Because I grew up in a multiethnic environment in New York City, the South has always conjured up some bad news reactions on word-association tests for me: Klan, lynch, redneck, moonshine, speed-trap towns and death … lots of death.
As the years have passed, I’ve started hearing some flip sides. There’s the “New South,” with Atlanta as cosmopolitan as New York. I’ve heard that, despite the headline horrors, Southerners get along racially better than Northerners. And that foreign blacks prefer the upfrontness of the South to the hypocritical liberal bullshit of the North.
But despite all my revisionist thoughts, the only good images that have held up in my head are Southern novelists and the University of Alabama football team. The novelists because they are good or great and the Crimson Tide because, like Notre Dame, they are the New York Yankees of college football. I don’t give a rat’s ass about football, college or otherwise, and I’m not crazy about regimentation or bullet-head activities. But I do admire winners.
And as ignorant as I am of the “real” South and football in general, even I know that the man behind the winning tradition at Alabama is a magnetic, scary John Wayne type named Paul “Bear” Bryant. I would see him every few years on a televised bowl game, standing on the side lines, craggy-faced, in that houndstooth hat. I figured he was some kind of coaching genius. I also got the notion that he was somebody I was very glad not to have as a teacher in any course I was flunking.
On the plane headed for Birmingham, I am armed with two documents: Bear, coach Bryant’s autobiography; and the 1978 Alabama Football Crimson Tide Press Guide. Bear doesn’t do much for me—it’s a little too cagily humble. The Press Guide, on the other hand, has me freaking out six ways to Sunday. These guys are monsters. Even the handsome fraternity types have that combat-veteran look about them.
The other things that are dizzying in the press book are the win-loss stats. They’re almost pornographic. Since Bryant went to Alabama in 1958, the Tide’s record has been 193-38-8. In the past eight years, try 85-11—that’s almost 11 wins per season. They were in 20 bowl games in a row, won all but one Southeastern Conference title since 1971 (’76 went to Georgia), won five national championships since 1961 and have a home record of 60-1, with 45 straight victories.
Bryant is the winningest active coach, with 284 victories in 34 years at four schools, and is third in total wins only to Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner as far as the history of the game goes.
At the Birmingham airport, I start wondering why the hell I am keying in so much on the hairdos I see all around me. The Dolly Parton pompadours, the rock-a-billy duck asses, the military knuckleheads. Then I look in a mirror. With the possible exception of a photo of Duane Allman, I have the longest hair of anybody I’ve seen all day. I start getting visions of rusty scissors in a sheriff’s office. Ah, that’s all Hollywood horseshit, I tell myself. But I do go into a men’s room and remove my earring.
Bryant Hall is where all the players have to live for the four or five years they’re at Alabama. It was among the first sports dorms in the country and it received a lot of flak for special treatment, pampering, athletic elitism. Since then, sports dorms have popped up all over, but the controversy still goes on.
In any event, as I go there for lunch with Kirk McNair, Alabama’s sports information director, I expect to see something between a palace and a beach-front condominium. What I see is more like a cross between a dorm and a housing project. The place looks like shit. Off the lobby is a TV room and the dining room. Players walk by. Some are mammoth, with roast-beef shoulders and ham-hock thighs, and they shuffle swaybacked into the dining room; others aren’t much bigger than I am. Alabama opts for quickness over bulk; consequently, it’s not that big a team.
I eat with McNair and a Birmingham sportswriter, plus a short, heavy Italian guy who runs a restaurant in town, is a freak for the team and supplies everybody with food. He just likes to hang around with the boys.
From where we sit, I can see the guys taking the empty trays to the disposal area. They all seem to shuffle, drag their feet like they’re saving it up for practice—or else they have that sprightly pigeon-toed jock walk, as if they’re about to sprint across a room keeping a soccer ball afloat with their toes and knees.
I don’t hear anybody mention Bear Bryant. In fact, he doesn’t have that much personal contact with his players. He’s got a huge staff of coaching assistants who get down in the dirt with them.
