The lines are deeper now, and proliferating, like those on a fine antique, and yet, remarkably, do not diminish the handsomeness of his face. Rather, they tend to enlarge on its strength, to accent it. Granite and ice and true grit. Seeing that face for the first time 26 years ago, George Blanda thought (as he wrote later), "This must be what God looks like." When Bear Bryant walked into the room, Blanda said, you wanted to stand up and applaud.
The image endures, the applause lingers on. Bear Bryant, 59 years old Sept. 11, is at the line for his 28th season and he is preeminent in the world of college football coaching. No one else—no one—comes close. There was a short time, in the years 1969-70, when it appeared the magic had left him, when his Alabama teams lost almost as many as they won (Bryant is slipping!), but then he turned it around again and was undefeated in the 1971 regular season (Bryant is back!) (Was he ever away?). All was right with the world.
Except there was a difference. The words that proceeded from his mouth seemed, well, more conciliatory; he talked of the need to be "more humble"; he seemed more appreciative of his responsibilities as a patriarch. Indeed, he had been mending fences. A note passed over the wires telling of Alabama and Georgia Tech signing to renew a rivalry that had been broken off, spectacularly, in 1964. The split, laden with acrimony, had come after a series of bitter incidents that included the charge that Bryant taught brutal football. Now Alabama-Tech was back on the schedule for games beginning in 1978, "and that's just fine," said Bryant. Close the wounds, hide the scars.
But had he changed so much, really? And where, in those 27 years, had he been heading, he and his college football? And where had they gotten to? And where on earth are they going now? And what have they done to your game, Paul?
He sat on the patio of a friend's house in the Florida Keys, a haven to which he repairs when his peripatetic life, and the telephone, wear him down. It was July; seasonably, unreasonably hot; windless and washed out, a day drained by the enervating sun. A sign in red and white could be seen among the sand-spurs in the vacant lot next to the house: "Bryant Field." Over the lavatory was a super-enlarged postcard showing Bryant walking on water, with the inscription: "I Believe."
Bryant, in a lounge chair, pushed his thick white legs out from his baggy swimming trunks into the sun. Sloan Bashinsky, who owns the house and is a sponsor of Bryant's television show in Birmingham, said it was hopeless. "Old Show Legs," Bashinsky calls him.
"You lost your mind?" Bear Bryant said. The third man in the group had suggested that Bryant, having done everything he had set out to do at least once—three national championships; bowl games of all sizes, shapes and dollar values; Coach of the Year twice; current president of the American Football Coaches Association; more victories (210) than any active coach; books written about him, songs written about him, buildings named after him—that Bryant might just as well quit and go watch the bullfights in Spain.
"I'd croak in a week," he said. "I'm more fired up now than I was 20 years ago. I've been fortunate, I've had honors. But if I couldn't stay in it I'd go crazy. I don't have as much fun as I used to because I'm not as close to the kids, not coaching as much. But still. Today, tomorrow. When I walk out on that practice field cold chills run up my back. A new day. And it's something I wouldn't swap for anything. I don't know how else to say it."
How do you mean, not as close to the kids?
"I used to be with 'em all the time, on the field and off, 50 or 60 of them anyway. We could communicate. I could get my message over. Lee Roy Jordan was interviewed once and flattered hell out of me. He said, 'If Coach Bryant said wear green shoes, I'd have green shoes.' It's not that way anymore."