Ray Perkins spent most of last year, his rookie season as Alabama's coach, trying to convince people that he didn't feel any pressure after stepping into the territory that for 25 years had been Bear Bryant's domain. Everywhere he turned, though, Perkins saw paw prints. He had Bryant's famous tower hauled away from the practice field, and the fans erupted. He instituted a multiple, pro-style offense, and many Alabamans, who couldn't bear to think of a Tide team that didn't play the wishbone, became skeptical.
However, Perkins kept right on fighting the legend. He immersed himself in 18-hour workdays, arriving at his office at 5:30 a.m. and often not leaving before midnight. He scheduled brainstorming sessions every few days with his staff. He pitched his program to the Red Elephant and Touchdown booster clubs.
Perkins silenced some of the critics by turning the Alabama offense into the most productive (424.1 yards a game) and highest scoring (30.7 points a game) in the conference, and gave Crimson Tide fans an 8-4 season that ended with a 28-7 upset of fifth-ranked SMU in the Sun Bowl. "I had a lot of fun last year," says Perkins. Really? "Well," he continues slowly, "this is home. This is my alma mater. I'm happy, and that makes everything else easier."
But the pressure isn't off yet, even with the return of 15 first-stringers—six on offense, eight on defense—plus placekicker Van Tiffin. Perkins must replace quarterback Walter Lewis, a two-year starter who finished ninth in the Heisman voting last year and left for the USFL Memphis Showboats as 'Bama's alltime leader in total offense (5,690 yards). Furthermore, Perkins must play ghost-buster in his receiving corps. Gone are 'Bama legends Joey Jones (15.3 yards per catch in '83) and Jesse Bendross (15.7).
Enter sophomore Mike Shula, the youngest son of Miami Dolphin coach Don. A southpaw, Mike needs to see some action. He played in only one game last season—17 fourth-quarter plays in a 40-0 blowout of Ole Miss—and his stint as the No. 1 quarterback in spring practice ended after 12 days, when a helmet smashed into his right leg. Result: hairline fractures of both the tibia and fibula. But Shula's fully recovered and stronger than ever, thanks to having had full run of the Dolphins' training facilities over the summer.
Shula, who grew up idolizing Bob Griese and playing catch with Dolphin receivers, knows Perkins's complex system inside and out; it's very similar to the offense his father uses. Better yet, he understands how to cope with the perils of living in a legend's shadow. "I came to Alabama to play as Mike Shula," he says, "not to be Don Shula's son." Should Shula not live up to his promise, the job will likely fall to senior Paul Fields or highly touted freshman Vince Sutton. Last year at LaGrange (Ga.) High, Sutton threw for 2,532 yards and 30 TDs, with only four interceptions.
The running game is strong with sophomore halfback Kerry Goode and All-SEC fullback Ricky Moore, a senior who last year rushed for 947 yards, the most a 'Bama back has gained since Johnny Musso got 1,088 in 1971. Sophomore Greg Richardson, a speedster who also returns punts, will fill one wide receiver hole.
Pssst. Don't tell the defense, but it's so young and so talented—by mid-'83, five freshmen were starting—that it has a chance to become storied. Senior Emanuel King, an all-conference selection, and sophomore Cornelius Bennett are the nation's best outside line-backing tandem. Perkins thinks Bennett will turn out to be better than Lawrence Taylor, whom he coached when he was with the New York Giants. Look for freshmen Rory Turner and Johnny Norwood to crack the starting lineup in the green secondary.
"You may not believe this," says Perkins, "but I'm still in awe. I enjoy what I'm doing. Everyday, I'm reminded of the Bear. Gee, his picture hangs opposite my desk. Now, if only I can convince the fans to get on with it."
Years of playing catch with Dolphins may pay off for Shula.