But he’s there. He’s in that room. He is the team and everybody knows it.
Assistant coaches are all over, screaming, barking, shoving, soothing (though not too much), encouraging. A sound track of grunts, growls, roars and commands floats in the spring air.
A football is laid out with a white pen by the tray-disposal area, and the players sign the ball after they get rid of their trays. Some kid is going to get the best birthday present in the entire state. Or maybe it’s for his old man.
Later that afternoon, I’m taken to the grass practice field. The sports offices are in the coliseum and there’s a long underground walkway that connects with the closed-to-the-public Astroturf practice field. The first thing I notice as I come up to ground level, slightly drunk on the waft of freshly cut grass, is a tower. A huge 50-foot-high observation post.
And up there is my first shot of Bear, slouched against the railing, wearing a beat-up varsity jacket, a baseball cap, a megaphone hanging from one wrist. He doesn’t move, just leans back like he’s lost in thought. Below him, there are maybe 100 guys running plays, mashing into one another in the dirt, attacking dummies. A massive division of labor of violence, speed and strength. Assistant coaches are all over, screaming, barking, shoving, soothing (though not too much), encouraging. A sound track of grunts, growls, roars and commands floats in the spring air. And above it all, Bear doesn’t move, he doesn’t even seem to be interested. It’s as though he’s a stranded lifeguard, six months off season, wondering how the hell he got up there and how the hell he’s gonna get down.
The most terrifying workout I see that day is called the gauntlet drill. You take three linemen, line them up one behind the other about ten feet apart. Then a relatively small running back is placed about five feet in front of the first lineman, and at the sound of a whistle, he tries to get past the first lineman. If he does, the lineman gets the shit chewed out of him by the defensive coach. If he doesn’t, the running back gets dumped on his ass by an enormous amount of meat and gear. Either way, he has to set to, go around the second lineman, then the third. Somehow, with that coach bawling and shoving the lineman who fucked up, I feel more anxiety for the lineman than I do for the halfback.
On the Astroturf field, there are two practice scrimmages with referees. I sit on the sideline bench with a number of pro scouts, a few privileged civilians and a bunch of shaggy-haired 12-year-olds who walk up and down the side line imitating that pigeon-toed jock walk, chewing gum and trying to look like future prospects. Like me, every few minutes they sneak a glance at the tower to check out the big man.
The players are wearing jerseys of one of five colors. Red jersey—first-string offense. White—first-string defense. Blue—second-string defense. Green—second-string offense. And gold. Gold signifies “Don’t tackle this man,” which means the guy is either a quarterback (quarterbacks never get tackled in practice) or nursing an injury.
I look up at the tower. Bear is gone.
The bench we’re sitting on divides the pits and the Astroturf from a long, flat grassy field with just a few goal posts at one distant end. Bear makes it down to earth and, head still down, slowly ambles over to the grassy field. Some of the 12-year-olds notice and nudge one another. He’s walking away. Going home. Hands in pockets. The bench divides the two shows: the number-one college team working out to the west and the coach slowly walking alone to the east.
I turn my back on the players and watch Bear walk. He gets out about 50 yards toward the walkway back to the coliseum when a player on crutches, hobbling toward the Astroturf, meets him at mid-field. They stop, exchange a few words (the crutches do not fall away as I would prefer) and the wounded player swings along toward the crowd.
Bear stands there, staring at his shoes, scratching his nose. Then, without looking up, he puts a whistle in his mouth, shoots a couple of weak toots I think only I can hear, and suddenly the earth is shaking and I’m caught in a buffalo stampede. Every player has immediately dropped everything and is tearing ass over to Bear.
They say no one ever walks for a second from the beginning to the end of an Alabama practice. Within 20 seconds of his whistle, Bear is surrounded in a square by four perfect lines. Blue jersey, south; white, north; red, east; green, west. Bear squints into the distance. A player leaps forward out of the tense and taut blue south—they’re all in a slight crouch, eyes on the blue leader, who jerks his hands toward his helmet and, in a twinkling, they follow suit; he jerks his hands down to his flexed thighs, halfway up to his chest, a half jerk up, down, a feint, finger tips to the helmet. The entire blue squad is frozen except for its arms. Back and knees bent, eyes and neck straight ahead, they play flawless follow-the-leader for 15 seconds, then stand up straight, arching their backs, and clap and cheer for themselves.
