When they quit, most of them did so at night so they could make the long walk to the bus stop under cover of darkness. Paul (Bear) Bryant would sometimes watch from a place in the shadows, taking a drag on a Chesterfield, maybe allowing himself a trace of a smile.
Quitting made the most sense. Reason, after all, didn't allow for getting up at five o'clock each morning and spending days in the searing Texas sun. Or for retiring to a cot in a Quonset hut, thinking the day's horror was done, only to be rousted and ordered to leave yet more of themselves on the field under the stars. But reason was not what Bear Bryant was looking for in the 117 young men he brought to Junction, Texas, in 1954, before his first season as coach at Texas A&M. In the Bryant hagiography, that training camp in the Texas hill country is recalled as "the march to the desert." Its purpose was, in Bryant's words, "to find out right off who the players were and who the quitters were."
He found out. Camp was supposed to last two weeks. Fearing he wouldn't have enough bodies to start the season, Bryant called camp off after 10 days. Twenty-seven players remained.
At one point during that truncated fortnight, a man from the Houston Post showed up, having been dispatched to Junction by an editor who had heard tell of dissension on the team.
August 29, 1993
"Now, son, are you gonna quote me on this?" Bryant asked.
"Yessir," said the man from the Post.
"Well, you call your boss and tell him I said if there isn't any dissension now, there's damn sure going to be some in a hurry, and I'm going to cause it."
It was hard not to think of Bryant last fall when dissension broke out all over college football and coaches seemed powerless to stop it. In September, after Memphis State lost its first three games, 84 Tigers boycotted practice to show their displeasure with coach Chuck Stobart. In October the South Carolina Gamecocks, following an 0-5 start, voted to ask coach Sparky Woods to resign. In November players at Oklahoma refused to practice until coach Gary Gibbs explained to their satisfaction why one quarterback was getting more playing time than another. Think about it: On the very campus where Bud Wilkinson had delivered monologues so effective that one of his former players, Ralph Neely, remembers, "He had you convinced you could run through a brick wall"—a Sooner coach convened...an encounter session. Someday soon a major-college football team is going to release its fight song on the Windham Hill label.
Even the most secure coaches are furiously rewriting the rules to accommodate Kids Today. Just this spring Penn State's Joe Paterno, who would be a latter-day Bear if there were such a species, set up a "players' council." He and select seniors now meet regularly over breakfast to air gripes and share feelings. "I never thought college football would become like Central America," says ESPN commentator Beano Cook. "Kids don't understand that it's supposed to be a dictatorship."
Bryant never faced a player revolt, so we don't know precisely how he might have handled one. But we can be fairly sure that neither he nor any of his contemporaries—not the soft-spoken Wilkinson nor the oft-spoken Darrell Royal of Texas; not Ohio State's Woody Hayes, who once loosened the scams on his cap so he could later rip it apart to make a point, nor Southern Cal's John McKay, who in his first season demoted half the previous year's starters—would have broken out the healing crystals. In Junction when Bryant kicked an all-conference center off the team for walking off the field in the middle of practice, five other centers went to the coach to plead their teammate's case. Before they could say a word, Bryant shook their hands. "Good morning, gentlemen, and goodbye, goodbye, bless your hearts, goodbye," he said. Then he dismissed them from the team.
Would such an approach fly today? Like a dodo bird, it would. But the public clearly misses the larger-than-life football coach, imperiously stalking the sideline, eyes drawn into a permanent squint, the kind of coach to whom you sent your boy so he could come back a man. People seem to long for some impossible combination of Schwarzkopf, Schweitzer and Schwarzenegger, someone who really deserves that state trooper escort onto the field, a man who, as it was said of Bryant, "can take his'n and beat your'n, and take your'n and beat his'n." Yet these days it's easier to find natural-fiber clothing at a CFA golf scramble.
