The first thing a football coach needs when he is starting out is a wife who is willing to put up with a whole lot of neglect. The second thing is at least a five-year contract. He needs five years so he can set up his program and surround himself with people who are winners, people who believe in what he is trying to do. If the program is sound and he can say the hell with the grumblers and go about his business, then he'll win and he'll teach his players lessons that will make them better men.
All right, so he needs a contract that gives him time, and a lot of people are going to say, "Well, Bryant is a good one to talk about contracts, because he knows how to break them." But let me tell you what a contract is for. It's for the protection of the university president against the alumni or whoever else might not like it when the coach doesn't win the championship that first year after everybody has been bragging on him, because then the president can say, "Well, he's got a contract."
It doesn't always work out that easy, of course, which you can see by the coaches that get bought off every year. But anybody—the publisher of this magazine, the president of a school—anybody is going to consider moving to a better job if he thinks he's found one. I left Kentucky with nine years on my contract. I left Texas A&M with seven years to go, and Maryland, too, when I didn't have a contract. I feel now I wouldn't leave Alabama under any circumstance, but I've said that before.
The only way I could ever feel bad about leaving a place is if I'd failed to win, failed to have done what I went there to do. At Texas A&M, if I could have guaranteed them in advance the conference championship we won in three years they would have given me a million dollars and a three-year contract and said, O.K., go to it. What do you think they'd have said at Kentucky if I could have assured them four bowl teams in eight years? Kentucky had never won anything in football. Sure, some of the folks I left behind were hurt, really hurt and disappointed in me, and I don't blame them. Once or twice there I wasn't bettering myself at all, but I have no regrets. I went out and bled and worked and got them something—our boys got them something—they would have given their lives for.
Anyway, when I was playing at Alabama I knew it was just a matter of time before I'd be coaching, and once I got into coaching I knew the only kind of coach I wanted to be was a head coach. I wasn't a good football player. I played on good teams at Alabama—great teams, as a matter of fact. We went to the Rose Bowl and we had great players, and I was just a guy named Joe on the other end of the line from Don Hut-son. But football came easy for me, and I was always a student of the game. I liked to play and to win. Hell, I even liked to practice. I still do. It was just hog's heaven as far as I was concerned.
When I graduated Don Hutson was playing with the Packers. I stayed to be an assistant under Frank Thomas. I'd married the prettiest little girl on the campus, Mary Harmon Black, who has put up with me for 32 years now, and I was eager to make my fortune. I borrowed a thousand dollars for my share, and Don and I bought us a cleaning-and-pressing place. It was a sorry shop, but we captured most of the business. We had a girl in every sorority touting for us, and Hank Crisp, Thomas' No. 1 assistant, put me in charge of equipment. Naturally he gave me the business of cleaning the team's uniforms.
If we could have collected for all the business we did, we'd have made a lot of money. But if we had had to pay for everything we ruined we'd have gone to jail. I'll never forget Coach Hank. We had new uniforms in 1938, and after the first game I sent them over to our place for cleaning. The boys must have used hot water or something, because when the jerseys came back they had shrunk—looked like doll clothes. I was sick. Coach Hank threw a fit, and it was a good thing I was his pet, because he covered for me and ordered new uniforms.
I remember so well, they were having this ROTC day, when the governor was coming, and Hutson and I had all the uniforms to clean. The ceremony was for 1 o'clock. At about 12 we came into our place, and there were stacks of dirty uniforms in the back room, I guarantee you halfway to the ceiling, and outside a line of ROTC cadets three blocks long. Well, we served 'em one at a time, fast as a uniform was pressed—and if it wasn't pressed we gave it out anyway. "Here, son, try this on. Oh, yes, it fits perfect. Perfect fit. You look good. O.K. Next."
So it was clear to me, as it always was, that I was going to have to work pretty darn hard to be a success at anything, and the thing I worked hardest at in those days was recruiting. As a result, I have a reputation for being a great recruiter, although my assistants do all the work now, and they do a heck of a job, let me tell you, because good football players don't come knocking. I bet I don't see more than six boys a year. I hate to recruit. But back then I loved it, and if there was one thing that got me going as a coach it was recruiting.
Well, there are a lot of stories. We used to hide boys out, what the pros call baby-sitting now, and take them off places on boats or go hunting or ride them around and get them won, and we used every trick you could think of. Frank Leahy used to tell everybody that when I was at Kentucky I dressed up our manager, Jim Murphy, in a priest's outfit to recruit Gene Donaldson away from Notre Dame. Maybe Jim Murphy did tell Donaldson he was a priest. Shucks, I'd have told him Murphy was Pope Pius if I'd thought we would get him that way.