As soon as they applaud, the leader of the green west leaps out and leads his squad through a perfect 15-second drill. The green applaud themselves. Bear stands alone in the center of all this, a deity, a religious rock being rapidly salaamed by an army of jocks. The green cheer is immediately followed by the white north, then applause, then red east. Fifteen flawless seconds each of heart-stopping precision—Bear Bryant the centerpiece, looking nowhere, everywhere, watching or lost in thought.
Then every one of them is running back to where he came from. Back to the dirt, the Astroturf, the tackling sled. Back over my head and shoulders. And once again, Bear is alone on the field, hands in pockets just like 120 seconds before. He has not said a thing, seemingly never looked at anyone. Behind me, the practices are in full swing. I watch coach Bryant amble over to his tower and slowly ascend the 50 feet to his platform, resume his slouch against the railing and check out whatever those flinty eyes deem in need of checking out. Holy shit and kiss my ass. That was known as a quickness drill.
In terms of glory, there are no individual stars at Alabama. It really is a team team. It has had plenty of All-Americans, plenty of pro stars such as Lee Roy Jordan, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, but by and large, you don’t hear that much about individuals besides the coach.
How does he do it? The team is composed predominantly of home boys, who must have grown up worshiping Bear Bryant. I think of those 12-year-olds cock-walking the side lines, one-eying the tower. Every year, the coach gets a batch of players who have been spoon-fed Bear stories and glories all their lives. So for an adolescent athlete from Birmingham, Florence, Demopolis, Bessemer to hear “Bear wants you”—it would turn him into a raving kamikaze, or at least a stout and loyal fellow. I don’t think Bear has to try very hard anymore to get players with the right “attitude.”
My first interview the following morning is with Steadman Shealy. We meet under the chandelier in the football dorm. Shealy isn’t much bigger than I am, but he’s a lot blonder and tanner. He also has a firmer handshake, better manners and a neater appearance. Shealy’s the first-string quarterback.
We go up to his room and I get my first gander at the living arrangements. The dorm rooms are tiny, with two beds, cinder-block walls and the usual campus-bookstore assortment of banal posters. Shealy, at least, is average-human-being-sized. I try to imagine two nose guards sharing a room this narrow.
Shealy sits on his bed, confident, serene, courteous, helpful and cheerful. And he’s not putting me on. I ask him why he chose to go to Alabama, assuming he could have played anywhere in the South. I expect him to rave about Bear, but instead he says, “I really thought this is where God wanted me to come.”
He suspended two of his most famous players, Namath and Stabler, for infractions. No matter who you are, if you don’t toe the line, the man will personally clean out your locker for you.
I sit up a little straighter. At first I don’t know if he’s talking about the Lord or Bear, but then he says the second reason was the opportunity to play for coach Bryant—that Alabama has “something extra” in its winning tradition. And then he says something I will hear in the next several interviews: “And I want to be a winner.”
On the cover of Bear is the quote “I ain’t nothing but a winner.”
Shealy talks of Bear’s father image, of how the coach applies football to life (another thing I’ll hear again), of what it takes to win. All hokey stuff in the abstract—but not to Shealy or the others. The guys talk about these bland notions as though they were tenets of radical politics.
Shealy’s religiosity, as exotic to me as Bora Bora, seems a natural extension of the team spirit. He is a Christian soldier, a leader and a follower. Not many of the guys say they’re religious, but—at least in interviews—there are no wise guys, no cynics. Frankly, all this clear-eyed devotion makes me extremely uncomfortable, but maybe that’s my problem.
