The lines are deeper now, and proliferating, like those on a fine antique, and yet, remarkably, do not diminish the handsomeness of his face. Rather, they tend to enlarge on its strength, to accent it. Granite and ice and true grit. Seeing that face for the first time 26 years ago, George Blanda thought (as he wrote later), "This must be what God looks like." When Bear Bryant walked into the room, Blanda said, you wanted to stand up and applaud.
The image endures, the applause lingers on. Bear Bryant, 59 years old Sept. 11, is at the line for his 28th season and he is preeminent in the world of college football coaching. No one else—no one—comes close. There was a short time, in the years 1969-70, when it appeared the magic had left him, when his Alabama teams lost almost as many as they won (Bryant is slipping!), but then he turned it around again and was undefeated in the 1971 regular season (Bryant is back!) (Was he ever away?). All was right with the world.
Except there was a difference. The words that proceeded from his mouth seemed, well, more conciliatory; he talked of the need to be "more humble"; he seemed more appreciative of his responsibilities as a patriarch. Indeed, he had been mending fences. A note passed over the wires telling of Alabama and Georgia Tech signing to renew a rivalry that had been broken off, spectacularly, in 1964. The split, laden with acrimony, had come after a series of bitter incidents that included the charge that Bryant taught brutal football. Now Alabama-Tech was back on the schedule for games beginning in 1978, "and that's just fine," said Bryant. Close the wounds, hide the scars.
But had he changed so much, really? And where, in those 27 years, had he been heading, he and his college football? And where had they gotten to? And where on earth are they going now? And what have they done to your game, Paul?
September 10, 1972
He sat on the patio of a friend's house in the Florida Keys, a haven to which he repairs when his peripatetic life, and the telephone, wear him down. It was July; seasonably, unreasonably hot; windless and washed out, a day drained by the enervating sun. A sign in red and white could be seen among the sand-spurs in the vacant lot next to the house: "Bryant Field." Over the lavatory was a super-enlarged postcard showing Bryant walking on water, with the inscription: "I Believe."
Bryant, in a lounge chair, pushed his thick white legs out from his baggy swimming trunks into the sun. Sloan Bashinsky, who owns the house and is a sponsor of Bryant's television show in Birmingham, said it was hopeless. "Old Show Legs," Bashinsky calls him.
"You lost your mind?" Bear Bryant said. The third man in the group had suggested that Bryant, having done everything he had set out to do at least once—three national championships; bowl games of all sizes, shapes and dollar values; Coach of the Year twice; current president of the American Football Coaches Association; more victories (210) than any active coach; books written about him, songs written about him, buildings named after him—that Bryant might just as well quit and go watch the bullfights in Spain.
"I'd croak in a week," he said. "I'm more fired up now than I was 20 years ago. I've been fortunate, I've had honors. But if I couldn't stay in it I'd go crazy. I don't have as much fun as I used to because I'm not as close to the kids, not coaching as much. But still. Today, tomorrow. When I walk out on that practice field cold chills run up my back. A new day. And it's something I wouldn't swap for anything. I don't know how else to say it."
How do you mean, not as close to the kids?
"I used to be with 'em all the time, on the field and off, 50 or 60 of them anyway. We could communicate. I could get my message over. Lee Roy Jordan was interviewed once and flattered hell out of me. He said, 'If Coach Bryant said wear green shoes, I'd have green shoes.' It's not that way anymore."
Bryant sat up, pulling a broad-brimmed straw hat down over his eyes.
"First of all," he said, "with two-platoon football you have too many. In the days players went both ways you could take two assistants and coach nine teams. I actively coached myself. When Lee Roy was playing I'd be out there sweating and grunting and butting with 'em, and they believed what we were doing would win. I don't do that anymore and I miss it and consequently I don't do as good a job. I'm up on that tower most of the time. If things go bad I come down and make something happen, but you can't throw a fit once a month, go down and shake somebody, and impress 'em very much. They think, who the hell is this? You're like a shower coming down. Just wait and it goes away. If you're in the trenches with 'em every day, they'll do anything you want. Ten, 15 years ago, nobody had any doubts. Now if I say, 'Do this and we will win,' I'm not sure they believe it. Communication. You got to have it to win, and when you lose, too, so you can hold 'em in your hand."
Your players don't talk to you anymore?