"For us, discipline implies disciple," Hayes once wrote. "The player will first believe in the coach as a person before he will fully accept the teachings of that coach." Contrast that credo with LSU coach Mike Archer's breezy acceptance of a player's explanation of why he was clocked going 123 mph on a Louisiana highway several years ago. "I was just trying to get some bad gas out of my engine," the player said.
McKay listened to Knute Rockne speeches so he could quote the gnarled Norseman to his players. Former Houston coach John Jenkins, it came to light last winter, spliced footage of bare-breasted women into practice film. (You know, "Win one for the Stripper," and all that.)
Wilkinson narrowly lost a race for a U.S. Senate seat from Oklahoma in 1964. Congress, tawdry body though it may be, won't likely welcome to its halls another Sooner ex-coach, Barry Switzer, who in 1989 dismissed episodes of rape, cocaine dealing and gunfire in his football dorm as "isolated incidents."
Of course Archer, Jenkins and Switzer are no longer head coaches. But the point stands: Rather than make men of his players, coach after coach nowadays seems content to concede that boys will be boys.
So why are there no more Bear Bryants? And no fair answering the way former Alabama and current Penn State president Joab Thomas does: "Because he's dead." It's not fair even if Thomas's may be the best explanation, because to answer the question one must start with Bryant himself.
If you had to distill someone larger than life into a few vulgar paragraphs, you would have to mention Bryant's hardscrabble upbringing in Moro Bottom, Ark., as one of 12 kids of a sickly father and a mother whom young Paul accompanied on her rounds selling produce from a wagon. You would also need to account for the young man's nickname, which he picked up when he wrestled a bear for cash, and make mention of his early days as a brawler and a hobo. Football allowed him to attend Alabama, where he met the socially prominent campus beauty queen, Mary Harmon Black, who became his wife. He did his part in North Africa during the Good War. He even had a Hollywood screen test. (Paterno might get a callback for the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, but that's about it.) Up at 4:30 a.m., like the strictest Calvinist, Bryant nonetheless loved games of chance and his evening scotch and Coke. "This must be what God looks like," said George Blanda, who played for Bryant at Kentucky, when he first saw the man's face.
As a coach Bryant would blow into town and, saviorlike, set things right. He did it at Maryland, at Kentucky, at Texas A&M, at Alabama. In one season the Terps went from 1-7-1 to 6-2-1 and the Wildcats from 2-8 to 7-3. The Aggies' Great 27, survivors of the march to the desert, lost nine of 10 games that first season, but two years later they went unbeaten and won a Southwest Conference title. When Alabama, 4-24-2 the three seasons before Bryant took over, found itself in the Sugar Bowl within four years, it was just another case of Bryant raising the dead.
A fear of failure chased Bryant as much as a will to win drove him. He would do anything to avoid going, as he put it, "back to the wagon." And he never wasted time with self-deprecation or false modesty. He had craved attention since childhood, when he once threw a cat through an open church window during services. As a player at Alabama he had been "the other end," opposite Hall of Famer Don Hutson; at Kentucky he had been "the other coach," eclipsed by basketball deity Adolph Rupp. At 'Bama, for 25 seasons, he was the man. Rivals liked to tell a tale of Bryant, out in a motorboat, fishing with a guide, getting his line ensnared on a log. The guide suggested they putter over and untangle the lure. "Don't bother," Bryant said. "I'll walk."
That story is apocryphal. Others aren't. One of Bryant's early Alabama teams had an earnest young player of limited ability named Russell Stutz. Teammates called him Bulldog for the low growling sounds he liked to make. One day Stutz muddled through a drill, making a lot of noise but a mess of his assigned paces. Bryant went over to him and in a voice so calm that it struck Bulldog's teammates as eerie, asked, "Stutz, did you give 100 percent on that last play?"
Stutz, enthusiastic and obliging, looked up at Bryant. "No, sir," he said. "I can do better."
"Russell," Bryant said, "I want you to get your butt off this field and be out of the dorm by five o'clock."
