The pigskin historian begins to sort through the mounds of evidence that are supposed to add up to the man who is identified as Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant. It is all there, in layers, by now a folk chronicle, each tale told and retold in nearly the same language every time, and all irrespective of relative importance, time or place: The Bear and his humble origins in Moro Bottom, near Fordyce, Ark.; The Bear at Alabama as "the other end" opposite the immortal Don Hutson; the tales of how The Bear got his name (accounts provided by every possible eyewitness, save perhaps the noble ursine itself); The Bear and the bowls; The Bear and the record—Amos Alonzo Stagg's 314 victories as a coach, which Bryant tied last Saturday with a 31-16 defeat of Penn State and could surpass next week against Auburn; The Bear that first hellish summer in Aggieland; The Bear returns to his Alabama; The Bear and his hat; The Bear and The Baron; The Bear walks on water (and other fables); the ages of The Bear.
By now, it is all so blurred, yet all so neat. The more one reads—the more one suffers through the same stuff from The Bear and his hagiographers—the more one understands a friend of The Bear's, a Tuscaloosa physician, who says, "That he mumbles really doesn't matter to me anymore, because by now, I always know what he is going to say, anyway."
But, what have we here? Tucked deep into the recesses of another bio folder, there is one other obscure clipping, from a time long ago. It seems, studying this scrap of parchment, that as yet another Honor America Day approached, a certain U.S. politician named Nixon was beleaguered, beset on all sides by his bloodthirsty foes. But, after months of holing up, he decided that Honor America Day would be an appropriate occasion on which to launch a counterattack, to venture out again and reach for the souls of decent citizens. And so, he would go forth and deliver a speech.
And here, from The New York Times, is the last paragraph of that story: "Invitations to attend the celebration were also sent to John Wayne, the actor; Paul Harvey, the news broadcaster; Billy Graham, the evangelist, and Paul (Bear) Bryant, the University of Alabama football coach."
November 23, 1981
At that time, The Bear had 231 wins, and was counting.
The first of the two-a-days in the 24th year of Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant's tenure at Alabama takes place just after dawn on a steamy summer's day, Monday, August 17th. It would be winter, four and a half months later, before the Crimson Tide would be finished playing; the team has gone to a bowl for 22 straight years and, by now, as The Bear says, "We win two games, some bowl will invite us." Oddly, he overslept this morning. You'd have thought The Bear would have been raring to go, he being a legend in his own time, this being the start of his supreme season; besides, he's an early riser. But Billy Varner had to rouse him, up at his house by the third green at the Indian Hills Country Club.
Billy drives The Bear around in a Buick LeSabre. He has for six years, since, The Bear explains, "I started gettin' death threats and all kinda things." Billy was a bartender out at the club, and The Bear had him taught to shoot a pistol so he could pass the police tests. They get along beautifully, which is important, because by now The Bear probably spends more time with Billy Varner than he does with his wife, whose name is Mary Harmon if you know The Bear and Miz Bryant if you only worship from afar.
But even with the late start, it wasn't yet six o'clock when Billy got The Bear to his office before the first of the two-a-days. The moon was still up, nearly full, shining through the misty Alabama heavens. The birds were chirping, and about all there was on the roads were milk trucks. They still make milk deliveries mornings in Tuscaloosa.
The players started arriving around 6:30, driving the half mile or so from their private dormitory, Bryant Hall (of course). It was a showpiece when it was built in 1963, but is now more a garish curiosity, with a hideous interior of silver, red and white and a two-tiered fountain outside, which is supported by statues of naked men, their genitalia covered by decorous shields so as not to offend the eyes of innocent 'Bama belles. But then, little of the campus offers much in the way of beauty. The Yankees, it seems, burnt the best of it to the ground just before Appomattox, and what has risen from the ashes is largely without architectural grace. Football constitutes grace in this neck of the woods.
Where The Bear now has his football offices, in Memorial Coliseum, adjoining the practice complex, was all cotton fields when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa, coming over from the bottom country of Arkansas. It was the fall of '31, the Depression, and the segregated South was like a different nation then—one party, one crop, one sport and one dollar if you were lucky. "There wasn't but about three cars on campus then," The Bear recalls, exaggerating only a little bit. Now, as dawn breaks, his players drive up in all manner of vehicles; hardly a one walks the half mile from the dormitory.
