran for 135 yds on just 12 carries.

We know the rest of this story- Alabama shocked USC the next season- went 11-1 and won the SEC, finishing #2 in the nation. That sparked the 1970's as Bryant's best decade.

Coach Saban to be honest, never had to persevere the inevitable dip that hampers all programs He only had guide the ship through the hurricane of doubters and dissent in his first season, but fans were so hungry to win, they provided energy and optimism to push through.

We all recognize a huge problem in regaining that 'winning edge' and this modern era poses more peril than ever before... and deep in my soul I always stand amazed at the passion and energy of anyone to continue to do it. Coach Saban was so unique, any other mortal man would take his money, trophies, and ride his grandchildren on his boat.

In many ways... modern day football is a young man's game..... But Saban finished on top!


Now let me mention the HARMONY I find between the two coaches..... did you see it? It was on display... on the Alabama sidelines during games.

Whenever former players feel comfortable coming around and want to come around- you know that a special culture is at work. Alabama's sideline during big games was always packed with many adoring former players.

That is what both Coach Bryant and Coach Saban had in common. And the fact that Coach Saban has young men (including a huge group doing well in the NFL) in such high regard of him in a generation that is more prone to mock and disregard elders... this is quite an achievement.

Coach Bryant towered in a day when it was more common to follow the leader no matter what.

But men followed him with such a passion that the bond still stays strong today.

Coach Saban has managed the same thing. But his ability to transcend generation, race, socio-economic differences, and regional differences is impressive!

Relationships matter.... and winning coaches know how to invest in their players in such a way that the players go through pain and persevere out of love and inspiration.

From what I have read, Coach Deboer excels in this ability as well.


I posted on X about this right after the announcement of the retirement:

A few years ago, I posted the most difficult hurdle facing coaches when trying to build programs, what I call, Cannibalizing Your Team

Cannibalization is literally 'eating your own team'. And cannibals can be found among any and all parts of a team or surrounding community. It can be players, coaches, fans, parents, media.... and usually is a combination of those that forms a 'contrary wind' to that team.

By the way, the cannibals are always there..... human nature is always breeding more. The existence of cannibals is not deadly unless there are too many OR the cannibals are KEY CONSTITUENTS of a team or organization.

Cannibals eat away so many things.... but the overall impact is a loss of opportunity, a loss of positive momentum/energy, or the erosion of core values.


I once worked with a coach ( a great coach by the way) who was very upset about the way we did a certain aspect of our football team. This practice was a by-product of a fundamental piece of our philosophy.

As the season went on, he would say in the head-sets, "This is not going to go well". And he said it EVERY SINGLE TIME the game situation dictated that decision because of our philosophy. And this went on.... game 1, game 2, game 3,4,5,6..... and then, in game 7... his prediction finally happened. Oh my goodness!....the 'I TOLD YOU SO' that came from him was as loud and obnoxious as any I have ever even IMAGINED.

The next coaches meeting, he was armed and ready. When we got to that place in the film, it was obvious that the decision was what it was.... but the execution of the decision was the major problem for failure.

I stopped the film.... "you know... I have been listening to you on the head-set for 7 games in a row. You have predicted this EVERY SINGLE time. Your prediction FINALLY happened... but that is like me predicting rain everyday during a five year drought until it finally rains for 5 minutes. Congratulations!" You could have cut the tension with a knife.

And that coach did not stay in the program after the season was over. As good a coach as he was, his unwillingness to buy into this was a constant corrosion. He wanted to be SO RIGHT... that he was DEAD RIGHT.

A lot of teams begin new seasons with so many cannibals, that they are already losing... even with a record of 0-0. I often hear coaches tell me how frustrating it is when parents pass along a 'group think' of the sound bites of what is wrong with a program or coach before a season even begins.

About halfway through a season a team will be .500 or below and this group of parents will be right... want the coach fired... and feel so let down because the window of opportunity to play high school sports is small.

What they don't realize is that the negative talk became a self-fulfilling prophecy and they 'cannibalized' their own team.... 

I had a parent call me one time and was upset that a dad had begun a negative campaign against the coaches. He said that the reality was that many of the parents liked the coaches and were satisfied and he was afraid that all we hear about were the complaints. I asked the dad why he didn't confront the one parent who was the loudest and most vocal.... and sadly, he was afraid to.