"They only come see me now when they've got a real big problem. It used to be they'd come with any kind of problem, big or small. John David Crow, Lee Roy Jordan, Charlie Krueger—they'd come by just to visit. A couple years ago we had a group of freshmen that hadn't done a thing, just wallowed around. I went around to lay the law down and I gave 'em an ultimatum: 'You got 10 minutes, either get right or be gone.' They decided to stay. I said all right, if you have any more problems come see me. And this one freshman said, 'Coach, the only reason I came to Alabama was you, and this is only the second time I've ever seen you.' Well, don't you know how low that made me feel? He's still around, and he sees more of me now, too, and I know who he is, you can bet on that. I'm not going to be so far removed.
"I'll tell you another story. Last year we played Florida, one of the greatest games any team ever played. We won 38-0. When we got out to the airport afterward, the doggone plane wasn't there. Our kids could have been home and out enjoying themselves, but there we were standing around in that heat, and I was so mad. Well, I don't know why—it was Mary Harmon's idea, really—but I went around and said, 'When we get back, if you don't have anything better to do, bring your wives or your dates and come over to our house. We got a new pool with AstroTurf all around, and Mary Harmon will cook up something.' I expected a handful but a bunch of 'em came. I was inside having a drink and listening to a game and they were around the pool, and one by one they started coming in until they were all in there, laying around like little pigs, listening to the game with me. I think it was one of the best times I ever had."
So college players really haven't changed so much after all?
"They've changed, and I've changed. Never doubt that. For example. I let them wear their hair long. Used to be, I'd have personally jerked it out by the roots if a kid wore long hair. But I'd seen ex-President Johnson with long hair, and Darrell Royal, and when I had that meeting with the freshmen a couple years ago I told 'em, 'Go 'head, let your hair grow, just keep it neat.' And the very next day this one big old boy came to visit, like I'd asked 'em to, and he said, 'Coach, that thing you did yesterday about the hair was the greatest thing that's ever happened.' I said, 'What?' I couldn't believe it. It never dawned on me that a kid's hair could be that important. If I'd known. It made an impression on him, but it made a bigger impression on me. If hair means that much to these kids, I wasn't going to raise too much hell about hair.
"I don't think I ever lost my guts during that period but I gave in a lot, and I'm glad I did because anything that important to the kids is important. We were 6-4, 6-5, and then last year 11-0, and if I had to have a problem now I'd probably say, 'Go on home, we can win without you.' If you're 11-0 they believe you a little more. But it was good for me to learn how important things were to them, things I thought were small.
"The hair's gotten to be a joke now. They kid me about it over at the dorm. 'Coach, your hair's getting awfully long.' "
So you never really felt you had to sacrifice authority?
"Hell, no. My kids—listen. Maybe they don't pay as close attention, but if I had to start forfeiting authority they'd lose respect for me in a minute. That will never happen. Kids haven't changed that much. I'll tell you another thing that happened to us that was good. After the USC game two years ago, when they beat us so unmercifully, one of our players—and I'll never tell anybody who it was—came to me and said some of the seniors had lost confidence in me. He said it matter-of-factly; they'd had a meeting at the dorm and talked about it. Remember, this was the opening game of a new year and, as it turned out, a terrible year for us.
"I didn't fly off the handle. I just called them together to talk. I told them I'd heard about their meeting, and that I was disappointed because they hadn't come to me. If they had, maybe we could have accomplished something. There were about 12 seniors there, and I pointed to each one. 'Now,' I said, 'I'm going to tell you something. You're not dry behind the ears yet, and we've had teams here that won national championships and bowl games and everything else, and I want to make this plain. I'm going to give you one week. You can't do that with me, but I can with you. I'm going to give you one week, and if you aren't laying it on the line by then I'm going to fire you. Maybe I am old-fashioned. Maybe I'm past the ropes. But you better come talk to me first about it next time.'
"I got their attention that day, I'll tell you. I was so mad I was trembling. I don't remember who we played the next week, but we played a whole lot better, and it was a good thing. I'd have fired every one of them."
Are athletes just generally more rebellious and less responsive? Or what?
"Well, I may be wrong, but I think the American young person is getting over this rebellion thing. I think it's lost its glamour. I never had what you would call a 'rebellion.' We had those two bad years, when they wouldn't have bet their lives that what the old man was saying was right, but the only issue I had was that hair thing, and I didn't even know it. The big difference today is that kids are a lot more knowledgeable, and that's no revelation."
More knowledgeable about what?
