When the traditionally vaunted and feared Alabama Crimson Tide—with 26 straight winning seasons and a record 25 consecutive bowl appearances—lost 24-14 to Georgia last Saturday at Birmingham's Legion Field, the Tide's record fell to 1-4. That's Alabama's worst start since 1957—and in '58 it had a new coach, Paul W. (Bear) Bryant. You may have heard of him.
For eons the most famous cry in Dixie hasn't been "The South will rise again!" It has been "Roll Tide!" and to hear it is to be chilled to the bone, especially when it shatters the predawn in a hotel corridor. But times have changed. It's now "Whoa Tide!" Or worse, "Ebb Tide!"
Beleaguered Alabama coach Ray Perkins, now in his second year, bristled the other afternoon when asked how he contrived not to lose hope. "I don't even consider that," he snapped. "If you lose hope you might as well be dead. If you quit fighting you've got nothing. We will be back, without a doubt. Look, I know everything I do has been, is and will be compared to Coach Bryant. But I am not Coach Bryant."
The fans, of course, have been quick to pick up on the difference. They booed Perkins and his team off the field after the Tide lost 30-21 to Vanderbilt a fortnight ago. That was Alabama's first homecoming defeat since 1957. They call in to the talk shows. Groused one detractor over the air the other night, "Well, I'll tell you, Ray Perkins ain't a good coach." The fans also question his ability to motivate the players. A letter writer to Birmingham Post-Herald columnist Paul Finebaum said of Perkins, "The bottom line is he is a loser, and I don't want him around long enough to prove it." Of course, a cowardly strain runs through the naysayers, so they hide behind anonymous phone calls and unsigned letters.
Not Finebaum, who has helped whip up the discontent. The other day he wrote, "Welcome to the State of Alabama, Losersville, USA. A state where the fans obviously take the game of college football more seriously than the players." He went on to refer to the team as "chumps."
In sum, the fans have grown sullen, if not mutinous, and even Perkins admits that their mood ranges "from disbelief to sadness to disappointment to madness to hysteria." But Perkins has his defenders. One of them called Finebaum during his weekly talk show the other night and suggested, "If I was him [Perkins], I'd assassinate you."
The problem is that most of what Finebaum writes and says is true. For example, he wrote, "It's sad to accept that a program once considered the greatest in college football has become a joke." Indeed, word spread through Tuscaloosa last week that the Tide would be hiring a new coach, a Chinese named Win Won Soon. An undercover organization calls itself the Jerk the Perk Fan Club. Perkins, whose record is 9-8 in a year and a half, has responded by blaming the media. At a press conference early last week, he said a lot of what was being written was——. Wrote Finebaum, "Ray Perkins has a lousy football team."
Nothing happened on Saturday to disprove that assessment. Most disheartening, perhaps, was that Alabama gave its best effort of the year, following losses to Boston College, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt and a victory over lowly South-western Louisiana. With only 1:28 gone in the game, Georgia fullback Andre Smith ripped 44 yards up the middle for a touchdown. Two minutes and 19 seconds later, Smith did the same thing, except this time he ran only 34 yards. In the second quarter, Bulldog coach Vince Dooley ordered up a fake punt on fourth and five that was good for 10 yards. Seven plays later Kevin Butler kicked a 34-yard field goal, and the score was 17-0. School was essentially out.
'Bama's freshman quarterback, Vince Sutton, did try to rally his shattered troops—and the Tide did roll in the second quarter and off and on in the second half—but his four interceptions were crushing. Ditto inopportune penalties and missed assignments. Lord knows that Alabama, which six weeks ago was thinking in terms of a national championship, tried. It just wasn't very good. Afterward, Perkins gathered himself together and faced the media, declaring, "I'm very excited about the future of this team."
Outside in the gloom a car drove away with a bumper sticker that read PERK UP OR PERK OUT. The stickers that say PERKINS' PRIDE aren't too popular these days. And in the parking lots, the disciples were decidedly grouchy. David Stephens of Tuscaloosa said, "Coach Perkins hasn't charmed the fans." Sitting in the back of a pickup truck with his buddies, Jim Owens of Nashville said, "Alabama players don't have heart, and they aren't knockin' people on their butts and runnin' over 'em. That's it." The highlight of the game for many fans came when a plane flew over the stadium trailing a banner reading: PHONE HOME DANNY FORD. Ford, the Clemson coach, is an Alabama alum and a favorite of some to replace Perkins.
A big problem for the Tide is that its mystique is gone. In his weekly sports magazine 'Bama, Kirk McNair wrote, "The smell of blood is driving Tide opponents into a frenzy as they have an opportunity to take part in the kill." How did this happen so fast to a school that was national champ in 1978 and '79 (for the 10th and 11th times), went 10-2 in 1980 and was 9-2-1 in 1981, when it won its 12th SEC crown in 20 years?
Obviously, Bryant's retirement after the 1982 season is at the core of the dilemma. He was the winningest coach in history, with 323 victories. He wasn't simply the legendary Alabama coach for 25 years; he was Alabama football. Yet he contributed to its decline because, in the last half-dozen years or so before he retired, opposing teams kept telling recruits the Bear would quit and wouldn't be in Tuscaloosa for their entire careers. When asked about that by a recruit, he would, to his credit, respond, "Son, I can't guarantee you I'll be at Alabama as long as you."