And where does Shealy see himself five years from now? “Coachin’ or Christian ministry … it all depends on what doors God opens up.” None of what he says about the coach, about winning and life is all that insightful, but his eyes and chin tell the story. He has no room in his face for sarcasm, despair or doubt. He loves the coach, he loves the team, he loves Christ: a clean-cut, all-American, God, Bear and ’Bama man if ever there were one.
Attitude. I know Bryant doesn’t tolerate any guff from anybody. He suspended two of his most famous players, Namath and Stabler, for infractions. No matter who you are, if you don’t toe the line, the man will personally clean out your locker for you. Bear says in his book that he works best with the kid who doesn’t know he’s not terribly talented but plays his heart out. He’s more attuned to that kind of athlete than to the hot-dog natural. Sort of like making the New York Yankees out of a bunch of Rocky types. The great American combo: underdog, superstar.
My next interview is with Don Jacobs, the second- or possibly third-string quarterback. He picked Alabama because, growing up in north Alabama, that’s all you hear: “Alabama this, Alabama that.” He says in the southern part of the state, boys are partial to Auburn, but Alabama is the “number-one university in your mind.”
“The first time I talked with coach Bryant,” says Jacobs, “I was scared to death. I was afraid to say anything at all. But he was real nice. He talked about Pat Trammel [a star on the 1961 championship team], ’cause Trammel was from Scottsboro, my home town. Said he hoped I was good as Trammel.”
Bear, I’m thinking, is a frightening man, but from what I gather of the impressions and memories of players, he’s not a screamer, puncher, growler. He’s a man of few words, not even one for pep talks. Jacobs has never seen him get really angry, never lose his cool, never jump on anybody’s case.
I ask Jacobs how I should conduct myself when I meet Bear. “Be real courteous,” he says. “Say ‘Yes, sir, no, sir.’ Just be yourself.”
“Should I get a haircut?”
“I dunno. I wouldn’t go in there like that. When you go see him, you always shave, look real nice, don’t wear sloppy clothes. Lots of players tell you there’s a lot of things you don’t do when you see coach Bryant. It’s been passed down through history. You always take your hat off in the house, stuff like that.”
Awe and respect. Dedication and honor. And, oh, yes, talent.
In the early afternoon, I see a few players hanging out with some girls in front of Bryant Hall. A big dude comes walking in with his dad, mom, sis and his pretty gal. The father looks like a big baggy version of his son. Maybe the present son will come to this dorm 20 years later with his son. Football is a family sport. Everybody is proud of everybody. Bryant pushes that a lot in his talks to his players.
This is from a midweek, midseason talk to his 1964 national champs:
After the game, there are three types of people. One comes in and he ain’t played worth killing, and he’s lost. And he gets dressed and out of there as quick as he can. He meets his girl and his momma, and they ain’t too damn glad to see him. And he goes off somewhere and says how “the coach shoulda done this or that,” and “the coach don’t like me,” and “I didn’t play enough.” And everybody just nods.
And the second type will sit there awhile, thinking what he could have done to make his team a winner. And he’ll shed some tears. He’ll finally get dressed, but he doesn’t want to see anybody. His momma’s out there. She puts on a big act and tells him what a great game he played, and he tells her if he had done this or that, he’d be a winner, and that he will be a winner—next week.
And then there’s the third guy. The winner. He’ll be in there hugging everybody in the dressing room. It’ll take him an hour to dress. And when he goes out, it’s a little something extra in it when his daddy squeezes his hand. His momma hugs and kisses him, and that little old ugly girl snuggles up, proud to be next to him. And he knows they’re proud. And why.
That afternoon, I have an interview with one of the black players, a nose guard named Byron Braggs. I have seen only a small photo of him in the press book and know that on the first day of practice his freshman year, he almost died of heatstroke but came back to be a top lineman.
I’m checking out my biceps in the empty lounge of Bryant Hall when I look up and jump 90 feet—there’s Braggs, 6’6”, 260 pounds, wearing a Cat-tractor hat. We go up to his room, which consists of a large roommate, a TV, a stereo and a full-size refrigerator. They must sleep standing up.