"Everything—politics, money, life. Just knowledgeable. And the other thing is, and I don't mean this to be critical, but football doesn't mean as much to 'em. All I had was football, and I hung on because I didn't want to go back to Moro Bottom, Ark. picking cotton. That's the way it was for me, and up until seven, eight years ago that's the way it was for most of our players. But now. Their mamas and papas can make more on relief than we could working. All of them come from something, or 90% of them.
"The ones who will consistently suck their guts up and stick by you now are the blacks, because they don't have anything to go back to. And I'm just realizing that because I've only had them a couple years. Bo Schembechler [of Michigan] and I were talking about it. He said, 'A black won't ever quit you,' and I got to thinking the way it had been for me, and he's right, because I didn't have anyplace to go, and they don't now."
Do you have to have black players to win today?
"You have to have football players to win. They come in all colors."
What if your black players came to you and wanted a black coach, and a black studies program, a black this and that?
"I'd listen to 'em. I don't say what I'd do but I'd listen. Right now I'm looking for a good coach of any description, but I hope I find a good black one. I'm going to have eight or 10 black players. I would like to have a black coach who could blend into our system."
Black coaches for black players?
"No, I don't mean that. I think I can coach a kid as good as anybody, black, white or green. But I want the best coaches we can find, and if he happens to be black, I want him. Not just in football, in all areas. Ticket takers, secretaries. We can't be stupid about this thing. If they're good, we'd like to have 'em, and it will make everybody happy."
We're living in a sophisticated time, as you say; more worldly-wise and knowledgeable all around. In that context, is football itself as important as it used to be?
"More important than ever. What else have we got to tie to? Where else can you walk out there even, same everything, even, and compete? I think it's 10 times more important. Let me ask you this. Have you taught your children to work? To sacrifice? Have you taught 'em self-discipline? Hell, no. They don't get it in the home, they don't get it in the school house, they don't get it in the church. Not anymore. I guarantee you this. You send your boy to Fran Curci at Miami—I use him as an example because he's right up the road here—and he'll teach him those things. Check up. Look around. Maybe the football field's the only place left."
We're losing it everywhere else?
"We've already lost it."
Why football, particularly? Why a sport in which only a relative few can participate, and then not for long? Why should football carry so great a burden?
"That's not a fair question because football is my life. No in-between, no compromise. It's my life. Football is different things to different people. For everybody I know it's something to tie to. Everybody can't tie to an English class. Everybody can tie to a football team. The results are right there to see, and a lifetime of work comes down to that. Every football game you see represents a whole lot of preparation, all the way back to the parents, when a player's a boy, and on into high school and beyond, and a lot of people have something to do with it. The equipment man, the man who mows the grass, the fans, everybody. It touches so many people. I don't know why—whether it's because it's a contact sport or what—but it gets hold of people. In this state you better be for it or you might as well leave.
"The beautiful thing about it, for me, is this. Three years ago I was ready to leave, to accept that offer with the Miami Dolphins. Thank heavens I didn't, but I was ready. I tried to resign. Dr. Mathews [Alabama's president] wouldn't have any part of it. He said, 'Paul, I'm a young guy'—he's only about 36—'and I've got all these young administrators. You're the last guy I got to hang my hat on.' You know, the old man. The significance of it didn't hit me then, but when it did I realized a few things. If the Good Lord gives me these next couple years of free breath, I'm going to have an interest in anything that happens at the University of Alabama, in any area, and you can put that in your book."
But there are many exceptions to administrations like your own. There are those who are, to say the least, unenthusiastic about football and its exalted position on the college scene, and others who have even done away with the program, or reduced it to insignificance.
"I don't know those kinds. You're talking about administrators I don't run into. But you can put this in the book, too: at Alabama they are never going to mark football down, whether I'm there or not. They're sure as hell not as long as I'm living or have something to do with it. The only president who's ever been fired at Alabama was against football. Any new president cuts his teeth on it, and he better be for it because if he's not they won't win, and if they don't win he'll get fired.
"I don't know how other administrators feel. I do know what a sorry position some of them would be in without a football program. At Alabama we've made a ton. This year alone we've sold over $2 million worth of tickets. The program is self-sustaining. We don't get any of the taxpayers' money. Football supports all the other sports. The Coliseum cost about $4.8 million and that is being paid for entirely by athletic funds. We gave the university $500,000 to raise faculty salaries. We gave 'em another $200,000 for something else, I forget what, and a pledge of $100,000 a year, just gave 'em that. Oh, and we advanced the money [about $700,000] for two airplanes that all the departments use. Outside of that, I can't think of a thing football has done for Alabama."
