“Don’t be the guy after the guy” is a phrase you’ve probably heard numerous times since Wednesday, when Nick Saban retired from his perch as Alabama’s head football coach. And its something you’re going to hear in the coming months as Kalen DeBoer takes over in Tuscaloosa. It makes sense, because who wants to follow in the footsteps of someone who just wrapped up the most dominant 17-year run in college football history?
For the last century, Alabama has had four pillar head coaches: Wallace Wade (1923-1930), Frank Thomas (1931-1946), Paul “Bear” Bryant (1958-1982), and Nick Saban (2007-2023). All won at least two national championships and four conference titles with the Tide, each laying the bricks for the Death Star that we know today.
Wade delivered Bama its first natty in 1925 and that team became the first southern program to play/win the Rose Bowl. His successor, Thomas, maintained the Tide’s success in the newly formed SEC and led his teams to all four major bowl games at the end of his run. Bryant, a player and assistant coach under Thomas, would become synonymous with Alabama football, winning six national titles during his quarter-century run as head coach. Saban got six national titles in a shorter amount of time one generation later, casting a shadow over the entire sport in the process.
But in between these pillars are the tenures of coaches who couldn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations set by their predecessors. Some captured moments of success, only to be crushed by their inability to maintain it. Some delivered mediocre results, while others left Tuscaloosa in a cloud of scandal and shame.
Buckle in, because we’re going to look at the difficulty of being the guy after THE GUY at Alabama.
Frank Thomas disciples
Harold “Red” Drew (1947-1954)
Accolades: 1 SEC Championship, Defeated Auburn in first Iron Bowl since 1907
A longtime assistant under Thomas before serving as Ole Miss’ head coach for a year, Drew took over at Alabama in 1947 after his predecessor stepped down due to health issues. He posted mostly positive results through his first five seasons, but finished the year ranked in the AP poll just twice during this stretch. Drew’s best season came in 1952, where he finished 10-2 in a tough SEC and led the Tide to a 61-6 victory over Syracuse in the Orange Bowl. Some Tide alumni were over the moon over the Orange Bowl bid and even rallied for him to receive a contract extension. Red followed that up with a bizarre 1953 season where the Tide won the SEC and earned a Cotton Bowl invite despite a 6-3-3 record (the SEC was absolutely bonkers that season. Go take a look at the league standings.)
1954 proved damaging for Drew as the Tide sputtered to a 4-5-2 record, going winless in the final six weeks of the regular season. Part of that can be attributed to quarterback and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Bart Starr missing a chunk of the season due to injuries suffered from a hazing incident over the summer. Following a 28-0 loss in the Iron Bowl, Drew was fired that December and replaced by Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) head coach J.B. Whitworth.
What went wrong: Drew had a good eight-year run with at Alabama, but never fielded a team that was at least in the national championship hunt at the end of the season. His lone SEC title came under extremely weird circumstances and one mediocre campaign where his future HOF QB was hurt because of a stupid hazing incident cost him his job.
J.B. “Ears” Whitworth (1955-1957)
Alabama turned to another one of Thomas’ former players in Whitworth to take over in 1955. What resulted was the worst stretch in Crimson Tide history.
Whitworth posted an 0-10 record during his first year, the worst season in the history of Alabama’s program. There were a few reasons for this disaster, starting with Alabama’s administration forcing him to keep most of Drew’s coaching staff in tact. Changing offensive schemes, he also foolishly benched seniors like the aforementioned Starr throughout the ‘55 campaign.
This abysmal season didn’t earn him any good will and it didn’t get any better with back-to-back 2-7-1 seasons in 1956 and 1957. By the middle of 1957, it was determined that Whitworth’s contract would not be renewed at the end of the year and the Crimson Tide brass began working on landing another Thomas disciple. They were able to convince Paul “Bear” Bryant to leave Texas A&M and return to his alma mater.
What went wrong: Everything. The glory of the Frank Thomas years were becoming a fading memory by the time Whitworth returned to Tuscaloosa and his failed tenure plunged the program to lows not seen before or since. It would take Bryant a full recruiting cycle to completely change the culture of the program and get the Crimson Tide back to national prominence.
