I know one boy there came and told me he didn't like the way I handled things, flat out didn't like my approach to the game and, I guarantee you, that opened my eyes. I don't say I would have done different, but I sure didn't feel very good about it. We lost some good boys when we first started at Alabama, too, and if football didn't mean enough to them I was glad I found out, but the prospect of losing a boy now never enters my mind. We hardly get a loser anymore. I know so many in the past, like Ken Hall, if they'd known what I was thinking, what I had in mind—if I'd had the sense to tell them—they'd never have quit. And I know now, too, that some who quit didn't mean to. Like Richard Williamson, who is on my coaching staff right now. He missed practice one day and thought he would quit, but he was back the next day with his daddy. If I'd stuck to that thing about once a quitter always a quitter I'd have lost a good one there.
Well, I've said how proud I've been of some of the boys who stuck with me, and I'm sentimental about them, I guess, because I've been the proudest when a boy had to take the most discipline and then came back and proved himself. I told you about Bob Gain at Kentucky, who was an All-America tackle, how he hated my guts and told some of the guys he was going over to my house one night and whip my butt, which he could have done left-handed, and then how he wrote me that letter from Korea the night before he went into battle telling me it was all worthwhile.
Bob's problem was he had gotten by with too much, and he broke the school rules so much the school decided not to invite him back that fall. When he found out what they were going to do and heard I wouldn't vouch for him he couldn't believe it. I said, "Bob, I want to tell you some things you ought to know. We can get you back in school, because the dean said we could if I would vouch for you. But I won't. In all my experience you're the worst problem I've ever had. You've been pouting around here for a month because you weren't elected captain. I counted the votes, and it wasn't even close. You're selfish, and I don't even want my players around you. Something might rub off." I told him everything I could think of, and he took it and asked me to give him a chance to get back in. I said, "If I do I'm going to call in the press and your mother and your high school coach"—a real high-class guy and great coach named Carl Hamill, and Bob was scared of him—"and I'm going to tell them all about it right in front of you. And the first day you break that much you're gone, and I'm going to ask them to put everything in the paper." I said, "Is everything I said here the truth?" He said yes.
So we got everybody together, including his mother, and I went over the whole business again word for word. Then I said, "I don't think he's got it in him, but if he does I'll be as proud—more proud of him than you, Mrs. Gain. If he doesn't, it's all going in the paper." Well, you know how fond I am of Bob Gain. He was already a great player, and he turned out to be the best leader we ever had.
Steve Meilinger was another one. I knew he was going to be trouble, because I saw a coach slip him a cigarette when I was trying to recruit him. As a freshman he was a loafer, and he dogged around in practice—he'll tell you so—and in his sophomore year I made up my mind I was going to save him or lose him. I remember this so well, because there were people around. I tongue-lashed him, and I pushed him and shook him and did everything I could think of. Did he react? You're darn right he reacted. He was great. He was 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, an end originally, but he played four positions for us, and when he was a senior I stuck him in there at quarterback one night in the rain at Miami and he beat them 29-0. I still correspond with him.
But I guarantee you I never had a gut check over a boy like I had with Joe Namath. Joe was the best athlete I've ever seen. He's blessed with that rare quickness—hands, feet, everything—and he's quick and tough mentally, too. Anybody who ever watched him warm up could tell that football comes easy for Joe. If you know his background, though, you know life hasn't been so easy, and you know, too, why he wears those dark glasses and flashy clothes and sometimes acts a little brash.
Well, we were coming down to the end of the 1963 season. We had a game with Miami, then Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl, both on national television, and we had taken some time off. This woman came to a couple of my coaches and told them Joe and some of his friends were over in her store drinking. When I heard it I was sick. Nauseated. I checked with my people who were supposed to know, because I'd been hearing things all year, and they still hadn't heard it. I went to the dorm looking for Joe. I couldn't find him there and went into the dining room to have a cup of coffee. He came in and sat down with me and started talking about game plans. I said, "Joe, let's go back to my room. I want to talk with you."
I told him what I'd heard, and I said, "Joe, you know I'm going to get the truth, and I don't think you'd lie to me." He admitted it. I didn't know it for months, but there were others involved and they let him take the rap alone. Anyway, I told him to go see Coach Bailey, who would give him a place to stay, because I was suspending him from the team. He said, "How many days?" I said for the year, or forever, or until he proved something to me. I said, "I'll help you go somewhere else if you want to, or get in the Canadian league, or if you have enough in you to stay in school and prove to me this was just a bad mistake I'll let you back on the team next spring."
I went back and called the coaches together and told them my decision and asked if they had an opinion. Every darn one of them said let's do something to save him. Except one. Bebes Stallings just sat there and shook his head and said unh-unh. He said, "If it'd been me, you'da fired me, wouldn't you?" I said yeah. He said, "Well, let him go." I thanked the coaches and asked them to wait outside and told Sam to have Joe wait.
I sat in there two hours. Oh my, I cried, I did everything. Finally I called them back in, and called Joe in, and I said, "Joe, everybody in this room except one pleaded for you. But black is black and white's white. I'd give my right arm if I didn't have to do it, but if I didn't I'd ruin you and ruin the team, too, eventually." I said, "You're suspended, and I don't give a damn what anybody in here says. You're not going to play. The university could change this decision if they wanted to, or I could. But if they change it or I change it I'll resign."