How close did you come to taking the Miami Dolphin job?
"I'd already taken it, with the provision that I could get out of my Alabama contract. I had my lawyer rewrite the Dolphin contract, and we put everything in there I could think of [total value: about $1.7 million]. Most important thing was $10,000 for Mary Harmon to go back and forth home during the season. I don't know how many times I talked with [Dolphin Owner] Joe Robbie. Twenty maybe. I went down and looked at the Jockey Club where I'd be living, and I had Namath go over the personnel with me, man for man. We were talking casually and I said, 'Joe, who's the best young quarterback in the league?' 'Griese.' 'Who's the best running back?' 'Csonka.' I said, 'C'mon, boy, I want to talk to you.' We went to my apartment, closed the door, and I took Joe into my confidence. He said, 'Shoot, Coach, you could win there left-handed.' I called Howard Schnellenberger—he was with the Rams then, but he's with the Dolphins now and he played for me at Kentucky and coached for me at Alabama—and he gave me the same answers. I thought, 'Boy, if I can't win with this I oughta be in jail.'
"But then it came down to the final decision, and I couldn't do it. I went before President Mathews and the Alabama board of trustees—I went to school with all of them except one—and we talked. Someone, I believe Red Blount, said, 'Well, if that's what you want to do, go on, if you can get us a good 'un.' I said, 'What are you talking about, good 'un?' He said, 'Well, he has to be under 46...'and he started naming off the qualifications, and I could only think of four. One was Darrell Royal and another was John McKay. I knew Darrell wasn't going to leave Texas, so I called McKay at USC; he was coming to be with us the next day in Mobile, anyway. I thought he was interested. He said we could talk about it then, and I said, 'This can't wait, John, this has to be settled in the next hour.' And, of course, it was.
"The next morning about six, I called President Mathews. I said, 'Is it too early for you to have a cup of coffee?' He was laughing. He said, 'I been up an hour myself.' I went to his office and I said, 'You know, you're the smartest young fellow I ever saw. Darned if you're not right,' and I started laughing. 'I can't get anybody good as me.'
"That night Mary Harmon and John and Corky McKay and I met in Mobile for the Senior Bowl game, and we went out to the airport to meet someone, and who gets off the plane but Joe Robbie. He's slipping around, looking like a gangster, and he says, 'You want to listen to a new deal?' I said, 'Aw, c'mon, Joe, I'm sorry and I apologize, but I'm not interested in more money. I just can't do it. So just c'mon and be one of us and have a good time.' And he joined us and stayed there a day with those Alabama people, having a time.
"When it was all over, though, I really felt guilty for this one reason: I had tried to convince myself that it was the challenge that interested me—nobody had ever done it both ways, won in college and the pros, and I knew I could do it—but I think now it was just the money, because I kept thinking about 'four bedrooms, seven baths, Jockey Club,' and Cadillacs and Lincolns, so many things, things I didn't need or already had. It was ridiculous. Well, never again. And don't you know they've said their prayers a million times about getting Don Shula instead of me? They couldn't have done any better. Maybe I would have won, but he won."
Didn't Sonny Werblin try to get you to coach the Jets one time?
"No. What happened was this, and Sonny probably thought I was big-dogging it, but Jimmy Hinton [Bryant's business partner] and I thought about buying a pro football team. I was in New York and went to the game with Sonny, and you know how fond of him I am, and I put it to him. 'What do you think of $10 million for the Jets?' I'm sure he must have thought no football coach could come up with 10 million, but we could have. It was that simple. Well, Sonny told me then, 'If you and your friends can get that kind of money, buy the Miami franchise.' He said we could probably get it for maybe half as much. But we didn't do anything, and he was so smart, and so right. The Dolphins were drawing less than 30,000 then, and now they're drawing 70,000. What do you suppose that franchise is worth now?"