The Bear meets briefly with his team—alone. "You wouldn't want someone else to sit in when you talked private with your wife, would you?" he says. Occasionally, he drives home this point in somewhat earthier terms. He's still very close to his boys. He doesn't sleep over at the dormitory anymore, the way Joe Namath remembers, but there is still a tight bond. "I get so tired of it at times," The Bear admits. "But I do love the football, the contact with my players. I still get a thrill outta jes goin' to practice. Jes steppin' out there. I do. That's my hobby." Another thing he says, regularly, when strangers ask even innocuous questions about his players, is this: "I wouldn't know, and I wouldn't tell you if I did."
The Bear puts on his baseball cap now, for practice. He is about the last man who has his hair and still wears a hat all the time. Outside of Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant down in Alabama, you can tell bald men this way: they are the ones in hats. But if The Bear still has hair, it isn't so curly and bright as it used to be, so his jug ears stand out more. In fact, he can look very old sometimes, away from the sideline stripes. He is wrinkled and gray and his coat rides up high on his neck and his pants droop off his seat, and he just shuffles along. He looks, for example, a lot older than the President, who is, at 70, two and a half years his senior. "Yeah, but the President ain't run around and drank anywhere near so much whiskey as The Bear," a friend says. That's probably true, although not necessarily to the benefit of the ship of state.
"My doctor says I look 10 years younger than last year," The Bear was mumbling the other day when Billy drove him up to Birmingham for a luncheon at a hotel. He growls so low and so slow that when he made a commercial for Ford trucks not long ago, they had to speed up the sound track so Americans at home would understand it was Ford trucks he was extolling. "Ten years," The Bear went on. "Of course, in the first place he's lying, and in the second, there's all these pills—11 in the morning, alone. Why, I'm plain goofy now." And he was, for a time. Also, like a lot of old men, he has weak kidneys. "Billy, have I passed all my pissin' places?" The Bear asked, as they neared Birmingham. They had, so at the hotel, people followed him right to the men's room. But The Bear never slights anybody if he can help it. When he greets someone, he keeps an arm around him, or, even after the handshake, he holds onto him by the wrist or forearm, as if momentarily he is going to send him into a huddle.
But now, the moon is gone, the sun is up for the first of the two-a-days, and The Bear strides through the guarded tunnel that goes from the coliseum to the practice fields, under a fence topped with barbed wire and masked with high shrubs. And now The Bear is different. He is some kind of different. He is Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, and he seems an altogether new man, a whole lot younger. He puts out his cigarette and climbs into his golf cart and drives off toward his tower, which is celebrated this way in one of the ballads about him:
His reign of power
From his tower,
The Gridiron King.
The ground has turned two shades of green by now, lighter where many footprints and one set of golf cart tracks have cut through the wet grass. It's likely to be more humid early in the day, when the dew is lifting, so the players are made to stop and rest regularly on one knee, with their helmets off, and receive liquids. They kneel all in one straight line, served by managers, so that it looks exactly like some huge open-air Communion. "All right, all right," hollers The Bear. "Not all slouched up like a bunch of idiots."
Once, years ago, his players practiced till they dropped—literally. It's amazing someone didn't die when The Bear was coaching back there at Texas A&M. If you took off your helmet or needed water, you were just a damn old sissy. But now, here The Bear is, making sure they all drink exactly the proper amount of liquid and let their heads cool off.
("You see, Coach Bryant was always very good at adjusting," Bud Wilkinson says. Wilkinson had 145 victories when he packed it in at Oklahoma in 1963 to run for the Senate. Why, he could be past 315 by now if he had stuck with it. Add it up for yourself. "The main thing about staying a coach so long is that you've got to want to," Wilkinson says.)
