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The Alabama Applewhite Theory

I've become a mostly docile creature in my (relative) blogging old age. When I encounter a backwards or disagreeable published opinion, I generally just ignore it. Today, though, I read for the umpteenth time an Alabama fan grossly mischaracterize the Major Applewhite story and I can't sit still any longer.

It's particularly bothersome because it comes from author OutsideTheLines of Roll Bama Roll; not only is RBR the finest 'Bama blog I read, but OTL himself has been a deeply insightful commentator throughout the season.

Just not today. You can read the whole piece here, though I'm including a good bit of the relevant portions in my reply below. Writes OTL:

To begin with, to clarify things, it seems that Applewhite left Alabama to be the running backs coach in Austin, and not in any position such as a coordinator. He will not be calling any plays, nor will he be playing a major role in designing the game plans for each week.

This is a half-truth. Texas does not have a coordinator spot open on its staff; it has a Running Backs Coach spot, vacated by Ken Rucker, who's taking the newly created High School Coordinator job for Mack Brown. But Major Applewhite is being hired as the Texas Running Backs Coach in name only; the idea that Applewhite is coming to Austin to do the same job Ken Rucker did previously is utterly silly. The idea, too, that Applewhite would want to come to Texas only to coach Longhorn running backs is equally comical. Had Mack Brown's offer to Applewhite limited his duties to coaching tailbacks, there's no question Applewhite would have asked, "Huh? Seriously?"

Everyone who's anyone with a source in this matter has indicated that Applewhite's involvement in the offense will be extensive.

OTL continues:

It is currently being mentioned in several circles that Saban did not want Applewhite to continue as offensive coordinator; to be sure, he apparently wanted him to continue in some capacity on the staff, but not in his current role.

All of this, in all honesty, should come as no major surprise. When Applewhite was hired twelve months ago, he was hired with a great degree of hesitation on the part of Saban. When Applewhite was at Rice, he had full reins over the offense and implemented a full-blown spread attack. However, it was very obvious from the beginning that Saban was very concerned at the prospect of handing the entire offense over to a 29 year old kid, one with only four years of coaching experience, and only one year as a coordinator. So, the wary Saban decided to do something about it, and this is where Joe Pendry comes in.

So let me get this straight:

  1. Nick Saban wasn't sure he trusted the young Applewhite to be his Offensive Coordinator without any help.
  1. He therefore brought in Joe Pendry to assist.
  1. After one season, he'd seen enough to know Major Applewhite couldn't do the job.

This is certainly plausible, but it's - to put it as nicely as I can - curious, if true. It begs the question: Why would Nick Saban give Applewhite partial control of the offense and then decide - in one season - that Applewhite needed to be demoted? If true, it implicates Saban - not Applewhite - akin to me hiring a talented young co-writer for BON, telling him that all his stories had to be edited heavily by Andrew and I... And then taking each submitted piece and editing them beyond recognition, to the point where the writer was us - not him... And then firing him when the articles were poorly received.

OTL's explanation would be far more plausible if Applewhite had been given full control of the offense and pulled an Akina. As is, Saban pussyfooted about letting Applewhite have control, ultimately hamstringing him with Joe Pendry.

Speaking of Pendry, OTL continues:

Pendry is officially the offensive line coach, but of course the sphere of his influence over the program runs much deeper. With legitimate concerns over Applewhite, Saban largely leaned on Pendry in 2007 to keep the young and inexperienced Applewhite at bay. He was wary of turning the entire offense over to Applewhite, so the offense became not what Applewhite ran at Rice, but instead a collaboration between Pendry, Applewhite and Saban.

At this point, it seems readily apparent that Saban was not pleased, and is not pleased, as to how things worked out. Applewhite was not his first choice, but he was probably the best candidate on the board at the time, and Saban gave it a go. Unfortunately, things didn't really improve all that much. Yes, the offense was better in 2007 than it was in 2006 -- how could it have gotten any worse? -- but the improvement is not what we, and apparently Saban, expected. John Parker Wilson took a major step back, to put it mildly, the running game struggled from the Arkansas game on, and the offense simply sputtered out down the stretch.

From all I can deduce of the situation, Saban reached a point to where he still did not have the confidence to turn the entire offense over to Applewhite, but he was equally unwilling to continue to field an offense that was the by-product of multiple viewpoints with no solid foundational basis to be found in a single person and one single philosophy. As a result, he seemingly decided Applewhite was not going to run the show, but also that the Applewhite / Pendry / Saban collaboration would also not return in 2008.

I believe that is the major reason as to why Applewhite was effectively demoted at Alabama, and that is the major reason why he left. Had Applewhite been able to continue as offensive coordinator and play-caller, he would have certainly never left Alabama to be a mere running backs coach, even at his alma mater. That, however, was unlikely to be the case. I imagine that Saban was going to allow Applewhite to remain the quarterbacks coach, nothing more, and with that in mind he decided to return home.

Again, if anything, this implicates Saban's incompetence, not Applewhite's. If this dubious hypothesis were true, it effectively means that Saban had the horrible idea of hiring Applewhite while simultaneously throwing handcuffs on him, neutering his ability to do what he was hired to do. This strikes me as an odd theory to embrace for an author who concludes his piece with:

With Saban, we have the chairman of the board, and rest assured, as long as he spends his Autumn Saturdays at 100 Bryant Drive, the rest will fall into place.

From where I'm sitting, something doesn't smell right. OTL simultaneously proposes an explanation for Applewhite's decision that, at its logical conclusion, implicates Saban, and wraps up his post by saying that Saban is God's gift to football coaching.

While I understand the desire to hold on to the rosy view of Nick Saban, that view and a more realistic assessment of what happened with Major Applewhite are not mutually exclusive. Saban will likely do just fine finding a suitable replacement. But maintaining one's overall faith in Saban does not require sunshine pumping to the degree of spinning this story as it has been.

Everything I've heard from people with no interest in protecting Saban has centered on Applewhite's dissatisfaction with how Alabama's head coach handled the offense in 2007: that Saban hired Applewhite, was too timid to let Applewhite do what he was hired to do, and tied the anchor that is Joe Pendry around Major's ankle. And that Applewhite hated it. As a Bama fan, you can believe that Saban was acting on Major's incompetence by deciding to demote him... or you might consider that Saban's plan itself was stunningly incompetent.

OTL's hypothesis doesn't add up. Everyone close to the situation in Austin has reported a robust role for Applewhite in the offense and program, both in the near- and long-term. The infinitely more likely explanation for this move involves Applewhite's frustration with Saban and Pendry - not the other way around.

This reminds me of an old friend I had who used to cheat on his girlfriend every chance he had. Right before he told me he was going to propose to her, she found out about his improprieties and kicked him to the curb. And you know what he told me? "I was going to break up with her anyway."

Of course, he wasn't protecting a $4 million a year interest.