The team I inherited when I went to Alabama in 1958 was a fat, raggedy bunch. The best players, the ones with the most ability, quit us, and recruiting was actually over, so we weren't going to get much for the following year except the boys Coach Hank Crisp and Jerry Claiborne got busy and signed up earlier. But from that first day on, from the very beginning, you could tell this was a bunch of kids who were there with a purpose. I never had a group like that in my life.
I talked to each one of them individually, sat down and asked how they were doing and talked about their brothers and sisters, and visited. Other places, Kentucky and Texas A&M, I just went in there and laid it on the line—we're going to do this and this, and either you're with me or you're gone. I had that sign at Kentucky: BE GOOD OR BE GONE. I remember I told the alumni at A&M there was only one chief and the rest were Indians, that they might think they knew how to coach football, but I knew I did and I wouldn't be needing their advice. Well, I never had to do that at Alabama, and I don't know which is the best way, because we've won both ways. But I'll never forget that first meeting at Alabama.
I could just sense they were something special. I told them what I thought football should mean to them. I told them how I wanted them to conduct themselves, how to look, how I wanted them to act. Little things, like writing home to their mamas and papas, and smiling, and recognizing the contributions of others on the campus. One daddy came to me afterward and said how much his son had been impressed by our meeting that first day.
Well, I'm not going to tell you word for word what all I said because that's my blood, that's what I live on, and I might have to think of something to say next year. But I told them that very first day about winning the national championship. Alabama had won four games in the last 36, and most of these kids were only 12 or 14 years old when Alabama was anything in football. But it was a school with a great tradition, and they were proud of it, which made winning a whole lot easier than it had been for me before.
You would naturally think the happiest years of my life were those that followed. Our boys won three national championships and three SEC championships, went undefeated twice and played in seven bowl games. Because of them our income is about quadruple what it used to be. We enlarged the stadium 100%, and we're building a new field house. We built the new athletes' dormitory, and I'm ham enough to be especially proud of that because they named it after me—Paul W. Bryant Hall. But those years weren't the happiest of my life.
I suppose the trouble started a long time ago, and I'm just deluding myself as I get older if I expect people to look at the record and just listen to those who made it, the players themselves. I feel certain if I told Pat Trammell or Steve Meilinger or John David Crow I needed them they'd start walking to Alabama. But I suppose the logic of it escapes most people. The truth is that if you really taught brutality and treated people as badly as people say I did you'd never be able to get a good football player on your team. If you did you wouldn't get anything out of him, and you sure wouldn't win. When we went on probation at Texas A&M that time and all those scholarships were voided, those boys could have gone wherever they pleased. We were stripped naked. But we immediately got letters from almost every one of them saying they were with us and they weren't going to leave. Some silly people still believe we really had a big pit down at A&M and used to put two boys in at a time, and the one who crawled out was a starter.
There was a very popular quote attributed to Shug Jordan, the Auburn coach, a few years back. He said it was a helmet-busting, hell-for-leather, gang-tackling game we play in the Southeastern Conference, that since Bear Bryant came to Alabama it's the only game that can win. Well, I'm not going to challenge Shug on that. What else could he say? All of a sudden those lean little boys at Alabama were beating those big, fine-looking boys at Auburn, and somebody had to say something.
It's true I've sometimes worked teams too hard. I'll never deny that. I overworked that team at Kentucky when we went down to play Santa Clara in the 1950 Orange Bowl game. I lost that game three times. I worked them too hard at Cocoa, in all that heat and with all those sandspurs. Then we brought them to Miami and worked them too hard there, and I was too pigheaded to listen to my trainer, who told me they were exhausted. Finally, when we were leading and had the ball on the two-yard line just before the half, I let Babe Parilli, just a sophomore then, call the play when I should have had sense enough to call one for him. We didn't score and, at the half, when I should have been telling them something constructive, I just fussed and fumed around and really killed our chances. We lost 21-13.
So I've overworked teams, and that's bad, but there's a thin line. I know we put a lot of gravel in the craw of a lot of people because we were able to beat them physically, and if helmet-cracking football is the kind of football we were playing there for a long while, then I'm for it, and I hope we'll do it again. I ask my boys to hit them as long as they can see them, to gang-tackle, to get up and hit them again, but it had better be legal. Any player who ever played for us will tell you the first rule in the book is I will not tolerate a guy who draws penalties, because he can't win. Three 15-yard penalties in a game will beat you. Two will beat you if it's a close game and, if it's a real close one, one will beat you. Last year we went 10 games without a holding penalty.
If hard-nosed football, "brutal" football, is getting a boy to discipline himself, to get him in such keen physical condition that he will make fewer mistakes than the guy who isn't, that's what I'm for. If it took a pit to do that, I'd have a pit. Common sense tells you the other guy will get careless, get sluggish mentally, and you'll beat him in the fourth quarter because you'll be alert for sudden changes, for blocked kicks and fumbles. You go back and check General Neyland's teams and Wallace Wade's and Frank Thomas', and I think you'll find they were sounder because they were in better condition.