Time stands still on the cherry-paneled wall behind Bear Bryant's desk at Alabama. With an appositeness perhaps only coincidental, the antique clock with the roman numerals never says anything except three minutes to nine. There are illusions of change: the Crimson Tide is now a happy blend of black and white, and when it rolls it does so with the fashionable Wishbone offense. Also, Bryant himself says he does not coach anymore, just stands around worrying his assistants. But it might as well be 1961, or 1964 or '65 or any of those years of high achievement, because for Alabama under Bear Bryant the goal is always the same, the hour near at hand.
On a cool Thursday evening two days before this latest model showed its fine hand and terrible swift fist to Tennessee, Buddy (Bearcat) Brown, an offensive tackle who is called the last of the beloved red-necks by his coaches, got up before a yawping mob of pep ralliers outside Bryant Hall in Tuscaloosa and put the proposition squarely on the line, the way the old man would. When he sidled up to the microphone at Assistant Coach Jimmy Sharpe's bidding he had his jaw out.
"Y'all want the nation'l championship?" said Bearcat.
"Yaiiiieeeeee," said the crowd.
October 29, 1973
"Well, we damn sure do," said Bearcat.
"Aaaaghyeaaaaaa," said the crowd.
To that end on Saturday, beneath the banners of their screaming loyalists ("Hang Tenn, Tide"; "Lord, I was born a 'Bama fan") and the orange haze of the Birmingham steelworks, Alabama scored three touchdowns in a five-minute burst of deadly reckoning to leave Tennessee gasping in the fourth quarter, and a loser at 42-21. And when it was over, between dispensing first a prayer and then the cigars he had been saving for the occasion, Bryant mounted a dressing room bench and waved his hand to silence the bedlam. "You're the greatest bunch I've ever been around," he said, and added with a faintly whimsical smile, "Either that or the greatest bunch of con men."
The last was a concession to moderation. Bryant has fallen in love with this, his 16th Alabama team, and must watch himself lest he get carried away. Earlier this year, on his weekly television show, he said that Richard Todd, the sophomore (and currently second string) quarterback, could be the best he ever had. It will be recalled that he once had Joe Namath. Later Bryant admitted to a certain lightheadedness, having been on pain pills that day after some extensive dental work.
Last week, nevertheless, he was still predicting prodigies for Todd, a big, fast onetime schoolboy discus champion from Mobile who was, until the Tennessee game, not only the team's most artful-looking passer but its leading rusher. Todd had done nothing to discourage him. And Calvin (Cannonball) Culliver, the fullback, would eventually be his best runner, if he wasn't that already, said Bryant. Culliver is one of those fit-right-in blacks that Bryant has been recruiting the last few years. He is a freshman and third string.
Bryant, while conducting pre-Tennessee workouts from the scaffolding of his coach's tower, spoke of this reservoir of raw talent as if it were arriving on a later plane. That if kept healthy and eligible it would be "the best we ever had by next year."
Well, until further notice, forget next year. Watch as the best comes cresting this year.
After getting his eyeful, Tennessee Coach Bill Battle, who played end on Bryant's 1961 national championship team, said it is already the best Alabama offense he has seen. "Faster," said Battle, still shaken by the fourth-period blitz (and 524 total yards) that knocked his Volunteers from the unbeatens. "And more of 'em."
Of all those who have tried to put Bear Bryant under a pedestal over the years, Tennessee has been the most persistent. Bryant says it used to get to him and he had often "overcoached" against the Vols. One year, looking high and low for inspiration, he even decided to have all the Alabama dummies painted orange. All except one, he said. "I overcoached again, and got beat." In recent years he has been more relaxed around Tennessee and has widened his edge, now having won three straight. This time Alabama—unbeaten and second-ranked—was going off a 14-point favorite. "That's ridiculous," snorted Bryant, but deep down he undoubtedly knew better. He had his cigars bought. He had his specialty teams primed. "He's going to introduce his specialty teams instead of the offense or defense," shouted ABC-TV's Beano Cook in the press box. "Only Bear Bryant would ever think to do that." More important, he had turned Jimmy Sharpe and the offensive coaches loose to scout their own offense, and had done some restructuring.
Specifically, Bryant wanted more bite in his passing game. Tennessee is a fine offensive team, made in the scrambling, rambling image of Quarterback Condredge Holloway, who is more than slightly terrific, but defensively the Vols are hurting at linebacker and are suspect in the secondary. Vulnerable to the pass, they had given up 347 passing yards to Army, 394 to Kansas. Bryant has said all along that the Wishbone is virtually untapped as a passing offense and against Tennessee he showed what he meant. On the first play of the game Gary Rutledge faked his fullback into the line, and Tennessee massed at the bait. The play is not new in Alabama's book, but this particular tactic was. Suddenly the tight end, George Pugh, and the split end, Wayne Wheeler, were out of the traffic and beating it downfield, with only one unsuckered Volunteer, Jon Murdic, left to defend against them. Murdic made his first move toward Pugh, and Rutledge read correctly and threw to Wheeler, a solitary figure beyond reach, 80 yards, touchdown.
Alabama did not throw again until the second quarter. Bryant loosed his running backs (Wilbur Jackson, Randy Billingsley, Paul Spivey, et al.—they come in groups of three) to get Tennessee's attention ("You can talk passing all you want, but you won't be able to until you show you can run"). What they got, too, was a 64-yard touchdown drive. When it was 14-7 Todd came in and passed two for two off bootleg action—his fakes were exceptional—and raised the advantage to 21-7.
For a long time after that the game was a showcase for Holloway and his mischief—Holloway breaking tackles to complete passes, Holloway salvaging busted plays by improvising in full flight. By the fourth quarter Tennessee had earned a 21-21 tie, Holloway passing for two touchdowns and running for the other. Bryant got about as close as anyone to Holloway during that stretch when he shook hands with him immediately after the game.
Then, as sensationally as it had begun, the game was suddenly stripped of its suspense. Robin Cary, a dutifully inspired specialty teamer, returned a Vol punt 64 yards to a touchdown following a wedge of Redshirt blockers who ricocheted off one another like tenpins in their eagerness to cooperate. The crowd went wild, mostly with relief. Jackson, who wound up rushing for 145 yards and now is averaging seven a carry, turned a simple power sweep into an 80-yard run for a second touchdown three minutes later. The crowd went wilder, sensing the kill. A Tennessee fumble, a short Alabama drive and the third touchdown in five minutes, seven seconds. Wilder still and totally relieved.
Bryant would gag on the suggestion, but Alabama is now in excellent position for a run at an undefeated season. Of its remaining opponents, only LSU on Nov. 22 at Baton Rouge would seem a serious threat and, like a storm on an open sea, Alabama is a team that seems to gain strength and dimension every week. "These aren't just fine players, they're fine people," says Bryant. Alabama freshmen mingling with Alabama seniors; Alabama blacks with Alabama whites in a common cause—the national championship.