Braggs is a little different from the others I’ve talked with—a little less awestruck, more blasé. He came to Alabama because his “folks picked it for me. It’s near home.”
What does he think about Bryant? “A lot of guys are scared of him,” says Braggs. “They’re in awe of his presence. But I just look at him like anybody else. I’m just happy he can remember my name. He mixes up a lot of names and faces, but two minutes later, he’ll remember and apologize.”
Ten years ago, Alabama was segregated. When I ask Braggs if prejudice lingers, he just shrugs. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “There were times when things looked shaky, but there are no major problems.”
And is state-wide football fever a white fever, or does it affect black Alabamans, too? “Up until about eight to ten years ago,” says Braggs, “It was mainly white. I didn’t even know about Alabama. I would watch Notre Dame, USC with O. J. Simpson. I didn’t really notice Alabama until they best USC out there. That was the first time I knew they had a team. And since they had black players, a lot more people became fans of the team. My folks and others follow the team now. In my home town, people have become real fans.”
How about those things Bryant teaches—about character and football and life? “It’s life and death out there on the field sometimes. It all ties in. Some coaches like Bryant, John McKay, Ara Parseghian tend to have a definite pull on which way you’re looking after you graduate. They’re sort of like the last shaping process that someone is going to do to you. From then on, you do it from within.”
Braggs’s advice on how to relate to the coach? “Talk to him straight. Don’t beat around the bush. He’s not impressed with slickness or guys trying to fool him.”
Taking a breather between interviews, I walk around campus a bit, grooving on the coeds in their summer dresses, the chirping of the birds, the flora of the South. Old brick and columns. There’s not one physically ugly person on the campus.
Back on campus that afternoon, I interview defensive end Gary DeNiro. The reason I pick him is that he’s from Youngstown, Ohio, which is definitely Ohio State turf.
He went to Alabama, he says, because he “didn’t like Woody Hayes’s coaching that much” and was “always an Alabama fan.
“I like that the coach plays a lot of guys who are small [DeNiro is six feet, 210 pounds]. Up North, they play bigger people. Coach Bryant plays the people who want to play.”
“How about your Ohio State buddies? What was the reaction when they found out you were going to play for Alabama?”
“Coach Bryant is the legend of all coaches. If he is behind you, no telling how many doors can open for you.”
“They thought I made a big mistake. That I’d come down here and they’d still be fighting the Civil War. They were wrong.”
DeNiro’s first impression of Bryant?
“He’s a legend. Like meeting someone you always wanted to meet. Once Alabama wanted me, I didn’t have no trouble makin’ up my mind. I remember one time I was loafin’ when I was red-shirted, which is a hard time, ’cause you practice like everyone else, but come Friday night, when the team goes, you stay home. Anyway, I was ‘puttin’ in a day,’ as coach calls it, and he caught me and yelled, ‘DeNiro, who you think you’re tryin’ to fool?’ And from then on, I never loafed. There’s really no place for it on the field.”
“How about contact with the coach?”
“Maybe two or three times a year. He says his door is always open, but I’ll go in just maybe to say goodbye before I go home or something—nothing more. He has coaching meetings every day. He tells the coaches what he thinks, then we’ll have meetings with the coaches in the afternoon and they’ll tell us what we’re doing wrong. And then about three, four times a week, we’ll have a meeting with coach Bryant. We’ll all go in as a group. He’ll tell us what he sees overall. I imagine he gets more contact with the upperclassmen, because they’re the leaders and they’ll get it across to the team.”
“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”
“Hopefully, with a lot of money. Maybe pro ball if I’m not too small—coach Bryant proved the little man can work out. Or maybe I’ll coach. Coach Bryant is the legend of all coaches. If he is behind you, no telling how many doors can open for you.”
