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December 20, 2012TUSCALOOSA | No one questioned from the moment Gene Stallings was hired who was in charge of the University of Alabama football program.
Stallings was UA's head coach, and its ultimate decider. He took charge from the start, and it was by design. He believed that if he took a hard line from the moment he arrived he could ease up a bit later, but if he started softly he would never grab the players' respect.
"That's not coaching style, that's just sort of common sense," Stallings said. "That's with your children or whatever it is, if you start out easy and then you toughen up on them it's always perceived as punishment.
"That's just like after you win a game you can work your players as hard as you want, but if you lose a couple and you work them harder, they perceive it as punishment."
When Stallings made a decision, he stuck with it. He said as much after a decision to kick an extra point instead of going for two loomed large after a loss to Florida in the 1994 Southeastern Conference Championship Game: "I'm seldom right," he said, "but I'm never in doubt."
Hootie Ingram, UA's athletic director at the time, knew what he was getting when he hired Stallings. Leadership was never a question.
"Somebody in charge and somebody that was going to be a disciplinarian, that was the big thing," Ingram said. "The players knew when that staff came in here they were going to do the right thing and expect (the players) to do the right thing. I think the players wanted some discipline, and they could see what the results would be."
Stallings didn't just coach players, he also coached his assistant coaches. Dabo Swinney, now head coach at Clemson, spent seven years with Stallings as a player and as an assistant and still recalls when his boss found him working into the wee hours one night and confronted him.
"I was a young coach, I was a newlywed," Swinney said. "He asked me what I was doing there. He said, 'You have a young bride, don't let me ever catch you up here this late again. If she's not happy, I'm not happy.'
"I was trying to impress him and I'm getting that stare and getting chewed out. He wanted you to do your job, but he understood that you needed balance."
Stallings' judgment came into question in 1992, when star sophomore David Palmer was twice charged with drunken driving in the span of a few months. Stallings suspended Palmer but did not dismiss him from the team.
"When he got in a little trouble," Stallings said, looking back 20 years later, "he needed to be surrounded by good people in a good environment. If I had cut him loose, there's no telling what kind of environment he would have ended up in."
Palmer came back not only to be a productive player, but he is now a productive citizen as a teacher and coach in Birmingham.
To Stallings, leadership was largely a matter of sticking to his mission.
"The players knew what I was talking about," he said. "I just tried to get them to perform at a high level."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.