A freight train rumbles by, just as practice is ready to start. And suddenly, for no reason, The Bear starts to sing. "Love lifted me!" he sings. Well, it's more of a holler. And then again, the refrain from the old hymn: "Love lif...i...ted me!" Nobody ventures to ask The Bear why he has chosen this song here at the start of the two-a-days.
Now he begins to trudge up the 33 steps to the top of the tower, where a chair, a bullhorn and a can of bug spray await him. The latter is for some hornets up there who don't appreciate what place the man in the tower holds in the human kingdom. He peers down on all his players. There are almost 130, counting the walk-ons, all in color-coded shirts—red for the first offense, white for first defense, blue, green, yellow and orange—looking like game pieces on some great, green, white-striped board. The Gridiron King will zero in on this one or that one for two or three plays, but, of course, nobody down there knows whom he might be watching at any given moment. He'll just all of a sudden yell out: "Nice catch" or "Straight up, straight up" or "You can't run any faster than that, get your ass outta here" or "Come on, come on, start showin' some class. Fourth quarter now, fourth quarter." But everybody feels The Bear is coming right down on him, which is the way he wants it.
The Bear says, "When I first came here I was fightin' for my life out there on the field. Well, I'm still fightin' for my life. It's just that I don't have near as many years left." It is only at the very end of the second session of the opening two-a-days that The Bear lets himself lounge back in his chair. Then he just sits up there for a while, the pink twilight over his shoulder, watching the last of the maneuvers below. It's past 7 p.m. before he starts down the tower for the last time. "They were comin' off the ball pretty good," The Bear allows. Better be; there are barely two weeks left till the opener over in Baton Rouge, against LSU. That will be number 307.
By the time Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant got back to Alabama, age 44, in 1958, he had already accumulated 91 coaching victories at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, places on the fringes of Dixie. Now he was returning to his alma mater, to home, and in the very year that C. Vann Woodward, the distinguished Southern historian, was making this observation: "The time is coming, if indeed it has not already arrived, when the Southerner will begin to ask himself whether there is really any longer very much point in calling himself a Southerner." How could C. Vann Woodward know that, 23 years later, The Bear would be going for 315?
The Bear is meaningful. That is his legacy—not just so many more victories. History has always been important to the South, and The Bear is a historical figure. It was right after another victory last month, number 310, and Billy had just driven him away in the Buick LeSabre, two motorcycle cops running ahead through the traffic, their blue lights flashing, when someone was moved to say, "They'll sure never be another Bear." And the writer from the campus newspaper, an Alabama boy, said, "Well, not unless there's another Civil War." And that is pretty much it. For Alabama, anyway, The Bear is triumph, at last; even more than that, he is justification.
The Bear hates all that joking about him being some sort of Dixie Christ (his card-playing friends back at Indian Hills refer to him as "Old Water-Walker"—behind his back), and he's right to, for whether or not it's sacrilege, it's bad theology. The Bear is very human. That is the point. He is one of their own good old boys who took on the rest of the nation and whipped it. The wisest thing that The Bear never did was to run against George Wallace for governor, not so much because he probably would have lost and that would have burst his balloon of omnipotence, but because he would have forced his fellow Alabamians to choose between their two heroes who didn't pussyfoot around against the Yankees.
Besides, The Bear doesn't properly belong in that line. Successful Southern politicians are pugnacious, like Wallace, perhaps mean, irascible at best. Southern generals, by contrast, are courtly and noble, permitting their troops to do the necessary bloodletting—within the rules, of course. The Bear is a general, and it is important to the state that he win his battles honorably. It is all the more significant that, during his time in the wilderness, The Bear admits to having cheated, to having wallowed in expedience; that it was only his conjoining again with Alabama that made him whole and pure once more. And what a union it has been!
There is a feeling in Alabama that most anybody can win at the prominent Yankee football shelters; hell, even an old Protestant like Parseghian kept the wheel turning at Notre Dame. Larry Lacewell, the head coach at Arkansas State, who has been on the staffs at both Alabama and Oklahoma, offers this comparison: "In Oklahoma, they all think they win just because it's Oklahoma. In Alabama, they know why they do...It's him." Not even Adolph Rupp, who pretty much forced The Bear to evacuate Rupp's Kentucky fiefdom, could match him as an indigenous symbol of victory. Rupp affected the prevailing accent and became The Baron of the Bluegrass, but always and forever Kentucky knew he came from Kansas, a whole different place.
