Former Alabama head coach Mike Shula wanted to be a winner. He was a gusty quarterback in the 1980s, and thought it was translate into him being a solid coach.
His arrival to Tuscaloosa in 2003 came at a difficult time (NCAA sanctions), but Shula’s desire was to return Alabama to the national spotlight. His first two seasons were unfruitful, as the Crimson Tide compiled a 10-15 record in 2003 and 2004.
The tables started to turn for Shula in his third season. Alabama ripped off nine straight victories in 2005, including wins over Florida and Tennessee. Its dream season died after it loss to LSU and Auburn, but the Crimson Tide notched a 10-2 record.
Shula ended his tenure as a coach with a 26-23 record.
He was winless against Auburn, and couldn’t get Alabama back to prominence. Shula lacked consistency in winning, but he had it in recruiting. He brought in Greg McElroy, Rolando McClain, Corey Reamer, Javier Arenas, Brandon Deaderick, Lorenzo Washington and Eryk Anders. These were the players who stayed at Alabama, and they would become the ones that would redeem Shula and Alabama football.
It was a huge change from Shula to current head coach Nick Saban, but Alabama was ready. Saban’s arrival in 2007 was met with mixed emotions. Crimson Tide fans rejoiced, but some of its players weren’t receptive of the new regime. Saban’s style of discipline and attention to details drove many Shula recruits away. The ones who stayed saw a culture change in 2008.
It was a mixture of youth and experience in Saban’s second season, as he brought Alabama a top-ranked recruiting class in 2008. The program went undefeated in the regular season, and captured a Southeastern Conference Western Division crown. It faced No.2-ranked Florida in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, but lost 31-20 in a hard fought contest.
Former Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders said the loss to Florida was what the team needed.
“The atmosphere in the locker room was gloomy after the loss to Florida in 2008,” Anders said. “For 365 days, we gelled so much as a team after that game. Utah was the icing on the cake.”
“Our heads, our minds and our hearts weren’t in that game. That was their Super Bowl, and we didn’t want to be there. We were ready in 2009, from the walk-ons, to the starting quarterback, and even to Mark Ingram, we were ready. All the balls bounced our way in 2009,” Anders said.
Anders said Alabama was ready, and ready it was. The Crimson Tide went undefeated in the regular season for a second consecutive year under Saban. Alabama’s defense was tough, its offense was productive, and a little luck was sprinkled in a few games. Its 26-21 victory over Auburn, set up a rematch in the 2009 SEC title game against top-ranked Florida.
Anders said the team was robbed last season, and was really hyped up for the rematch.
“The loss to Florida in 2008 put a sour taste in our mouth,” Anders said. “We were undefeated until that game. We had watch so much film on defense entering the game that we knew their game plan. We played against Tim Tebow before, and we were not going to be denied again.”
Anders and the Crimson Tide weren’t denied. Florida struggled offensively, and running back Mark Ingram was huge for Alabama. The Crimson Tide won 32-13, and captured its first conference title since 1992. It drew No.2-ranked Texas in the 2010 BCS national title game.
Alabama was scouting out its next opponent on its bus ride home from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Anders said he wanted Alabama to face Texas in the national title game.
“We played the same day that Texas and Nebraska played,” Anders said. “Ndmakoung Suh was having a field day. He had like five or six sacks, and Texas couldn’t stop him.”
“The game came down to a field goal. Me personally, I needed Texas to pull this off because after the Florida game, there was no way that Texas had the kind of arsenal that Florida had. All Texas had was Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley,” Anders said.
Alabama dominated the first half against Texas. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus knocked McCoy out of the game, and scored a touchdown late in the second quarter. The Crimson Tide took a 24-6 lead into halftime. Anders said he still debates with people concerning the game.
“I’m from Texas, so I literally have this conversation every time I go back,” Anders said. “It’s not really a debate, it’s a fact. If Colt McCoy plays that game, Texas probably gets blown out. They have the ball, and it’s first and goal from the 3-yard line, but can’t punch it in and everyone is fresh. Our whole game plan was to keep McCoy in the pocket because he was so lethal with his feet. We were going to make him beat us with his arm.”
Backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert developed chemistry with wide receiver Jordan Shipley in the second half. Texas scored 15 points, cutting Alabama’s lead to 24-21 in the fourth quarter. Anders said Shipley’s speed affected everyone in the secondary, including Javier Arenas.
“I remembered our meetings leading up to the game,” Anders said. “The coaches were telling us that Jordan Shipley wasn’t big or fast, he was just quick. He and Gilbert got in sync on the field, and I remembered seeing Javier Arenas coming back to the sidelines and being so upset with Kirby Smart. He would be like ‘coach you lied to us.’ Shipley was extremely fast, and it was just hysterical seeing Arenas get at Smart.”
Alabama’s 2008 recruiting class had monsters on defense in Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody, but it was a Shula recruit that made the biggest play on the biggest stage.
The Crimson Tide was clinging to a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter with four minutes and change remaining. Texas had the ball on its 17-yard line and was one drive away from shocking the world. Anders read the body language of Texas’ offensive line.
He moved on the snap of the ball, and was coming for Gilbert. Anders hit him as he was pump faking, forcing a fumble. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw recovered the fumble for Alabama, and Mark Ingram cashed in on the turnover. Anders isn’t an emotionally charged guy, but something came over him after the play.
He said he hasn’t felt that excited about anything since forcing the fumble against Texas.
“We had a call on defense, but it shifted to a blitz after they came out with an empty backfield,” Anders said. We showed the blitz from the left, and then we came out from the boundary.”
“I lined up on their third receiver, to make it look like I was guarding him. Our audible, The Skies, was for me to act like I was covering, but to blitz on the snap of the ball and I almost blew it. The offensive lineman was focused on Marcell, so when he came down, I went after the quarterback. Gilbert had has back to me, so I couldn’t tell if he had the ball or not. I went on to hit him and when I looked up, I saw people diving for the ball. When Courtney came up with it, I got this sudden rush of excitement that I couldn’t articulate into words,” Anders said.
Anders couldn’t put it into words, but Alabama knew it had returned to its former glory. It would defeat Texas 37-21, to secure its first national championship since the 1992 season. Anders was recruited to Alabama in 2005, and it took five years of frustration to finally be a champion.
“For my class, the 2005 class, that game against Texas was very special to us because we went through a lot of things,” Anders said. “A lot of guys from that class had either got kicked off the team or left school. A lot of people don’t understand that a lot of players on that offense and defense were Shula recruits. That win made it special for us because it was our time.”
Not many fond memories were generated from Shula, aside from his playing days, but it was the experience of his recruits that guided Alabama to a national championship.
Stephen M. Smith is a staff writer and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine, Pick Six Previews and SB Nation. You can “like” him on Facebook and “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.