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December 20, 2012

Stallings had the right stuff to coach Alabama

TUSCALOOSA | People all over America know Gene Stallings, the football coach.

It's possible that even more people know Gene Stallings, the father, or Gene Stallings, the ambassador for more worthy causes than can be listed here.

But Gene Stallings, the philosopher? That is a less familiar hat for the Texan to wear. Yet all seven of his University of Alabama football teams were reflections of the Stallings philosophy, though the 1992 national championship team was, almost certainly, the supreme expression.

"On offense, our philosophy was this: We wanted to score, to kick at a score or to make the other team go 80 yards or more if we gave up the ball," Stallings said. "On defense, our philosophy was not to let the other team move the ball effectively.

"Now that sounds simple, and it is. But a philosophy is nothing more than an abstract statement of what you believe. How you implement that philosophy is your method. For instance, my method on offense involved running the football effectively, keeping it at least seven plays, keeping it away from the other team. On defense, the method was to be a unified system with the front three, or four depending on how we were aligned, being coordinated with the linebackers and secondary, all of it tied in with the coaches as part of a unified system.

"Now that would take a lot more explaining than you probably have time for, but that is the essence of it."

Although Stallings' initial familiarity, for most Alabama fans, was his connection as a player and a coach with UA legend Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, he notes that much of his coaching technique came from his other famous mentor, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys.

"Some of that (philosophy) comes straight out of a Cowboys meeting," Stallings said. "At Dallas, we were more into philosophy than Alabama was under Coach Bryant, who was more into motivation, blocking and tackling. Coach Bryant was a people person. His Xs and Os weren't better than anyone else's - but his players thought they were. Of course, at Alabama I coached the way Coach Bryant wanted, and with the Cowboys I coached more the way Coach Landry wanted. That is what a good assistant coach does. Then, when it was my time, I used what I wanted and had learned from both."

Dabo Swinney, now the head coach at Clemson, spent seven years with Stallings as a player and assistant coach. He was well aware of Stallings' influences.

"He only had two bosses in his life, and that was Coach Bryant and Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys. That's two of the greatest right there," Swinney said. "To be honest, I didn't know how much I really learned under him until he was gone. He gave you the rope for you to do the job, but he held you accountable. He was going to set the parameters of the environment that you worked in, he was going to control the practice schedule and he handled the discipline. He took a lot of things on."

The question that loomed before his hiring was whether Stallings' time would ever come at Alabama. By 1990, he had already been a head coach twice - at his alma mater, Texas A&M, and, after a long stint on the Cowboys staff, with the National Football League's St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals. At A&M, he was young and brash and had a tough situation at a school with a long all-male and military tradition.

"Of course, I thought I had all the answers," Stallings said. "I remember once that I was talking to a longtime member of the board of regents and he asked me if I would have done anything differently. I looked at him and told him, 'No sir, I don't think I would.' So he looked right back at me and said, 'Well, then we'd have fired you again.'"

By the time the Alabama job reopened in 1990, Stallings had gained wisdom - but also sported a 27-45-1 collegiate record. He was on the verge of accepting the head coaching job at Navy when he received a call from UA athletic director Cecil "Hootie" Ingram, who looked past the record and saw the coach he wanted.

Stallings interviewed with Ingram, then-UA president Roger Sayers and Tom Jones, dean of the law school and the school's faculty athletics representative.

"I just felt like he was the best coach for what we needed at the time," Ingram said.

Having a Bryant connection and the seal of approval from the Bryant family didn't hurt - "Papa always said he was a great coach," Paul Bryant Jr. said at the press conference announcing the hire - but Stallings has always insisted that "Hootie didn't hire me because of Coach Bryant," and Ingram concurs.

"(Stallings and his staff) came in and kind of just got to work, had a group of guys that bought in to do what they wanted to do," Ingram said. "Gene was very organized and had good assistants. They went to work, didn't talk about problems they had. Everybody was, I think, hungry to get something done."

Results did not come instantly. In 1990, Stallings made his debut with three straight losses (Southern Miss, Florida and Georgia). That did not sit well with many Alabama supporters, especially a small but vocal minority unhappy with what they considered ill treatment that prompted Stallings' predecessor, Bill Curry, to leave.

Ingram said he never doubted his choice.

"I think it was a combination of players adjusting to a new coaching staff and the coaching staff not knowing the players, trying to get on the same page," Ingram said. "That's nothing to panic over. You see a lot of teams early in the year, they do that, and when they've got a good, sound, fundamental program, they end up doing pretty good."

Pretty good understates the case. Over the next 40 games, Stallings' Alabama teams posted a 36-3-1 record that included the 1992 championship.

"We did have a period of adjustment," quarterback Jay Barker recalled. "He was tough on me, tough on all of us. I think he came out of the NFL expecting his quarterback to play like they did there. That is tough on a kid just out of high school, or even a senior like Gary (Hollingsworth), who came from a different system. But we adjusted."

The toughness seemed to form a bond that carried over for the 1992 team.

"My personality is, I didn't give 'em a whole lot of slack anyway." Stallngs said. "That was always it. My idea was when that when they played poorly, that wasn't the time to light into 'em because they perceive that as punishment. So we kept it pretty tough. But that builds a team.

"When they had the (20-year) reunion this season, the thing that pleased me more than anything was the way they enjoy seeing each other. The first-team player enjoyed seeing the fourth-team player. There was no jealousy."

Perhaps that came from everyone having a single philosophy.

Tommy Deas contributed to this report. Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0225.



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