Ah, but The Bear is blood as well as guts. After musing about it for quite a while, it is only this homely theory he advances to explain why he is so especially adored in Alabama: "I'll tell you the truth. I think my playin' here had more to do with it than anything."
And, of course, the sport played was football. "Hell, used to be in the South, wasn't anything to do but go to a football game," The Bear says. "Well, either football or get drunk, I s'pose. Now you got more choices. Like now we got all these lakes—boats and fishin' and all that carryin' on." Understand: football isn't merely popular in the South—football is Southern.
Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald, two historians at Alabama, have advanced the theory that the Confederate temperament has been heavily influenced by the prevalence of Celts from Ireland, Scotland and Wales—and, says McDonald, "They've always been the meanest bunch of all." He goes on: "The Southerners are naturally violent, and football is the idealized ritual substitute for actual warfare. If you happen to be 10 years old, or 30, when a war breaks out, instead of being lucky enough to be 20, the Southerner—the Celt—will feel deprived of his manhood. Football can fill that void. For Alabama, The Bear is the Robert E. Lee of this warfare."
While The Bear and a winning team would have advanced the redemptive process at any time, it was, however, all the more symbolic that he happened to arrive back home at precisely the moment when the Deep South—Alabama above all—was being turned into a battlefield again. In one way or another, every white Alabamian was on the defensive, either out of shame or to dig in: Never! But for both types there was always The Bear to celebrate, the one intrepid native who was not only succeeding, but also winning on a national scale with "skinny little white boys," as one Alabamian recalls. "There was something for everybody. Even if you weren't racist, there were certain historical imperatives to clutch to your breast. It was The War all over again; us poor, underfed, outmanned Southerners beating up on the big, ugly Yankees only because we were obviously smarter and braver."
The Bear leaves such theorizing to others. Indeed, despite once being nearly lured into politics, he remains, cannily, a man of image, not of issues. As a consequence, The Bear appears to be something of a skeleton key, a man who can unlock whatever doors—especially of the past—that his admirers want to enter. Coaching may be a young man's profession, but for The Bear, his antiquity is a real boon. Why, he's so much a part of the storied past that it's like having Lee himself around; Hank Williams, anyway.
It is certainly illuminative of his nature that The Bear took no lead whatsoever in the matter of integration. His defenders will claim that Wallace kept his hands tied, that The Bear wasn't even allowed to schedule teams with black players, much less dress any of them in crimson, and there may be a measure of truth in that. But given The Bear's surpassing popularity, he had it within his power to assume a burden of leadership. Yet he held back on race and let other—and less entrenched—Southern coaches stick their necks out first. Only after Southern Cal and Sam (Bam) Cunningham ran all over the skinny little white boys in a 1970 game, only when it was evident that the Tide couldn't win any longer lily-white, only then did The Bear learn his civics. It is consistent that the one knock against him as a coach is that he has never had the faith or the daring to be an innovator.
After all, "adjusting well" doesn't mean having to be in the vanguard. And The Bear realizes his state is naturally insular and standpat; even George Wallace, remember, for all his fulminating, was primarily a counterpuncher. Alabama still styles itself as the "Heart of Dixie," and it takes a certain contrary pride in the fact that the Sunbelt and all its alien imperfections pretty much passed it by. Heart of Sunbelt? Barely a generation ago Birmingham was virtually the same size as Atlanta, but now it isn't even half so populous. On campus in Tuscaloosa, there is always the facetious student cry: "Thank God for Mississippi." Whatever Alabama might stand 49th in, Mississippi is sure to be 50th.
One lifelong Alabamian, a lawyer, says, chuckling sort of, "Essentially, we are sustained by the belief that we are purer than everybody but Mississippi, but better off than they are."
