By Jess Nicholas
Feb. 28, 2015
Here we go again.
Unfortunately, Alabama finds itself in the same position it was in late in the 2008-2009 season, watching Mark Gottfried coach out the string, knowing that no amount of money, intradepartmental support or good press was going to make an appreciable difference in Gottfried’s coaching career. The only question at the time was whether Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore, a football man at heart, would be able to identify and land a premier coach-on-the-rise to replace Gottfried.
A few months later, Alabama fans felt like Ralphie Parker on Christmas Day after finally getting his Red Ryder BB gun, when Anthony Grant was lured away from VCU to become Alabama’s coach.
After Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt, Alabama fans must surely still feel like Ralphie – after he came close to shooting his eye out with his prized gift.
The fact that Alabama got what it wanted (Grant) and is now dealing with the reality that its greatest wish has backfired is a matter of concern. But of greater concern at the moment is the question of who will end up making the hire to replace him.
To step back for a moment and address the obvious: No, Anthony Grant has not yet been fired as Alabama’s head coach. The only statements that have come from current AD Bill Battle’s office have been supportive in nature. Sources within the athletic department are not in agreement, but at the moment it appears more likely Grant will return for the 2015-2016 season than not. It’s also not clear whether Alabama’s last couple of games (plus whatever tournaments are in play after that) can make a difference in Grant’s fate, good or bad.
Grant also has a built-in excuse for Alabama’s late-season swoon: Guard Ricky Tarrant’s foot injury has certainly impacted the Crimson Tide’s record, and Grant could easily – and justifiably – make the argument that with a healthy Tarrant, Alabama would be headed to the NCAA Tournament.
But the real question in regard to Grant at the moment is one of program direction. Alabama seems to have settled into a rut, where good-but-not-good-enough becomes the program’s default setting; where Alabama is perpetually one player short or almost-there or oh-so-close to taking the next step.
Given that Grant has had six years to forge a better path, the fact the Tide is still in the mediocre-to-good category is likely the result of excuses rather than legitimate reasons. The only clear positive for Grant during this time is that he’s posted a career mark of 9-3 against rival Auburn.
Alabama needs to make a move, yes. But will Bill Battle make that move? Will somebody else?
Lost in the talk of Grant’s employment is the fact that Alabama has a vacancy at the all-important position of president, and no one expected Battle to be a longterm solution as athletic director when he was forced to step in after Mal Moore’s unexpected death. Battle turns 74 years old this year and isn’t likely to stay on at Alabama much longer.
This situation thus reminds many of Glen Tuckett, who served as interim athletic director between the Hootie Ingram and Bob Bockrath administrations, and whose principal “achievement” during that time was to gift David Hobbs with an extension of his contract. Hobbs was fired in 1998.
The status of the two positions north of Grant’s on the organizational chart has implications that go far beyond basketball – the school itself is in an aggressive growth posture, largely due to the vision of former president and current system Chancellor Robert Witt, and any time Alabama changes athletic directors, it’s a much larger event in regards to the school’s flagship sport of football. If Battle feels that his time at Alabama is short, does he then, out of respect to the office, allow a decision on Grant to be made by his successor rather than himself?
The same sources that are in conflict over Grant’s future are in conflict over Battle’s, and whether Battle continues to helm the department for a few years, or even for one year, is probably still up for debate in Battle’s own mind. It is clear that no one will ask him to leave. But would Battle think it rude to make a change at the top of the men’s basketball program and then immediately step out the door?
Eventually, the conclusion at which Alabama arrives is complex, multifaceted – and perhaps not what is ultimately best for the basketball program. A discussion of who would be potentially in line for the job – Gregg Marshall, Steve Prohm, Archie Miller, maybe Gary Williams? – comes secondary to a discussion of whether Anthony Grant will even be let go.
This much, though, is clear: Alabama basketball has probably gone as far as it will go with Grant in charge. It wasn’t a mistake on Mal Moore’s part to hire Grant in the beginning, and it wasn’t a mistake to give him six full years to put his stamp on the program. The problem is, Grant’s stamp isn’t potent enough to bring a once-relevant Alabama program back to its prior levels, much less bypass them.
Alabama should make a change, but does Bill Battle believe he’s the man to make that change? There’s the biggest question of them all.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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