True to the spirit of the summer he has had so far, Bill Curry awoke last Thursday morning and dressed for a funeral. Then Curry, Alabama's second-year football coach, drove the 60-odd miles from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham's Elmwood cemetery, where Mae Martin Tyson, 52, was buried one plot over from her father, Paul (Bear) Bryant. Even in death, and on this cloudless day, the Bear cast a long shadow over Curry, the man who would wear his hat.
Curry thought he had problems last spring. Injuries during practice prevented him from addressing the Crimson Tide's most urgent need: the selection of a starting quarterback from among David Smith, Vince Sutton and Jeff Dunn, who had divvied up the playing time during a disappointing '87 season that ended with three straight defeats. During those same spring drills, tailback Bobby Humphrey, a.k.a. Alabama's offense, suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.
But spring's calamities were nothing compared with what Curry has had to endure since the team broke for summer recess. Curry's problems really began around 10 p.m. on July 12, when 6'7", 315-pound offensive tackle Joe King, fortified by half a bottle of whiskey, ventured by car into "the Brickyard" in Birmingham, an area near the Tuxedo Park housing project where two men have been shot dead since last October. King got out of his car and was shot himself.
King says the booze made him hungry, so he went "looking for a McDonald's or Burger King" and had stopped to ask directions "when this guy pops out some coke. So I smarted off to him a little...and got out of the car." A second man approached, put a gun to King's head and said, according to King, "This is a stickup, we want your money." When King told them he had only seven dollars, the cocaine peddler said, "Shoot him. Get his money and shoot him." In the struggle for King's wedding ring, King was shot in the back, the slug missing his spine by a centimeter before exiting his side. He ran four blocks to a convenience store, bellowing for an ambulance all the while. Miraculously, King will suffer no permanent disability. He just won't be suiting up for Alabama again.
August 7, 1988
Curry got another middle-of-the-night phone call three nights later: Humphrey and linebacker Vantreise Davis had been attacked in the parking lot of a Tuscaloosa disco called the Citizen Club at 2:30 a.m. and were in the hospital. Davis, who suffered bruises and cuts—one of them reportedly a knife wound—was treated and released. Humphrey, the fifth-leading rusher in SEC history and Alabama's prime candidate in this year's Heisman sweepstakes, was struck in the back and, when he turned around to face his assailant, was hit in the face with a tire iron. The blow dislodged three of Humphrey's teeth, broke his jaw and made him questionable for the Tide's Sept. 10 opener at Temple.
Early the following week, backup defensive back Steve Wilson entered an alcohol rehabilitation center in Tuscaloosa, the day after Curry announced the hiring of Kelvin Croom as the team's director of player development. Croom, 31, is the son of Alabama's chaplain and played safety for Bryant. Croom's duties will include "substance abuse education."
The troubling sequence of events was not altogether different from the off-season boozing and brawling of large, aggressive young athletes at any number of campuses in any given year. But in the land of Bryant, eyebrows were raised: Could this be happening at tradition-rich, storied Alabama? Was it a run of bum luck, or the tip of an iceberg?
Curry did not exactly reassure the Tide faithful when he attempted to defend his program. "You only hear about the failures, the ones in treatment," he told a press conference last week. "I'd like to tell you about all the guys we've detected and saved from drugs and alcohol, gotten straightened out. But we don't publicize those." At least, they didn't use to.
Strict as a schoolmarm, Curry is also a compassionate man, which is why King was allowed to return to the squad after two alcohol-related suspensions last season. But just before Alabama's 28-24 loss to Michigan in the Hall of Fame Bowl last January, King was suspended again and spent five weeks in Birmingham's Parkside rehabilitation center. King then traveled around the state lecturing schoolchildren on the dangers of substance abuse.
"I had the speech down, and I was getting standing ovations," says King, who now lives in Birmingham with his parents. "I got the big head. I said, 'I can handle the booze.' I missed my AA meetings—I thought my speaking was instead of going to meetings, but it doesn't work that way. I bought a couple six-packs. I'm an alcoholic. I've got a disease. Once the disease gets a hold of you, you could have a million dollars or the world in front of you, it doesn't matter. You'll take a drink." Indeed, King could not stop, and Curry finally threw him off the team just before the shooting.
In the hospital King received flowers and a note from Ray Perkins, who resigned the Tide coaching job after the '86 season to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Perkins may give King a shot at pro ball. Another of King's career options is professional wrestling: His father, the former Ervin (Big Boy) King, who used to perform on the circuit, could teach Joe a few tricks of that trade, or possibly attempt a comeback, as part of a father-son tag team.
Unlike King, Humphrey and Davis were guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or, at worst, using poor judgment in the choice of a site for their evening's revelry. A number of Alabama players complain that they are often singled out by some of the town's rougher elements when they venture into the discos and gin joints of Tuscaloosa. "You have to watch out for that one person who may not like you and decides to try to end your career," says linebacker Derrick Thomas. "There may be that guy out there who wants to say, 'I beat up Bobby Humphrey,' and now he feels big and mighty about it."
