An open letter to Bill Battle about the state of Alabama basketball

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Dear Coach Battle,

As the losses mount in this the fifth campaign of Alabama basketball under Anthony Grant, questions linger regarding the direction of the program and whether changes should be made.

And rightly so, Coach Battle.

Followers of the program…both of us at this point…are currently hearing the rumor that, regardless off the outcome of this season, Coach Grant will be given another season to redeem himself with a promising crop of in-coming recruits.

Allow me a moment to address the folly of such thinking.

In judging coaching tenures, I like to divide them into segments: the first five years then the second five years. Let’s delve into recent history for a moment; specifically, into the tenure of our former coach, Mark Gottfried.

The human “deer in headlights,” Mark Gottfried

Coach Gottfried’s first five years were a model of inconsistency. There were some highs: Our first number one ranking in school history, a regular season championship, and most notably, the first Elite Eight appearance in school history. (It’s sad that these are the sum total of the high points in the history of our program, but that’s all we’ve got.)

But also there were low points too. Questionable coaching decisions that directly affected outcomes of critical games. The coddling of Rod Grizzard to the detriment of the team as a whole, lackluster post-season tournament play prior to the ’04-’05 season Elite Eight run (A run dampened by the 36-point blowout loss to UConn where a slack-jawed Gottfried was juxtaposed on camera opposite Jim Calhoun all game long.)

Despite this, the second five years began with an enthusiasm unseen since the halcyon days of Wimp Sanderson. Those who followed the program thought Coach Gottfried had turned the corner, with better days ahead.

Coach Gottfried rode this wave of positive energy to sign the best player to come to Alabama in some time, two time Alabama Mr. Basketball, Ronald Steele.

Steele’s career at Alabama began with much fanfare. It became evident quickly there was something special about him. At an ’06 basketball camp, the great Michael Jordan singled Steele out with praise. After some tips, Jordan invited Steele to play in a two-on-two pickup game.

The best player Gottfried ever ruined, Ronald Steele

Even before this camp, Gottfried had pegged Steele as a “franchise” player. In the ’05-’06 season Steele averaged 38 minutes a game. The Jordan camp further enhanced that thinking in Gottfried’s mind, of that I have no question.

But in the pre-conference schedule of the ’06-’07 season it became apparent Ron had lost a step. He looked slow and began having knee problems. The diagnosis at the time was “tendonitis”. The cure? Play him, something Mark Gottfried had no problem doing.

Gottfried followed up the Elite Eight run with another NCAA tournament appearance in ’05. But was unceremoniously bounced out by Bruce Pearl and his University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee Panthers. (Pearl parlayed that tournament run into the head coaching position at Tennessee, which Coach Battle, I’m sure you are well aware.) Again, Gottfried looked inept when pitted against superior coaching.

Again, under pressure to perform, Gottfried rode Ronald Steele like a rented mule with the approval of the team doctors. Ron went into the ’07 conference schedule with play that frankly looked tortured. Some games he was literally limping up and down the court. When asked about possibly benching Ron, Gottfried’s response was “Ron wanted to play and the doctors said he should play”. It wasn’t long after that, in a game at Knoxville (yes, against Pearl) Ron took himself out of the game before the half in what had to have been the most painful sporting effort I’ve watched since Larry Holmes v. Randall “Tex” Cobb. Ironically, after being down by 20+ in the first half, the subs came back in the second half, took the lead at one point, and almost won the game.

From that point on Gottfried continued trying to play Ron until a meeting with Steel’s parents ended that notion. Shortly after the meeting, Ron underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees to repair cartilage damage. Later that summer he underwent a THIRD surgery for further repair.

My long winded point here Coach Battle is this: Mark Gottfried should have been fired then. I still vividly recall the pain and suffering Ron Steele put himself through to play for Mark Gottfried. Pain and suffering that was plain as the nose on my face watching him in games. Mark Gottfried was up close and personal to all this at games AND PRACTICES.

Ron Steele sacrificed an NBA lottery pick career at the hands of Mark Gottfried. That sacrifice likely wouldn’t have happened had Alabama not made that Elite Eight tournament run in ’05. Gottfried was under fire at that time for underachieving commensurate to his pay grade. Antoine Pettway saved his job with a first round buzzer beater against Southern Illinois that would launch the tourney run that year.

