Now that it has been duly confirmed that 68-year-old Bear Bryant is in a category all his own—the Alabama legislature passed a special law not long ago waiving mandatory retirement at age 70 for him, which presumably will allow him to continue coaching the Crimson Tide well into the next century—Bryant can get back to the business of producing championship football teams.
And Bryant, who made his name wrestling beasts of every stripe into line, from the bear that in fact got him his moniker to Ken Stabler and Joe Namath, has a feisty bunch this year. Still, this season ought to be a breeze after the turmoil of 1981, which included the distraction of Bryant's run to outstrip Amos Alonzo Stagg as college football's winningest coach, an embarrassing loss to lowly Georgia Tech, a stunning tie with Southern Mississippi and a 14-12 defeat at the hands of Texas in the Cotton Bowl, after three 'Bama starters had been left back in Tuscaloosa for disciplinary reasons. This season will be a piece of cake—if Bryant can get his charges back on their good behavior, that is. To that end, the folks across the state at Auburn are suggesting that the legions in Legion Field change their cry from "Roll Tide!" to "Parole Tide!"
Bryant acted like a tough probation officer during spring practice, constantly making examples of last year's offenders. Running Back Linnie Patrick, Offensive Tackle Bob Cayavec and Guard Gary Bramblett. "We have a chance to be a good team if we use our intelligence," says Bryant. "Last year some of the boys forgot how to be smart. Anybody with a bad attitude won't be around here long."
And Bryant isn't just talking through his checked hat. He has the people—17 of 22 starters back from last year's 9-2-1 outfit, plus Malcolm Simmons, the nation's 10th-best punter in 1981, and Placekicker Peter Kim, who last year tied the Alabama record for field goals in a season (15) and set the career mark (27). The only loss on offense is at tight end—something of a liability for a wishbone team that had the nation's seventh-best rushing offense in '81. Freshman Larry Roberts, who's 6'5" and 230 pounds, may end up with the job. The middle guard, a linebacker and two backs are the only absentees from a defense that allowed just 12.6 points per game. The heart of that unit is two-time All-America Safety Tommy Wilcox, and Bryant has ample replacements.
Moreover, for the first time in several years Alabama will begin a season knowing who its quarterback will be. Senior Walter Lewis, who has started off and on since his freshman year, is it. "I've matured a lot since I was a freshman," says Lewis, an electrical engineering major who worked last summer calculating energy-consumption patterns for the Gulf Power Company in Pensacola, Fla. "There were a lot of situations I had trouble with, but now I'm able to recognize them. It takes time to learn how to run the Alabama offense. I'm still learning. Experience is what's important."
Says Bryant, "He still waits too long sometimes before passing off on the option and often decides too early to keep the ball. And he still throws it up for grabs too much...but then some of the pros do too, I guess."
Despite such quibbles, Bryant has such confidence in Lewis and his backup, Paul Fields, that he spent much of the spring teaching the Tide the I-formation, the better to utilize the passing skills of Lewis and Fields and the outside speed of wide receivers Jesse Bendross and Joey Jones. But 'Bama's bread and butter will still be running out of the Wishbone, and much of its success will depend upon Patrick, an extraordinarily gifted junior who is the best of the 10 returning running backs. Alas, Patrick was AWOL the first day of practice last summer, was suspended from the team before the Vanderbilt game last September for missing a prepractice training-room treatment and made matters worse by going home—a no-no in Bryant's eyes—during his suspension. Then, before the Cotton Bowl, he was in a car that was stopped in which marijuana was being used, although Patrick was not smoking it himself and was not charged. This spring his trouble was his grades; his eligibility teetered in the balance until he passed the semester's courses. "I'm glad Coach Bryant gave me second, third and fourth chances to get myself together," says Patrick. "I can't accuse anybody but myself of causing problems."
With Patrick apparently straightened out, the problems won't be Alabama's. Instead, it will be poor Georgia Tech, which will have to play a revenge-motivated 'Bama in the season opener, and Penn State, which comes to Birmingham on Oct. 9, that will have to do the worrying. After that Alabama will spell trouble for the rest of the SEC, except for defending co-champion Georgia. Another problem 'Bama won't have is playing the Bulldogs; owing to the rotation of the conference schedule, the Tide will go through the third of four straight years without having to play Georgia—and Herschel Walker.