Up from Portal 17 to the second floor of the five-year-old University of Alabama Memorial Coliseum are the offices of Athletic Director Paul (Bear) Bryant and his cast of thousands (actually 34, counting secretaries). The offices are handsomely furnished, tastefully decorated and inspirationally equipped. Reeking with class, their only concession to commercialism is the super-enlarged ceiling-to-floor lobby photographs of the bowls Alabama teams play in regularly—Orange, Sugar, etc. When Bear Bryant walks the gleaming corridors, conversation abates, and visitors sneak looks from the corners of their eyes. Bryant's office is a high-ceilinged, thickly carpeted, richly paneled sanctuary that is spacious but decorated only by three pictures on its walls: the satin-finished photographs of the 1961, 1964 and 1965 national championship Alabama teams. The best team he ever had—the 1966 team that went undefeated—is not up there. He says the '66 team had everything: quickness, balance, passing, power running, option running, receiving, good defense. It got better as it went along, and demolished Nebraska 34-7 in the 1967 Sugar Bowl. It was finally done in by the ballot box, locked out of the national championship that year by Notre Dame and Michigan State, who got more attention by playing to a 10-10 tie. Bryant believes his team could have beaten either of those two.
Bryant had finished going through his mail and was leaning back in his leather chair. His visitor had resumed the interrogation that had started in Florida.
You used to say football was a coach's game. Is that still true?
"Not as much. There's more a premium now on getting the top athlete. When we played both ways, we could take a guy like Jimmy Sharpe, 194 pounds, hone him down, have him so quick, and he'd go out and beat a guy who weighed 240. Anyway, now you've got to have ability. A guy 6'5" to rush the passer and a guy 6'4" to block him. You can't win with the good little guy anymore. No chance. The premium's on ability."
Are athletes that much better?
"Got to be. Their mamas and papas are bigger, they're born into the world bigger, they eat better and grow bigger. They're faster, stronger, better equipped. There's no comparison."
Is that what caught up with you in the Orange Bowl this year? Bigger, better athletes?
"Bud Wilkinson told me what to expect before we played Nebraska, and I mean this as a compliment to Bob Devaney. We were talking about who we wanted to play, about this team and that one, and Bud said, 'I'm going to tell you, Nebraska has more great athletes than have ever been on one team.' And after what happened to us I agree with him."
So football is less a coach's game?
"It's still a coach's game. You start at the top. If you don't have a good one at the top, you don't have a Chinaman's chance. If you do, the rest falls into place. Don't make me sound stupid, but that's right. You gotta have good assistants, you gotta have a lot of things, but first you got to have the chairman of the board. Never forget it.
"All else being equal, the same things still win. You just got a different set of excuses nowadays. You're still going to win with preparation and dedication and plain old desire. If you're properly prepared, the physical part is taken care of. If you don't have a genuine desire, you won't be dedicated enough to prepare properly. It's a coach's job to get those things across.
"It doesn't take genius for that. The best coaches, most coaches I've known, weren't Phi Beta Kappa in the classroom. I better watch what I say, though. We were having our meetings in Dallas one time, and playing golf, and I said, 'Show me a coach who shoots good golf and I'll show you a lousy coach.' About that time somebody came running in hollering, 'Hey, Bud Wilkinson just shot a 71 and Paul Dietzel a 72.' Unh-unh. Well, for me it's still true. I was out at Lubbock for the All-Star game this year and playing golf with Chuck Fairbanks [of Oklahoma] and every day he was shooting par and just loving it. I had to think, if I was his age, I'd be out recruiting and figuring out some way to beat somebody. I couldn't do it any other way. But at my age, what difference did it make, playing golf?"
What does your way require in terms of time expended? "Back at Kentucky and at Texas A&M, and those first few years at Alabama, I would say every hour other than about three a day."
What about once you're on the field, the game itself? How do you characterize your approach?
"The sure way. That means, first of all, to win physically. You put two guys in this room and lock the door and if one beats the other physically, he'll win. If you got 11 on a field, and they beat the other 11 physically, they'll win. They'll start forcing mistakes. They'll win in the fourth quarter. I don't think any coach has a monopoly on how to win; there are coaches who do just the opposite of what we do and win games, but that's our approach."
You don't consider yourself an innovator, an iconoclast.
"I ain't nothing but a winner. I'm a student of the game, sure. I think anybody is if he's making a living out of it—or had better be. But I don't claim fame for any fancy stuff. About all we ever did that was original was maybe put in some drills, like the circle drill, or what they call the bull in the ring, or some of the quickness drills. Quickness is so important because no matter how good you are if you can't get into position to do what has to be done it won't happen. But I don't claim anything else. I'd be dishonest if I did. All I did was join in."
Down through the years?
