Last week the president of the University of Alabama did an unsafe thing. He hired a football coach without quibbling much over the man's won-lost record, his knowledge of unbalanced formations or his dedication to the three-step drop.
Instead, he hired a coach who hadn't yet figured out how to cheat, wasn't a good bet to learn, and could correctly use the words "study" and "hall" in the same sentence. Together, the two men agreed they would build the Penn State of the South. In appreciation of their efforts, some folks in Alabama have threatened to blow both their heads off.
The president is Joab Thomas, and his choice is ex-Georgia Tech Wreck Bill Curry. Those who are not Curry favorers have found a few trifling faults, to wit: 1) Curry was not born Bear Bryant and has almost no chance to become same in the near future; 2) Curry is not part of the "Alabama Family," i.e., one who has either played at Alabama or coached at Alabama or had his picture taken in some sort of fond or fatherly embrace with Bryant; and 3) Curry hasn't won enough football games to make people forget about 2).
For these sins, someone holed himself up in a phone booth in Haleyville, Ala., and called the police, promising to violently separate Curry from this life, to say nothing of his new desk. Another fellow called Thomas's family and asked the president's son to give his father a message, the essence of which was that Dad had hired the wrong man and would not survive the weekend. The son assumed the caller wasn't referring to personnel changes in the university's English department.
The yowling and protestations were not limited to those who slither out from under rocks, either. Though most Alabama fans applauded Curry's hiring, some members of the Tide pride were doing a lousy impression of a Welcome Wagon.
Typical of the grumblers was former Tide All-America Lee Roy Jordan, who said, "If we're trying to end the Paul Bryant era at Alabama, we've made a giant leap toward doing it. I know that sounds selfish on my part, but I'm a...Coach Bryant man 900 percent." And who should Thomas have considered instead? Why, Jordan himself, said Jordan, whose decade in the Dallas construction industry make him eminently qualified.
Even some of the yea votes were cast with backs turned. "We are going to be behind Coach Curry 100 percent and hope he can do the job," said former Alabama player Billy Richardson. If you're keeping track, Curry trails the Bear by 800 percent.
Of course, those with a distaste for Curry are perfectly right. It is foppery for a man to think he can win unless he's at the very school from which he was pomped and circumstanced. Except for the fact that the Georgia coach went to Auburn, and the Auburn coach went to Georgia, and the Notre Dame coach went to Kent State, and ad infinitum.
Curry was unswayed. "I don't believe I've ever started out in anything as the favorite," says the 44-year-old coach, and it's true. This is a man who didn't start on the high school football team until his senior year, didn't start at Georgia Tech until the fourth game of his fourth year, and wasn't drafted until the 20th and last round by the Green Bay Packers. When he went to Georgia Tech with no previous head-coaching experience in 1980, some Georgians like to died.
But in seven years there he turned one of the most moribund programs in the country into one of the most solid without benefit of a single degree in salad bar maintenance, and became one of the most well-liked men in sports. Until Tuscaloosa.
Ashamedly, it was almost to be expected. Even to more level-headed Alabama fans, Thomas's Great Experiment is something of a shocker. After all, one of the last places on earth you would figure to find college football getting a kick-shove into the 1990s would be Tuscaloosa, which is also one of the last places you would expect to hear the school president saying, as Thomas has, "Five years ago people looked at us and said we were a football factory. I don't think they can call us that now." To swear in a man like Curry, with a losing record (31-43-4), for the love of Namath; why, the Bear must be an Auburn fan by now.
But in 10 years the Family will come to know that Thomas is handing them an heirloom. For in the coming presidents-led revolution, Curry will be the shiniest model in the showroom, a winner under a new, rigorous ethic, and cheaters will be piled as high as Corvairs. "This is anything but disarmament," says Thomas. "I was looking for someone who could win today, win tomorrow and keep winning down the road."
And when Curry does—win big and win fair—how long will it be before he's suddenly a long-lost relative of the Family?