Paul (Bear) Bryant said he had not tried to sleep yet, but when he got serious about it he would take his pill and that would take care of that. He had on his red-on-red pajamas and his bedroom slippers and every now and then, when a visitor came to room 914 at the Pick-Bankhead Hotel, Bryant would jump up and grab his plastic raincoat and bundle it around him. Eventually he would get it off again, because Birmingham was uncommonly warm for late November and Bryant was getting moist anyhow. On the next day his Alabama football team would have to play Auburn.
As it turned out, Alabama did not play Auburn so much as it plowed the War Eagles under, but Bear Bryant had no way of knowing that would happen, and for the present he was treating himself to some night-before torture, wondering if he had covered all the contingencies, and paying perfunctory attention to Mary Harmon Bryant as she tried to get reality religion across to one guest who had failed to grasp the significance of this Auburn thing. "Auburn-Alabama is...well...it's just everything" said the coach's wife. "We don't have riots, or folks don't burn each other's cars or anything like that, but an awful lot of people get their feelings hurt."
A couple from Tuscaloosa had come in, and Bryant had gone through the raincoat ritual and then shut off the television set so conversation could flow. "I was about to cry anyway," he said. "It's that Lou Gehrig movie. I've seen it before. It always makes me cry."
He got up for a cigarette and let it hang unlighted in his mouth. "Lordy, I wish this game was right now. I feel like I've been waiting for it all my life. I know the team must be tired of waiting. They were ready to play Wednesday."
The friend from Tuscaloosa said the whole state was in its usual twit over the game and that reason had vanished and dementia had again settled over the city of Birmingham. Everybody was running around yelling, "Ro-o-oll Tide!" and "Waaah Eeegull!" and three million other people in the state would give anything to be the 70,000 who had tickets to get in Legion Field on Saturday. Grown men and women were carrying signs into hotel lobbies that said I NEED TWO and I'LL SETTLE FOR ONE, $ NO OBJECT, and even scalpers were having trouble getting tickets.
"That sure is true," said Mary Harmon Bryant. "I've been running around for days trying to get a couple."
"Why didn't you tell me?" said Bryant.
Mary Harmon grinned. "There are some important things a wife doesn't tell her husband."
The game is played at Legion Field in Birmingham, which calls itself the football capital of the South, because it is a neutral site. The first time the two teams played was in 1892. Auburn won 32-22, and a breathless newspaper account reported that the crowd was too large to be handled by one man. But in 1907 something happened—an "incident"—and for the next 41 years Auburn and Alabama did not play. No one seems to remember what precipitated the break—exaggerations range from "just a little old-fashioned hell-raising" to "some killing and maiming"—but the schools got together again in 1948.
Perhaps because they do not want to risk any more of those unrefreshing 41-year pauses, Auburn and Alabama have been careful to mind their manners since, with no plots executed, no crimes committed. By the standards of most traditional rivalries, this one is mild. War Eagle IV, the Auburn mascot, was shot down last year, but no one even considered blaming Alabama. On the Friday night before last week's game the two teams wound up at the same movie house and stood outside afterward peacefully renewing acquaintances, and in some cases blood relationships.
This is not to say Alabama and Auburn do not snipe at each other. They do, and they begin with definitions. An Auburn man to an Alabama man is a guy who has plowman's stoop and drives a pickup truck to the game on Saturday. Auburn is Cow College. Auburn people call Alabama people country-clubbers and silly sophisticates. They derive satisfaction from pointing out that Snug Jordan, the Auburn coach, high-mindedly refuses to endorse any kind of product, even the ones sponsoring his Sunday television show, while Paul Bryant munches Golden Flake Potato Chips on his TV show as though he really liked them. Alabama people say the only reason Jordan has a show is to alibi for mistakes made on Saturday, and if he ever lost his list of excuses he would have to cancel out. Auburn people say there is nothing cornier than Paul Bryant talking about Mamas and Papas. "And he mumbles," says an Auburn man.
Paul Bryant-Shug Jordan stories make the rounds, but the two maintain a cordial relationship, and occasionally even get together for a grimace-and-bear-it round of golf. They are not really buddy-buddy, however, because they are in a terribly direct competition—the continuing dogfight for the state's best high school football players.
Jordan played at Auburn and came back to be its coach in 1951; Auburn had lost 10 in a row the year before. Just like that he had the War Eagles—or Tigers or Plainsmen, your choice—out of purgatory and winging. They later ran up a string of five victories over Alabama and won a national championship in 1957. Then in 1958 Paul Bryant, a former Alabama player, came back to be his team's coach. Alabama had won four games in the previous three years. Since then, The Tide has beaten Auburn six out of eight and won two national championships.
"Bryant," said Jordan in a moment of reflection last week, "made us work harder." Jordan understated the case. Auburn is known as a technical and agricultural school, although it is much more than that. "But when you've got doctors and lawyers recruiting against engineers and farmers," says one Auburn man, "the doctors and lawyers win every time." It is likely that in knuckles-down competition Alabama gets as many as eight of every 10 good high school football players in the state.
You might not have expected either team to wind up as royalty after the first games of the season, because Alabama got knocked off by Georgia 18-17 and Auburn lost to Baylor. One night aftter the Georgia game, Bryant says, he dropped his car keys in a campus parking lot and was down on all fours trying to find them when he heard two coeds passing comments on his posture. One of them (Bryant's words again) said, "Look at that. He loses one lousy game and right away he turns into an idiot."