"When I first started, everybody was using the single wing. Matty Bell and Dutch Meyer and Rusty Russell started spread formations out in Texas, throwing the ball on every down, and that changed some thinking. Don Faurot and Bud and Jim Tatum came out with the split T, which changed football, and changed me. That's what the Wishbone is today, a glamorized split T. After that there was nothing significant until the so-called pro offense, dropback passing and reading defenses, and now the Wishbone, and I've gone along with all of 'em.
"But we've had the players who could make 'em go—I've had more great quarterbacks than all the other coaches put together, and half of that was pure luck. Babe Parilli at Kentucky was luck. Joe Namath was luck. I inherited two or three, like Blanda. And one of the greatest was one nobody heard much of, Roddy Osborne at Texas A&M. I inherited him. Of course, he was a fullback when I got him."
What about the Wishbone? How did you get involved with it, and what makes it so devastating?
"Darrell Royal called me four years ago. Darrell's a great telephone guy; I probably talk $1,000 a year with him. He called and told me about it and how he was going to use it. And after that he added to it and added to it, and then last spring when I knew we couldn't win with what we had, doing what we were doing, I told our coaches, 'What we could win with is the old split T. We may be dull as hell, but we'd win.' You go one step further and you got the Wishbone. I went to see Darrell. And we put it in, and won every game.
"There's still a lot we don't know about the Wishbone, but it's the best I've ever seen. In the old split T, when the quarterback moved out to option on the defensive end, he had to pitch the ball blind, or blind behind him, to the trailing halfback. With the Wishbone it measures out that the halfback winds up about four yards wider and the quarterback can see him. That makes it so much easier. And the big plus is that the whole thing is that much ahead of the pursuit.
"For four or five years we used the drop-back pass. We did everything the pros did—we read, we did everything. Scott Hunter did a heck of a job for a college quarterback, and Steve Sloan was probably the best we ever had for picking something up before the ball was snapped. But it would take us until Thursday to have our game plan. That meant every coach on the staff studying movies till all hours, trying to spot whether this guy lined up with his feet one way or the other, or if they did this or that, trying to get something before the ball was snapped. But now, with the Wishbone, I know our game plan, and I know it for every game, basically. I don't give a darn what they do, I know what we're going to do.
"One major difference in the Wishbone is that you ought to have your best athlete at quarterback. He's got to run, he's got to pass. We had Johnny Musso ready to play quarterback about 10 times last season. I knew sooner or later they were going to start making our quarterback keep the ball. But we kept going, and they didn't do it, and we kept winning, and finally LSU did it on national television. We had Johnny ready to play quarterback that night, but he got hurt. And he never did. In the future our best athlete will be our quarterback."
How important are "formations," really. Could you win, say, with the straight T, or some of the others that have phased out over the years?
"You could win with anything if you had the best players. Single wing, double wing, anything. And if you have the defense to start with, because you've got to keep from losing before you can win. A sound defense. It all starts with the kicking game. The first thing in the book. That hasn't changed very much. Coach Wade, Coach Thomas [at Alabama], Bob Neyland [Tennessee]. They all won on their kicking game."
You mean the entire kicking game—kicks, kick coverage, returns, field position.
"Sure. Take Coach Wade. He doesn't know I know this, but Alabama was playing Tennessee, and I forget the exact figures but they had a kicker who had averaged, say, 45 yards a punt. Coach Wade decided to put a rush on him every time to cut the average down. We almost blocked the first one, and for 14 punts cut his average by five yards. That meant 70 extra yards for us, and we won.
"I'd like to know how many games Johnny Rodgers broke open for Nebraska returning kicks last year, either for touchdowns or to put 'em in good field position. And some of the things you never see in the statistics are so important. Like fielding a punt. Do you realize how many games are lost not just because a guy doesn't run the ball back but because he doesn't field the punt? How many times have you seen a guy run up to catch a punt, then back off and have it bounce 30 yards past him? If he catches it every time, he's going to save a lot of yards.
"Field goals have changed the game, too. Everybody's got a field-goal kicker now. You have to play a little different defense out of respect, depending on the other kicker's range. I remember one game we played Auburn, and they had Ed Dyas, and we went into a goal-line defense at midfield. Beat 'em. too, 3-0.
"On offense, you've got to get away from your goal line to keep from giving up the ball in field-goal range, and that means taking chances you wouldn't take before, when you'd run a couple and punt. But passers are better, too, and they've got more room to throw in that area, so it's probably the easiest place to complete a pass and not as risky as it looks."
Passers are better?