No telling is right. There’s a club based in Birmingham consisting of all Bear Bryant alumni now in the business world. They meet with graduating senior team members and help them find both summer and career jobs. Many kids want, if not to play pro, which most of them do want, to take a crack at coaching. There’s also a big business school down there and a strong education program. But whatever they do choose, if they stay in Alabama, playing for Bear and then going into anything in athletics or business is like graduating summa cum laude. Even outside Alabama, the alumni network is nationwide. I hear that one of the biggest diamond dealers in New York’s 47th Street district is an Alabama grad.
These interviews are frustratingly inconclusive. All this nonsense concerning life, character, winners’ attitudes—of course it’s going to come across bland and boringly obvious on a tape recorder. But it’s really a combat camaraderie, a brotherhood of suffering and surviving, a growing together in a violent, competitive world. And being rewarded by being called best. Call it character, call it chicken soup, but it’s really love. Love of the boss man. Love of one another and love of victory. All this hoopla about football applied to life comes down to this: I was the best in the world once. I know what that tastes like. I want more. Roll, Tide!
In areas of rural poverty, football is the American passion play, the emotional outlet for all the rage, boredom and bad breaks—just as basketball is in urban areas.
In The Last Picture Show, an entire Texas town lived for high school football; and that’s a common phenomenon. In our dissociated culture—despite whatever grace, glory and beauty they evoke in the best teams and players—contact sports serve two functions: They allay boredom, divert people from thinking about the dreariness of their lives; and they help people channel their rage.
You can go to a revival in Selma on Friday or you can scream your lungs out in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. The bottom line at both is transference of a lot of anger into a socially acceptable outlet.
Like in football, there’s a lot of beatific beauty in Gospel, but it’s a bit beside the point. As coach Karl Marx once said, football is the opiate of the people. And not just here: There are soccer riots in the Third World stadiums. Christs for a day bloodying themselves in Latin-American pageants. Millions marching to Mecca. A lady in Selma once told me, “People leave Bryant stadium like they’re in a religious trance.”
It’s my day to interview Bear, and, to be honest, I’m scared. I consider giving myself a haircut with nail clippers. My heart is calling Kong to the gates.
McNair takes me up to the offices on the top floor of the coliseum, where I sit in the spacious waiting room. The walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling black-and-white blowups of every major bowl stadium—Rose, Orange, Sugar, Bluebonnet, Gator, Tangerine, you name it.
Everybody walking around is named Coach. It’s like sitting in a room with all the tall, stately, aging cowboys of Hollywood. A room full of Gary Cooper-Ben Johnson look-alikes, all nodding to one another. “Mornin’, coach.” “Hey, coach.” “Nice day, coach.” If I were to scream out “Coach!” there would be a ten-way collision. And everybody looks like Bear Bryant.
Several times I see someone walk in and hear someone say, “Hey, coach,” and I jump up, drop my tape recorder and extend my hand. After the fifth false alarm, I ignore the next look-alike. Too bad. That one is the mold.
I walk into his office, a large wood-paneled room with a color TV, a massive cluttered desk and a view of the practice field. Coach Bryant is cordial—patient but distant. He has been interviewed perhaps six times a week since coming to Alabama.
He sort of mutters from his diaphragm in his artesian-well-deep Arkansas drawl and it’s like listening to a language you studied for only a year in high school.
He looks all of his 66 years—his face is like an aerial shot of a drought area. His eyes are glittering hard. His hands are huge and gnarled. He needs a haircut himself.
As I fumble around with the tape recorder, explaining that I’m not a sportswriter, he opens a pack of unfiltered Chesterfields. He’s dressed like a retired millionaire entertainer—casual natty. A pale-blue golf sweater, checked blue slacks and spiffy black loafers. When he laughs, all the creases in his face head toward his temples and he lets out a deep, gravelly “Heh-heh.” When he’s annoyed, his eyebrows meet over his nose and I feel like jogging back to New York. His movements are slow; he seems almost phlegmatically preoccupied.
All in all, I like the guy, though I couldn’t see being in a sensory-awareness class together.
The interview is a bit of a bust. I’m glad I have the tape recorder, because I can’t understand a damn thing he says. He sort of mutters from his diaphragm in his artesian-well-deep Arkansas drawl and it’s like listening to a language you studied for only a year in high school.
