Beak Bryant, the Alabama football coach, is a disciplinarian, a perfectionist and a recruiter without peer. He is also a moaner. Indeed, he can moan so loudly that he has been called the pretender to the throne of pessimism. The king is Wally Butts, the Georgia coach, who once talked a sports editor into picking Furman over Georgia in a game that Georgia wound up winning 70-7. Southerners say that when it starts to rain, Butts and Bryant think of building arks.
Last week it was ark-building time. On Saturday the Bulldogs of Georgia, the 1959 Southeastern Conference champions, were to play the Crimson Tide of Alabama, the team that might have won last year's title if it hadn't lost to Georgia. Sobbed Butts: "We have the worst defense I have ever seen." He could spy only one dot of silver in the overcast: Georgia's superb passer, Francis Asbury Tarkenton, a preacher's son with a touch of devil in him on the field.
"We're like a baseball team with only one pitcher," Butts said. "Don't have the manpower. The Georgia team thinks it's going to win, but it believes it's a lot better than it is. And that includes Tarkenton." He leaned back, infinite sadness in his kind eyes, and put a hand on his stomach. "Hurts," he said.
At Tuscaloosa, Bear Bryant fretted and frowned, his 6-foot-4 frame jammed behind a desk. "We're in bad shape," he said, toying nervously with a Kleenex. "I've never seen so many injuries. We don't have time to test our boys. That Tarkenton is great. Their halfbacks are great, too. Now I'm not crying," he protested, the hint of a smile in his eyes, "that's just the way the cooky crumbles."
Throughout his career, Bryant has thrived on crumbling cookies. He started Maryland to national fame when he arrived on campus one day in 1945 with a busload of North Carolina preflight veterans. He had them enrolled and practicing that same day. He next moved to Kentucky and took that perpetual also-ran to 60 wins and four bowls. He started with nothing again at Texas A&M in 1954, and by midseason of 1957 he had turned that woeful loser into one of the nation's best football teams. And then in 1958, when Alabama, Bryant's alma mater, cried for help after winning only four games in three years, he came like Moses to lead them from the wilderness. Bryant's motto is, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
In coming to Alabama, Bryant had to leave some of his Texas businesses behind. "Exaggerated," he says of his business interests. "I owned three small apartment buildings, an interest in two oil wells, and I invested in raising mice for research work." In addition, he had a 1% piece of A&M football gates.
Businessman Bryant is prospering even more in Alabama. He is a member of the board of directors of a local bank and a local insurance company. He has a weekly hour-long TV program during the football season sponsored by Coca-Cola and Golden Flake Potato Chips. Pictures of Bryant are on every Coke machine, and the Bryant voice recommends potato chips from every radio station. The Bear is a big man in Alabama.
Much to the anguish of Bryant's coaching competitors, he is personally popular, a major factor when he and his 10 (yes, 10) assistant coaches recruit. "You've got to have chicken to make chicken salad," Bryant says of recruiting, and nowadays Alabama is a veritable poultry farm.
In three years Bryant has got the kind of players he likes and has got rid of the kind he doesn't. He drives them, teaching the most rugged football there is. "Some things are hard to teach at home," he said one day last week. "Sacrifice. The need to work. Self-discipline. You have to learn these to play football. I teach them, and my boys don't forget them when they leave."
His outdoor practices, some of which he has at dawn to beat the heat, are brutally tough, and noisy with the crash of body contact. His indoor sessions can be scarily quiet. He held one last Friday behind locked doors in the gym while rain from Hurricane Ethel beat down on the campus. When he walked in, conversation among the waiting players stopped in midsentence. They became agonizingly careful not to drop a ball or touch anything that might make a noise. As they walked through their plays, the backs and linemen all but tiptoed in their sneakers as the quarterback droned: "Left. Five-29 option. On one. Ready. Break hard. Set. Two. Hike." Each player pointed out where he should go, and the coaches watched. For errors.