Ten years ago last week, Alabama football was at its final high-water mark under Bear Bryant. The Crimson Tide was 5-0, ranked No. 2 nationally and coming off a 42-21 rout of Penn State. The next step for Alabama was to go into Knoxville and get its 12th straight win over Tennessee. The Crimson Tide was on its way to Bryant's seventh national championship—or so thought the legions in the red hats. Then came Saturday, Oct. 16, 1982: Tennessee 35, Alabama 28. After that, all was ebb.
Three weeks after the Tennessee game, Alabama lost to LSU for the first time in a dozen years. That was in Birmingham. On the following Saturday, Bryant's 57-game winning streak in Tuscaloosa ended at the hands of Southern Mississippi. Two days later an out-of-state sportswriter arrived in Bryant's office and was shown not to the usual low sofa—Bryant liked to conduct interviews from his desk as if he were peering down over a judge's bench toward that sofa—but to a chair drawn up beside the desk. It was as if the old man just wanted somebody to sit with him for a few minutes. He stared at nothing.
"I can't coach 'em anymore," he said. There was a silence of perhaps 20 seconds as the meaning was absorbed. This was the end of something that the mere word career could not begin to describe.
On Nov. 27, Alabama lost to Auburn for the first time in a decade. On Dec. 15, Bryant announced his retirement. Six weeks later, he was dead at 69 of a heart attack. Alabama football slipped into a dark age of grief and discontent from which it would not fully emerge until last Saturday, when Alabama again went to Knoxville but this time won 17-10. The victory came a decade and a day after the beginning of Bryant's end.
The revival of Bryant-era enthusiasm had first been detected in recent weeks on Birmingham's five sports-radio talk shows. "Everyone's talking about how if the Tide loses the Tennessee game, the world comes to an end," said WAPI's Paul Finebaum, who is also a Birmingham Post-Herald columnist. "I haven't heard anything like that in 10 years."
Those fears, however, were eased on Saturday. Alabama dominated Tennessee from the outset and left Neyland Stadium with a 7-0 record, a No. 4 ranking and a 17-game winning streak, the longest for the Tide since a 28-game run that began in 1978 and ended eight games into the '80 season. That streak brought Alabama its '78 and '79 national championships.
It is not as if the Tide has been devoid of accomplishment since Bryant's departure. The Bear's first two successors, Ray Perkins and Bill Curry, each took Alabama to short-lived No. 2 national rankings, in 1986 and '89, respectively. Curry even won the SEC crown in '89. Yet Perkins and Curry were viewed as pale imitations of Bryant, and their fleeting triumphs left the crimson-clad masses unfulfilled. "Perkins was a jerk, and Curry was a joke," says one alumnus.
Last Saturday, led by a coach who has gained the faithful's acceptance, Alabama had more on the line than at any time since the day Bryant's monolith cracked in the orange canyon by the Tennessee River. Not only does coach Gene Stallings walk and talk like Bryant, but as he nears his 58th birthday, he is starting to look like the Bear. Even his game plan was vintage Bryant: Keep it simple, keep it brutal; run at them and over them on offense, and storm and swarm on defense. Skeptics had claimed that Alabama's defense, No. 1 in the country entering Saturday's game, had not been tested the way it would be against Tennessee. Consider it tested. The Volunteers rushed for only 78 yards and didn't score a touchdown until early in the fourth quarter.
Alabama lore has it that Stallings, who replaced Curry in 1990, was Bryant's first choice as a successor. As a player under Bryant at Texas A&M, Stallings was one of 32 Aggies who survived the Bear's torturous 1954 preseason training camp, a.k.a. the Bryant Death March. He came to Alabama as an assistant under Bryant in '58—the year "Mama called" the Bear home to his alma mater from A&M—and left in '64 for the head job at A&M, one of several coaching positions he has since held in college and in the pros.
In 1960, Stallings literally wrote the book on Bryant's coaching philosophy: Bear Bryant on Winning Football. The bedrock of Bryant's success was defense. This season's defense, led by ends John Copeland and Eric Curry, has been likened to those of 'Bama's national championship years of '61 (Lee Roy Jordan and Billy Neighbors), '78 (Marty Lyons and Barry Krauss) and '79 (Tommy Wilcox, Don McNeal and Jeremiah Castille).