Walking in the Bear’s shadow
Ray Perkins (1983-1986)
Accolades: Three bowl victories
Six national championships. 14 SEC titles. Three AFCA Coach of the Year awards. Bear Bryant became the walking embodiment of Alabama football throughout the 1960’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. Numerous players became college football legends during his 25-season run in Tuscaloosa and some like Joe Namath became mythical figures of the sport in their own right. The Bear seemingly began losing his touch towards the end of the ‘60’s, before the advent of the wishbone offense and integration paved the way for another decade of dominance.
It was always going to be a near impossible task for whoever took his place when he retired and when Bryant announced his retirement in December of 1982, former Alabama wide receiver and New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins took up the task. And the long, dark shadow that he was stepping into only became larger when Bryant died just a month after his retirement.
To his credit, Perkins went about his business as any coach would at a new job and told Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood that he was simply following Coach Bryant, not replacing him. A few of his early decisions rankled some of the Crimson Tide faithful, like removing Bryant’s practice field tower or replacing longtime Alabama radio color analyst John Forney. But it was his program now and as long as he maintained the program’s expectations for championships, he’d be a made man in Tuscaloosa for years to come.
That...did not happen.
Perkins put together what could generally be considered a solid four-year run at Alabama, winning 19 combined games in his final two years at the helm. Even a down 5-6 campaign in 1984 ended with a good moment when they upset Bo Jackson and Auburn in the Iron Bowl. However, simply being “good” wasn’t good enough in Tuscaloosa and the discontent among the Alabama faithful swelled. The Crimson Tide never finished anywhere above third in the SEC standings under his watch and late-Alabama writer Cecil Hurt once theorized that Perkins’ teams were emotionally drained by November, a result of playing tough opponents like Penn State in their non-conference slate.
Immediately after going 10-3 in 1986, Perkins suddenly resigned from his post to accept the head coach job for the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talking about the awkward timing of his exit and how it would affect recruiting, he acknowledged the Bear shadow by saying “I know a lot of people came here because of Coach Bryant. I don’t think anyone came here because of Ray Perkins.”
What went wrong: No one is more synonymous with being “the guy after the guy” than Ray Perkins and the torch may finally be passed to DeBoer in 2024. Perkins had a nice four-year run at Alabama and outside of the 1984 season, had Alabama in the upper half of the SEC. But that doesn’t cut it in Tuscaloosa and unless he came swinging out the gate with major bowl bids and national championship runs, he was always going to be dwarfed by the legacy of his god-like predecessor.
Bill Curry (1987-1989)
Accolades: 1 SEC Co-Championship
With Perkins heading back to the NFL, Alabama looked east to Atlanta and poached Georgia Tech head coach Bill Curry. A disciple of longtime Bryant rival Bobby Dodd, Curry’s hiring was a bit of a surprise as other candidates like Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and former Alabama player Jackie Sherrill were being considered. Having a career losing record at GT, his hire was not well received by Alabama fans and university president Joab Thomas even received death threats over the move. Nevertheless, Curry took over as the new leader of the program.
A 7-5 campaign in his first season was followed up with a 9-3 campaign in 1988 that featured one of the most infamous incidents that fully illustrates the difficulty of this job. In October, Alabama squandered a 12-0 lead to lose to Ole Miss on homecoming. After the game, an angry fan allegedly threw a brick through Curry’s office window. This story has lived in infamy for decades and despite accusations that it didn’t happen, both Curry and Alabama football building manager Eddie Franks have insisted that it did happen.
Curry’s 1989 team proved to be Alabama’s best season since Bryant, as they finished 10-2 and won a share of the SEC Championship. The problem, however, was how the year ended. Alabama rolled out to 10-0 and sitting at No. 2 in the country, it had a legitimate shot at winning a national championship. Those plans were ruined in the Iron Bowl when for the first time ever, the Crimson Tide actually visited Jordan-Hare Stadium. They ended up losing an emotional 30-20 contest. That was Curry’s third straight loss in the Iron Bowl and forced a three-way between themselves, Auburn, and Tennessee for the league title. The year would end on another sour note with a loss to Miami in the Sugar Bowl.
