'THE NEWS SPREAD LIKE STEPPING ON AN ANT BED'
SI Reporter Ivan Maisel, who was born in Mobile two years after Paul (Bear) Bryant began coaching the University of Alabama's football team in 1958, was, like other Alabamians, deeply touched by Bryant's death at age 69 last week. He writes:
To those of us who revered him, the title of Best College Football Coach Ever sold the Bear short. He meant more to us than that. His death a month after his career-ending 323rd coaching victory—he lived three weeks longer than he allowed himself in his eerily prophetic and oft repeated comment that if he quit coaching, "I'd croak in a week"—hit the state harder than any disaster, natural or otherwise, in memory. So much of the history played out in Alabama over the past quarter century has been shameful—the schoolhouse door, Bull Connor's fire hoses, the state's continued low standing among its 49 brethren in per capita income, teachers' salaries and such. But the Bear was someone to whom Alabamians could point with pride.
Football coaches—successful ones, anyway—are looked upon as leaders of the community, and, in fact, high political office crooked its finger at Bryant more than once. Governor George Wallace often expressed his relief that the Bear never succumbed to the temptation. Wallace, just now beginning his fourth term in the state-house, is admired by some Alabamians, loathed by others. Bryant was admired by nearly all of the state's citizens, possibly even the folks at Auburn.
February 7, 1983
The statewide reaction to his death was initial shock—"The news spread like stepping on an ant bed," a radio announcer friend told me—followed by the sort of grief one feels when a family member dies. People instinctively mark on their internal calendars where they were when they heard momentous news—Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassinations—and so it was in Alabama with Bryant's death. Phone-in radio shows were deluged by callers who reached out for comfort, swapping accounts of personal encounters they'd had with the man and openly crying on the air in a sort of down-home version of the Islamic mourners' public wailing. The state withdrew into mourning for two days, and on Friday Bryant was given the kind of funeral normally reserved for heads of state. There were several houndstooth-hat floral arrangements at the cemetery.
The Bear, like most big-time football coaches, was probably lionized way too much. But it's necessary to understand what he meant to Alabama. One TV commentator likened the relationship between Bryant and the state to the one that existed between FDR and America in the Depression. Somebody else mentioned Joe Louis and the blacks of the '30s and '40s. Bryant was a winner, the winningest ever at his competitive profession, and the people of Alabama drew sustenance from that. For all the joshing about "Thank God for Mississippi," Alabamians really didn't like vying with that state for last place in too many things. If we held Bear high, it's because he elevated us, too.
PRECISE AND COMPACT
Was the good, gray New York Times yukking it up in its agate type last Saturday or were we imagining things? Certainly not the latter, because in the newspaper's sports "transactions" column that morning, right there among the hi-rings and contract extensions, was an item stating that San Diego Clipper Guard Lionel Hollins had gone on "paternity leave." What was going on here anyway?
Well, the item was more or less for real. It seems that the Clippers, who were to play the New York Knicks Saturday night, had just arrived at JFK airport when Hollins learned that his wife, Angela, had gone into labor in San Diego. He was given permission by Coach Paul Silas to skip the Knicks game, and he caught the next flight to San Diego. Trying to condense that into a few words, somebody at the Times came up with the paternity-leave reference. Sports editor Joe Vecchione later said, "It is funny, though it wasn't done to be funny. It was done to be precise and compact."
Speaking of precise and compact, Anthony Michael Hollins, the couple's first child, weighed seven pounds, 10½ ounces. After spending a few days with wife and son, Dad was due to rejoin the Clippers in Boston early this week, his paternity leave having amounted to exactly one game.
SHAME, SHAME FOR OLD NOTRE DAME
As John Underwood recently observed (SI, Jan. 10), Notre Dame is a cut above most other college sports powers in insisting on high admission standards for its athletes and in making sure that they're bona fide students once they're on campus. As Underwood further noted, the school's approach to intercollegiate athletics is also characterized by a fierce bottom-line mentality. Unfortunately, this approach sometimes imparts the idea that dollars and cents aren't just important, which they certainly are, but are the be-all-and-end-all of college sports. That was very much the impression conveyed by Notre Dame's announcement last week that, effective next season, it was downgrading its hockey program from NCAA Division I to club status because of financial losses and lack of fan support.