"Every conference now has two or three great passers and some great receivers. I remember Bud Wilkinson saying years ago that in his entire career at Oklahoma Bobby Layne and Babe Parilli were the only two great passers they played against. This was before he saw Namath in the 1963 Orange Bowl. Nowadays there's talent in every area, and it gets better every year because people like Namath get all that publicity, and it's fun without being hard work, playing pitch and catch. A kid can start early."
You always talk about this or that player being a "winner." That you look for "winners." How can you tell when you've found one, especially if he's only 18 years old?
"You can't, not always. It'd be nice if you could see what's in here, see how much it means to a kid, but nobody can do that. Almost anybody, though, can recognize great talent. The one that makes you proudest is the one who isn't good enough to play, but it means so much to him, he puts so much into it, that he does anyway. We've had a lot of those. The ones who have ability and don't use it are the ones who eat your guts out.
"There are four types of players. Players who have ability and know it, who have it and don't know it, who don't have it and know it, and those who don't have it but don't know it. I've had all kinds. Great players like Bob Gain and Steve Meilinger at Kentucky, and Crow and Pardee and Krueger at A&M. Anybody could coach them. One coach can do about as well as another with a Namath or a Stabler. But I don't think one coach will do as well as another with an average guy because you have to reach him. The guys you love are ones like Jimmy Sharpe, who had no ability but sure thought he did, he was a winner, and Jerry Duncan, who loved to practice so much he'd cry if the trainer tried to stop him. Ray Perkins was a winner. His freshman year he had a serious head injury. They put a plate in it. Not many would have come back after that. When they operated it was more a question of whether he would live. Ray stayed out a year, and then came back as a receiver. He'd been a tailback and a defensive safety, and he had had terrible hands. But just on pride and determination he became a receiver. He's playing for the Baltimore Colts right now.
"There are a lot of guys like Perkins who have made it worthwhile for me. Fun people. I guess if you had to pick one you'd pick Lee Roy Jordan. It's a wonder I didn't foul him up, because I tried him at two, three different positions as a sophomore, including offensive tackle, before he became a linebacker. He only weighed 190 pounds, but if he'd done well at offensive tackle I might have left him there and messed up his whole career. I can remember nothing bad about him: first on the field, full speed every play, no way to get him to, take it easy.
"I always said if I needed Jordan or Crow or Krueger or somebody, they'd start walking, but some wouldn't. I've made a lot of mistakes with a lot of players, and some still hate my guts, I'm sure, and I can understand that, too. A football player has to make a lot of sacrifices, and if he's been put through the mill and didn't do much and doesn't have much to look back on that's pleasing I'm not sure he has any reason to think kindly of me. I've made a million mistakes with kids. But at the time it was the only sure way for me, and if I was starting again, and betting my life on it, which you're doing when you're a young fellow, I'd have to go the same sure way.
"There were games I know I've hurt 'em, games where we won in spite of me, or lost because of me and, win of lose, if you don't recognize the mistakes—-mistakes in preparation, mistakes during a game—you're hurting yourself. I've been outcoached, too, and I sure don't forget those times."
Do they live as long as the big victories?
"Longer. Hell, yes, longer. Bob Devaney did a better job than I did in the Orange Bowl this year. Our kids didn't play as well as they were capable, and it wasn't because they didn't want to, it was because I fell down someplace on preparation.
"We had a string going, 21 straight, when we lost to Georgia Tech 7-6 in 1962, and Bobby Dodd outcoached me that day. He prepared his team better, ran the game better. I tried to use two quarterbacks at the same time, Jack Hurlbut under the center and Joe Namath behind him to take a direct snap, and we didn't get anything out of it and wasted all that time preparing."
Had you done that before, used two quarterbacks in the same backfield?
"Yes, before, but not since. The worst decision I made that day was when we went for two after our touchdown and I had Hurlbut do it on a keep and he missed by that much. If I'd given it to Namath, they'd have been back that much deeper on the corners and he might have gotten in."
Back deeper out of respect for Joe?
What about Namath? Everybody has heard the stories: how close you two are, how he still calls you "Coach" out of respect, never "Bear" or "Paul." Also that you kicked him off the Alabama team in 1963, then took him back. What about all that?
"To begin with, we lucked into him. Howard Schnellenberger knew his brother, and we lucked into Joe on the last day. And of course when he came here from Beaver Falls, Pa. it was all new to him, our program, the South. His background was a lot different from anything he saw here. It took him awhile to adjust. He was a loner at first. But one thing about him to this day, he's always been a very loyal person. When he got into trouble with us, there were other players involved, but we didn't know it then, and I remember walking across the campus with Joe one night, telling him it wasn't much good having friends who let you take the punishment alone, and he said he couldn't say anything about it because they were his friends.
