I watched the papers last week to see if Bear Bryant had "croaked." That's what he said he would do if he ever quit coaching football, and quit he had. A few years ago he told me coaching wasn't as much fun anymore, and I suggested he retire and rest on his abundant laurels. He looked at me as if I'd put my thumb in his soup. "Quit coaching?" he growled. "I'd croak in a week." I've heard him say that three or four times since, and Bryant usually does what he says he's going to do. Maybe he changed his mind about croaking. I hope so.
It will be irresistible now for sports historians and other armchair quarterbacks to dredge the 44 years of Bryant's coaching career for fragments to explain his greatness. I anticipate no new evidence. Bryant's success had a lot to do with his being tough to pin down. It was part of his genius that it was impossible to pin him down for long. Stifle his offense and he beat you with defense. Graduate his passing attack and he hammered you with wishbone running. Take him for granted at Kentucky and he slipped away in the night to win at Texas A&M. Bryant said and Bryant did, but he always kept you off balance doing it.
Even the timing of his retirement, after three straight losses at the end of a 7-4 Alabama season, was somewhat difficult to square. At 69 he was certainly entitled to hang up his hat, and he said he was "worn out." But he always said things like that. I thought he might wait to ride out on another national championship, always on the horizon at Alabama. Furthermore, he always said losing just made him "get up earlier the next morning to find a way to win." Apparently he isn't the early riser he used to be.
When I finally got through the labyrinth of telephone well-wishers and commiserators to hear for myself, I thought I had it figured out: Bryant loved Alabama so much he wanted to make the transition as easy as possible for his successor, Ray Perkins, the Giants coach and a former Alabama player, one of Bryant's "boys." It would be less burdensome for Perkins to follow a 7-4 Bryant.
"Well, sure," Bryant said on the phone. "It'll be better for Ray now than if we'd gone 11 and 0."
"It wasn't the losing itself that made you quit then? I didn't think so."
"Hell, yes, it was the losing," he said. "Four losses is too many around here. And I'm surrounded by young alligators." Alabama, he said, needed somebody who could recruit against all those alligators (read rival coaches) using his anticipated retirement against 'Bama in their sales pitches.
"You really are tired then?" I said.
"I feel great, actually. I got a lot of things I want to do," he said.
"I'm not sure yet."
See? Tough to pin the man down.
At Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama, Bryant won 322 times. Along the way he picked up three or six national championships, depending on whose lists you consult. Bum Phillips used to say Bear Bryant won because he "didn't coach football, he coached people." I would refine that only to say that "coaching people" checked out to be a unique ability to communicate. The hard-eyed toughness, the mumbling and the baggy pants were only trappings. Bear outcommunicated everybody.
Before an important road game one year, he invited me to live with the team to get the makings of a story. At the pregame breakfast on Saturday, I sat next to an Alabama professor who had been invited along. Bryant curried faculty support by doing things like that, itself a form of communication. When he made his talk to the team, he barely spoke above a whisper. The players leaned forward in their seats, and one tipped over a glass of water. The spill hitting the floor sounded like Niagara Falls. When Bryant finished, the professor turned to me, awed. "If I could reach my students like that I'd teach for nothing," he said.
Effective as he was with a group, Bryant was even better one-on-one. In person he really communicated. He coaxed and cajoled, and scared hell out of people. He knew he could do this, inspire fear, and he used it like a wrench. Ray Perkins says he always respected and loved Bryant but was never intimidated by him. Perkins was probably in the minority. John David Crow stood outside Bryant's office door for more than an hour one afternoon at Texas A&M, waiting for "the man" to come out, but not daring to knock. And all Crow had done was win the Heisman Trophy.
Bryant's coaches were no less awed. One day he ordered his staff to "meet in my office first thing in the morning." Not knowing for sure what Bryant meant by "first thing," Assistant Coach Dude Hennessey slept on the office floor that night.
But the Bryant who could intimidate could also care deeply, and those who overlooked this part missed the best part. If he made use of your fear, he also wanted your love. Those who saw this sought him out. He enjoyed being sought out. My daughter Lori, when she was in school at Alabama, used to drop in on him unannounced, invading the posh inner sanctum of his office with a temerity much greater than my own. She bullied him with affectionate needling about his insatiable smoking habit, and he never turned her away.
Last week, when she heard he had retired, Lori cried. "I love that old man," she said. I told Bryant. "Yeah, my grandchildren cried, too," he said. "They're thinking about themselves, not me. I want to do this."
Most of all Bryant loved the communication with athletes, "getting my message across," and even if he scared them they sensed his empathy. Joe Namath never called him anything but "Coach Bryant," but told me their private pregame walks were voyages rich in discovery (or words to that effect). After a game late one season, Bryant invited the players and their dates to his house for a barbecue, a first for him, and while the party ebbed and flowed around the pool and patio, he sat inside listening to a rival team's game on the radio.
Eventually one of the players came inside, and then, in twos and threes, the others joined him, too. "After a while they were all lying around on the floor listening to the game," Bryant said. "I never had a better time."
