The week had begun with two rumors for a Tuscaloosan to rub together, neither of them having to do directly with the business at hand: 1) that Alabama already has accepted an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl, 2) that Paul Bryant will retire when the season ends. The latter is a rumor recurrent. It persists in hurdling the facts that Bryant is only 51 years old and loves his work almost as much as Alabamans love him. Mary Harmon Bryant, the coach's wife, a pretty, perceptive woman who shows a lovely set of white teeth for rumor mongers and other people who speak unkindly of her "Papa," believes inalterably that a rumor of that ilk "just naturally gets started at recruitin' time by those old Aubuhn people."
Paul Bryant is a hummer. That is, he hums a lot, and usually his humming material runs to Sunday school inspirationals like Jesus Loves Me and, at more serious moments, Love Lifted Me. His players and assistants say that when his humming is loudest Bear Bryant seems to love them least. But Bryant is not humming today. Quarterback Joe Namath can run, all right, but only straight on. His injured knee has not regained the mobility needed "to turn and twist and carry on like he usually does." There is healing, too, to be done on End Tommy Tolleson, Tackle Jim. Simmons, Guard Wayne Freeman, Halfback Ray Ogden. So Bryant is lenient. He has, in fact, been more lenient than ever this year, with regular water breaks and ice breaks to reduce practice attrition and prove "I am getting old and mellow." The Monday night workout is mild: no contact, no pads, only the characteristic Alabama precision and intensity of purpose. It is to be that way the rest of the week.
November 23, 1964
Strong feeling against Tech courses hotly through Alabama veins for any of a number of reasons having to do with (choose one): the termination of the series (Tech dropped Alabama from its schedule after one of its players was mauled), Tech Coach Bobby Dodd, the Atlanta newspapers, the Saturday Evening Post, the fans in Grant Field. Bryant's veins are no exception.
Privately, over a platter of raw oysters at Art's Char House on University Avenue, he will say that the Auburn game is the one he would rather win, "because we got to live with those people." But as an aperitif, he will tell of his resentment of Tech, so you cannot be entirely sure. For all the obvious pressure, however, he will not revert to his sleeping pills until Thursday. It used to be Mary Harmon Bryant could cure his insomnia with a bottle of sugar pills from a phony prescription, but he now solves his sleeping problems with the real stuff. "I don't have to take pills," drawls the Bear, "except when I want to sleep."
The older, fatter, slightly mellower Papa Bear Bryant says this Alabama team is closer to his heart than any other, because it is young (possibly younger than any other in terms of usable players) and unafraid and wins games—with heroic rallies. He says this is the finest offensive team he has had at Alabama. "Defensively we don't play too well," he says. Alabama is No. 6 in the nation in total defense; it is accustomed to being No. 1. There is, too, a certain whimsy in the team's makeup that perhaps makes it dearer to Bryant. (The 1961 national championship team was notably grim.) Namath is partly responsible. When a tackier in the Vanderbilt game jeered at him, "Hey No. 12, what's your name?" Namath replied, "You'll see it in the headlines tomorrow." On the next play Namath threw a touchdown pass. Today he twice hopped into the same backfield with Steve Sloan, the junior who has been starting ahead of him during his convalescence. Someone detected it and charged Bryant with deploying two quarterbacks to surprise Tech. "Shoot, no. Not us," said Bryant. "We tried that at Tech in 1962 with Namath and Jack Hurlbut and got beat. Never again. Old Joe was just horsing around."
A meeting of an Alabama football team always begins on time, is crisp and swift and, since it starts with a talk by Bear Bryant, is completely absorbing. Bryant has a low, resonant voice; it is true that he tends to mumble, but this serves to intensify his effect. He began the regular Wednesday-night meeting by getting right to the point and staying there. The talk was short, less than 10 minutes. He never raised his voice. He said he had been playing and coaching against Tech for 25 years, "before you were born." He said he knew this: "Tech hits hard, but they don't hit hard all the time. They play tough, but they don't play tough all the time, because they don't live tough like we do." He said that "stuff about Dodd-luck and Tech-luck at Grant Field" was corn for the gullible to feed on, and that beating Tech five out of six ought to be proof enough. "You make your own luck, even at Grant Field," he said, "but lei me tell you this. That will be the most hostile crowd you've ever seen. Two years ago they threw everything at us from ice to bourbon bottles. I don't mean to insinuate they're not good folks, they probably have good mamas and papas, too. But I think some of them have forgot their training." He said that helmets would therefore be worn on the bench and that he might wear one himself (laughter).
