Alabama's Basketball Program Faces Steep Climb

Ingram WorleyCorrespondent IJanuary 29, 2009

On Monday, Alabama Director of Athletics Mal Moore made the long-awaited decision to send head basketball coach Mark Gottfried packing. 

The news was no surprise.  Since Alabama's last NCAA tourney berth in 2006, the program has steadily declined.  Gottfried had a laundry list of excuses, ranging from injuries to early departures to the NBA. 

Certainly, some of the excuses had merit.  Without question, he was given the benefit of the doubt in the form of retaining his job for the 2008-09 season, when many thought he should have been axed at the end of last year.

In reality, there was really no sensible argument to keep Gottfried at the helm any longer.  The program is stagnant.  A change needed to be made to freshen things up, if nothing else. 

Here is what troubles me. 

I have been a die-hard Alabama fan my entire life.  I grew up in the eighties, in an up-and-down period of the football program.  However, this period was as close to the "glory days" as we ever had when it came to basketball. 

Although I always knew that football would reign at Alabama, it puzzled me that a seemingly successful basketball program drew little to no interest from the majority of the fan base.

The head coach at the time, Wimp Sanderson, had quite a run.  He routinely sent teams to the NCAA tournament, and enjoyed a three-year streak in which the team lasted into the third round of the tournament.  Despite the success, Coleman Coliseum only filled when Arkansas or Kentucky were in town, with maybe a few exceptions.

Excepting the dreaded David Hobbs years of the late nineties, Alabama's successes continued with Mark Gottfried until the last few seasons.  Alabama secured five consecutive NCAA tourney berths and enjoyed its only stint in recent memory of having the number one national ranking. 

Five consecutive tourney bids should qualify a program as a legitimate basketball entity.  And yet, the Alabama "faithful" could not sustain any interest.  Attendance was poor, to say the least, and the team faded back into mediocrity.

I agree that Gottfried must shoulder the lions' share of the blame for that.  Any halfway sensible basketball fan could watch his teams and realize that talent was being wasted.  Gottfried insisted on trying to run an outdated offense that never really worked in the SEC, and his players didn't seem to show the improvement that other programs were able to draw from their players.  To top it off, his record away from Tuscaloosa was horrendous.  This is not new information.

What bothers me is how far Alabama had to fall before anyone even noticed.  It seemed that when Alabama was relevant, basketball was nothing more than a slight distraction between the football bowl season, signing day, and the beginning of spring practice.  When the team faltered, somehow fans were able to pay enough attention to scream for Gottfried's head.

Call me what you will, but I find it ridiculous that certain people will shout to the rafters about a basketball coach when they couldn't name three players on the roster.  And lately, that is the majority of what I have heard.  It is like people want Alabama to be good enough to blend in, and that would be satisfactory. 

If they get bad enough, those people will hoot and hollar and demand a change.  A change will be made, and Alabama will improve.  Those same people that shouted at the injustice of Gottfried still having the job will continue to NOT buy tickets and NOT support the program. 

Unless, of course, Alabama creeps back into the top 25, at which time they might find the time in their busy lives to come see them play Kentucky, or maybe even Auburn.

God forbid we lose to Auburn, and they can give the customary "who cares about basketball?" comment.  This irks me beyond description.  I despise the "I don't care about basketball" fan.  If you don't like basketball, that's fine.  Just don't opine on the subject if that is the case. 

The road for Alabama to get back to its version of "national prominence" is a long one.  It won't be easy, because recruiting kids to a place where 4000 people attend a non-conference home game is difficult to do.  ESPN doesn't want to televise Alabama.  After all, if its own fan base doesn't care about it, why is there any reason to think a national audience will? 

On top of everything else, when Alabama does happen to draw a decent crowd, I would be hard-pressed to call the atmosphere "electric".  Don't get me wrong, the people who actually show up for the games should be commended. 

However, we don't exactly produce the atmosphere that you get at Bud Walton, or in Gainesville, in Rupp, or even (gasp) Knoxville. 

If you are an Alabama fan, and would like to see your team back among the nation's respected programs, do your part and put your butt in a seat and cheer for the team.  If you can't make the game, watch it on television or listen to the radio. 

Incidentally, Alabama has a very talented play-by-play announcer by the name of Chris Stewart.  If you like basketball, his commentary alone will make the game worth listening to.  Learn about the program.  Show some interest.  Talk it up. 

If you aren't willing to do any of those things, don't bother calling your local sports radio show and complaining.  Just go back to your "countdown to kickoff" calendar or scoping the Internet for video on that 2011 defensive back prospect.  Stop wasting the time of the people who actually care about the basketball program and get back to what you are good at-cheering for the football team.

If I come across as being annoyed, I assure you, I am.  Don't misunderstand though, as an Alabama fan, I know exactly where my bread is buttered.  I know that all athletic programs at the University thrive because of football.  There is no disputing that.  Also know, however, that if you want Alabama to be a "multi-sport" school that enjoys successes on and off the gridiron, a la Tennessee and Florida, it is time to spread some of that interest around. 

I can promise that if we do, those eight months of misery between the bowl game and kickoff in September will be much more enjoyable.