For what must have seemed an eternity to the rest of the coaching profession, Paul Bryant and his little bitty Tidesmen were the executioners of the Southeastern Conference—and of anyone else unfortunate enough to get in their path. They plucked national championships as easily as other people picked grapes. If Joe Namath or Steve Sloan or Kenny Stabler was not gunning you down with passes, then some quick mini-linebacker like Lee Roy Jordan was knocking you on your big 270-pound back. It was embarrassing, like getting mugged by a kindergarten class.
Then odd things began to happen to the University of Alabama. For one, two-platoon football caught up with Bryant's small linemen. The Goliaths were getting a chance to rest so that when they did play, they not only came in big but fast. The Bear's passing attack began to fire blanks. The superb defenses began to give up points in bunches of 41 and 49 and 47, a whole season's worth in a vintage year. Losses came in clusters of fives. In 1969 even Vanderbilt beat Alabama. And there was the time that same year when, after Tennessee had humbled the Tide 41-14, Tennessee Linebacker Steve Kiner came up to Bryant and said, "Gee, Coach, they don't seem to have the same pride in wearing that red jersey anymore." Bryant will never forget Kiner's words.
This season the pride—and the Tide—are back, as was completely apparent in Birmingham last Saturday when Alabama bit, chewed and digested previously unbeaten Mississippi 40-6. It was 'Bama's fourth straight win, and it confirmed a suspicion that first took root in early September when Alabama upset LSC in Los Angeles: Bear Bryant has a solid contender for the national title.
One day last week Bryant sat in his office in Tuscaloosa and dissected what had happened. Mostly he used the scalpel on himself. "We kind of lost something the last two years," he said softly. "Confidence in ourselves...leadership. I blame myself. I've done a lousy job lately. I guess I got to a point where I just expected things to happen instead of making them happen. People were licking their chops to get at us. Before, well, they weren't real anxious to play us."
He stubbed out a cigarette, lit another one. For a moment he stared at the photographs of his classic teams of the early 1960s that hang on the wall opposite his desk. "We're starting to get it back now," he said. He pointed at the photos. "Confidence is what those teams had and that's what we are rebuilding."
Bryant began reconstructing Alabama almost before anyone knew it was about to collapse. More than two years ago he turned all his duties as athletic director, other than football, over to Sam Bailey. Like most coaches, Bryant hates recruiting and he had given that chore almost exclusively to his assistants. They would come in with a list of names and say, well, Coach, here they are. No more. Now before a boy is signed he must have Bryant's approval. Sighing, Bryant began to take big linemen. This year, for instance, Alabama fields such giants as John Hannah (273 pounds), Jim Patterson (252) and Jim Krapf (240). Bryant has about a dozen linemen who weigh 230 or more. And they are not only big but good as well.
After last spring's practice, Bryant made another major change. He came away convinced he could no longer succeed with the drop-back passer. "We had a good one last year in Scott Hunter, a real pro-style thrower, and we couldn't win." So he junked the passing attack that until recent seasons had terrorized the SEC. "After a helluva big gut check." he said. But Bryant has never feared change.
That done, Bryant assessed his team's strengths. For openers there was Johnny Musso, a 191-pound halfback known as the Italian Stallion. "Johnny can do everything," says Bryant. "He's a great runner, blocker and passer. If we let him, he'd be a great defensive back, too. Last year he had to run his own interference and he still gained over 1,100 yards. The ideal situation would be Musso running with Musso up front blocking for him."
There were numerous other good runners, too. Indeed there hasn't been as much brute force in Tuscaloosa since General J. T. Croxton came to town in 1865 and burned down most of the university. There are those who claim that if this year's team had been there, Croxton never would have got to light the match. When Musso is not working, Bryant can attack with such backs as Joe LaBue, Ellis Beck, Dave Knapp, Steve Bisceglia, Jerry Cash, Paul Spivey, Wilbur Jackson and Rod Steakley.
And so last spring, thinking about all the ground power at his command, Bryant got on a plane and hustled off to Austin, Texas, the empire of Darrell Royal and the Wishbone offense. He came back loaded with data gathered from play-books and films. Then in August, Royal visited Tuscaloosa for a coaching clinic, and he spent his evenings on Bryant's front porch talking Wishbone. Finally, four days before fall practice opened, Bryant called in his assistants and said, "Men, we are going to sink or swim or die with the Wishbone. And we're not going to just fool around with it for a few days and then toss it out. This is it." Bryant raised a canvas screen around the practice field, ordered a security cop on a scooter to patrol the area and went inside to look for a national championship.
Almost from the beginning, Quarterback Terry Davis, a 173-pound junior, took to the triple option as though he had been commanding one all his life. He is not fast, but he has quick feet and he thrives on running. "We're going to win with him because everybody has confidence in him," said Musso. Davis will never be a great passer, but he can throw short well enough to keep the defense alert, and that is all Bryant expects.