Bear sits sideways in his chair, legs crossed, elbow on the back rest, absently rubbing his forehead and smoking those Chesterfields. I sit a few feet away in a pulled-up chair, a spiral notebook in my lap open to my questions. I tentatively slide my tape recorder toward him from the corner of his desk.
“Coach, you’re pretty much an American hero these days. I was wondering who your heroes are.” (Please don’t kill me.)
He pouts, shrugs. “Well, my heroes are John Wayne, Bob Hope, General Patton … J. Edgar Hoover, although he ain’t too popular, I guess….” He mentions various sports stars through the ages—from Babe Ruth to contemporary players—then he nods toward the tape recorder and says, “I suppose you’d like me to say Einstein.”
“Nah, nah, nah. Einstein, no … no, not at all.”
“Of course, with my heroes, as I get older, they get older.”
“Yeah, ha, ha.”
I ask a few boring questions about defining character, defining motivation, defining a winning attitude, none of which he can define but all of which he can sure talk about.
“I cain’t define character,” he says, “but it’s important, especially to those who don’t have that much natural ability—on the football field or elsewhere.”
Next comes my New York hotsy-totsy question.
“In Bear, I read about how you motivate players, psych them up. I also read that you understand people better than any other coach. Comprehension like that seems to be one of the attributes of a good psychiatrist. What do you feel about the field of psychiatry?”
He gives a chuckle. “Well, I don’t know nothing about psychiatrists. I prob’ly need one, but I don’t know the secret of motivatin’ people—an’ if I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
Then he goes on about motivation. At one point, he says, “I remember one time….” And about five minutes later, he says, “That was the damnedest … heh-heh,” in that noble garble of his.
Then his face darkens and he says, “I guess that ain’t funny to you.”
I almost shit. A joke: He told me a joke! Laugh, you asshole! Fake it!
I haven’t heard a word he’s said. I give a sick grin, say, “Naw, that’s funny, that’s funny!” and give my own “Heh-heh.” My armpits feel flooded.
For a while, I go sociological and nonsports, thinking maybe I can get him to admire my sensitive and probing mind—or at least throw him some questions that are a little more interesting than the traditional Southern sports groupie/journalist fare.
“Are your players … uh … afraid of you?” (’Cause I’m about to do a swan dive out this window, coach.)
He sits up a little.
“Afraid of me? Shit, heh-heh. I’m the best friend they got. Some haven’t been around here much. They might be a little reluctant. I dunno. But if somebody’s doin’ poorly, I’ll come after him. But I dunno what they’d be afraid of me about.”
One period in college history that has always fascinated me is the late Sixties—mainly because it was a transcendent radical bubble between the Fifties and the Seventies, but also because that’s when I was an undergraduate. I wonder what it was like to be a football player then, when regimentation was so reactionary—when long hair and a taste for dope were de rigueur. I know that Bryant’s worst years since coming to Alabama were 1969 and 1970. Is there any connection?
“I did a real poor job of recruiting and coaching,” he says. “Every youngster in America was goin’ through a rebellious period. Nobody wanted anybody to tell ’im anything. I remember a boy sittin’ right there an’ tellin’ me, ‘I just wanna be like any other student.’ Well, shit. He can’t be like any other student. The players have to take pride in the fact that football means that much to ’em. That’s where the sacrificin’ comes in. That they are willin’ to do without doin’ some things. Without havin’ some things other students have, to be playin’ football, to win a championship.”
“What was the campus attitude toward football at that time?”
“I really don’t know that much about what goes on over there [nodding toward the window]. I always tell ’em they’re the best in the world, at pep rallies and all. Whether they said anything about me I don’t know. I was just doin’ a lousy job then.”
“As an Alabaman, how do you feel about the image that your state has in the national eye, which is mainly a negative or fearful one?”
He doesn’t like that question. His eyebrows start knitting a sweater.
