By Jess Nicholas,
March 22, 2013
In the end, time – and health issues brought about by the march of it – was Mal Moore’s inevitable enemy. In time, the nearly 60-year legacy of one of Alabama’s most faithful servants may come to be fully appreciated.
Moore remains under a doctor’s care, in need of prayers and no longer Alabama’s athletic director. One of Moore’s former Alabama teammates, Bill Battle, has been tapped to replace him. Or, at least, succeed him.
For those who might be prone to lapses of memory, ESPN’s Ivan Maisel penned a stunningly thorough lookback at Moore’s career earlier this week, the first writer of national profile to accurately portray Moore for what he was – one of the most successful athletic directors in the history of the position, anywhere. For Moore, who came into the job almost by accident, and who was rarely perceived by a demanding fan base as being a visionary, Maisel’s column will hopefully shake a few people by the shoulders.
Making sense of Moore’s entire body of work isn’t a simple process. He was hired in 1994 to an upper-level assistant athletic director position largely because of his popularity and connection to Paul “Bear” Bryant, then elevated to the athletic director’s position in 1999 after the Alabama Board of Trustees moved to correct a series of missteps by one of the worst athletic directors ever in the SEC (Bob Bockrath) and perhaps the worst president ever in school history (Andrew Sorensen). And as soon as the ink was dry on his contract, he was forced to deal with Mike DuBose and a brewing, serious NCAA investigation that finally wrapped up in 2001.
Moore, who knew embattled booster Logan Young from long before the investigation started, was criticized by many for not distancing himself enough from Young during that time. There’s something to be said, however, for not bowing to pressure to abandon one’s friends, and given that some of the same NCAA officials who were involved in Alabama’s 2001 case have been scolded for their tactics in the University of Miami’s recent investigation, maybe Moore wasn’t the one with the problem after all.
His first football coaching hire was, at the time, considered a strong effort. After efforts to bring Butch Davis to Alabama fell through, Moore hired TCU’s Dennis Franchione, who appeared well on his way to long-term success at Alabama before essentially cracking under the weight of the job itself and fleeing to Texas A&M.
After selecting Mike Price in 2003 – a choice that has fairly and heavily been criticized in retrospect – Moore selected Mike Shula to replace Price in an emergency hire, selected from a limited pool of candidates. But as of January 2007, few people choose to remember any of that.
Moore’s role in hiring Nick Saban has been minimized by some, and led to calls for sainthood from others. While the Alabama job holds its own attraction, to be sure, Moore’s efforts to bring Saban to Tuscaloosa can’t be overlooked.
But Moore’s greatest contribution wasn’t his acumen at picking the next great coach. It was calming the waters in Tuscaloosa that had been turned choppy by years of division from both without and within, to say nothing of fundraising prowess that probably makes Congress jealous.
During his decade-plus as Alabama’s athletic director, Alabama pulled from the rest of the SEC pack to lead it. Not only has Alabama won numerous titles in football, but has added several in women’s sports over that time. While work remains to be done on both basketball programs, Moore will leave Alabama with an unparalleled number of achievements – a feat in itself, given the athletic history of the school.
Battle has decisions ahead of him
As soon as Bill Battle gets settled into the job – presuming he’s more than part-time help until Alabama can hire a younger person for the job (Battle is 72) – he has some ready-made issues awaiting his attention.
Chief among those is what to do about the women’s basketball program, which is in a virtual morass. Following the retirement of successful former coach Rick Moody, there’s been little to cheer about. Moody himself had left the program after three years of mediocrity at the end of his tenure (records of 13-15, 12-16 and 14-15 from 2002 to 2004), but the train really went off the tracks with after Stephany Smith came on board.
Smith’s failure is among the most puzzling in any sport at Alabama in a long time. Alabama hired her away from MTSU, where she had led her team to consecutive NCAA appearances, and Smith was highly thought of and came highly recommended. Tennessee’s Pat Summitt was said to have been among her biggest admirers.
Instead, Alabama went straight to the bottom of the SEC and stayed there. Smith went 9-19, 10-20 and 8-22 in three years, the women’s basketball equivalent of J.B. Whitworth. When she was fired after the 2007-2008 season, Alabama turned to alum Wendell Hudson, almost without conducting a search. In terms of hiring misfires, this one ranks as probably Moore’s biggest.
Hudson improved the program, making the Women’s NIT in 2010-2011, but the team again regressed in 2012-2013 despite having plenty of talent onboard. But all is not lost.