This backwater self-consciousness does create a sensitivity in a few of the more enlightened precincts in the Mind of Dixie, an apprehension that the more successful The Bear's football team is, the more the rather undistinguished state university, which incidentally shares its name, must suffer by comparison. The school's new president, an Alabamian and a Harvard man, Joab Thomas, has, for instance, confessed to friends how disturbed he is that the major faculty concern expressed to him so far is that their Tide tickets aren't so good as in autumns past. Indeed, for many in Tuscaloosa, The Bear's gridiron preeminence stands out as a guidon to follow into their own battles. Says Arthur Thompson, a respected professor of economics, "I see The Bear as an incentive, to make all of us here ask why can't we have as much success in our areas of the university as he does in his."
Yet, as a law professor points out, one clear legacy of Wallace that lingers in the state is an intellectual perversity, a tendency to sneer at all those pointy-headed liberal wimps. In this respect, it is significant that Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant is not merely indigenous and cultural, Southern and country football. He's the only game in town.
Alabama is part of that last swath of genuine football territory that hasn't been encroached upon by the pros: from the Georgia line, west through northern Louisiana and Arkansas, north including all of Tennessee, is a duchy of perhaps 15 million people, virgin to the NFL. College alumni are only a small portion of the whole fandom, which tends to think of the University of Alabama as a football team and nothing else.
Understand, if the university is a football factory, that isn't The Bear's fault. He isn't to blame that the woebegone library languishes, that professors in the English department didn't have telephones until seven months ago. Football runs deep. The most famous of President Thomas' predecessors was President George Denny, who directed funds to the construction of a stadium while having seniors teach freshmen. It was under Denny that a football recruit named Bryant was brought in, then given two courses at Tuscaloosa High to prop up his admission. Denny had seen the value of football; Alabama's Rose Bowl juggernauts had put the state on the map when precious else but the Ku Klux Klan was achieving that. Finally they named the president's greatest achievement after him: Denny Stadium. Two years ago it was renamed: Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The issue isn't simply: Does football diminish education? There are a lot of places besides Tuscaloosa where it is more popular to install AstroTurf than bookshelves. In fact, a great deal of it is just that The Bear makes a game so respectable, perhaps even too much so. Surely it is revealing how many of the Tide fans dress—overdress—for the games. To kill. To the nines. The large numbers of preppie fashion plates in an Alabama football crowd make it look like something out of O'Hara rather than Faulkner. It's just another way to dress up the game, too, make it more legitimate.
By now The Bear and football in Alabama are one and the same. He is football incarnate, which will make it very difficult whenever he must depart. Oh, sure, whoever succeeds him might well keep the victories coming, might keep filling the stadiums (the Tide has a spare in Birmingham) and traveling to the bowls. But it will never be so fine again. The Bear is exalted and he, in return, makes it possible for the people in Alabama to take football more to heart than others can. So when The Bear goes, it will not just be that one more link to the past will be broken, that a little more of that curious Southern combination of eternal knighthood and childhood will fade. It will be harder for football ever to mean so much again in Alabama. Not even winning will be quite the same.
As the wins have piled up, The Bear has become proportionately more self-effacing, exchanging his houndstooth hat for a hair shirt after every game. When the Tide wins, it is because of the assistants and the boys and their mommas and daddies, everybody but him. When Alabama loses, he marches right in to see the winning coach and starts with the mea culpas. Of course, this isn't all that heart-wrenching for The Bear because he knows nobody believes him anyhow. It's like the Jack Benny cheapskate routine.
Hear, for example, from Kim Norris, senior majorette—Crimsonette—who has spent all her life ("I can barely remember Joe Namath") around Tuscaloosa: "It's really depressing when it does happen, when we do lose. I just try to put it out of my mind. I mean, nobody's supposed to beat Alabama. Nobody's supposed to beat Bear Bryant. But we know it's not his fault, whatever he says. It's the quarterback who fumbled or the sun got in somebody's eyes or it's just a bad day, but it's never Coach Bryant."