Notre Dame's abandonment of top-level hockey can be traced to the university's athletic schizophrenia, a condition that afflicts many other big-name sports schools. Those institutions are deeply committed to football and basketball, not because these are necessarily more beneficial to the students playing them than other sports, but because they're popular spectacles that make money. Swimming, gymnastics and other "minor" sports are allowed to languish—or are even made to languish. In Notre Dame's case, the school all but melted the ice under hockey Coach Lefty Smith and defied him to skate on. As recently as three or four years ago, the Fighting Irish had winning teams and played before average home crowds of more than 3,000. But then the administration began undercutting the program. It reduced the number of hockey scholarships, first from 20 to 18, then to 16, and it shifted the team from the big-time Western Collegiate Hockey Association to a "bus league" in which it didn't have to fly to away games. These measures were blamed on rising costs and the expense of beefing up women's sports to comply with Title IX. Of course, the football program wasn't subjected to similar scholarship and scheduling restrictions.
The administration's economy moves threw Irish athletics even farther out of whack than they already were and probably hastened the hockey program's demise. The actions damaged the program's credibility and adversely affected recruiting, which no doubt helps explain the 8-15-1 record this season's team had as of last weekend. Meanwhile, the administration actually seemed surprised that students accustomed to seeing their football team beat Michigan and Pittsburgh didn't turn out in droves to watch their hockey team lose to Lake Superior State and Ferris State. Home attendance this season has averaged just 1,500 a game, and students accounted for less than half that number.
In subscribing to the notion that the sports that make the most money are the ones most worth fostering, Notre Dame is following a dubious course. The university's anthropology department, the newest and one of the smallest academic disciplines on campus, has only 31 students majoring in that area, yet school administrators willingly operate the department at a substantial "loss." This isn't to say that hockey is as important as anthropology but merely to wonder exactly what purpose beyond profit the Notre Dame hierarchy thinks that sports really serve. Ideally, sports should probably be their own reward, and to judge by the sense of betrayal that Irish players, losing record and all, expressed at last week's bitter news—one team member skated at practice with the words "Shame, Shame for Old Notre Dame" written on his jersey—Notre Dame's hockey program was indeed rewarding.
The program also was compatible with the school's devotion to academics. This is indicated by the following astonishing fact: Since the sport was given varsity status at Notre Dame in 1968, there have been 112 scholarship hockey players, present squad excluded, and all 112 of those athletes have graduated. Only two of them needed more than four years to get their diplomas. Seen in this light, the hockey program that Notre Dame scuttled last week may well have been the most successful college sports program in the country.
NO STRIKE, BUT A PROTEST
There has been a great deal of criticism of the American Bowling Congress lately for refusing to validate some 300 games, including the three that Glenn Allison bowled for his historic 900 series (SI, Nov. 15, 1982). The ABC contends that improper lane conditions can work to keep balls in the pocket and lead to perfect games that in the ABC's view aren't worthy of official recognition.
In Jacksonville, where several high-score games were disallowed by the ABC last year, a professional bowler named Fred Asensio staged a novel protest a few weeks ago. Asensio, who has had five 300 games—the last of which was disallowed—bowled 11 straight strikes in league competition at Bowlarama and then stopped his game to go to the public address system. He announced that in protest of ABC rulings against local bowlers, he would aim to hit only a single pin with his last ball instead of trying to roll a 12th strike for a perfecto. He returned to the lane and deftly picked off the 10-pin, winding up with a score of 291.
It wasn't a perfect game, but it certainly was a rare one. The only possible way to make a 291 is to roll 11 consecutive strikes and then get one pin with the last ball. It was just the seventh ABC-sanctioned 291 game in history—as opposed to more than 46,000 perfect games—and the first since 1973.
"I did it for the Joe Average bowler who gets his scores turned down," said Asensio. "I know a guy named Ken Garrison who got hot and bowled a 300 game three years ago. It was disallowed, and he quit the game for a while. Everytime somebody rolls a big score these days, people scream that the lanes are 'walled up.' I'm sick of it."
Steve James, a spokesman at ABC headquarters in Milwaukee, said he was disappointed by Asensio's protest. "Last season 91% of all scores were approved by the ABC," James said. "That's why we have an awards program, to give recognition to good scores. We would have liked to have made an award to Mr. Asensio for a perfect game. I'm sure that's the first 291 that's ever been bowled on purpose."
THEY SAID IT
•Eddie Johnson, Kansas City Kings forward, on how he intended to handle the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird: "I'm going to try and force him to shoot from spots where he doesn't want to. First, though, I've got to find out just where those spots are located."
•Bud Grant, Minnesota Vikings coach, when asked if he thought the Vikes' penchant for getting a lot of penalties was "in the lap of the gods": "I refuse to call the officials gods. It's more like in the lap of those idiots."
•George Raveling, Washington State basketball coach, complaining about senior Forward Guy Williams' questionable shot selection: "He has a great average. He's 18 of 19. He's had the ball 19 times and shot it 18."