With the departure of Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore, the Crimson Tide football program finds itself at a critical crossroads. In the short term, it's unlikely that Moore's stepping down will change very much. With a trio of crystal footballs to his credit, Nick Saban's fiefdom is secure. It will be a baseline requirement of the job for the new hire to respect that.
The bigger question is what happens after Saban. Alabama's head coach is 61. At some point in the next decade it is likely he'll announce his retirement. When that happens the difficult decision on how to move forward from the greatest era of Alabama football of since Bear Bryant's tenure in Tuscaloosa will be placed in the lap of the man who is chosen to replace Moore.
Mal Moore's name is on the University of Alabama athletics building for a reason; he is a legitimate institution. He arrived in Tuscaloosa as a freshman in 1958, the same year Bryant returned to take over the Crimson Tide program. A backup quarterback, Moore's football acumen stood out enough that Bryant eventually brought him onto the staff as a graduate assistant.
Moore worked his way up the ranks and was effectively the offensive coordinator by the mid-1970s, the heyday of Alabama's wishbone attack. After Bryant's retirement, Moore was an assistant at Notre Dame and with the St. Louis Cardinals under Gene Stallings. He took the Alabama Athletic Director job in 1999 and has held that position ever since.
If history is our guide, it is almost impossible to overestimate how important the role of Athletic Director will be for the future of Alabama football. The tenure of every former coach with a statue on the Walk of Champions outside of Bryant Denny Stadium was followed by a period of turmoil with the exception of one -- Wallace Wade.
Wade led the Crimson Tide to the first era of national prominence, taking Alabama to three Rose Bowl games in his eight years in Tuscaloosa. When he announced his departure in 1930 to take the head job at Duke it stunned the Alabama community. His departure was said to be due to conflicts with the University's President George Hutchenson Denny over control of the team.
But it was Denny's absolute control of the school and the football program that allowed Alabama to transition to a second great era. Wade recommended the hiring of Frank Thomas, a promising young coach with a Knute Rockne pedigree. Denny approved but made sure his new coach was clear on what was expected of him while giving him the latitude to accomplish it. There was little to no inter-departmental churn and Alabama football continued to prosper.
When Thomas stepped down as coach in 1942 due to health reasons, he remained on as Athletic Director despite his growing infirmity. He resigned as AD shortly before his death in 1954. But there was no single person running the show anymore. As a result, the program was pulled in a variety of directions by people with various degrees of power. The result was a slide to the lowest point of Alabama football history. Things finally got so bad Alabama did everything that was necessary to hire the man who could put things back in order -- Paul W. Bryant.
And, for a quarter century, things worked out quite well. Under Bryant Alabama became a perennial college football power. But when Bryant's time as coach and AD came to a close it happened much more rapidly than expected. He announced his resignation late in the 1982 season but planned to stay on as AD and oversee the transition. Yet the decision for the new coach was taken out of his hands and then he died just weeks after his final season ended.
Once again, the program was beset by a multitude of power battles that took years to resolve. While there was success, there was little consistency. Ray Perkins left for Tampa Bay, Bill Curry left for Kentucky and the school finally turned to former assistant and the man Bryant favored for the job from the start, Gene Stallings.
Again, it worked. In 1992, Stallings led the Crimson Tide to its first post-Bryant championship. But then it didn't. The night after the epic win over Miami in the Sugar Bowl, star defensive back Antonio Langham signed a "contract" with an agent on a napkin in a New Orleans bar. The result would be two decades of turmoil.
When the NCAA ruled against Alabama in the case one of the victims was Athletic Director Hootie Ingram who had hired Stallings. When Ingram stepped down in 1995, replacing him became one of the first duties of incoming UA President Andrew Sorenson. Reportedly, Stallings has urged then UA president Andrew Sorenson to hire Moore when the AD job came open. Instead, Sorenson picked his own man, Bob Bockrath, who was not part of the close group of Bryant acolytes that remained in the department.
The working relationship between Bockrath and Stallings was not ideal. And the next year, Stallings stunned the Alabama faithful by announcing his resignation. The Alabama athletic director hired Mike Dubose, a well liked assistant on Stallings staff who would appease the alumni but who would also take marching orders from the administration. Once again, the multiple power struggles would doom the program. Dubose's tenure would be marked by abysmal consistency and NCAA sanctions. In 1999 Sorenson let Bockrath fall on his sword and tapped the man Stallings recommended for the job in the first place, Mal Moore.
While it was far from apparent at the time, the seed of Alabama football's resurgence was planted with that selection. Another round of NCAA sanctions in 2002 is best remembered for leading to the revolving door of coaches which made Alabama football a laughingstock. But it also saw the departure of Sorenson and the selection of Robert Witt as UA President. For outsiders there seemed little reason to believe this former head of the University of Texas Arlington would wield the authority necessary to end the chaos in the football program, but he did. (As a student journalist I covered Witt's handling of a major crisis at UTA years earlier and had a suspicion he would do quite well in Tuscaloosa).
Moore, who found himself vilified to a degree due to the chaos in the Alabama football program, was somehow able to keep the ship afloat. When Witt arrived it proved a superb match. They immediately hired a very safe head coach, Mike Shula, and focused on calming the waters before taking the next step forward. They succeeded. While the Crimson Tide didn't always live up to the high expectations of many, it didn't have any terrible crises either. And, in 2007, when Moore and Witt saw the opportunity to get the coach they felt confident to return Alabama football to greatness, they were ready to act.
The lesson then seems to be that if there isn't any clear authority in the UA athletic department, the multitude of factions with varying degrees of power will imperil the continuity of the program. Avoiding that requires a clear plan of succession and a commitment to see it through without watering it down due to individual interests.
Witt is no longer president but the UA System Chancellor. He's likely to have some input and his successor, Judy Bonner, has seemed able to replicate his efforts of working in tandem with both the athletic director and head football coach. Moore is stepping down but will be working with the president's office in some capacity so his input will likely be part of the transition process as well. And, given his attention to detail, it's almost certain Saban will have an active part in deciding who will be the next coach of the Crimson Tide will be an how he'll take over the job .
Still, history shows that pulling off the trick is extraordinarily hard to do. And whoever ends up getting the Alabama AD job would do well to sit down and have a long chat with Moore to understand how easily things can go astray.