The story demonstrates that Bryant can make up Bear Bryant stories along with the rest. It does not tell you that the Georgia loss turned Bryant into a doubter of the newly allowed two-platoon play. He discovered there were boys on his offensive team who were sorely needed to help his little boys play defense. Little is not a facetious term—neither Alabama line, offensive or defensive, averages 200 pounds a man. He found as many as 14 players capable of absorbing instructions on both.
Center Paul Crane wound up playing 50 minutes a game. Crane was so consistent a blocker and so fierce a tackier that an LSU man challenged his program weight of 191. "He weighs at least 215 pounds," said the LSU man. Publicist Charley Thornton got out the scales for a weigh-in. Crane weighed 194.
Alabama also had the best fullback in the league—Steve Bowman, the leading ground-gainer—and, unsurprise of un-surprises, Steve Sloan turned out to be just the quarterback to follow Joe Na-math into the hearts of Alabamans. The fact was that Sloan, who had been playing second chair to Namath for two years—but a very active second chair because Namath was out frequently—always came through beautifully. He is a handsome boy, with glistening teeth and a case of double humbleness. He has serious doubts that he will be able to play pro football because he thinks he does not throw hard enough. He is also the most accurate passer Alabama ever had.
With Bowman running and Sloan throwing and that little defensive team swarming over everybody, Alabama did not lose again after the Georgia game, though there was a tie with Tennessee, and it had accepted its second straight Orange Bowl invitation when it went out to play Auburn on Saturday. Auburn, which had lost two more games outside the SEC, did not figure to be a challenger, but within the conference it somehow had stayed unbeaten and it would now play Alabama for the championship. Auburn, too, had accepted a bowl bid—to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis—a prize, to be sure, but hardly an appropriate one, Auburn people were saying, if the Tigers were to beat Alabama and win the SEC.
Jordan made a major change in mid-season that had a galvanizing effect on his offense. Never one to put much stock in the forward pass, he now put his best running quarterback, Tom Bryan, at fullback, and Alex Bowden, an ungainly kid who had been around Auburn five years and at one point was listed as a fifth-stringer, became his No. 1 quarterback. Bowden tripped over his own feet just trotting onto the field for one game, but all he did was start throwing 50-yard touchdown passes. Jordan found he was enjoying football more. "Exhilarating." he said. "I think the passing game is exhilarating."
Friday night it rained, but when Bryant went down for breakfast with the team Saturday the weather was clear and cool. Six Alabama professors, including two women, were there. They were part of Bryant's continuing effort to stimulate a rapport between the faculty and the football program. He invites a group at a time to come join the team at practice, in meetings and at meals. "But they've been disillusioned," he said, grinning. "They expected me to sound like Knute Rockne." Bryant speaks slowly, deliberately, and is analytical almost to a fault. One of the professors said he wished he could get his messages across as well as Bryant does.
A kickoff-to-victory-party chalk-talk followed breakfast, and Bryant eventually got around to Quarterback Bowden. "Now this is the boy they think can beat you throwing the football. Well, he can throw it pretty good, all right. But what we're going to find out is how good he can throw sitting on his fanny."
Bowden will have dreams about what happened last Saturday. Rushed into mistakes and often on his fanny, he passed wobblers and floaters, and sometimes he threw too long and sometimes he threw too short. His receivers were dogged by clinging little characters like John Mosely and Bobby Johns and David Ray, who combined zone with man-to-man coverage and never let anybody get behind them. It soon became a matter of which team would catch most of Bowden's passes, Auburn or Alabama, and Alabama won—seven interceptions to six completions.
Meanwhile, Sloan was throwing like the pro he thinks he is not good enough to become. He, too, was rushed and dumped hard and often, but he had the poise that comes from experience that Bowden did not have, and invariably he was on target. He completed 13 of 18 for 226 yards, three for touchdowns—to Tommy Tolleson for 11 yards, to Ray Perkins for 33 yards and to a sophomore who wasn't even listed in the program, Don Shankles, for 29 yards. When Publicist Thornton finished totting up, he announced grandly that Sloan had broken Namath's one-season passing record with 1,453 yards and Harry Gilmer's total-offense record with 1,499, had set a completion record (97) and a percentage record (60.6) and, most impressive of all his statistics, had now thrown 91 straight passes without an interception. And eight-point-favored Alabama won easily 30-3.
For Bryant it was his 53rd victory in 60 regular-season games over the last six years. In private, he told his players, "You've come a long way. You're as good as anybody now." He promised them they now could have a look at Nebraska, the team they will meet in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day. (He had discouraged their watching the Nebraska-Oklahoma game on television on Thanksgiving Day because he wanted nothing to interfere with their thinking about Auburn.)
And all around the dressing room those Orange Bowl officials in green blazers smiled and shook hands and marveled at their genius in picking Alabama to play Nebraska. They chortled on, and one of the coaches passed around a copy of Ken Meyer's story reproduced on the cover of Alabama's game plan. Meyer is the Alabama offensive back-field coach. A tiger, his story goes, kept going from one jungle animal to another, exerting his authority. "Yes, sir, you're the lord of this here kingdom," they kept answering him, until he moved farther back into the jungle, where he came upon this peaceful-looking red elephant. He challenged the elephant to tell him who was lord and the elephant booted him into the air, fielded him with a tusk and pitched him into the bushes. When the battered tiger finally crept out, he looked up and said, "Man, just because you don't know the right answer you don't have to get smart."