TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Mike Shula is preparing for the biggest game of his coaching career, No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 5 LSU. National and Southeastern Conference title shots are on the line.

The man who has guided the Crimson Tide from turbulent times and mediocrity to these heady days isn’t inclined to say “I told you so” to the critics who dogged him the previous two years. His players will, though.

“We’ve been telling y’all he’s going to be a great one and he’s building for the future,” quarterback Brodie Croyle said. “We told you at the start of the year this was the year that we were going to have a good year and so far so good.

“It’s him. He’s been the rock through the adversity to a No. 3 (BCS) ranking, he’s the exact same guy. Nothing’s changed.”

Actually, just about everything’s changed for the 40-year-old former Tide quarterback except for his demeanor.

When he took over a proud but troubled program less than four months before the 2003 season, Shula’s obstacles included no head coaching experience, a roster thinned by NCAA sanctions and a fan base restless after two abrupt coaching changes and some mediocre seasons.

Now, Alabama is 9-0 with six SEC wins and the inside track to the league’s Western Division title if it beats the Tigers (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday.

How far has Shula brought the Tide? Well, it took him 20 games to notch his first nine wins. He won only 10 his first two seasons against 15 losses.

And the program that Bear Bryant helped turn into one of college football’s giants has gone from the embarrassments that led to Shula’s hiring to, well, one of college football’s giants – at least presently.

He got the job after Mike Price was fired following spring practice in 2003 for his off-the-field behavior on a night of drinking at a Pensacola, Fla., strip club. Price got the job only after Dennis Franchione bolted for Texas A&M – the opposite route Bryant took decades before.

Enter Shula, a squeaky clean son of a coaching legend – Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula – with a lengthy resume as an NFL assistant. Equally important, he was a former Alabama player.

That, athletic director Mal Moore says, was “the No. 1 thing” he was looking for in a coach after the embarrassing episodes with outsider coaches.

Shula was pilloried for everything from not being Sylvester Croom – another popular former Bama star who was a finalist for the job and is now at Mississippi State – to his refusal to fire defensive coordinator Joe Kines after a 4-9 debut season as some fans wanted.

Now, Kines has one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Croom, the SEC’s first black head coach, is still in the early stages of trying to build a program.

Asked if he feels vindicated now, Shula merely gave a nod to his players who have been through rocky times, too.

“Probably the best way to answer that is I’m happy for these guys right here that have come here and been through some tough times and are now sitting here answering questions about being 9-0,” Shula said.

Shula has the same pleasant but poker-faced demeanor answering those questions as he did the less gentle ones he faced before this season. Ask for a description of his personality, and the word “nice” often comes up.

“He always talks about positive things,” safety Roman Harper said. “He brought us together as a team. It’s more of a family type atmosphere. He’s a really nice guy. Very classy.”

Former Alabama All-American and Dallas Cowboys star Lee Roy Jordan thinks Shula is “fabulous” in dealing with fans. “I think he’s probably the most personable coach we’ve had. He’s really a pleasure to be around.”

But nice and personable doesn’t win games. Jordan surveyed Alabama’s practice two springs ago, and figured the Tide had bigger problems than the furor over Shula’s decision – which he later reversed – to strip Croom’s name from a spring award.

“They don’t have much talent,” he said at the time. He’s much happier with what he sees now.

“I just believe our guys play harder than a lot of other guys because they want to represent the University of Alabama and the tradition we’ve became accustomed to,” Jordan said. “I can certainly see that with this group of guys there now.”

Shula led Alabama to a 6-6 finish last season, including a Music City Bowl trip, respectable considering he lost his entire offensive backfield to season-ending injuries. Not good enough to soothe Bama fans yearning for a return to the good old days, though.

Shula hasn’t exactly been swept up in the current excitement. “BCS” rarely escapes his lips. His steady refrain when the subject comes up is along the lines of “we only worry about the things we can control.”

He hasn’t publicly pleaded his team’s case or railed at the system that could shut a 13-0 Alabama team out of the national championship picture – as it did Auburn last season.

“If somebody knew him before when we were 4-9 and everybody wanted his head and they talked to him today,” Croyle said, “he’d be the exact same person.”

During the offseason, Shula asked Moore for a one-year extension to his $900,000-a-year deal that’s worth less than half of what several of his SEC counterparts make. He only sought a raise for his assistants

“You can’t believe how good that made me feel and how proud I was of Coach Shula,” said Moore, a former Tide coach and player. “Winning and what they’ve done, there’s plenty of time for him to enjoy the success. I think he fully recognizes this.”

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