Probably to make it harder for anybody else to get a big head, The Bear goes on taking all the blame. Watching films of this season's Ole Miss game for the first time, he noted, after one good ground gainer, something called the "whoopee pass": "That's the only play I called all day." Minutes later, though, on his statewide TV show, the—not surprisingly—top-rated college football program in the country, he took no credit for the whoopee pass, but when Alabama failed on fourth and two, he was quick to shoulder the blame. "I send in all the bad plays," he announced, shifting comfortably in his sackcloth and ashes.
Or, for variety, sometimes The Bear prefers to go the other way, which is that he doesn't coach at all, hasn't for years. "I think I was a good coach once," he says pitiably. "Now I just have good people to coach for me. I do still know a whole lot about coachin' people." Of course, in this dumb-as-a-fox routine there is a kernel of truth: However inspirational football coaches are supposed to be, however creative, the prime requisite may well be an executive ability—selecting capable lieutenants, pointing them in the right direction and then just checking the compass now and again.
There was a wonderful moment in this year's Ole Miss game when the Tide was on defense and The Bear decided he would come over and palaver with his quarterbacks. Only it turned out that all the quarterbacks were clustered around Mai Moore, the offensive coordinator, who was drawing plays on a portable blackboard set up behind the bench. And when The Bear came up from behind, he could hardly see in. Worse than that, none of the quarterbacks even knew he was there, because they were staring so intently at the blackboard. The Bear looked so foolish, sort of like a little boy trying to peer over the big folks in front to see the parade going by. He would step this way and that, but he couldn't get in; there were always helmets and shoulder pads blocking his view. But did The Bear ever say word one? He did not. All he had to do was mumble boo and those shoulder pads would have parted like the Red Sea. But it was good enough for The Bear to see that the quarterbacks were all paying such strict attention to Moore—that's the whole idea, isn't it?—so, after a time, without anybody even knowing he'd been there, he just ambled off. It was a few minutes later, mulling things over, that he called the old whoopee pass.
Bum Phillips, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, recalls the first day he worked as an assistant to The Bear, at Texas A&M: "He told me to go organize the quarterbacks and centers. I got there early, and I looked around and there weren't any footballs. I waited and waited: still, no footballs. So I walked up to Coach Bryant and asked, 'You reckon those managers are gonna get those balls down here?'
"And he looked at me and said, 'Well, I don't know. But I'll tell you one damn thing. I ain't gonna get 'em.'
"On the way to gettin' the balls, I figured out the difference between the head coach and the assistant coach."
Unfortunately, a number of the 44 of The Bear's protègès who have ascended to head coaching positions have never figured that out. "The trouble is," Phillips says, "a lot of these people might have known football, but they tried to coach like they thought Bryant coached. But he doesn't coach the way they thought he coached. Why, he'd give out the impression that he'd never let a player get away with anything. But at the same time, he did. And the people who worked for him didn't even know it. And he'd make everybody think he thought they were the best on the staff. It was the same way with the players. I don't know as he ever planned a damn thing he did. He just does it."
Yet except perhaps for laying on the old-dumb-me stuff a little thick, The Bear isn't a conniving man; as much as with any celebrity, the public figure matches his private man. He truly is genuine in how he cares for his players as whole people, and not just as split ends and centers. The woods are full of old associates he came to help in their times of travail. "I'll tell you the truth," The Bear says, "I can't even go to these conventions anymore. It takes me an hour to get to an elevator, from all these 50-year-old assistants asking me to he'p 'em find a job. It just breaks my heart." He cries when an old friend dies, and he harks back to memories of Mama regularly. At home, he does what Mary Harmon tells him to do, and he still says she's the prettiest girl in the world. He raises hell with the boys, pays deference to the ladies and pats little children on the head.
In the main, in public, he has been picked dry by now. What more can be revealed about an old country fellow who has coached football all his life? But, of course, in the countdown to 315, Bearologists have multiplied. There is even a book out now, written by some modern-day Parson Weems, entitled YOUNG BEAR: The Legend of Bear Bryant's Boyhood. "According to the best research available, the following events in Bear Bryant's boyhood actually occurred," it says. Presumably the best research would be to ask The Bear. He's still alive. Billy Varner is still driving him all around in the Buick. But, anyway, here is a certified highlight of his legendary childhood:
"Paul was still 11 when he took his now-famous cat to church and not long after that when he took that now-famous turtle to school."
