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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Well, I knew I had to quit. Oh, my, it broke my heart. I picked up a bunch of telegrams that had accumulated on my desk and went over to my new house nobody even knew I had and sat down and cried like a baby. I think the world of Curly Byrd, but he had been a coach himself and he ran things at Maryland, no doubt about that.
Finally I went through those telegrams, and there was one four days old: IF YOU WANT TO BE HEAD COACH AT KENTUCKY CALL ME COLLECT, [signed] DR. HERMAN DONOVAN, PRESIDENT. I got hold of Don Adams, the president of the Maryland Alumni Association. Don had played on one of Curly's teams, and I asked him if I ought to talk to Maryland first. He said, hell, no, get the job. So I did.
Kentucky was going to announce it on Tuesday night, but I wanted to tell my players first. I'd brought these boys in there, and I felt a strong obligation. So I called a team meeting for 4 o'clock, and about 2 I went up to see the boss. Well, Curly said he wouldn't let me leave. We stayed in there and stayed in there, and he crooked that neck and made me talk and I kept saying, "I'm going." I didn't get out of his office until after dark, and the boys had already gone.
Next morning I got to the campus about 10, and there was this big crowd of students—must have been 3,000 of them—yelling and holding up newspapers with the headline: STUDENT STRIKE OVER COACH LEAVING. And, mercy, it hit me. Somebody must have heard us arguing and carrying on in the boss's office and told the press. The team blamed the president and raised so much hell the kids decided to strike.
I got through the crowd to the administration building, and Dr. Byrd came out and I put my arm around him, and you talk about begging and pleading to get them back to class. We finally got them dispersed, but in the afternoon they started up again, and we made another appeal, and I told them it was my decision to go. Finally I got in my car and headed for Kentucky, thinking all along they weren't going to like having a rabble-rouser for a coach.
When I got to Lexington, lo and behold, it was another big crowd, and I thought, oh, Lord, they're not going to let me in. Then I saw this big sign: WELCOME BEAR. Well, I'm the luckiest son of a gun. What had happened was that everybody had been on the Kentucky people for not hiring a name coach. Nobody had ever heard of me until that strike shook everything up at Maryland and, brother, I had a name now.
Carney Laslie and Ken Whitlow and Frank Moseley, who had been at Maryland, went with me, and we found there what I've found almost everywhere I've gone. They had good material coming in every year, big old fine-looking boys who wallowed around and wouldn't play. Kentucky had more stars than you could count, but they didn't beat anybody. Well, we ran off a few and worked some of them extra hard, and they quit, too, and I probably made more mistakes and mishandled more people than anyone ever has. But we got the rest of them motivated, and they started winning that first year. I was determined I was going to outwork everybody, and I worked day and night, talking with people, sitting home hours by myself working on things, going on so many recruiting trips. We had tryouts in those days, and we brought boys in from all over the country. I still had that fear of failing, of going back to that wagon with Mama, and I know now I neglected my family. Every young coach who ever lived does it, and it's not right, but if he has succeeded you'll find out his family sacrificed a lot.
I must have thought I was a one-man show, trainer and everything, because I was everywhere. Got about four hours' sleep a night. My coaches never got home before 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. I don't do that anymore, either, and don't recommend it. Now when we're having two-a-day workouts I ask my coaches to take a nap in between. But then I was so intense, and my coaches were the same. What dedicated people they were! If something displeased me I'd take it out on the players and ruin practice, which was stupid. You'll laugh at this, but I honestly did have a hard time getting to work without getting sick. I'll never forget one night, we went over to Bull Hancock's place at Claiborne Farm to have a steak, and I got so sick I darn near died. What it was, I hadn't eaten in two days.
My new coaches now, like Ken Donahue and Ken Meyer, hear all those stories and see me relaxing around, and they probably think, well gol-lee, what's this business about hard work? But I guarantee you I used to be at that dorm every night, stopping by this room or that, preaching my sermon. If I hadn't gone to Babe Parilli's room every night he would have thought something was wrong. He'd sit around waiting for me. We had this little game we played. We were quarterbacks, and we had another quarterback to referee and tell us how much we gained or lost on a given play against a given defense.
Well, we won at Kentucky, and I don't think I'd have ever left if I hadn't gotten pigheaded. It was probably the most stupid thing I ever did. I could have had just about anything I wanted, and Mary Harmon loved it. We had a social position coaches seldom have—good friends with Governor Wetherby and all—and we lived right there near the Idle Hour Country Club. Mr. Guy Huguelet got us an honorary membership, and that's a club that some people wait years to get into. We had built a new house, and I was on the verge of making some real money. I had turned down half a dozen good jobs. A member of the board at LSU said to me, "Dammit, everybody has a price, Bear. What's yours?" And I put it up there pretty good for those days—something like $25,000, a home, a TV program and everything—and he said, "It's a deal." No school could do that, but he said he'd give me a contract through his company. Then I backed out. Alabama people came to see me and I wouldn't even talk to them, and Texas A&M and a couple others also approached me.