"We want to be like the old teams," says senior cornerback George Teague, who was in elementary school when Bryant won his last national title, in '79. "We want to get our names in the museum."
He means, of course, the Paul W. Bryant Museum, on Bryant Drive, near Bryant-Denny Stadium, in the town that so far is still named Tuscaloosa. Though Stallings has not designated a defensive coordinator, the de facto coordinator is Bill (Brother) Oliver, a defensive back on the 1961 team. Oliver likes to express a Bryantism, that a defense can't be measured until the season is finished. But last week he said, in a cracking voice, "I wish [Bryant] were here to see them play."
Of the South, William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past." Neither Perkins, a former Bryant player who was regarded as surly and aloof, nor Curry, a product of despised Georgia Tech and seen as inept, stood a chance at Alabama, because neither knew how to be a Bryant imitator in a place where Bryant isn't dead, and isn't even past. In Alabama, Bryant is "bigger than Robert E. Lee, bigger than Jesus," says Curry, a religious man and a former divinity student who wouldn't make such a statement lightly. Unable to bear the burden of competing with a specter in houndstooth, Curry left for Kentucky after the '89 season, even though the Tide had gone 10-1 before a Sugar Bowl loss to eventual national champion Miami.
Last week Jimmy Fuller, the offensive guards-centers coach, who also played for Bryant, sat in the shadow of the storied tower from which Bryant used to reign over practice and that stands now, unused, as a monument at the practice fields in Tuscaloosa. "There are some who still think Coach Bryant comes out on that tower," said Fuller. "They've never let that go. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that."
To such worship, add an obsession with football that is not quite matched anywhere else. Robert Barrett, who monitored sports gambling as an FBI agent and later served as an associate commissioner of the SEC, calculated that on football weekends in the 1980s, Birmingham was home to more bookmaking activity per capita "than any other city outside Las Vegas." Barrett, who still lives in Birmingham, adds, "From what I see, what I hear and what I know goes on around town, it has not abated one bit."
WJOX is a 24-hour sports radio station in Birmingham. Far larger southern cities, such as Miami and Atlanta, do not have 24-hour sports stations. Tide football is the lifeblood of all the Birmingham sports talk shows. "There's almost no talk of Auburn," says Finebaum, even though Auburn was the premier team in the state through most of the '80s. In such an environment, a following becomes a force that must be turned to one's advantage or it can become destructive. During his three unhappy years in Tuscaloosa, Curry had a brick thrown through his office window and received numerous death threats. Stallings, too, experienced the wrath of that following, when he lost his first three games as the Crimson Tide's coach in 1990. But he survived because he knows how to play the crimson mass like a violin—or rather a bass fiddle, as he drops his voice a couple of octaves to approximate Bryant's old mumbling growl. "I want [Bryant's] legacy to continue to grow," says Stallings. "I do everything I can to promote it. Nobody loves Coach Bryant more than I do." Present tense, of course.
On Sept. 26, Stallings reinstated to the team David Palmer, a spectacular kick returner-wide receiver who had had two drunken-driving arrests, one in June and one in September. In explaining his decision to lift the suspension he had imposed after the first incident, Stallings cited advice he had received from Palmer's counselors. "David needs to come as close to normal activities as he can," said Stallings. "Otherwise he's just going to phase out. Football is what he has." Stallings also admitted that he was "glad to have the points" Palmer provided in his first game back, a 13-0 defeat of Louisiana Tech in which he returned a punt 63 yards for the Tide's only touchdown.
If Curry had been coach and had had the audacity to allow Palmer to rejoin the team, "the streets of Birmingham would have looked like the Teheran riots," says Finebaum. "But people cut Stallings a little more slack."
The one quibble that the faithful have with Stallings—the offense is "sputtering," which is code language for sporadic coverage of the spread—is the same one they had with Bryant. "People are complaining about wins again," says Finebaum. "And that's a healthy sign."