Of all the factors that made Bryant what he was, longevity was among the most important. Bryant lasted long enough to coach the sons of those who played for him. Today the youngest head coach in Division I-A, freshly appointed Jeff Horton of the University of Nevada, is 36; even if he were to coach to the normal retirement age of 65 and average 10 wins a season, he would still fall short of Bryant's 323 victories.
Not that schools nowadays have the patience to stick with one coach, even if they ought to. A coach may receive a five-year contract, but he knows the booster club will buy him out if he hasn't done some serious winning by his third season. "History will tell you that when a school gives a guy only three or four years, the next guy will go through another three or four without success," says Bill McCartney, whom Colorado administrators stood by through three losing seasons, including a 1-10 nadir in 1984, before the Buffaloes broke through.
Of course, of their own accord, more and more college coaches are leaving for the pros. Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Green, Bobby Ross and Dick MacPherson each had the potential to become a Mr. Chips on his campus. Stanford's Bill Walsh and Southern Cal's John Robinson might be college icons right now if they hadn't taken sabbaticals in the play-for-pays. The NFL has ample appeal: You don't have to placate the divergent interests of faculty and fans. Paul Tagliabue won't put you on probation. And whereas in Bryant's day a college coach received more money and glory than he could in the pros, today a coach can't make out better than in the NFL, short of signing on with NBC.
"The only way to become a legend is by winning big," says Baylor athletic director Dick Ellis. "You don't become one by graduating all your seniors or winning the sportsmanship award. And it's tougher to win big with the spreading around of talent." It's said that during the 1960s and '70s, Bryant could have split his squad in two and finished first and second in the Southeastern Conference. Many 'Bama lettermen never played a down, but as long as they sat on Bryant's bench, they weren't out on the field beating him. Today even if a talented high-schooler wanted to ride the bench for an elite program, he probably couldn't because of the current Division I-A limit of 88 scholarships. He would wind up going to Mississippi or Vanderbilt and playing. The result is parity—a competitiveness that's good for the game but bad for the business of legend-building.
In fact, the old-school masters never let squad limits keep them from winning big. A coach today screams that he's not allowed to suit up a fourths-tring free safety because his athletic director has to hire a women's squash coach. Yet McKay won national championships with fewer than 50 players. "We'll have an offensive team and a defensive team," he liked to say. "And the other team will be in charge of carrying me off the field."
The coaches and players of the '50s had lived through the Depression and/or the shortages of the war years. "I was so poor," Royal liked to say, "I had a tumbleweed as a pet." Scholarships could be canceled on the spot, and players were as afraid as Bryant was of going "back to the wagon."
"Most of us were country boys," says Charley Pell, who was a member of Bryant's second recruiting class at Alabama. "If we didn't have that scholarship, it was back to laying blocks or digging ditches or working at the supermarket. Yeah, I was afraid of doing that."
Just as today's kids grow up differently, so too did their parents. Bryant loved to talk about the importance of his players having "good mamas and papas." Moms and dads nowadays aren't necessarily bad; they simply come from an era in which an authority figure didn't get a free pass. Thus they have modern relationships with their sons, who in turn expect relationships with their coaches to be more nuanced than "My way or the highway." Bemoan the passing of the despotic head coach if you must, but more and more schools are concluding that well-intentioned abuse is a contradiction in terms. When it was revealed last season that Colorado State coach Earle Bruce had cuffed around a few of his players, the school couldn't show him the door fast enough. And Purdue may have a hard time accepting the behavior of coach Jim Colletto, at least as alleged by Ryan Harmon, the former lineman who claims to have suffered such humiliation during two seasons in West Lafayette that he was driven to wanting to kill himself. Alleging both mental and physical abuse by Colletto, Harmon sued Purdue on Aug. 3. He claims that Colletto regularly "hit, punched, kicked and shoved" him.