By this point, the president and AD who had hired Curry were no longer there and the head coach had grown frustrated with the job. After a dispute about provisions in a proposed contract extension, he bolted Tuscaloosa for another SEC gig in Kentucky.
What went wrong: As an “outsider” with a below .500 coaching record, Curry faced immediate scrutiny and skepticism the moment he walked into the door. He produced three good Alabama teams, but three consecutive Iron Bowl losses was something that hadn’t happened since the program’s nadir during the Whitworth era. He was nearly able to salvage the run, but the way the 1989 season ended sealed his fate.
Gene Stallings (1990-1996)
Accolades: 1 National Championship, 1 SEC Championship, 5 SEC West titles
Alabama didn’t necessarily hit rock bottom in the immediate years following Bryant, but it didn’t reach the heights the legendary head coach achieved either. The program followed up Curry’s exit by hiring Gene Stallings, who had just been fired by the Phoenix Cardinals. A Junction Boy at Texas A&M and an assistant on the Bear’s first staffs at Bama, he was tasked with getting the program back into the national title ranks.
And guess what, he did!
Stallings got off to a modest start with a 7-5 record in 1990, but did end the regular season on a positive note by beating Auburn in the Iron Bowl. With his feet under him, he really got things cooking in 1991 with an 11-1 record, the Tide’s first 11-win campaign since 1978. An early-season blowout loss to rapidly rising power Florida ultimately cost them a shot at both a perfect season and a national title, but they’d get their revenge the following year.
With Alabama boasting an 11-0 record at the end of the 1992 season, the SEC took a big gamble when pitting them against the Gators in the inaugural SEC Championship Game. Antonio Langham’s famous interception propelled the Tide to their first outright SEC title post-Bryant and just a few weeks later, Bama demolished Miami in the Sugar Bowl to clinch the national title. One decade after the Bear’s retirement/death, Stallings had pulled it off in Tuscaloosa. But things would start getting a little bit dicey afterwards.Not on the field though, because the head coach posted a combined 29-7-1 record over the next three seasons.
Following their Sugar Bowl win over Miami, Langham signed with an agent and initially pursued the NFL Draft before opting to return to Alabama for the 1993 season. He informed Stallings about his decision to stay and the head coach told AD Cecil Ingram, but the two didn’t investigate the matter further. That was a mistake as years later, the NCAA ruled that Langham was ineligible for the 1993 season and placed the Tide on probation. All 1993 games that Langham participated in were vacated and along with that, they were stripped of scholarships and slapped with a bowl ban for the 1995 season.
Stallings would announce his retirement following a victory over Auburn at the end of the 1996 season, later citing not being on the same page as Alabama’s new president/AD as a primary reason for him stepping down. He’d coach the Tide to a victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl for his final game.
What went wrong: Stallings was by far the most successful Crimson Tide head coach in the post-Bryant, pre-Saban era of Alabama football. He has a statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium like all of the other national championship winning coaches in program history. However, the issues with his administration illustrates the necessary alignment a coach needs at that particular job. Between that and the NCAA sanctions, he decided to call it quits.
Era of Instability
Ok, so as we get to the turn of the millennium, I want to clarify that the next era of Alabama football isn’t necessarily a “guy after the guy” situation. Bear Bryant had long been gone by 1997 and while Gene Stallings had a great run, his accomplishments weren’t enough to make him one of the aforementioned pillars of the program.
What still existed, of course, were the expectations of national glory. However, NCAA probation and scandals made this job extremely volatile well into the 2000’s. By the time December of 2006 rolled around, Alabama struggled to give this job away.
