When Associate Editor John Underwood approached Alabama Football Coach Paul Bryant about putting his thoughts on paper, The Bear was sitting in his campus office which, Underwood says, "is not quite as big as a football field." Bryant brought out a large hardbound appointment book crammed with entries—speaking engagements, clinics, celebrity golf tournaments, spring football games and a couple of days with the university president at Bryant's Alabama lake retreat. "Just jammed," said Coach Bryant, who already this year has put in some 160 personal appearances. "I don't see why we can't work it in."
For the next three months Underwood lived the hectic life of Bryant as the two traveled thousands of miles together, working whenever and wherever they could on the five-part series that starts on page 52. Underwood and Bryant became such regular companions that the coach automatically booked reservations for two whenever he was arranging one of his frequent trips. On a typical weekend they flew to Chicago in the university's private plane, and from there to Lafayette, La., where Bryant kept a standing-room-only crowd enthralled with advice on being a winner. Underwood must have dozed through the lecture because Bear consistently embarrassed him in their running gin-rummy game.
In Miami and Tuscaloosa free moments were spent at golf. Bryant plays the game with teeth-grinding determination. He has a short, Doug Sanders-like backswing and a unique policy on the first hole: hit until you get one you like. This suited Underwood—who takes about six shots to get going—just fine, but it did nothing for his short game, where Bryant was always much slicker. In Memphis Bear and Jack Nicklaus won a pro-am tournament with handicap eagles on the last three holes.
The most productive hours were spent on the Florida Keys, at the air-conditioned, complete-with-pool cottage of one of Bryant's TV sponsors. "Paul," says Underwood, "relaxed on the patio in Bermuda shorts and gave free rein to his memory, which is remarkable—names, dates, places, scores, triumphs, embarrassments—he knew them all and they checked out. He even corrected my spelling."
Fatigue finally caught up with Bryant in Los Angeles. Underwood had joined him in Las Vegas and, accustomed as he was to Bryant's hard schedule, thought then that "The Bear looked as if he needed some hibernation." The night before a coaches' clinic, Bryant and his wife, Mary Harmon, went out with friends until 2 a.m. He was up at 5:30 a.m. as usual, but as he and Underwood rode to the clinic he said he did not feel well. He would not think of a postponement, however. Said Bryant: "If those people think enough of me to listen, I'll talk."
He was not able to that day. He collapsed, and who was riding next to him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital? Underwood, of course. He held on to Bryant's wallet and prayed for his safety. Men like Bryant, he told himself, are not made every day. As it turned out, Coach Paul Bryant needed only a few days rest. Fully recovered, he called Underwood in Miami. "Meet me in New York," he said. "We have to finish what we started." I know you will be happy they did.