Football Writers Association of America 2003 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
Ivan Maisel, espn.com

They are celebrating in College Station, as well they should. In the best Texas style, they went and found the best coach that $10 million, or $11 million, over five years could buy. Texas A&M went and made themselves a statement, just as the Aggies did in 1982 when they paid Jackie Sherrill the then-astronomical sum of $267,000 annually.

Dennis Franchione will mold his Texas A&M teams into winners. He has been successful everywhere he has coached. He will instill in them the spirit of the 12th Man, the Aggie who is always ready to enter the game, as if he had been born to it. He will teach his Aggies about pride, and determination, and trust.

He had better hope none of them asks, "What about Alabama?"

The players won't, of course. It doesn't matter to them that Franchione reneged on the same commitment he asked of his Alabama players last winter.

Ivan Maisel
espn.com
Age: 43
College: Stanford
Background: Ivan has covered college football on a national basis since 1987 for The Dallas Morning News, Newsday, Sports Illustrated, and, since November 2002, espn.com. A transplanted Alabama native, Ivan lives in Fairfield, Conn., and has managed to maintain his drawl. He says his wife Meg Murray and their kids, Sarah, 11, Max, 9, and Elizabeth, 6, all speak way too fast.

Hey, coaches leave. That's what they do. Schools may as well carve those multi-year contracts into the side of a watermelon, for all the longevity they have. But that is an issue for another time. Writing about coaches and loyalty is the journalistic equivalent of having someone slap a "Kick me" sign on your back. Yet Franchione's decision to leave is astonishing in its sheer chutzpah.

The two-year NCAA probation and bowl ban that Alabama is currently under, and the 21 scholarships that the NCAA stripped away earlier this year put the Crimson Tide on the brink of football purgatory. Franchione snatched Alabama back. He instilled into the 2002 team a determination to prove that the best team in the SEC West would not be in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday. He succeeded. Alabama finished 10-3, 6-2 in the SEC West. Division champion Arkansas finished 5-3.

When the NCAA announced its sanctions in the Albert Means case, Franchione pleaded with the nearly 40 juniors and seniors who could transfer without losing a season of eligibility to stay, to depend on him and to depend on each other. He asked them not to give up just because the job became tougher. They believed in him, and when other schools came courting, they stayed.

When it came time for him to make the same commitment commitment, Franchione left. When Texas A&M came courting, Franchione batted his eyes. With the possibility of more NCAA penalties resulting from the Memphis scandal, Franchione bolted. The wounds suffered will take their greatest toll in the next three seasons, as the smaller recruiting classes become upperclassmen. Franchione looked that Sisyphean task in the eye and ran to another hill three states away.

Franchione will give plenty of positive reasons why he decided to leave for College Station. But if bailing out on the very commitment he asked of his players isn't one of them, then, as Alabama rockers Wet Willie used to sing, grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man.

What's worse, Franchione's web master and coauthor, Mike McKenzie, issued a statement on the coach's behalf Thursday that Franchione would not return to Tuscaloosa to tell his players goodbye and that he had asked his assistants to inform the players of his departure. One member of his staff, contacted Thursday, cringed at the thought of it. Another said, "I hate it for these players."

Franchione, an unemotional, analytical man, broke down briefly as he spoke to the Crimson Tide before the Hawaii game last Saturday, according to one member of his staff. That may be all he can do.

In two seasons in Tuscaloosa, Franchione went 17-8. He went 1-1 against Auburn and he broke an sevengame losing streak to Tennessee. When the NCAA handed down its sanctions of Alabama, Infractions Committee chair Tom Yeager said his group had seriously considered giving Alabama the death penalty. In other words, Alabama couldn't have been punished any further without shutting the program down altogether.

It turns out that there is. Franchione's departure is an NCAA penalty in effect, and in derivation, if not in name.

A quick history lesson: in the last 72 years, only two coaches have left Alabama to take another college head coaching job: Wallace Wade, a Hall of Fame coach who left for Duke after the 1930 season because he found the Tide fans too critical. And Bill Curry, who won an SEC championship in 1989 and left for Kentucky because he found the Tide too critical.

Franchione never had that problem. The Alabama faithful loved him not only for his success, but for the style in which his teams played. Franchione's players are stronger than week-old laundry. His offenses are balanced, a balance made doubly effective by his cunning as a play-caller. Franchione embraced the Crimson Tide tradition, a history of success that has produced 12 national championships and the most arrogant fans north of Coral Gables and east of Austin.

That arrogance helped deliver Alabama into the leg irons of the NCAA. And that arrogance is why Franchione's destination further deepens the humiliation of his departure. The symbolism of a coach leaving Alabama for Texas A&M strikes at the foundation of a Tide fan's core beliefs. Prominent among them is this:

Great coaches do not leave Tuscaloosa for College Station. Great coaches travel in the other direction.

The greatest era in Alabama football began on Dec. 3, 1957, when Bear Bryant left College Station for Tuscaloosa because, as he put it that day, "My school called me." Forty-five years and one day later, Alabama athletic director Mal Moore granted formal permission to Texas A&M to meet with Franchione. Moore must have known then that the marriage had ended.

In Franchione's first meeting with his players, he will ask for their commitment. He better hope they don't read the papers.

Comment from the judge, Mickey Spagnola: One trend running through the majority of the columns was the lack of strong opinion. This column not only was well written and heavy in substance, but the writer let us know which side of the fence he was on exactly what a column should be.

Second place: Ted Miller, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Third place: Gregg Doyel, Charlotte Observer
Honorable mention: Parish Alford, Northeast Mississippi Journal; George Schroeder, Daily Oklahoman