In other words, when his cats and turtles have grown "now-famous," we have heard it all.
Oh, sure, people who don't know him well like to say there is a Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant nobody really knows except possibly Mary Harmon and a couple of his good business pals who have made him lots of money. But who would believe a fool thing like that? If there has been another Bear hiding in the weeds all these years, then that certainly devalues the one we have gotten to know so well. "Why, you have to be yourself," The Bear says. "Least of all you can't fool players. Ain't that so, Billy?"
In fact, the only time The Bear has come a cropper has been when he stopped being himself—as in the late '60s, when all hell was breaking loose around the country.
"I just didn't know how to handle the change, so I started to think we must be winnin' by outcoachin', and anytime you think that, that's when you will get your ass whipped," he says. "Why, before that, I ate with my quarterback every day, but I got outta that, and then along came that rebellious era; that dope era, that why-you-want-me-to-do-this era. The players wanted to be like every other student, and you can't be that way and win. You just can't.
"But the biggest thing was, I was just doin' a lousy job. So when I understood that, I read the riot act to them and got back to work myself. I changed my approach, too. I used to tell a player comin' in, now you're gonna have to be a little bit better player each day, and you're gonna have to do better in your academics and learn lessons every day. And if you do this, you'll be a better person and be able to take your place in society better than when you came here.
"But the kids changed, so now I start the other way, at the other end of the barrel. I tell a boy, if you're not a special kind of person when you come here, I don't want you. See how I turned it around? 'Course, I do still tell 'em if I can't love you and pat you and brag on you, I don't want you. I think I can do that better'n anybody."
What, exactly? Do you mean, inspire?
"I don't know. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you."
This season, as The Bear feared, as Alabama's relatively modest record attests—relative to other Crimson Tide teams, understand—he has been bedeviled by the pressures of the approaching record. At times he has betrayed his instincts and not pushed the Tide as vigorously as he believed he should for fear critics would accuse him of being selfish. It irks him, too, that the hullabaloo is somewhat manufactured.
"All I know is, I don't want to stop coaching and I don't want to stop winning, so we're gonna break the record unless I die," he says. State law will permit him to hold his job through the 1983 season, when he turns 70, but should he desire, he will almost surely stay on after that, either with an age exemption provided by special state legislation, or through an obsure NCAA provision that permits one volunteer coach per athletic department. Normally, this is somebody who comes in to handle the kayaking team or ladies' handball, but it is just as applicable to the head football coach. The Bear is wealthy enough and could keep making a pile on side deals, so coaching on the cuff would be no great hardship. In any event, whatever the arrangements to keep him in his tower, it is understood that he has delegated a couple of his closest friends to tell him the truth if he ever starts to lose his marbles. He doesn't, says a confidant, "want to pull a Rupp and have to get dragged out of here."
For now, though, there is no escaping the Hank Aaron or Pete Rose role he must play, by the numbers. Some alumni have donated a huge trailer, which is hauled back and forth between the two Tide stadiums in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham so that The Bear can address the world in style after each home game. The trailer looks rather like something a TV preacher might take on the road, with a choir. There are chairs for more than 100 press, who peer up toward where The Bear sits in something of a pulpit-type arrangement. There is a red carpet on the floor, and a clapboard wall behind him and a $4,800 sound mixer to snare and amplify his mumbled responses.
Of course, The Bear has for long been the center of a real cottage industry in Alabama, with all sorts of icons and other Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant collectibles being turned out. The approaching record has served as an excuse to manufacture a whole new generation of Bear keepsakes, all "315" models: cushions, calendars, bumper stickers, banners, buttons, kerchiefs, statues and those large foam hands with the index finger raised. For folks with more expensive tastes, there are busts, guaranteed to be of a "stonelike material," at $50, commemorative coins (peaking at $1,250 for a platinum job) and paintings and original sculpture up to $4,500.