“I dunno if that’s true or not. I traveled all over the country. A large percentage of Alabamans consider the Yankees their baseball team, or the Red Sox. The only difference I see is that it ain’t as crowded down here, people aren’t in such a hurry. I’m afraid of New York City. It ain’t just what I heard, it’s what I seen. I dunno if we got as many thieves, crooks and murderers down here percentagewise, but, hell, it’s so many of them in New York. I don’t care to leave the hotel—alone or with money in my pocket.”
“How about the football-dorm system? Is it still under fire for separatism?”
“Naw. About ten years ago, we were the first school to build one. They called it Alabama Hilton, Bryant Hilton. But everyone’s built one since then.”
“Is there any criticism because the players are segregated from the rest of the campus?”
“Well, a lot of coaches don’t do that, but I was brought up on it and we’re gonna do it. If anyone rules against it, we won’t, but I know that’s one of the ways that help us win. You live under the same roof together, fightin’ for the same thing. If you don’t see one another but occasionally, you have other interests, you don’t know what’s goin’ on. And I can see ’em over there, too. I like to see ’em. If one of them lives in an apartment and’s sick for a week, his mother’s not even there. I want ’em where I can find ’em, look at ’em.”
That’s it. Bear doesn’t move, just gazes out the window. I don’t move. I feel stuck. I don’t know how to say goodbye. I ask about Astroturf. About the coming A Day game. Bear says that he’d rather not even have it, but the alumni have things planned around it.
Outside the office, he signs my copy of Bear. I say “Howdy-do” and split.
Later in the week, I get a note from Bear via McNair that he wants to add Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to his list of heroes—all American fat cats who made it through personal enterprise and charisma.
McNair says he’s never heard Bear mention Patton before and makes the analogy that in World War Two, to die for Patton was an honor and that the coach is the only other person he knows of whom people feel that way about.
Days later, I’m still smarting about that missed joke. I feel I understand something then about why this man is successful. There is something about him—about me in that moment when I blew being an appreciative audience—that goes past embarrassment. I feel like I let him down. I feel like I could have pleased him by laughing, made him like me for a moment, could have broken through the interviewer-interviewee roles for a few seconds in a way that would have made me feel like a million bucks because it would have given him pleasure. There is something in Bear’s subdued dignity, his cordial distance that got to me. He is a man of character. I could see myself having done Mexican tail spins during that interview to get his admiration or just his acknowledgment. And this was just a magazine assignment. If I were one of his five-year players, I could see myself doing 90 mph through a goal post to get a pat on the back. And, frankly, I can’t define motivation, either, but whatever it is that he lays on his boys, I got a tiny ray of it myself. The man could literally crush you by letting you know you were a disappointment to him. Shit, maybe I’ve just seen too many John Wayne movies.
I did go down to McNair’s office, though, with the queasy feeling that I’ve blown it. Not the interview so much, but I’m left with the feeling that if Bryant had to go over Pork Chop Hill, I wouldn’t be his first choice in the assault squadron.
“I didn’t understand a damn thing he said!” I half complain to McNair.
“Listen to this!” I play back Bear’s joke-anecdote for him and two other guys in the office. Instead of commiserating, they are all on the floor, howling with laughter.
“I never heard that one before!” says a trainer, wiping tears from his eyes.
“That’s the funniest thing I ever heard!” says McNair.
“Yeah, well, I think you guys are a little funny, too,” I mutter.
McNair translates the joke for me. Bear was recalling an old Kentucky-Tennessee game, a real “bloodletter.” During the half, a guy named Doc Rhodes (I can’t figure out what his relation to the team was) went into the Kentucky locker room and delivered “the damnedest talk I evah heard.” He had one big old boy just slobbering at the bit. The only problem was that big old boy wasn’t playing.
In the last quarter of the game, Tennessee was down on the Kentucky 15 and the coach finally sent the big old boy in. He ran halfway onto the field; then he went running back to the side lines and said, “Coach, can Doc Rhodes talk at me again?”
I guess you had to be there.
[Photo Credit: AB:]