Bryant boasted about kicking his players—to see, he said, which ones would kick back. But 30 years ago a coach who tried to turn practice into a Bruce Lee film wouldn't have merited an inch of newspaper copy. Now the news media have adjusted their attitude, and they're interested in more than just the bullying of players. In 1991, at the climax of Washington's undefeated national championship season, a Seattle TV station aired a report on the poor graduation rate of the players under coach Don James, who quit on Sunday after Washington was placed on probation (page 11). And Paterno's career at Penn State has been sullied by a spate of off-the-field incidents involving Nittany Lions, all duly recorded in the central Pennsylvania press.
Anything goes on radio talk shows, the more contrary and controversial the better. And the men (and women) in the press box are of a new breed. Go ahead and accuse them of splitting infinitives, but whatever you do, don't call them homers. The lengthy NCAA travails of the Southwest Conference in the 1980s were caused not so much by the league's corruption as by the scoop-counterscoop crossfire of a newspaper war in Dallas.
An out-of-town journalist recalls watching Bryant hold a press conference following a practice during the '60s: "He comes walking into this room, sits down, takes out a cigarette and smokes it down to the end. Nobody says a word. They just look at him, waiting. Finally he says, 'Well, we had a pretty good practice today.' Everybody starts scribbling like mad. 'I think Billy Joe Bob Fred Smith is going to be a good left tackle.' And they scribble some more. He keeps doing this. Finally he stamps out his cigarette and says, 'Any more questions?' With that he gets up and walks out. I got up and followed him. 'You call that a press conference?' I asked him. He said, 'That's the way we do things herein Alabama.' "
Which raises another point: Only certain pockets of the country have ever been willing to make a huge fuss over a football coach, and the Deep South may be the last of them. "I guess if there's ever going to be another icon anywhere, it's going to be in the Southeast," says ESPN's Cook. "The biggest person in most of those states isn't the governor. It's the football coach. Things are different in the South. The mothers and fathers still spank their kids down there."
Yet even in the South, fans are particular about whom they'll make into a hero. At Georgia, Vince Dooley won 72% of his games and comported himself like a gentleman. In 1980 he coached the Bulldogs to a perfect season and a national title. So how come, when he considered an offer to go to Auburn late that year, most Dawg partisans were hoping he would up and leave? Because, they figured, if Dooley left, his defensive coordinator, Erk Russell, would get the Georgia job. And unlike Dooley, Russell had all the earmarks of an icon-in-the-making: an ear-catching name, a pate you could see your reflection in and a belief in a throwback brand of football that feeds some primal need in the public. (Indeed, Russell went on to become a vest-pocket legend at Division I-AA Georgia Southern, where he won three national titles in eight years.)
One of the sources of Bryant's charisma was the easy candor with which he owned up to his programs' violations of NCAA rules. Though Bryant avoided personal involvement in the purchase of talent, he told boosters to pay the prevailing rate. Bryant and Auburn coach Shug Jordan had an agreement: If one had a problem with the other's recruiting, he was to pick up the phone and call, not the NCAA, not the media, but the other coach. Anyway, in Bryant's day, says former Arkansas coach and current athletic director Frank Broyles, "you would not get fired for cheating. You were fired for losing."
That has changed. In the 1980s, Auburn's Pat Dye seized the in-state recruiting advantage from the Crimson Tide following Bryant's retirement. But when Auburn defensive back Eric Ramsey secretly recorded conversations that implicated a booster in providing improper benefits to him, Dye was gone. Today even Bryant might not be wooed to Tuscaloosa, considering the rap sheet he picked up at Texas A&M, which was placed on probation for paying money to recruit players in 1954. "Compliance problems," the 'Bama search committee might say as it tossed Bryant's application aside.
Imagine how Bryant and his contemporaries would have reacted to neologisms like compliance problems. Mention a phrase like women's equity to any of them, and he would likely have said, "Sure, I'm all for the pom-pom girls being equally pretty." Indeed, 15 years ago any of the other buzz phrases currently heard in college sports—dead periods, satisfactory progress, Bylaw 5-1-(J)—would have sounded to coaches like Etruscan.