Despite the curious decision to tap Hudson for the job, Moore balanced out the decision somewhat by raising funds to renovate historic Foster Auditorium, rather than forcing the women to play in cavernous Coleman Coliseum. As such, the Alabama program not only has the resource backing of the Alabama athletic department, it also has one of the conference’s most historic and intimate homes. The next head coach could do big things at Alabama, but Battle has to decide first whether change is in order.
The other decisions awaiting Battle concern property more than personnel. Alabama has a long-range building plan in place, but Battle’s opinion – and this is the man behind Collegiate Licensing Company, so it’s proven that he has a good sense of business direction, at least – will go a long way in either keeping the plan or modifying it.
While Sewell-Thomas Stadium isn’t up for replacement anytime soon, it should be. Alabama’s baseball stadium is cramped, and expansion will be difficult given its positioning on campus. Foul territory and spectator sight lines are among the worst anywhere, and the real estate could be put to much better use (parking deck, anyone?) for football game days.
And then there is the topic of Coleman Coliseum. Rather than build a new facility, Alabama officials chose to renovate Coleman at substantial cost during the most recent round of property adjustments. While some complaints about Coleman are unfair – people complaining about how Coleman is “too dark” need to first take a look at the lighting of a number of collegiate or NBA arenas – others, like the seating comfort, are spot-on. The student section had to be somewhat artificially engineered to get seated closer to the floor, and it’s not in a great place to begin with. The chairback seats are not comfortable, and are narrow even for those of average build, to say nothing of legroom issues around much of the venue.
Either another renovation is needed, or Alabama should pursue building a new facility altogether. It would be an expensive undertaking, but Alabama could partner with corporate sponsors and sell naming rights – not an ideal scenario, but it’s not akin to Alabama renaming the football stadium.
With Battle’s experience in licensing and promotion, maybe it happens.
Three bench positions to watch this spring
We already detailed the starting jobs up for grabs this spring; here are three backup jobs that, while not currently open, could change hands as the Crimson Tide marches towards A-Day.
1. Backup quarterback (currently Blake Sims)
Sims didn’t get the job by accident in 2012; he started out sharing the job with Phillip Ely, but as the season went along, gradually moved Ely out of the picture.
The issue with Sims as backup quarterback is that Alabama goes from being a pro-spread team to a zone-read option team the minute he comes into the game. While Sims is a better passer than many give him credit for, his primary weapon is his athleticism, and his ability to improvise. For better or worse, head coach Nick Saban prioritizes known quantities in his gameplans, meaning he prefers quarterbacks who can execute the called play above ones who have to freestyle in order to move the team.
Ely is still in the picture, but the name to really watch this spring is Alec Morris, who was redshirting in 2012. Ely’s arm strength is a question, particularly on mid-range throws, but Morris looks in both build and arm strength like a Mini-Me version of Freddie Kitchens.
2. Third cornerback (currently John Fulton)
Fulton is in an interesting position this spring. He’s injured, meaning he’s not actively competing for any job, but there’s a chance he could wind up a starting cornerback next to Deion Belue in the fall.
Or, he could wind up out of the rotation altogether.
Fulton badly injured a toe late in the 2012 regular season, then had surgery on it this winter. He’s limited mostly to non-contact conditioning work and, as such, is having to watch from the sidelines as Geno Smith, Bradley Sylve, Jabriel Washington, Cyrus Jones, Christion Jones and Dee Hart battle for his job.
Fulton narrowly lost out to Dee Milliner for a starting job three years ago as a true freshman, then fell off the radar screen almost completely shortly afterward. Oddly enough, the more he played out of necessity in 2012, the better the results seemed to be, and by the end of the year it looked as if he might be ready to make a move heading into 2013.
The toe injury has, at least for now, short-circuited that plan. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be the first person in sports history to get bypassed while recovering from an injury. Here’s looking at you, Wally Pipp.
3. Backup placekicker/kickoff specialist (currently Cade Foster)
For three years, Foster has handled kickoff duties for Alabama, with varying degrees of success. When the NCAA decided to move kickoffs up 5 yards prior to the 2012 season, Foster suddenly got a lot more effective.
There’s little doubting his leg strength, but Foster’s best attribute on kickoffs is that, were Alabama to find itself playing on the road with a short roster and started losing linebackers to injury, Foster could probably step in and do a passable job. In three years on the job, Foster has surprised more than his fair share of ball carriers who saw a kicker coming and pegged him as an easy mark.
Adam Griffith’s development, though, could change this. Griffith already gets better height on his kicks than Foster ever has, with a better ball flight. The question for Tide coaches is whether they want to expose their likely starting placekicker to the violence of kick coverage (Griffith is about four inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Foster).
Of course, if Griffith starts kicking everything out the back of the end zone, who needs a coverage team?
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