The Bear himself doesn't altogether discourage this harmless idolatry. He even turned a dollar or two once himself, in partnership with Sonny Werblin of Madison Square Garden, peddling replicas of his houndstooth hats. For the more reflective there is on display in two adjoining rooms of the Memorial Coliseum, the Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant memorabilia collection. The relics have been donated by the subject himself, and it is a solemn tribute, nearly hallowed.
Everything conceivable relating to The Bear has been exhibited: declarations, magazine covers, trophies, cartoons, keys to the city—from Sylacauga, Anniston, Florence, Gadsden and any number of other places; that is a whole section just by itself, keys to the city. There is an autographed photograph of Esther Williams.
And every picture of The Bear identifies him as Coach Bryant. It isn't only Coach Bryant and Lana Turner and Coach Bryant and Joe DiMaggio, it's Coach Bryant and Herman Hickman, Coach Bryant and Ara Parseghian, Coach Bryant and Bud Wilkinson. There is only the one coach.
Now on this particular sweltering day in the middle of last summer, the memorabilia rooms were almost asphyxiating people because the rooms had been shut up since school let out. The only reason they had been opened was because Frank House, the old catcher with the Detroit Tigers, had come down from Birmingham. House is a well-spoken man in his 50s, trim and handsome, but he has always been known as Pig around home—Pig House. He was in the rooms with Charley Thornton, an assistant athletic director, because The Bear had given Pig permission to take some of the objects for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
All of a sudden, here comes The Bear himself, wet from the heat, shuffling along, looking exceptionally old, his seersucker pants drooping down. He acted as if he had just stumbled this way, even though it was far down at the other end of the coliseum, on another floor, from his air-conditioned offices, and Billy was waiting to take him home to Mary Harmon. Obviously, someone had told him, Hey, Coach, you know Pig House is down there taking things out of your memorabilia rooms.
House looked up in distress; Thornton came to his aid. "You remember, Coach," he said quickly, "you told Pig he could take some of your stuff up to the Hall of Fame."
"Sure I remember," The Bear replied. "I just want to see what it is he's takin', that's all." And he came into the sweat-box and started examining all the things about Coach Bryant. It was like Huck Finn attending his own funeral.
Pig reported about which of the items he had already put in his Cadillac. "O.K.," The Bear said, and he started searching the walls himself. He already looked a whole lot younger than when he had stepped into the place. He didn't even look as hot anymore. "Here!" he called out. "SEC coach, alltime. Now that's not a bad thing, either. Alltime SEC coach."
House and Thornton couldn't agree more, and hurried to get the SEC citation off the wall. "And Coach of the Decade. National. Where's that?" The Bear asked. "Let's find that one." The three of them started searching for that award, too, but it just couldn't be located anywhere. You just cannot believe how much stuff is jammed into those memorabilia rooms.
At last, Thornton tried to help out. "How 'bout this, sir? The Arkansas Hall of Fame certificate?"
Look out. That was the wrong thing to say.
"No sir!" The Bear thundered. He wasn't mumbling any now. "Why it took them five years to put Hutson in, and he was a better player than anybody else even walked across Arkansas. They asked me to speak that year, and I flat wouldn't do it. No, sir. Then it took 'em another ten years 'fore they put me in. They had girls and ever'thin' else in 'fore me. No...sir!"
So much for the Arkansas Hall of Fame. They all went back to searching for Coach of the Decade. "Wait, I got one," The Bear suddenly cried. "The Kentucky Man of the Year. Why, you know what? I got that when Alben Barkley, who was from Kentucky, was the Vice-President of the United States."
So everybody abandoned the Coach of the Decade hunt and got into looking for the Kentucky Man of the Year.
And just for an instant there, glancing about, The Bear found himself face-to-face with an old picture of himself—young and strong and handsome, curly-haired and clear-eyed, and he didn't know anybody was watching, and he couldn't help but peer at himself. Hell, he sees his countenance all the time. It's on just about every product in the Heart of Dixie. But this was different. Old Coach Bryant just couldn't help but share a moment with young Coach Bryant.
And a smile creased his lips. Still being a coach at 68, still being Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant is better even than being a legend in your own time. In a couple more weeks, two-a-days would be starting again, and the world would be young once more, and Alabama true.