Nowadays a university president simply isn't willing to let a $15 million segment of his institution jeopardize the integrity of the whole $400 million shebang. In Bryant's time—particularly in the Deep South—it was an insult for a football coach not to have the additional honorific of athletic director; today, Oregon's Rich Brooks is the only Division I-A football coach who doubles as AD, and if he failed to do his president's bidding. Brooks would surely be stripped of the title. "I can recall the days when Coach Bryant could address the NCAA convention on an issue and he could swing the vote if it was going to be close," says former Alabama player Pell. "There's not a single individual in college football who can do that today."
But be sure to credit more than just a bygone era for Bryant's stature. Credit Bryant himself. "He was always changing and adapting," says Jackie Sherrill, who played on two of Bryant's national championship teams in the early '60s and now coaches at Mississippi State. "If something wasn't working, he had the innate ability to change it and make it work." Bryant eventually took to encouraging marginal talents rather than summarily running them off. He permitted long hair and allowed his players to get married. Indeed, sometimes Bryant seemed to yearn for a few scapegraces—just a handful of boys who reminded him of himself at their age. "I'll be damned, we've got so many niiiice boys," he once said, "sometimes I wish I'd have to go to jail on Friday nights and bail five or six of 'em out to play on Saturday." But by the 1970s Bryant's legend was so imposing that he could loosen the reins of discipline with little risk. By then Alabama players put out not because he drove them but because they couldn't imagine letting him down.
Even when Bryant bent, however, players knew there was something steely at his core. In 1963 he suspended Joe Namath for two crucial games at the end of the season after Namath broke training. Bryant cried when he did it, but he did it. Of course, Alabama went on to win the Sugar Bowl and a national title without Namath. Glory and honor—in those days a coach-king could have both even when he stood by his principles.
Coaches make concessions today because flexibility is likely to yield the right results: the victories without which they're goners. Last season Woods and South Carolina won five of their last six games after the players' revolt. Archer's successor at LSU, Curley Hallman, at first forbade his players to wear earrings but then relented when they objected. There's only one problem with copping a flexible attitude: The very act of saying, directly or by implication, "Well, yeah, go ahead, wear your earrings," tends to cut a coach down to size. And that may be why today's icon wannabes can barely budge a blocking sled staturewise.
Florida State's Bobby Bowden has the fire, the folksiness and the Q-rating—is there anyone more likable in the game?—but until he starts beating Miami, he'll forever be doomed by the sine qua non of icondom: The coach must at least rule his own state.
James did. Before he left Washington last week, his coaching acumen was the talk of every Puget Sound espresso bar, but to show for his 18 seasons in Seattle he had only a share in one national title, which is sort of like kissing your sister's Tupperware.
Notre Dame, the school of Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian, sets the bar awfully high. But whether you're based in South Bend or in Corvallis, you've got to win at least 200 games to run with the big dogs, and until he does, Lou Holtz will have to stay on the porch. His humor has also become a little unreliable; Holtz's jokes come in inverse proportion to the stress he's under. (That's the difference between Holtz and Royal, who repeated his most enduring aphorism—"You dance with who brung you"—during the pressure-filled run-up to the Longhorns' victorious 1969 showdown with Arkansas.)
Dennis Erickson has won two titles in four seasons at Miami without disturbing so much as a strand of his anchorman's hair. But because of the talent he lands and the pro-style offense he deploys, Erickson is likely to be picked off by the NFL before he can be vested with icon status. Plus it's hard to revere a man who can't keep his players from breaking into those derisive post-touchdown mazurkas. "If you got in the end zone and danced and pointed to the crowd and taunted when McKay was coach, you'd find yourself at the end of the bench," says former Trojan Heisman Trophy winner and current AD Mike Garrett.
The institutional giant today is Eddie Robinson, who has lorded over Grambling football for a half century. But he operates at a Division I-AA school, and, sad to say, many whites are reluctant to accept as their icon a man who's black and has devoted his life to coaching blacks.
McCartney's dabbling in divisive social issues will prevent him from ruling a state as diverse as Colorado—and it reminds us that, over a quarter century, Bryant may have been the only public man in Alabama to transcend the issue of race.