Mike DuBose (1997-2000)
Accolades: 1 SEC Championship
With Stallings gone, his defensive coordinator Mike DuBose was elevated to the job. Feeling the effects of the scholarship reductions, he struggled out the gate with a 4-7 record in 1997 and a 7-5 mark in 1998.
And then prior to the 1999 season, he got himself involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit where the school had to pay a $350,000 settlement. He was nearly fired, but instead got two years shaved off his contract and received a salary reduction. On thin ice, DuBose and the ‘99 Tide actually rallied to win 10 games and the SEC Championship that season. Prior to their appearance in the Orange Bowl, Alabama approved a contract extension, giving him the two years he initially lost back.
And then everything fell apart in 2000.
Ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls and expected to be in the hunt for the BCS national title, DuBose’s instead Tide stumbled to a hideous 3-8 record. They ended the year on a five-game losing streak, a slide that included a loss to FBS newcomer UCF. Further disgraced, the head coach was forced to resign and was allowed to finish out the year.
What went wrong: The DuBose era was marked by NCAA sanctions and a scandal that not only made himself look bad, but also the administrators who eventually walked back his punishment after the SEC Championship win. This left the Tide on further shaky ground as a new decade unfolded.
Dennis Franchione (2001-2002)
Accolades: 1 technical SEC West title
TCU head coach Dennis Franchione was called upon as the next guy to take over at Alabama and had a respectable record through his two seasons on the job. The problem was that in 2002, the Crimson Tide were once again hit with NCAA sanctions resulting from the recruitment highly sought after prospect Albert Means a few years earlier. The death penalty was reportedly on the table, but Bama received a two-year bowl ban and scholarship restrictions.
Alabama cleverly loopholed its way around the bowl ban by scheduling road games at Hawai’i for the end of the 2002 and 2003 seasons. But Franchione saw the difficulty he’d face with sanctions in the coming years and immediately bolted for Texas A&M.
What went wrong: Franchione could’ve had a nice run at Alabama, but the sanctions scared him off back to the state of Texas. It once again spoke to the volatility of the program at the time and quite frankly, the sloppiness of the boosters.
Mike Price (2003-2003)
Alabama hired longtime Washington State head coach Mike Price as its next head man and I’m going to go ahead and skip to the “what went wrong” part.
What went wrong: Price immediately got himself fired. In May, he went down to Pensacola, FL, for a golf tournament and spent hundreds of dollars at a strip club before having $1,000 in food and drink charged to his hotel bill by a woman staying with him. The kicker here is that he was already warned to clean up his image after being spotted drinking at bars on campus in Tuscaloosa. Alabama president Robert Witt swiftly dropped the hammer.
This incident was another black eye to an Alabama program whose reputation as a disciplined, national powerhouse was tarnished by this point.
Mike Shula (2003-2006)
Accolades: 1 Cotton Bowl victory
An Alabama alum and son of legendary coach Don Shula, Mike was serving as the quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins before being called home in the aftermath of the Price debacle. Still on NCAA probation, the young coach soldiered through two mediocre seasons before breaking through with a solid 10-2 campaign in 2005.
However, patience quickly ran out in 2006 when the team collapsed following a 6-3 start to the year. The Tide lost to Auburn for a fifth straight season to close the season, resulting in Shula’s ouster just over a week later. And there were more NCAA violations during this period too, as the program was later forced to vacate its wins in 2005 and 2006 as a result of a textbook scandal.
What went wrong: Shula simply wasn’t cut out for the job and he wasn’t done any favors with the situation that led to his hiring and the sanctions that he inherited.
Desperate to return to the glory after years of mediocrity and scandal, the Tide begged Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban to come to Tuscaloosa. He emphatically turned them down at first, but eventually relented. And the rest, as they say, is history.
And history suggests that this probably isn’t going to work out long term for Kalen DeBoer, unless he turns into one of the greatest coaches who ever lived. The Alabama head coaching graveyard is filled with men who tried and failed to sustain the astronomical expectations set by supporters of this particular program.
While the pressures of the job may eventually get to him, he can at least look to Gene Stallings on how to carve out a little piece of history in between the pillars of giants.