From Bear Bryant to Contracting the Coronavirus, Crimson Tide Legendary Lineman Jim Bunch as 'Fortunate' as ever

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Joey Blackwell

If you're still a doubter about the coronavirus and how serious it can be, Alabama legendary offensive lineman Jim Bunch says listen up. 

He's had it. 

“A lot of these parts of the country, they’re not following everything as far as distancing,” said Bunch, whose voice went its usual quiet and laid-nature to stressing the importance of proper social distancing and precautionary measures during the ongoing pandemic.

“[They’re not] wearing the mask when they need to.”

Late last year, Bunch, 64, and his wife, Leslie, took a trip to China before the COVID-19 outbreak in Asia had become global news. The couple spent 12 days traveling all over the country, exploring the sights and sounds that the world’s most-populous nation had to offer.

“We hit every part of China,” Bunch said. “I mean, it seems like we saw everything. It was action-packed. Every day you were looking at something different. It was incredible.”

On the plane ride back to Chicago to visit his daughter's family, Bunch started to feel very ill.

He didn't know it at the time, but had contracted the coronavirus before hardly anyone in the United States had heard of it.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Bunch said. “I mean, it was really hard to breathe. My temperature would go up and down and I had that cough. That dry cough. At the time, nobody knew what that was.”

The physicians in the Windy City couldn't diagnose him, at least not yet. All he knew was that his symptoms were getting worse. 

“They couldn’t tell what I had,” Bunch said. “They treated the symptoms. The best thing they did was they gave me an inhaler with a steroid and three different types of antibiotics.”

Bunch decided to self-quarantine. It might have been as important a decision as any in his life. 

“I was in my daughter’s basement and I told them to stay away,” Bunch said. “I had something, I didn’t know what it was, but they didn’t need to be around me.”

The isolation worked, and Bunch was able to recover and safely keep the virus away from his family.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” Bunch said. “We have family all over the United States.”

Bunch himself hails from Mechanicsville, Va., where was born in 1956. He grew up in the rural agriculture town and played football for both Lee-Davis High School, and Fork Union Military Academy.

It wasn’t until he was 20 years old that Bunch stepped on to the Alabama campus for the the first time. 

Virginia Tech was his other top collegiate option, but while being actively recruited by the Hokies, Bunch had the opportunity to speak with assistant coach Perry Willis, He had been a Crimson Tide receiver back in the late ‘60s.

Whether intentional or not, Willis convinced Bunch that Alabama is where he should go.

“I could just tell in his voice what a special place Alabama was, especially with Coach [Paul] Bryant," Bunch said. 

Willis’ words, combined with the legendary reputation of the Crimson Tide and Bryant, sealed his decision.

“If I had the opportunity to play college football I wanted to go somewhere that was used to winning,” Bunch said. “That pretty much sums up Alabama. They had been really successful with a lot of different coaches, and it was unprecedented as far as college football goes.”

He moved to Tuscaloosa in 1976, just in time for Bryant's epic return to domination.

As a guard, Bunch didn’t initially start the first few games, and hadn’t even earned his varsity letter approaching the midway point of his freshman season. 

That all changed in a flash the week leading up to the Third Saturday in October rivalry game against Tennessee, with what's still Bunch's favorite memory from his time in Tuscaloosa.

At 5 a.m. Monday, Bunch was woken up by Jack Rutledge, Alabama’s offensive line coach. His words were few.

“’Coach Bryant wants to see you,’” Bunch recalled. “He didn’t say why, so you think the worst thing, you know? ‘What have I done? I couldn’t have done anything.’”

Bunch quickly jogged the half-mile over to Bryant’s office, expecting the worst.

“I knocked on his door and told me to sit down on that couch that totally engulfs you,” Bunch said. “It had really small legs and no springs so you’re looking up at Coach Bryant behind his desk and with those windows that were behind his desk.

“He looked almost like God himself sometimes.”

After the usual pleasantries of Bryant asking Bunch how he was doing in school and how his family was back home, the coach stood up and walked over.

“When he would talk to you he had that growly voice and he would smoke one of those Chesterfield cigarettes,” Bunch said. “I don’t think he intentionally blows smoke in my face but he got in my face — he said ‘I’m going to start you this week at right tackle.’ He said ‘It might be the biggest mistake of my coaching career.’

“For a minute there I’m thinking ‘This has got to be a dream. There’s no way that sentence just came out of Coach Bryant’s mouth’. It didn’t seem real.”

It wasn’t a dream, nor a nightmare. Bunch started and Alabama won 20-13.

Jim Bunch 1979

For the rest of the 1976 season, through 1979, Bunch was a regular starter, helping the Crimson Tide make three title runs and win national championships in both 1978 and 1979. As a senior he was named a First-Team All-American.

It was also at Alabama that Bunch met and married Leslie. It sounds strange now, but it was customary at the time for active players wanting to get hitched to ask Bryant's permission.   

“I timed it just right,” Bunch said. “I went up to Coach Bryant’s office right after game and he’s happy. A lot of time he would tell guys ‘You’re not ready’ or ‘Come back and talk to me next year’, so they had to go back to their fiancés and say ‘I’m sorry, he said maybe next year.’

“He didn’t give me any problems. He said ‘It helps some people and it hurts some people.’ That’s all he said.”

After graduating with a degree in public relations, Bunch attended graduate school at Alabama and earned his master’s while serving as a graduate assistant. He used the experience to decide whether or not to pursue a career in coaching, but ultimately decided to leave the game behind.

His first job interview after college was with an ownership group for Quincy’s Family Steakhouses, and Bunch soon saw himself working his way up the corporate ladder. He ultimately reached market leader, the equivalent of a regional vice president.

After 25 years with Quincy’s, Bunch retired from the company and became the vice president of Drane Enterprises, a company in Alabama that operates Hardee’s restaurants. He retired 11 years ago, and began operating Winston Place Bed and Breakfast in Valley Head (in the northeast corner of the state) with his wife. 

Leslie’s grandfather had purchased it back in 1944, a historic southern home built in 1831 — the same year that the University of Alabama was founded — and had housed Union troops during the Civil War. Bunch and Leslie had been assisting her father and mother with running the B&B for years but took full control of operations after Bunch’s retirement.

Winston Place
Winston Place

Bunch and his wife still live at Valley Head and run Winston Place. The couple have two children, daughter Kelly and son James Edward Bunch, Jr. Kelly and her husband, the ones in Chicago, have Bunch’s sole grandchild so far, a 2-year-old boy.

Despite Bunch’s coronavirus episode, the family is happy and healthy. While traveling is currently not an option, Bunch still tries to get back to Chicago as often as possible to his his daughter and grandson.

After all, someone needs to keep him following in grandpa's football footprints.

“He looks like he’s going to be a good left tackle,” Bunch said. “His dad’s tall, this kid is thick and he’s quick.”