Humphrey and Davis say they had not provoked their attackers and did not even know them. Police reports described the athletes as victims of mistaken identity, and while there have been no arrests, police are said to know who the suspects are. Tuscaloosa County deputy Warren Miller says that the case could go before a grand jury as early as this month.
"If it had happened to anyone but Bobby, you couldn't be so sure," said Thomas. "But since it was him, you know it's unprovoked. He never starts anything."
Indeed, Humphrey is a social-work major who spends several hours each week working with children and the elderly. He had to rack his brain last week to think of the last fight he was in. "Elementary school, I guess. With my brothers," he said.
With two small metal plates inserted along the fracture, and with his jaw wired, Humphrey looked and sounded like a bad ventriloquist, speaking around his words, moving his mouth as little as possible. His weight dipped from 205 to 198 pounds because he had to follow a liquid diet for two weeks, and the injury interrupted his workouts, setting him back two weeks in the rehab of the stress fracture in his left foot. "I'm hoping this doesn't make people think I'm a bad guy," said Humphrey.
Curry pointed out that although the two players were on the town at 2:30 a.m., no rules were broken. "It's summer. There is no curfew," the coach said. Nevertheless, Curry declared the Citizen Club, and several other Tuscaloosa night spots, off-limits for football players.
"It's like high school again," joked center Roger Shultz. "Now the only thing we do is cruise around and hang out at McDonald's."
"He [Curry] is a great speaker, a great man, but sometimes his butt's pretty tight," said one player.
Said Thomas, who's from Miami, "Now everybody's probably saying, 'They're running wild at Alabama. They must be a bunch of drunks and drug addicts.' That's a shame. I've hung out at different schools with a lot of different players, and compared to most of them, we've got a pretty laid-back team."
Maybe so, but Curry's recent run of luck cannot help but make his grip on the Alabama coaching job a bit more tenuous. Since the days of Bryant, the people of Alabama have embraced the notion that Crimson Tide football players are a cut above the rest. Now, many are grumbling that Curry has lost control of his team. Would Humphrey and Davis have dared to enter the Citizen Club on a Friday night if they had been playing for the Bear or Perkins?
Above all, Curry is a victim of unfortunate timing. On June 27, university president Joab Thomas announced that he would resign his post at the end of August. It was president Thomas who handpicked Curry to replace Perkins a year and a half ago, over the howls of many Crimson Tide alumni, who would have preferred someone who had played for Bryant. Some merely resented the 31-43-4 coaching record that Curry brought with him from Georgia Tech.
"Alabama will no longer be known as a football factory," said president Thomas upon Curry's hiring, and he continued to defend his man in the wake of last season's record, which included a loss to Memphis State and two final regular-season games in which the Tide did not score a touchdown.
Thomas said he was resigning the presidency because he missed teaching botany, although he could not have been enjoying the guff he took for selecting Curry. If the Tide's coach looks lonely this fall, it will be because Thomas's departure leaves Curry without an emphatic booster in the Byzantine corridors of Alabama's administration or athletic department. If the team can't better last season's 7-5 record—or at least beat cross-state rival Auburn, which Alabama has now lost to four times in the last six seasons—Curry won't need to bother planting bulbs in his garden next spring.
Throughout his ordeal, Curry has remained unflappable, and his concern for the young men who play for him seems genuine. Part of that may have to do with the death this summer of 24-year-old Bret Starr, the son of former Alabama quarterback Bart Starr, a teammate of Curry's when both played with the Green Bay Packers. Bret died of cardiac arrest last month in Florida after using cocaine. "I held Bret in my arms when he was a baby," said Curry. "Our young people are being devastated. We've got to turn this thing around."
Curry may yet engineer a turnaround for himself in Tuscaloosa. From the Kansas City Chiefs he imported offensive coordinator Homer Smith to revive the Tide's passing game. And Thomas, a preseason All-America pick at linebacker who had 18 sacks last year, heads up a defense that will be even stingier than last season. Says Curry, "We just want to get it on."
The players, too, say they have put the events of July behind them. "Personally, I'm more worried about the running test than anything that happened a few weeks ago," says lineman Shultz. He hasn't gotten much attention this summer: He doesn't drink.
"The guys used to ask me, 'Why not?' " he explains, "and I'd say, 'Well, when I was in high school I had a beer once, and I stabbed someone.' I didn't really, but at least they don't try and get me to drink."
Shultz is notorious among his peers for bringing Fig Newtons to nightclubs and ordering rounds of milk. "None of this skim or two-percent stuff, either," he says. "I drink hard stuff. Whole milk."
The running test that has Shultz in such a lather will be conducted during the first week of two-a-days, starting Aug. 15. Players must run 10 40-yard sprints, with a 20-second rest between each. "And they want us to run each 40 at least 90 percent as fast as our best time," gripes Shultz. "Us linemen don't exactly live to run. But hey! We'll do it. That's what playing for the Crimson Tide is all about."
Part of what it's all about, anyway. Lately a lot of bad news has washed up with the Tide, and the Crimson is Alabama's embarrassment.