Finally, the day came where the upset dad called me to meet.  He came in and in pretty bold and aggressive ways expressed his opinion that we were bad coaches. He spoke on the authority that he had played in college, coached these players in youth leagues, and couldn't believe the school even hired (our head coach) in the first place- "did you know this man has never even coached a varsity team, he was just a freshman coach in his previous job!"

Looking back, I probably should not have had this conversation. If I were doing it over today I would have sent him straight to head coach... but I was young and dumb enough to think I could help.

When it was my time to respond.... he didn't like what I had to say. 'Mr ________, your son came to me yesterday because he knew we were going to be meeting today. And I had a phone call from another dad recently. In both conversations, I asked them to come talk to you and both said they were afraid to.

This is going to be hard to hear, but you are hurting your son and a lot of parents are not happy with your behavior at games. Both have asked me to ask you to stop it.

You were a great college football player, I have heard a lot of stories about how good you were. But when you yell at your son from the stands on how to play his position, you are telling him to (do  a technique) that we don't use (we ran a different system) it is opposite of what he is being coached to do and it embarrasses him. 

There were more issues in the meeting- college recruiting - we weren't tough- it wasn't a great meeting and he was hacked that his son and that dad had gotten in tough with me.

"I love our coaches and I know they are doing a great job, loving your son, coaching your son. I'm asking to to stop being loud and negative... I don't think I will change your opinion... but you are hurting the team by spreading negativity. You are hurting your son! Go home and talk to him about that, and don't go off on him... he loves you and he is trying to live up to what you want him to be!"

It did not go over well. He got red faced and stormed off. He never really got loud again, but now I was on his list as well.

Sadly, this did not go away. It grew. 

We made the playoffs that season and went to an away playoff game. It wasn't our best effort in the first half. We threw two interceptions and were having a rough time against a great defense. As we were coming into the locker room, this same dad (and at least 4 others who believed as he did) were waiting on me at the chain link gate. We had to get outside that gate to go into the visitor locker room.

He stepped in front of me and stopped me! "What are y'all doing! Thus is embarrassing! Run the ball!"

I walked around him without saying a word, and he yelled in my ear as I passed him, "This is our last game!"

And then I blew up in his face "This is halftime _______. Get away from me!"

Now what is bad about that was that it happened in front of everybody and it was a scene.

When I walked into the locker room, it was like a funeral.

Here is the crazy thing.... we were only losing 6-0!

But in that halftime, I had nothing I could tell my offense to muster them for a 2nd half charge. I tried, but they didn't believe in us, didn't believe it what we were doing, and there were just enough cannibals to let the season end....  kind of like a mercy killing.

Ironically, a few year later, we were in the semi-finals and were going in a halftime down six points. And instead of the angry mob- our fans were at the gate "Go Lions, Y'all got this! Way to go!" And we won in double overtime on our way to the state championship.

Now, am I naive enough to believe the difference in positive and negative reactions were ALL the difference? NO

But the prevailing belief (also called pre-supposition) can influence the outcome and be a type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I used to have the newspaper article from Cleveland that had the headline story about the Browns firing Bill Belichick, "Goodbye to the Worst Coach in the History of the NFL". Belief is a pretty powerful thing!


Here is another OPPOSITE illustration of negative cannibalism.

In 1999, we lost our ALL-State Tailback on a freak play to a torn ACL... the last play of the first half. It was mid-season, we lost the game, and people were beginning to wonder if we could win back-to-back state titles. It looked doubtful.

We played two more games with a quality back-up and personnel packages and won those. But we were not the dynamic offense we had been. We still had an elite defense and as far as our record, we were still a favorite to win it all.

Our head coach, Fred Yancey, surprised all of us in week 8 of the regular season by announcing a DRAMATIC move. We were going to take our starting SAM linebacker and move him to Fullback and move our Fullback to Tailback. What made this even more startling is that neither player had played those positions ALL YEAR! And the linebacker had never run with the football in his entire football life!

Immediately, there was the typical assistant coaching pushback...but Coach Yancey was adamant. This was a HC decision and he walked out.

I was offensive coordinator... but both defensive assistants AND offensive assistants kept pressing me to change Coach Yancey's mind.

I simply looked at them and said, "Guys, this is his team.. this is his decision. So, we have two choices.... gripe and moan OR get to work to make this work." And we did.

Now don't get me wrong... THIS WAS NOT EASY... and the early results were flat ugly... but we worked it with positive energy and we won the State Championship. The tailback was MVP of the game and the fullback scored on 3rd and goal at a critical time early in the game.