La Veil Edwards of BYU has a winning program, but he has had to spend so much time getting the pollsters to take his teams seriously that no one has gotten around to appraising him. When people finally do, it may be from courtroom footage. Former BYU defensive lineman Budd Orr is suing the school, alleging that a "win at any cost" attitude fostered in Edwards's program resulted in a back injury that snuffed out Orr's chance of a pro career and disables him still. Defendants don't make good icons.
Tom Osborne has Nebraska all to himself, but until he can consistently win big games, no one much cares. "Besides," says one of the game's cognoscenti, "can you name your eighth-grade math teacher?"
John Robinson and Walsh are back in the Pac-10, but each is in his 60's, having given his best years to the NFL. Robinson returns to a USC campus where expectations have been scaled down since McKay's day. And Walsh has still never been to a Rose Bowl.
Even as we mention him as a possible icon-in-waiting, Walsh embodies many of the reasons the species is no more. After two seasons at Stanford in the late '70s, he was lured away by the pros. While many of the coaching fixtures who came before him, men like Hayes and Bo Schembechler, succeeded by relentlessly applying the conventional wisdom, Walsh is renowned as an innovator. And while the giants of the sidelines always seemed to exist apart from the campus pointy-heads, Walsh has been asked to lecture in Stanford's departments of education, psychology and business. Without self-consciousness Walsh will characterize his team's play as "sublime" or explain his return to Palo Alto by saying, "This is my bliss."
Small wonder, then, that while Bryant supervised practice from atop his tower, Walsh makes sure he's out on the field. "Today's coach is more facilitating than dictatorial," Walsh says. "There's more science to being a coach now. Consequently, 'making a boy into a man' nowadays may mean not just making him tough and strong but also helping him to learn communications skills, to deal with others under stress and to learn a game plan and apply it in a few days.
"There was a time when you could say, 'We will be tougher than them and hit harder and want it more.' And at the end of the game, people would say, 'Oh, yeah, USC wanted it more than Oregon State, or Alabama wanted it more than Vanderbilt.' If you have a mismatch, that works. But if you have two teams evenly matched—and parity has brought a lot more of that about—that won't work."
The headlines reporting Walsh's return to Stanford a season ago seemed to grope for something large—icon-large. "Genius" was the appellation he had picked up in the pros, but that was a secular one; a headline in TIME magazine heralded THE SECOND COMING. Walsh has studied the power of myth. Joseph Campbell's lectures on the subject riveted him. So Walsh and his staff, afraid that their players might be too starstruck to do the communicating that the Walsh way demands, tried to humanize the new coach. His management style would not isolate a leader atop a pedestal—or a tower. "It can drain from people to pay homage rather than play football," says Walsh. By encouraging his players to call him Bill, he allows them to play football.
So if Walsh, in the few years he has left, were to receive the mantle of icon, he would cast it off as if it were a yoke. That leaves only one figure to flirt with Bryant's stature.
Paterno began his career at Penn State with no particular distinction. He played weak opponents, safeguarding a winning tradition established by the three coaches who preceded him, including the legendary Rip Engle. Then Paterno upgraded the Nittany Lions' schedule and won a couple of national titles, beating a superb Georgia team in the 1983 Sugar Bowl and upsetting Miami in the Fiesta Bowl four years later. All the while he spoke out for academic standards and ignored the blandishments of the NFL. Now that Penn State has joined the Big Ten, Paterno is facing, at 66, competitive challenges on another order of magnitude. If he meets them, he'll surely merit reconsideration.
But until then Paterno's workaday life-style, that common touch of walking home from a game with the outgoing crowd, even those clunky glasses, all tend to make him seem smaller than life. When someone asks whatever happened to John Wayne, you have to do better than point out Henry Fonda.
Funny: One of Paterno's players, a fullback named J.T. Morris, recently called him "a dictator" when the coach refused to release him from his scholarship. Reaching Bryant's status is going to take a lot more repression than that. But it's a start.