At dinner with friends at the Indian Hills Country Club, he was told that Tech did not really look too good this year. "That's true. They haven't been very good, but they could be, and they should be with the talent they've got." He said that, as a man who took winning seriously, he did indeed resent the "volleyball," laugh-a-day approach to the game. "In a way, maybe it's good for us the series is ending," Bryant said, "because, with the two-platoon back, Tech would beat us four out of five times. Tech does a helluva recruiting job. When you've got better material you don't have to live tough to play two-platoon. When it's 11 men and sic 'em, it's a different matter."
The game plan is completed and gone over on the field for the last time. It is a guessing game. Alabama guesses that Tech will throw frequently into the flats coming off a long motion and flooding a zone with three receivers. "I don't think Tech thinks they can run on us," says Assistant Coach Dude Hennessey. For Tech, Alabama has made one predictable change: Bryant will start both fullbacks, Steve Bowman and Leslie Kelley, his leading ground-gainers, since there is no outside speed available to him anyway. And he will make one change that he hopes will not be foreseen by Tech: Wayne Cook, who normally plays tight end to Tolleson's split end, will also split out seven yards to the weak side, and Alabama will do a little zone flooding of its own, expecting Namath or Sloan to catch Tech defending too often in a one-on-one situation. The feeling is that the left side of Tech's secondary is vulnerable. Furthermore, Bryant figures he can beat the Tech defense principally because it does not care much for tackling.
A pep rally drew the largest crowd of the year to the gymnasium. They came with garbage-can covers (for banging), shouting, "Steve Sloan for president" and cautioning visitors to be sure and stand when they played the national anthem, Dixie. Hennessey called Bryant "the greatest man I know." He spoke of "mamas and papas" and got some welcome hissing when he mentioned Grant Field. "Let's hear it!" shouted Dude. "Hiss!" answered the crowd. Then some of the players spoke, and Namath got a turn. "Two years ago," he said, after a long wait for the applause to ebb, "we went to Atlanta. We had won eight straight and were No. 1 in the country. We lost. This year we're 8 and 0, and we're No. 2. Saturday we're going to win in Atlanta, and we're going to come back to the No. 1 university in the country." A player who was there said that Joe's speech positively sent shivers up his spine.
The Alabama Athletic Dormitory, the house that Bear built, is a $680,000 piece of emphasis that is indisputably a campus beauty mark. It houses 130 boys, has a lavish decor, guest rooms for visiting mamas and papas, a color television set in a room that appears to be wallpapered in stocks and bonds, and the only reason it does not have a swimming pool is that some people think you can overdo a thing like this. This is home for, among others, Gaylon McCollough, a 21-year-old, 6-foot 3-inch, 204-pound senior center from Enterprise, Ala. McCollough has a prominent jaw, a high-B average and is planning to enter medical school next fall. After breakfast he sat in his Italian provincial dining-room chair and told a visitor what it was like to play football for Bear Bryant.
"In the spring, and then in the early fall, when it's two-a-day and dog-eat-dog, you don't think you'll ever make it. You lie in your bed at night and you think, oh Lord, if I could only quit, if I could only get a day off. Every play is full out, and every workout is like a war. You go into every play like it was your last, you come back to the huddle keyed up for another. Then all of a sudden it's over, and the season's on, and it's easier. And now here we are with two games to go and a chance to go to another bowl game and win the national championship, and you know it's not every man gets this kind of chance."
Two twin-engine Southern Airlines planes were needed to get the team to Atlanta, because four-engine planes or jets cannot fly in or out of Tuscaloosa. Mrs. Bryant, who makes all the team's trips, rode in one and her husband in the other, as is their custom. This time she had to ask a rider politely to relinquish the seat nearest the front on the right side because she had been sitting there all year and the Bryants are very superstitious folk. She showed the lucky Alabama brooch Paul bought her their first year there, and said that Paul would be wearing his lucky red-and-white tie. "Paul had a blue vest he wore for 26 games before the 1962 Tech game," she said. "He forgot it that year. He had to borrow one. We lost."
It could not have happened to a nicer day. The temperature was 75°, the sun was everywhere, splashing into the corners and behind the posts of Grant Field, and so were the people everywhere, 53,000 strong. An Alabama fan, quick to notice such things, pointed out that the Tech program cover, a cartoon of a yellow jacket enjoying some sport at a red elephant's expense, had billed the contest as "today's rubber game." It was true Tech had won in 1962, he said, and Alabama in 1963, but what about 1961, 1960, 1959 and 1958? The scoreboard also had some accounting to do. It showed, beforehand, 90 for Georgia Tech, 0 for Alabama. "We work down from there," explained a Tech man, "and Alabama works up."