In 1980 Bryant even told an old friend, Bert Bank, who produces the game broadcasts for the Alabama Football Network, "I should've retired after the 1979 season. We needed a younger fella." Indeed, says Bank, when people would tell Bryant in his waning years that they could "hardly wait for the season," he would mutter, "I can wait."
Auburn, which is king in Alabama these days, couldn't wait to capitalize on the uncertainty surrounding the Bear. Pat Dye was named coach in 1981, and he began to out-Bryant Bryant with his homey ways and good-ol'-boy backslapping. In 1982—Bryant's final year—the Tide lost a number of blue-chippers from the state to the Tigers, among them Bo Jackson. Others included Jeff Parks, the state's top prospect; Alan Evans, considered the No. 1 running back at the time he signed (he has since transferred to Tennessee-Chattanooga); defensive back Tommy Powell; defensive tackle Gerald Williams; and quarterback Pat Washington. When Ben Tamburello, a center from Birmingham, chose Auburn, the word is that that defection spurred Bryant to quit. Auburn also outrecruited the Tide in '83 and '84. This year the Tigers signed five players Alabama had coveted, notably running back Reggie Ware, the state's most sought-after recruit.
And let's face it, following a legend in the SEC isn't a secure line of work. At Auburn, Doug Barfield lasted five unhappy seasons after Shug Jordan's 25-year reign. At Georgia, Johnny Griffith endured for three after Wally Butts's 22. Billy Kinard flopped in 2½ years after Johnny Vaught's 24 at Ole Miss. These days 'Bama followers are starting to call Perkins "Ears," after J.B. (Ears) Whitworth, who guided Alabama to a 4-24-2 record in 1955-57. But Perkins, who's nothing if not steely, says, "I just want to follow Coach Bryant, not replace him."
Perkins's background is a lot like Bryant's. Both grew up poor in small Southern towns, both were receivers on great Tide teams. Perkins, though, lacks Bryant's common touch. He also seems to lack a winning personality. Staring is his forte. Sitting next to him can give you a cold. Once, when he had Finebaum over to his house for dinner in hopes of winning nicer ink, Perkins said he was thinking about doing his TV show by himself, without a host. He asked his wife, Carolyn, what she thought, and she said, "I don't think you have the personality for it." According to Finebaum, Perkins crashed his fist to the table and started ranting something about divorce. He hosts the show by himself. He doesn't have the personality for it.
A longtime supporter says, "If Perkins found out there was one person in this state who still liked him, he'd call him up and tick him off." A doctor in Sylacauga wrote a letter to a local paper that said, in part, "...the ultimate loss is being saddled with a head coach...with the personality of a silicon chip." A newspaper poll disclosed that while 46% of those questioned rated Perkins good or excellent as a coach, 54% found him poor or fair.
Those who don't like Perkins have a litany of complaints: He took down Bear's famed coaching tower; he changed the helmet color from crimson to white; he retained only one of the Bear's offensive assistants; he locked doors that previously had been left open; he isn't good about returning phone calls; he changed the offense from the beloved wishbone to the pro-set; he replaced the veteran radio play-by-play man; he replaced the veteran trainer with a 32-year-old sports-medicine expert. Perkins obviously had every right to make all of those changes, but they left the impression of a man rehabilitating a program nobody thought needed rehabilitating. None of this would matter if Perkins were winning. The point is, he has tried to get out from under the Bryant shadow too quickly. "All he had to do," says one Tide fan, "was come in and be nice to people."
Then there's Perkins's inexperience as a college coach. In 1973 he was the receiver coach at Mississippi State. That's it. He then worked in the pros for nine years, finishing with a 24-35 record in four seasons as head coach of the Giants. But the pro and college games are different, in nuance if not in substance, and Perkins hasn't developed the right touch. Finally, people question his ability to judge young talent and to recruit it.
Certainly the loss of halfback Kerry Goode for the year in the season opener against B.C. was crushing. Goode tore ligaments in his right knee after running for a touchdown, catching a pass for another TD and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a third. Says Goode, "People here don't look at the fact that other teams are getting better. Some say it wouldn't be like this if Coach Bryant was here. I don't know." Quarterback Sutton, who has the look of a rising star, was shaking his head the other day, saying, "I never expected this to happen. It was like it was a nice sunny day and all the sudden the rain came out of nowhere. I don't understand why we're not winning. Maybe we just don't have the guts it takes."
The fans are getting increasingly restless not only because of this year's debacle but also because they were less than thrilled by last season's 8-4 finish and a trip to the Sun Bowl. They forget that Bryant was 5-4-1 in his first year and didn't go to any bowl. And that Bryant was 8-4 in his final season. One of Perkins's best friends, Birmingham facial surgeon Gaylon McCullough, says, "Coach Bryant saw all this coming and told me he could see bad times ahead. Given enough time, Ray Perkins will prove the experts wrong." McCullough also makes the interesting observation that there may have been a lot of Bryant fans as opposed to Alabama fans.
At Birmingham's Down The Street restaurant, a sports hangout, owner Gkika Morgan said, "The idea of sports is to rejoice in victory and take losing gracefully. Alabama people have not yet learned the second part."