Only when you've seen the grinding poverty of Moro Bottom, Ark. that spawned him can you fully appreciate the otherwise implausible Bryant combination of ham and humble pie, and the joy he gets in celebrity. He really dreaded "going back," and cherished any affirmation that it wouldn't be necessary. When we put together his life story for this magazine (Aug. 15, 1966 et seq.), we read the manuscript over at a friend's house in the Florida Keys. A few of his cronies were there, and Bryant was so pleased with the written evidence of his imminent apotheosis that he carted it around, one guest to another, making each read.
One year on the eve of the Hall of Fame banquet, we were to meet in New York. My flight arrived late, it was raining and cold, and when I got to the hotel he had left word to meet him at Patsy's restaurant. Thinking it was already too late, I went to bed. The phone rang.
"Where the hell are you?"
"It's raining. It's cold. I'm in bed."
"Frank Sinatra is at my table. You better get on over here."
"Yeah, sure. I wouldn't want to miss Old Blue Eyes. Is Bing with him?"
"O.K., dammit. Just hold on."
There was a short pause, then an unmistakable voice. "Hello, John? This is Francis Albert Sinatra. The Bear says for you to get your ass over here."
Bryant got back on the phone, tickled.
"What'd I tell you?"
It's absurd to believe that because Bryant said he knew less about football than he did about people that this meant he wasn't brilliant about football. Football got him "out of the Bottoms," he "tied" to it, and clearly he knew the game as well as or better than anyone. He was always doing something a little better or a little different, and if it was something he borrowed, like Darrell Royal's wishbone, he invariably improved upon it. He was so adept in winning at the limits of the rules that the NCAA watched him like a hawk. His use of the "tackle-eligible" pass was so sneaky-effective that the rules committee banned the play.
On the field, he seemed always to be three or four moves ahead of the competition. During one game in Birmingham, I was on the sidelines when he turned to his offensive coordinator—I believe that it was Mai Moore—and asked some technical question about the rules on quick kicks. I remember neither question nor answer, only that it struck both the assistant and me as a strange inquiry. It was first down at the time, and the other team had the ball. Two plays later, the other team quick-kicked.
For a Saturday afternoon, he was the consummate competitor, willing to test the odds. It was the gambler in him. He loved to gamble, and made no bones about it. It may have been the reason he was suspect when The Saturday Evening Post tried to pin a fix on him and Wally Butts in the 1960s, a bad bet that cost the Post dearly. Bryant's gin games were legendary for their arcane scoring methods, and his golf matches at the Indian Hills course near Tuscaloosa were raucous with betting arguments.
One afternoon I teed it up as a first-timer in one of his groups, having been allowed the dubious honor of leading off. We were a foursome only in the sense that we had four golf carts. There were actually seven players, and the bets were cross-wired with such complexity I figured I could make as much as $5.50 or lose a month's pay. Bryant said, "We got a rule on the first tee. Hit till you get one you like." I hit my shot reasonably straight, and far enough so that I couldn't see the writing on the ball, and decided one was enough. I stepped aside.
The other six hit until each got one he liked. When they were done, the fairway looked like a field of freshly sprouted mushrooms.
The craps tables at Las Vegas were no less familiar to Bryant than Indian Hills's contours. One night I was with him when he was availing himself of the action at a particularly crowded table. He had the dice, and was whooping it up and just having a wonderful time. Suddenly the man next to him pitched forward, nose first into the chips. What propelled him was Bryant. The man's right hand was gripped in Bryant's bear-like left. A split second before it had been in Bryant's pocket.
I was on the same side of the table, and all I saw was the man sprawling forward. Security guards moved in quickly and took him away. Bryant went back to the dice.
The next day we were at Pepperdine College in Malibu, where he was to speak to a group of coaches. It was the off-season and he had been playing hard. From childhood there have been many demons in his life, and drink was one of them then. He said he drank when he was bored, but for better reasons, too. Years later he went to a place where he could get help ("You got to have a plan for everything") and took on that particular demon head-to-head and won. I was glad to hear that.
But at Pepperdine he was drawn and washed out. Sweat popped out on his forehead before the meeting. He was barely into his speech when, with a clarity he reserved for crucial moments (no mumbling then), he said, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but is there a doctor in the house?" And he collapsed.
I was one of the first to reach him, and an ambulance was called. As we waited, he reached into his pocket and gave me his wallet. In the ambulance I checked the wallet to make sure I knew what I was carrying, and found it stuffed with $100 bills. He had taken a good piece of Las Vegas out with him.
Last week when I called, Bryant was getting ready to go to practice for Alabama's Liberty Bowl game with Illinois—the last game he'll ever coach. I hadn't talked with him for a while, so he let me detain him. I asked if he intended to attend practice when Perkins took over next year. He said he would "tell Ray where the potholes are," and "help any and every way I can," but no, "I won't go near the field."
He said he was feeling great. I had heard he had had a minor face-lift and looked "15 years younger." For all the troubles it had seen, I figured his face deserved it, but not having the guts of my daughter, I didn't bring up the subject. Finally he said he'd "love to talk," and we'd "get together" this winter, but he had to get to practice.
All things considered, Bear Bryant didn't sound like a man who had croaking on his mind.