When Bryant brought his team out early to be greeted by the initial stiff volley of "go to hell, Alabama, go to hell" from the Tech cheering section, he smiled and put on a red Alabama helmet. Later he replaced it with his shapeless brown hat and stood chatting and smiling under the south goalpost with Bobby Dodd. Dodd rested his hand on the Bear's shoulder. The Bear was wearing a red-and-white-striped tie.
Howard Schnellenberger, an Alabama assistant, had said that "if Tech were smart, they'd ram it right to us. But they're not smart." In the early stages, when both teams were working out their doubts, Tech did have moments of looking smart, running counters and reverse traps inside Alabama's ends, getting satisfying bolts of yardage, especially when Halfback Johnny Gresham, the best runner on the field, countered off Alabama's right side. But each time Tech appeared ready for some real fun Quarterback Bruce Fischer would try a pitch-out or a rollout, and would experience immediate and disturbing failure and a loss of momentum.
Alabama had field position throughout the first half. Sloan was at quarterback. Namath stood waiting on the sideline, to be used only when Bryant thought his presence on the field was absolutely necessary. Sloan split his tight end for the first time midway in the opening quarter, and as Tech frantically tried to cover the crowd on the side, he laid the ball into Cook's hands. Cook dropped the pass, but the missed play was almost as good as a completion—Tech was exposed. Sloan came back to the swing man with a pass for 14 yards, then threw again to Cook for 19 to the Tech 21-yard line. Continuing with the new formation, he sent Kelley on a power slant for a first down at the 11, but Tech held this time.
The game marked time late into the second quarter, with the tension holding. Then, with less than two minutes to half time and Alabama nesting on the Tech 49, Bryant called for Namath, of whom he has said, "I believe Joe can do just about anything." At first Joe did nothing, and looked bad doing it. On a straight drop-back pattern, he hesitated too long and his pass was tipped away by a Tech lineman. On second down, he pumped twice trying a comeback pass to Flanker Back Ray Ogden on the right sideline. It was short, and a good thing, too, because Tech's Gerry Bussell, tight on Ogden's shoulder, almost got to the ball. If he had, the chances are he would have gone unmolested to the Alabama goal. But, in almost being a hero, Bussell had tipped himself off.
The next play was sent in from the bench, but Namath had already called it. Back to Bussell's side, this time to Dave Ray, inserted at flanker in Ogden's place. Ray cut in front of Bussell toward the sideline, faked up, then curled back as if for the same comeback pass to the outside. Bussell careened in, too close. Ray pivoted up field, quickly leaving Bussell three steps behind. Namath spiraled the ball into his hands on the dead run, and Bussell didn't catch him until Ray was on the Tech one-yard line. On the next play, Bowman scored.
Tech had barely seen the smoke from the first shot when it was suddenly hit with two more. First, End Creed Gilmer recovered Ray's twisting onside kick at the Tech 49. Then Namath, hustled back in, passed on first down to Ogden on the right side. This time Ogden had curled in after making his fake, then slanted down the middle and was to the Tech three before he was caught. Two plays later, Namath rolled left and passed to Ray coming left to right in the end zone. The Tide had its second touchdown only a minute and a half after Namath's presence had been deemed absolutely necessary. The effect was devastating and finishing.
In the second half Ray kicked a field goal to become the alltime collegiate kicking champion with 58 points. Alabama scored another touchdown and Tech beat the clock with a touchdown of its own in the last minute to escape a shutout. Alabama won 24-7—its 24th victory in the series. Tech has won 19. In analysis, Tech apparently did not exploit a superiority of manpower inside the ends, perhaps because it never believed fully that a superiority existed. There was no great inequality of players, despite the protestations of both coaches, except for the 1½ minutes when Alabama had Namath on the field. During those few moments the defensive backs were bound to feel unequal.
The game was played without incident. With a fraternal postgame pat on the back, Coach Dodd was as gracious as could be. "It's no disgrace," he told Bryant, "to lose to the best team in the country." "I did not think Tech would score," said Bryant. The suspense was gone by the second half, but it had been a good football game between two good teams. One's only regret was that it was the last time the two would meet.