Even after the Ronald Steele debacle, it took two more seasons to rid ourselves of Gottfried. In the meantime, his wife embarrassed us by going up into the stands at the halftime of a home game and publicly berating Paul Finebaum, the man who in 1999 publicly lobbied to get her husband the job.

(As a side note, since the Mark Gottfried error, ** and the Elizabeth Gottfried beat down ** I don’t think Paul has spoken two unsolicited words on his coveted airwaves about Alabama basketball.)

The worst basketball coach Bama has ever had

Coach Battle, I say all that to say this: Anthony Grant, in his first five years as head basketball coach at Alabama, hasn’t achieved half of what a dubious Mark Gottfried did in his first five. And for more money.

I shouldn’t have to tell you Grant is the highest paid basketball coach in the history of basketball at the Capstone. Before the sun sets today you will pay him well over $5,000 just for today’s work. And he hasn’t come anywhere near what Gottfried achieved in HIS first five years.

What can we honestly expect for a second five??

Or, another ONE??

Here’s my fear, Coach. If Grant is allowed another season (another I don’t think he’s earned) anyone with a pulse is going to know he’s a lame duck. And rival coaches and programs have pulses. He’ll be perceived to be a lame duck that, without an NCAA tournament bid, is bound for termination. This will no doubt be used against us on the recruiting trail. We have enough problems recruiting talent as it is, keeping our in-state talent at home without this distraction.

The standard for all coaches at Alabama, Wimp Sanderson

You stated recently that Grant was the man for this job. In my mind, frankly, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t think there’s any question, that for all his flaws, (and Lord knows he had some) Wimp Sanderson was the best advocate for Alabama basketball the school has ever had. He singularly, made ‘Bama basketball games an event. We showed up at Coleman to see more than just a game. We showed up to see the plaid jackets, the ranting and raving court side. He wasn’t just a great coach. Coach Sanderson PROMOTED and SOLD the program.

(Talking of the first five years, Coach Sanderson went to Pauley Pavilion in 1983 and beat #1 UCLA on national television the day Coach Bryant died. He took on the hotshot Gene Bartow hired by UAB and spanked him regularly on the recruiting trail. Ask Buck Johnson.)

Sanderson also won us three SEC championships in a row, ’89, ’90, and ‘1991.

Anthony Grant hasn’t shown himself capable of any of this. He’s an introverted personality, incapable, in my mind, of selling or leading this program.

And basketball HAS to be sold at Alabama, Coach. We cannot expect fans to just show up for games like it’s football in the best of times, sir. And in case you haven’t noticed, look in the stands. It is FAR from the best of times. Those poor girls shooting t-shirts into the crowd have to really work to hit someone with them. Ticket sales are no doubt in the toilet.

When I hear of a possible reluctance to pay Grant’s buyout if he were to be terminated this season, I submit to you that the program can’t afford to keep him. Interest, revenue and attendance are at David Hobbs lows. Even Hobbs achieved more than Anthony Grant has, defeating 17 NCAA tournament teams in his time. Grant has done so just eight times.

The fact is Coach, put in good ole ‘Bama phraseology, this just ain’t workin’. Like Gottfried, Grant was sold to us as a coach who had worked his way up through the ranks and was ready for prime time. Neither were. I’m still amazed that Grant was awarded the job after making Coach Moore wait a week for an answer while he waited to see if the Florida job was available.

We need a coach who can lead this program. And in more ways than just on the court. A couple of years back, I bought and left tickets at Will Call for four of my customers. Those customers didn’t get their tickets because the idiots in Will Call lost them. I haven’t made that mistake since. I don’t send customers down there for basketball games anymore. I can’t risk further embarrassment. But Coach, the entire program, top to bottom, is an embarassment.

Coach, there are problems around our basketball program. I don’t see retaining Anthony Grant solving any of them, frankly. We need a coach who wants to be here and shows it everyday, in every way.

My hope is you’ll look at the state of the program, present and future, and make the right decision. If it means anything to you, I would have already made mine.

(And we’d have one less coach making the trip to College Station this week.)

A concerned Alabama basketball fan