Alabama carries on without coach

Crimson Tide players preparing for Independence Bowl

? Wallace Gilberry finds some solace by pointing to Alabama’s tradition, always a favorite pastime around these parts.

Only he’s thinking of coaching changes, not championships.

“The guys that were here before us, they went through four,” said Gilberry, a junior defensive end. “Compared to those guys, this is nothing.”

Well, there is that.

Still, the Crimson Tide players are gearing up for the Independence Bowl without a head coach or any idea when they’ll get one.

They practiced Saturday after a week off – three weeks after their last regular-season game and one day after West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez turned down the job.

But at least for a few hours the Tide could focus on blocking, tackling and the upcoming game against Oklahoma State in the Dec. 28 bowl.

“I’ve been so proud of them,” said Joe Kines, the defensive coordinator and interim head coach. “They’re really trying to concentrate on this bowl game. I’m really glad we’ve got this: It’s a godsend. We can come to work every day instead of just mulling around. It probably would have been a problem if that had been the case.”

The players, who hadn’t been allowed to talk to the media the past two weeks, insist the coaching limbo hasn’t been a distraction. It’s hard to imagine how that could be, though.

It’s been a fixture on newspaper front pages, breathless Internet postings and local TV newscasts ever since Mike Shula was fired. For the record, that was Nov. 26, eight days after the season finale against Auburn.

“It was kind of hard to ignore it,” senior linebacker Juwan Simpson said. “I don’t watch much TV, I guess, but people are coming up to you asking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I’m like the rest of the population. I don’t know.”

Simpson and the other seniors have been through this before – several times. Alabama has had four coaches since 2000.

Like the Tide faithful and athletic director Mal Moore, the players thought they finally had their man in Rodriguez, who was offered the job Thursday morning.

Friday afternoon, he announced he wasn’t leaving West Virginia.

But Gilberry said it has been easy to keep his attention on football and finals instead of the coaching search.

“I haven’t really too much worried about that,” he said, standing outside the football complex. “Like I’ve been telling guys all week, the guys upstairs take care of that. We take care of things down here.”

Such as preparing for Oklahoma State’s option attack, finding a No. 2 quarterback with Jimmy Barnes’ season-ending knee injury and trying to end the year with a winning record.

Not whether Rodriguez, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban or whoever is coming to Tuscaloosa.

“We let it roll off our shoulders just like water,” Gilberry said. “It rolled off and we were ready to keep going. Hopefully they’ll get one soon.”

That hire would do far more than ease the minds of the players and restless fans. It also would boost recruiting. Even as the Tide coaches have continued to hit the road visiting prospects, they can tout the facilities, the (not so recent) tradition and the lofty expectations.

But they can’t answer that lingering question: Who’s the coach?

“We haven’t had anybody yet say, ‘Coach, count me out,'” Kines said. “We’ve had about half saying, ‘Coach, I’m coming to Alabama.’ We’ve had another half say, ‘Don’t count me out, but I’m going to kind of wait and see what the situation is, then I’ll make a decision.”‘

Some of the players said they’d like for Kines to get consideration for the job, though he said Alabama officials haven’t approached him about that. The folksy 61-year-old has more pressing priorities: his players’ exams and coming up with a game plan to stop Oklahoma State.

“And I haven’t bought my wife anything for Christmas,” he said. “I’ve got too much to worry about than that.”