Worshipers at the Southern Church of College Football will have plenty of scripture to study this fall in the slack time between weekend services. Two recently published volumes deal with the cult's major prophet, Paul W. (Bear) Bryant, a third with the missionary work among the heathen (in Oakland, Houston and New Orleans) of Bryant's sainted disciple, Ken Stabler. All are funny, poignant, serious and outrageous by turns.
Q. What's a seven-course dinner at Auburn?
A. Stewed possum and a six-pack.
That's from Geoffrey Norman's Alabama Showdown: The Football Rivalry Between Auburn & Alabama ( Henry Holt and Company, $18.95), a thoughtful, colorful narrative studded with laconic wit that builds toward last year's season-ending jihad between the two schools. It probes as far back as the Civil War and as far afield as a clubby Alabamian hunting camp in order to define the mystical nature of a rivalry that ranks with Army-Navy, Michigan-Ohio State or Notre Dame-USC in its fanatical intensity. Norman, an author and Esquire contributor, manages to evoke the feel of all football in the South—a profane religion practiced by tough, devout kids from all walks of southern life (and some northern to boot), and preached by coaches who reach the status of demigods. By following Auburn's Pat Dye and Alabama's beleaguered Ray Perkins through the weeks before the game, and by talking to players, fans and alumni of both schools, Norman shows how the ghost of Bear Bryant still haunts the sport for good or ill. His account of the game itself, won in the last six seconds by Alabama 25-23, is almost an anticlimax after the vibrant mythology that precedes it. No matter. You come away from Alabama Showdown feeling, as all Southerners must, that no other region of America really knows what the sport is all about.
The difficulties Perkins faced in succeeding Bryant at Tuscaloosa are detailed almost moment by emotional moment in Joey Jones's diarylike missal, In Good Hands (Albright & Company, $14.95). Jones was a wide receiver on the Bear's last team (1982) and Perkins's first. He was a typical player of the Bryant era—a bit too small for greatness but tough in the clutch. Bryant called Jones his Little Big Man. As a study in how the great man motivated his players, it's worth a spot in the hagiography. But then came Perkins, the Businessman, as the resentful older players dubbed him. He fired beloved assistants, played freshmen in place of seniors in an effort to rebuild, even tore down Bryant's sacred observation tower, which had become a kind of cathedral in the eyes of the faithful. But as Perkins's hard-eyed, cold professionalism began to take hold, Jones and his sullen teammates realized no one could replace the Bear. In the end, they came to respect Perkins. But love him—never. God was truly dead. Not long afterward, as a player on the USFL's Birmingham Stallions, Jones saw a new light and became a born-again Christian.
Not so Ken Stabler, coauthor (with Berry Stainback) of Snake: The Candid Autobiography of Football's Most Outrageous Renegade ( Doubleday & Company, Inc., $15.95). This gaudy memoir traces the evolution of a skinny, jug-eared acolyte at the Shrine of the Bear—"the best quarterback I ever had," Bryant called him—into a hell-raiser who led the bad-news Oakland Raiders to triumph in the 1977 Super Bowl, and on to his retirement from football in 1984. Whiskey, women, fast cars and killer speedboats were the sacraments in Stabler's faith: The Judas of his career was Raiders owner Al Davis, who criticized Stabler's lifestyle in public and finally exiled him to Houston. His career ended in New Orleans with more of a whimper than a bang. There's plenty of play-by-play football in this account, replete with lesser weirdos like Ted (Kick 'em in the Head) Hendricks, the eerie berserker John Matuszak (Stabler, of all people, was assigned to keep him out of trouble), along with almost loving portraits of Stabler's best buddies, Pete Banazak and Fred Biletnikoff. Stabler brush-blocks past the more controversial episodes of his playing career—a run-in on the Redneck Riviera with an adversarial newspaperman, his alleged "involvement" with a gambler—and for the most part tells a lot of football truth, warts and all. Bear Bryant would have liked this book.