"I hadn't seen him play until he came to Alabama, but when he went onto the field anybody could tell he had class. The best athlete I've ever seen. He could run, he could play defense. He could play baseball, basketball, anything. He was just blessed. And one thing that helped him here was that he came at a time when we had tremendous leadership, the best I've ever seen—Pat Trammell was our senior quarterback when Joe was a freshman, and that year we won our first national championship. There were great carry-over leaders: Jordan and Sharpe and Bill Battle and Richard Williamson and others. So many. I think that helped Joe.
"In those days I ate lunch every day with my quarterbacks. I got to know 'em. But if I'd done a better job I don't think I'd ever have had to discipline Joe. As it turned out, being dismissed from the team before the last game of the season probably helped him, because he was a better man after that, and I think this: he doesn't feel I was wrong what I did or we wouldn't be warm friends now. He could have gone to Canada; I told him I'd recommend him. But he stayed and paid the price. I don't know how close he came to doing something else, but after we played in the Sugar Bowl that year he was the first one outside the dressing room when we came out. The next season he was voted co-captain, and got every vote but one, which had to be his own. That must have meant something to him."
Has the Joe Namath that played for you, and the Namath that makes the headlines and gossip columns now, been good for football?
"The Namath I know has. To me he's still the same. When he comes to Alabama, the first person he goes to see is Jim Goostree, the trainer, and then the equipment man, and the other people who meant something to him. He never misses. Mary Harmon is crazy about him. The Namath I know isn't the Namath I read about in the papers these days. And, of course, some knowledgeable people say he saved the American Football League."
From a college coach's viewpoint, was it worth saving? Competition for fan support being as cutthroat as it is?
"There has to be a place for both, because you can't destroy one without destroying the other. Certainly, in some areas where there are just so many entertainment dollars it's a bad situation—like the San Francisco area, where there's so many teams, and the Athletics with a heckuva record and they can't draw flies. Just so many entertainment dollars. But I'll tell you this. Winning is always popular. USC has drawn extremely well in Los Angeles despite the competition because they win.
"The pro game's a great game, but I certainly prefer the college game. There's more diversity to it, more room for error. The big difference now, of course, is that we run the quarterback. A good run is still the most exciting play in football, and you see more good running attacks in college football. [With the Wishbone, Alabama averaged 324 yards rushing a game last fall; the Miami Dolphins, leading rushing team in the NFL, averaged 173.] The big thing the pros have going for them is longevity. We had Johnny Musso for three seasons. Miami fans could be watching Kiick and Csonka for 10 years."
Do you learn anything from the pros?
"I learn from everybody. Pros, colleges, high schools. I been watching those Canadian games on television lately, and I'm beginning to think I like that 12-man offense; I think maybe we ought to consider it. It'd be interesting to see a 12-man offense against an 11-man defense. Except I doubt I could get anybody to coach the defense.
"But to answer your question. You're darn right I learn, and every time I'm around my ex-players—Namath, Perkins, Blanda—I'm quizzing 'em, wanting to know what's going on. I get Namath up on that blackboard every time he comes around to tell me about this defense or that one."
You don't talk like a man contemplating imminent retirement.
"I don't have any reason to retire, none at all. Besides [smiling] I gotta get out of debt first. [Bryant has part ownership in a meat-packing firm that does a $50 million business a year, a yarn-treating firm that does even better, a Volkswagen distributorship and has always been big in the stock market; his university salary, which he had insisted be kept at dean's level until he found out this year that his retirement benefit would only amount to $7,200 a year, is $27,000 annually.] The trouble is I don't have any cash coming in. It's all tied up."
How, ultimately, will it be determined, the climax of the Bryant career? Will they have to ask you to quit like they did Adolph Rupp?
"I'm going to make that decision. No one else, I won't take any abuse from anybody, you can count on that. But as long as I'm getting those chills up my back, as long as I feel I'm contributing, know I'm contributing, I'll be around."
How will you know for sure you're contributing?
"By winning. That's the only thing. There's nothing else."
How, finally, would you want to be remembered, when it's over?
"That I contributed something, that I helped somebody along the way. And that I won the national championship this year." Big grin.
But you've already won three. What could one more matter? You'd just want another after that.
"I'll want one every year."