Tuscaloosa, AL – "It felt like just coming out of the tunnel on the west end, just seeing all those fans reminded me of when I was a player and when I got under the tunnel here, I was kidding Coach Radar that was where I used to warm up with him."
That tunnel at Legion Field in Birmingham has seen generations of Alabama football players pass through. This time, the tunnel saw Mike Shula to his head coaching debut, and a come-from-behind victory.
"Having my dad and my whole family here I know that's the first time they've been here for a game. My dad's never been to a game at Legion Field or Bryant Denny until this year. So that's special. Plus, every time they come, they usually bring pretty good luck."
But the Crimson Tide didn't need luck on Saturday, instead relying on a deeper talent pool and better conditioning to overpower the South Florida Bulls 40-17. It was Mike Shula's first game as head coach of Alabama, or anyone else for that matter. Those closest to him the players say he did well.
Senior tailback Shaud Williams offers a unique perspective. Shula is Williams' fifth different head coach in the past four years, including his early playing days at Texas Tech. Williams says Shula's sideline demeanor is good for the team.
"But he seemed real relaxed, he was excited and had a smile on his face. Even when we were down 17-7, he said 'Hey guys, we know we're not playing anywhere close to what we're capable of.' But he just kept a smile on his face the whole and was like 'Guys, just be patient and we'll get it going here in a minute.' That kind of rubbed off on us. We kind of relaxed. After we saw the Coach Shula wasn't upset or uptight, I think it kind of relaxed the rest of the team."
Saturday's game was also a first for other players and coaches, including freshman Ramzee Robinson, who saw heavy action. Robinson says the team respects its new coach.
"We like him a lot. He treats us like grown men, you know. And he just puts it in our hands to mentally get ready for the game, and physically as well. He don't put to much pressure on us. He just tells us what we need to do, and we do it.
Doing it is especially important at Alabama, where visibility is high and criticism is fickle. The pride of a college football tradition is at stake, not to mention a multi-million dollar industry. And because of that, Shula's first game gets heavy scrutiny something he is eager to see end.
"I think there's been a lot of attention on me, but these kids deserve this. They deserve the attention. They deserve to be interviewed. They deserve to get this credit for what they've done, and what they've been through and how they've responded. That's what makes me feel good as far as being the leader of this football team. It makes me feel good because of those players, and I've said it three or four times. It feels good to get one under our belt and get a win. Now, we look forward to next week."
Alabama's next game will be a big one. Kickoff against the top ranked Oklahoma Sooners is set for 6:45 in Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, the Auburn Tigers want to rebound from an opening day home loss to the Southern California Trojans. Auburn takes on Georgia Tech Saturday in Atlanta at 2:30.
For Alabama Public Radio, I'm Brett Tannehill.