USC, ranked high and bristling with talent, was Alabama's first test, and the Tide went in a solid 11-point underdog. Trojan Coach John McKay had heard Bryant was toying around with the Wishbone, but he didn't believe it was for real. It was. USC kicked off and six plays later Musso went 13 yards to score. Before USC could recover, Alabama led 17-0, and, as in the old days, 17 points was plenty. USC got 10 back but no more, and the football world said, "Oh, oh, The Bear is back." Except in the South.
"I didn't know he'd been away," said Shug Jordan, Auburn's head coach. "He's only been to 12 straight bowl games."
Tennessee's Bill Battle was equally surprised. "I didn't realize he had gone anywhere. He's just back to coaching his kind of game—jaw-to-jaw, hard-nosed football. And now he has the players for it."
Southern Mississippi was next to feel the sting of what a Mississippi State scout called "Bryant's meat grinder." Bryant played 68 people and won 42-6.
Then Florida, a preseason top-20 candidate, fell 38-0. Alabama's secondary of Steve Higginbotham, Steve Williams, Dave McMakin and Steve Wade keyed a defense that picked off five Florida passes.
"You can give a lot of the credit for our secondary to Bill Oliver," Bryant said. "He taught us some new techniques and gave our people more confidence." A starter on Alabama's 1961 national champions, Oliver joined Bryant's staff last spring.
After the win over Florida, Alabama, which had been left out of most of the preseason consideration, jumped to fifth and seventh in the two wire-service polls. Bryant was pleased but cautious, knowing that Mississippi would be coming in next, and that teams such as Tennessee, Houston, LSU, Miami and Auburn would follow. If you can find a tougher schedule than that, send flowers.
"We've come a long way," he said, "but it's still too soon to.... " Someone once asked Bryant what was left after winning three national championships. "A fourth," he snapped without hesitation. "And then a fifth. And a sixth."
Late Saturday afternoon, Mississippi, third in the SEC in passing and last in total defense, arrived in Birmingham, unbeaten in three starts. From the beginning the Rebels knew they were in for a rugged afternoon. With its big forward wall led by Hannah and Krapf opening huge holes, Alabama took the opening kickoff and muscled to the Mississippi nine before losing its third fumble of the year. On its second move against Ole Miss, the Tide banged down to the seven before settling for a 25-yard field goal by Bill Davis. On the first two drives, Musso carried the ball eight times for 41 yards. "We just weren't getting the ball to him enough," Bryant said. "Of course, it's a problem. We'd rather have him carrying the ball, but at the same time we'd rather have him blocking. On our first drive against Florida, we go to their six in 12 plays and Johnny hasn't seen the ball yet."
By halftime Alabama had pushed Mississippi around for 250 yards, but the best it could manage in point terms was an 11-yard scoring pass, Davis to Split End Dave Bailey, and another field goal by Bill Davis for a 13-6 lead.
The second half was different. Alabama's rushing simply overpowered the Rebels. On the first drive of the third quarter Davis ran for seven, then pitched back to LaBue, who ran for 22 more and a score. On the second drive Musso went seven for a touchdown, giving him 31 for his career and tying Charley Trippi for the SEC record. On the next drive Bisceglia went 15 yards for a touchdown, building the score to 34-6.
After that touchdown, Alabama lost Davis, at least for the moment. He was holding for the extra-point try when Mississippi's Elmer Allen, a 236-pound tackle, came busting through and flattened him. Davis left with a hip and shoulder injury and Allen left with a personal foul. Later Billy Kinard, the Ole Miss coach, told Bryant that he felt worse about the injury to Davis than he did the loss.
But that was later. Up in the stands the Alabama fans were screaming, "We want blood." And, "Go to hell, Ole Miss, go to hell." And, "Hang it up, Ole Miss, hang it up." "O.K.," said Bryant, and he gave them Musso, who ordinarily would be a spectator with Alabama leading by 28 late in the fourth quarter. But the best Bryant could manage at quarterback was Butch Hobson, a 188-pound fourth-stringer who proved he knew what to do with the ball. He gave it to Musso, who ran 41 yards to the Mississippi 18. Then Hobson got two, two more, and finally 14 for a touchdown.
In the press box a scout put his hands to his head and said, "Here The Bear is moaning about depth and now he comes up with a fourth-string quarterback who looks like he was borrowed from Texas."
On the last play of the game, with Alabama leading 40-6, Hobson ran 11 yards for a first down. The 11 pushed Alabama's total for the day to 557 yards, with 531 of them coming on the ground. Mississippi has been playing football since 1893 and the most any team ever managed to pick up rushing against it was the 433 LSU got in 1945. Last year, when Ole Miss won 48-23, Alabama managed to gain just 27 yards on the ground.
For his part, Musso ran 22 times for 193 yards, with few of them coming in the position you might expect from a runner, totally upright. Usually Musso is in the act of falling, only he never quite does. He gets hit, bounces along on one leg for a while, then spins, leans over backward and picks up another yard or two, and then for a finale puts a hand down and scrambles as far as he can before the rest of the world jumps on his back.
"I don't know which I like best," Bryant said. "Watching Musso run or watching him block. He simply wipes out people when he blocks."
Which is exactly what Alabama is doing in the old bruising Bear Bryant style: wipe people out, nose to nose, jaw to jaw. Once again there is pride in the red jersey.