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December 19, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Sudden success always leads to raised eyebrows, in all aspects of life. When someone rockets to the top, human nature invariably leads us to wonder if the achievement came about because of an edge. Was it inside information? Was it a rich inheritance?
College football is no different. When a coach turns around a program faster than a Ferrari on a hairpin curve, people are quick to give praise and athletic directors are quick to give raises. But people also are quick to ask how a team turns into a national champion in three years or less under a new coach, whether it is Larry Coker at Miami, Gene Chizik at Auburn, Bob Stoops at Oklahoma - or Gene Stallings and Nick Saban at Alabama.
Like Saban in 2009, Stallings won a national title in his third year as the Crimson Tide's head coach. Like Saban, Stallings succeeded with an interesting mixture of his own recruits - especially among the true sophomore class - and those who were already there when he arrived. But, far more than Saban, who only rarely heard the mantra "he won with Mike Shula's players," although Shula left some major contributors, there have been more than a few people who have suggested that Stallings won with "Bill Curry's players."
Even former Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver, while stopping short of giving full credit to Curry, acknowledged a debt.
"We won the national championship with the majority of Bill Curry players," Oliver said. "That coaching staff deserves credit."
Curry, who left Alabama after the 1989 season, is an interesting case. He never achieved great championship success himself, although the 1989 Alabama team did share the Southeastern Conference title. Yet he twice recruited classes that made major contributions to national championship teams. At Georgia Tech, his final class helped Bobby Ross to a shared national title with Colorado in 1990. At Alabama, he did the same, recruiting well even under circumstances that were less than ideal - so much so that one former Alabama administrator, who asked not be identified, said that "Bill was hired to be fired, and once Joab (Thomas, UA president when Curry was hired) left, everyone knew it."
Curry, who recently announced his retirement as coach at Georgia State, has moved on from any negativity about his former place of employment.
"We had a great experience at Alabama," Curry said. "I formed great friendships and have great memories. Of course I was proud of those players. A lot of them played on a 10-win team (in 1989). They played toe-to-toe with Miami in the Sugar Bowl (a 33-25 loss at the end of the season), and that may have been an experience that they carried with them, so they weren't intimidated by the name 'Miami' when they played again.
"I am not interested in credit, but I was proud of those players."
One glance at the 1992 roster shows just how deeply the Curry influence was felt.
Almost the entire offensive lineup - Roosevelt Patterson, George Wilson, Tobie Sheils, Matt Hammond, tight end Steve Busky, wide receivers Prince Wimbley and Kevin Lee, running back Derrick Lassic and fullback Martin Houston - were Curry recruits. On the vaunted defense, the list is equally stellar. Defensive end John Copeland originally signed with Curry's staff out of high school, though he was signed again out of junior college by Stallings and his staff. Eric Curry was a lanky 6-foot-6, 220-pound prospect out of Georgia who had to sit for a year under the old Proposition 48 rules. Jeremy Nunley, the top backup on the defensive line, signed in 1989. So did linebacker Derrick Oden from Hillcrest, at the strong urging of former UA All-American Tommy Wilcox. Antonio London and George Teague were 1989 signees as well. In all, 15 of the 22 starters against Miami could be classified as Curry recruits, as well as several key reserves.
Tommy Limbaugh, who had been working at Alabama in an administrative role, was tabbed as Curry's recruiting coordinator.
"My philosophy was that it is OK to miss on a great player," Limbaugh said. "What is not OK is to misevaluate or get too anxious and sign one who can't play. That was what we tried to avoid. The first meeting when I went in to help Bill, there must have been 200 names on the board, and we cut that down really fast.
"(The 1989 class) turned out to be an exceptionally good class that really wasn't ranked that highly by the services at the time. We had some big names, but we took some that were not. We took a couple of players from Vigor (High School in Patterson and Lee) that had a great team but were not that highly rated. Neither was Eric Curry or George Teague.
"At Alabama, the main thing is to evaluate correctly. If you do that, you will be fine. ... There are always going to be players that want to play at Alabama. You just have to choose the right ones."
Choosing the right ones and signing them are two separate things. Alabama had to battle for top recruits.
"Antonio London is a great example," Limbaugh said. "What happened with Antonio, he always wanted to play at Alabama. He said he wasn't even going to visit Tennessee. But I knew a Parade All-America from Tullahoma, Tenn., was going to visit them sooner or later. Johnny Majors was the coach then, and he really pressured Antonio. One Friday night, they had the governor of Tennessee sitting in the stands at a high school basketball game."
Phil Fulmer, then an assistant and later head coach at Tennessee, was in charge of recruiting London for his home-state school. Limbaugh had to operate almost like a spy behind enemy lines at times to recruit the player.
Limbaugh proved persuasive.
"It kept going after that," he said, "but that is what it ultimately came down to for Antonio and a lot of them, that dream of playing for Alabama. We flew back in on signing day, which was legal then. We signed Antonio, then drove down to Winchester (Tennessee, about 15 miles away) and signed Jeremy Nunley. I tell that story just to illustrate how much kids would do to come to Alabama."
Of course, there were huge contributors on the 1992 team who were Stallings signees: Jay Barker, David Palmer, Sherman Williams, Antonio Langham, Sam Shade and many more. But perhaps it was the chemistry of the older players who came to Alabama in heated times hat allowed them to adapt to Stallings' tough style and blend with the new philosophy and new talent.
"Did we have controversy? Negative recruiting?" Limbaugh asked before offering a rhetorical answer. "You tell me."
Stallings isn't sure that the recruiting battles forged a team of warriors on the field.
"I don't know about that," Stallings said. "I do know they cared about one another and cared about Alabama and they still do."
Tommy Deas contributed to this report. Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or at 205-722-0225.