For what must have seemed an eternity to the rest of the coaching profession, Paul Bryant and his little bitty Tidesmen were the executioners of the Southeastern Conference—and of anyone else unfortunate enough to get in their path. They plucked national championships as easily as other people picked grapes. If Joe Namath or Steve Sloan or Kenny Stabler was not gunning you down with passes, then some quick mini-linebacker like Lee Roy Jordan was knocking you on your big 270-pound back. It was embarrassing, like getting mugged by a kindergarten class.
Then odd things began to happen to the University of Alabama. For one, two-platoon football caught up with Bryant's small linemen. The Goliaths were getting a chance to rest so that when they did play, they not only came in big but fast. The Bear's passing attack began to fire blanks. The superb defenses began to give up points in bunches of 41 and 49 and 47, a whole season's worth in a vintage year. Losses came in clusters of fives. In 1969 even
beat Alabama. And there was the time that same year when, after Tennessee had humbled the Tide 41-14, Tennessee Linebacker Steve Kiner came up to Bryant and said, "Gee, Coach, they don't seem to have the same pride in wearing that red jersey anymore." Bryant will never forget Kiner's words.
This season the pride—and the Tide—are back, as was completely apparent in Birmingham last Saturday when Alabama bit, chewed and digested previously unbeaten Mississippi 40-6. It was 'Bama's fourth straight win, and it confirmed a suspicion that first took root in early September when Alabama upset LSC in Los Angeles: Bear Bryant has a solid contender for the national title.
One day last week Bryant sat in his office in Tuscaloosa and dissected what had happened. Mostly he used the scalpel on himself. "We kind of lost something the last two years," he said softly. "Confidence in ourselves...leadership. I blame myself. I've done a lousy job lately. I guess I got to a point where I just expected things to happen instead of making them happen. People were licking their chops to get at us. Before, well, they weren't real anxious to play us."
He stubbed out a cigarette, lit another one. For a moment he stared at the photographs of his classic teams of the early 1960s that hang on the wall opposite his desk. "We're starting to get it back now," he said. He pointed at the photos. "Confidence is what those teams had and that's what we are rebuilding."
Bryant began reconstructing Alabama almost before anyone knew it was about to collapse. More than two years ago he turned all his duties as athletic director, other than football, over to Sam Bailey. Like most coaches, Bryant hates recruiting and he had given that chore almost exclusively to his assistants. They would come in with a list of names and say, well, Coach, here they are. No more. Now before a boy is signed he must have Bryant's approval. Sighing, Bryant began to take big linemen. This year, for instance, Alabama fields such giants as John Hannah (273 pounds), Jim Patterson (252) and Jim Krapf (240). Bryant has about a dozen linemen who weigh 230 or more. And they are not only big but good as well.
After last spring's practice, Bryant made another major change. He came away convinced he could no longer succeed with the drop-back passer. "We had a good one last year in Scott Hunter, a real pro-style thrower, and we couldn't win." So he junked the passing attack that until recent seasons had terrorized the SEC. "After a helluva big gut check." he said. But Bryant has never feared change.
That done, Bryant assessed his team's strengths. For openers there was Johnny Musso, a 191-pound halfback known as the Italian Stallion. "Johnny can do everything," says Bryant. "He's a great runner, blocker and passer. If we let him, he'd be a great defensive back, too. Last year he had to run his own interference and he still gained over 1,100 yards. The ideal situation would be Musso running with Musso up front blocking for him."
There were numerous other good runners, too. Indeed there hasn't been as much brute force in Tuscaloosa since General J. T. Croxton came to town in 1865 and burned down most of the university. There are those who claim that if this year's team had been there, Croxton never would have got to light the match. When Musso is not working, Bryant can attack with such backs as Joe LaBue, Ellis Beck, Dave Knapp, Steve Bisceglia, Jerry Cash, Paul Spivey, Wilbur Jackson and Rod Steakley.
And so last spring, thinking about all the ground power at his command, Bryant got on a plane and hustled off to Austin, Texas, the empire of Darrell Royal and the Wishbone offense. He came back loaded with data gathered from play-books and films. Then in August, Royal visited Tuscaloosa for a coaching clinic, and he spent his evenings on Bryant's front porch talking Wishbone. Finally, four days before fall practice opened, Bryant called in his assistants and said, "Men, we are going to sink or swim or die with the Wishbone. And we're not going to just fool around with it for a few days and then toss it out. This is it." Bryant raised a canvas screen around the practice field, ordered a security cop on a scooter to patrol the area and went inside to look for a national championship.