It was early in the fourth quarter at Birmingham's Legion Field and so far all the wrong numbers had come up for Alabama. Paul (Bear) Bryant stood before his team's bench stoically, barely exchanging words with anyone. Auburn, the War Eagles for whom Bryant has never hidden his dislike, led 17-14, even after botching three field-goal attempts. Yet down on the sideline Bryant kept his poise. Sure, Alabama had lost inexplicably before—this season, for example, to Georgia Tech in the second game. It is Tech's only win so far this year. But now there was the pressure of that number—Bryant had done his damndest not to let it get in the way, but it was there every time he turned around. And there was Auburn, which surely would relish postponing the Bear's 315th victory party. Still Bryant kept cool.
There were songs and sonnets to 315, it was painted on houses and dogs and people's faces, and there just wasn't anyone to be found who didn't know that 315 was the victory Bryant needed to pass Amos Alonzo Stagg to become football's winningest coach ever.
The canonization of Bryant was in high gear. Birmingham cab driver on Friday afternoon: "Did you hear? The Bear got hurt this morning."
December 7, 1981
"Yeah. He was out walking his duck and a motorboat ran over him."
Not that Bryant could be suckered into believing in his own infallibility, not in public anyway. He had been calling the record a "we thing," an "us thing." "I'm very thankful the good Lord allowed me to have thousands of good people around me," he said. "Players, coaches, alumni, mamas, poppas, Boy Scout leaders, everybody that has an influence on winning football games." Bryant also loves beating Auburn—going into last week's game he was 18-5 against his intrastate rival—and former pupils. He was 38-5 against head coaches who either played or worked for him, and first-year War Eagle Coach Pat Dye was a Bryant assistant from 1965 to 1973.
"The Auburn-Alabama game is a family fight," Dye said before the kickoff. "I hope the game is the way it is supposed to be—a violent, hard-hitting affair."
That it was. A fired-up War Eagle defense stopped the 'Bama wishbone cold on its first possession, after which Auburn's Chuck Clanton returned a punt 55 yards down the right sideline to the Alabama 13 only to see Al Del Greco miss an ensuing 25-yard field-goal attempt. Two plays later Alan Gray, one of the three Alabama quarterbacks, found a huge hole cleared by Left Tackle Joe Beazley and dashed 63 yards to set up a three-inch dive for a Crimson Tide touchdown and a hint of the hysteria to come.
But Gray's long run would amount to 73% of Alabama's total offense for the first half. Auburn, meanwhile, moved inside the 'Bama 30 five times—but came away with just one touchdown, on a 63-yard run by Fullback George Peoples. Del Greco missed a second field-goal try from 43 yards, and on a third attempt, from 22 yards, Holder Joe Sullivan fumbled the snap.
At halftime, Dye told his War Eagles that they were better than Alabama and that there would never be a better chance to prove it. Bryant, lucky to be tied 7-7 when he could easily have been behind 20-7, told his offense, "You're acting like you're playin' your little brothers, or chillun, or something. Like you're afraid you're going to get hurt or hurt them."
The Crimson Tide certainly didn't want to disappoint all those Boy Scout leaders in the crowd. So on its first drive of the second half Alabama marched down to Auburn's 26-yard line, with help from a 15-yard face-mask penalty. Then Bryant sent in the old Whoopee Pass: Quarterback Ken Coley dropped back and raised his arm as if to pass. Meanwhile, Tight End Jesse Bendross had pulled like a guard, and as he passed behind the center, Coley brought the ball down and shoveled it—or, more accurately, squirted it, like a watermelon seed—to Bendross, who went all the way for a TD.
Alabama's defense seemed to put the lock on Auburn after that, but this was a unique afternoon, remember? 'Bama's Joey Jones fumbled a War Eagle punt around his own 40, and Clanton dribbled the ball nearly 40 yards before finally downing it on Alabama's two-yard line. Just like that, Auburn Running Back Lionel James was in for a touchdown to tie the score at 14. The Tigers liked that fumbled-punt play so much they tried it again about six minutes later. And Jones obliged once more, muffing the catch on his own 33. This time Auburn had to go with the foot of Del Greco, and he hit from 19 yards out. Auburn led 17-14 with 12:58 left.
"It got to the point where we were very nervous," said Bendross later. "Coach Bryant tells us to keep the faith and not give up. If you don't think you can get beat, you won't." So Alabama toughened up, and after a holding penalty against Auburn gave the Tide a first down on the Auburn 38, Quarterback Walter Lewis deftly faked a handoff to Fullback Ricky Moore. Auburn's defense read "run," but Lewis was throwing and Bendross, streaking for the post, caught the ball in stride and put Alabama on top, 21-17. That was enough, but 'Bama sophomore Linnie Patrick added another TD just to be sure. Final score: 28-17.
Actually, Alabama did its best blocking of the afternoon in clearing Bryant's way through the mob on the field when the game had ended. His players shielded him as though he had swallowed nitroglycerin. A security man tucked The Bear's checkered hat under his coat for safekeeping. It was nearly an hour before Bryant met the press and Dye.
To Dye, who had been an All-America at Georgia, not one of Bryant's favorite schools in America, Bryant said, "Governor Jimmy Carter just called me...."
"Governor Reagan?" said Dye, now pretty confused himself.
"Carter," Bryant mumbled. "...Well, Reagan, too, but Governor Carter. I thought you'd appreciate that."
"Did the President call you?" asked Dye, trying to clear up matters.
"Well, sure he did," said Bryant.
The real surprise ending to the day was not that Bryant finally had No. 315, but that he also had a semi-remote chance to win his seventh national championship, should Alabama beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Did he have a plan yet?
"Well now, how in the hell would I have any plan for the Cotton Bowl when I ain't quit shakin' from the end of this game?" he said. "Rigor morgis, or whatever that thing is, hasn't set in on me yet."
And nobody ought to expect that it will before 2001. The year 2001.