Winners, champions, and competitors learn early in their battles that cannibals never win. Dream killers and blame game hand wringers get it right by their own actions and beliefs. And then they get mad about it!

We do it to coaches as well..... I wonder how many programs would be more successful if they embraced their coach instead of tearing him down in endless opining of opinions. You know what a good play call is? One that works. And a bad play call doesn't.

I'm not saying that you never make changes... but I KNOW of teams who stole away their opportunities to be good because of cannibalism.

Now, one more important point is this. A lack of virtue is a type of cannibalism. We live in a world that seeks to tear down our rivals.


There is another winning edge that Coach Deboer can continue- competing with class. 

Bryant AND Coach Saban taught the State of Alabama to do it differently. They taught me as a fan and later, as a player to show class and respect toward the opponent. It is more honorable to beat a worthy opponent than to beat an unworthy one.

But we tweet 'hate week', and we spew venom, and we ridicule and mock the opposing team... so is it really a great victory if we beat them?

An example 1965 ALABAMA:

Alabama opened against Georgia on a blistering hot day in Athens for the 1965 season. Tom Brakefield was with the Bear Bryant show film crew, wiping away sweat, and enjoying every snap of a fierce contest pitting Coach Bryant against Vince Dooley.

Even though Alabama struggled all day, even going in at halftime down 10-0, Alabama rallied in the 2nd half and took a late 17-10 lead.

What took place next in the game was recently ranked by The Bleacher Report as #3 of the 12 greatest plays in college football history.

Coach Dooley called it 'flea flicker' but today is more known as a 'hook and lateral'. Kirby Moore threw the ball to Pat Hodgson who then flicked it to Bob Taylor who ran for a 73 yard touchdown to bring the score to 17-16. Georgia converted the 2 point extra points to win 18-17!

The problem was.... it looked very clear to the Alabama faithful that Pat Hodgson's knee was down, thus making the play 'dead' on the catch and the touchdown should have been disallowed!

You have to think that Alabama fans felt snake-bit. It was the first game since Joe Namath had seemingly been robbed of a game winning TD in the Orange Bowl and now they lost the opening game to a missed call in Athens!
Tom Brakefield saw a clean angle and knew he had a camera all over it. He carefully noticed which canister was going to have the field level proof!

Sure, enough, the Bear Bryant Show crew had indisputable video evidence that 'Bama had been robbed by the Bulldogs!

When Coach Bryant came in that Sunday morning to prepare for the live telecast that afternoon, he shocked everyone! As soon as he saw the clip he stopped and said as clear and forceful as he could:
"Men, I never have won a game on Sunday because of film. Please take this clip out and give it to me."

When the show went live from Channel 13 that Sunday, Coach Bryant taught the entire state on how to lose with class.

And Tom Brakefield used it to teach an even bigger lesson!

"You want to know the biggest part of that story? We lost to Georgia, we TIED Tennessee- but still upset Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the National Championship. At Alabama, Coach Bryant started a lesson that, even today, we understand.... if you do it right... you always have a chance!"


I always make a plea to every athlete, coach, and fan reading this. Don't be a cannibal! Don't be that person who always focuses on the flaws. Don't create small circles of whiners and complainers who whisper in the dark and throw darts.

It was interesting how many complained about the color of the man's shirt when he was introduced at the basketball game last night- and it was a Bama shirt!

Winners are hopeful... even to the very last snap, he believes he can find a way to win. And in the end, that relentless optimism gave him MORE of a chance... where a doubtful pessimist robbed his team of the opportunity.

Here is how Coach Saban said it earlier this year (as the naysayers got louder)- at the time he was a little bit frustrated:

"People forget that we built this program on positivity"

"So we want to stay focused on the process of what we need to do to play winning football at every position. And I'm not here to create expectations for our team. Lots of people will do that. But expectations in some way are a premeditated way to create disappointment. I think you can look at it in your life and that's why I say we need to say process-oriented, not focused on the outcome, but focused on the things that we need to do to get the outcome that we want, and you know, if you have high expectations for what you want to accomplish and it doesn't work out, it makes you focus on the outcome and it doesn't work out and you're very disappointed."

Competition with honor is rewarding... win or lose.

Winning without honor... is never really a victory.

Football continues to display dramatic narratives and storylines- my favorite one is always the comeback story... someone who is cut down and counted out... but through perseverance and fight... finds victory once again.

I will cheer for the Tide no matter what and I also have a number of heroes throughout football that I pull for everyday- MEN WHO MATTER!

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