As practice wears on, a soft April rain begins to fall. Players and spectators alike furtively glance up at the immobile figure on the tower. The rain begins to come down harder. Heavy clouds roll in. Drills continue until a short blast from a whistle stops everyone dead in his tracks; heads turn as one. There is a moment of silence and then a deep voice says in a barely audible tone, "Go on in."
Shrieks of ecstasy fill the air as the players wheel and charge for the locker room. "That whistle of Coach Bryant's," shouts Mike Inman, caught up in the horde, bad foot and all, "it's got a whole different pitch."
As he sits at his large wooden desk, Athletic Director-Head Football Coach Paul W. Bryant smokes a cigarette and shuffles through a small stack of papers. Almost 65 years old and secure as few men ever are in their professions, Bryant needs to impress no one. His huge hands and face are deeply lined and his movements are slow, but the slowness stems from choice rather than necessity. One recalls that Bryant earned his nickname wrestling carnival bears back in Arkansas.
"I'll tell you something about red-shirts," says the coach now in a voice that has been accurately described as sounding like a bullfrog at the bottom of a well. "You never redshirt anybody because they're too good. You redshirt them because they're not good enough. Sometimes you might have a position that's kind of filled, so you hold a player back for that reason. But not often."
Scott Hunter is an example of such strategy. In 1967, the year Hunter was redshirted, Alabama had Ken Stabler at quarterback. Ray Perkins, a wide receiver who went on to play five years of pro ball, was redshirted in 1963 because Bryant already had several outstanding ends on the team.
"I honestly don't know how many red-shirts we had last fall," Bryant continues, "but if you have a lot it means you did a poor recruiting job. I can check." He finds a team roster and runs his finger slowly down the edge. He mentions no names but he comments on each redshirt he finds. "He'll never play...He'll never...He might play sometime...He'll play...Might play...Won't ever...Won't ever...I count 12 boys last year. That's a bad recruiting year."
What about Joe Jones? There was a time when Joe was certain Bryant did not even know he existed, when he was afraid even to cross the great man's path for fear of arousing demons. Bryant's temper is legendary. There was the time a young Alabama quarterback named Joe Namath was less than respectful to Bryant and the 6'3" coach hoisted him off the ground by his headgear. "He had his fist back behind his head," recalls Namath. "And he said to me, 'Boy, when I talk to you, you look me in the eyes!' "
But Joe Jones has never done anything to cause trouble at Alabama. When he finally got up the courage to ask the coach for some tickets to last year's Auburn game, he was dazzled to find Bryant not only knew his name but sold him the tickets from his own personal supply.
"Joe Jones," says Bryant, nodding his head. "He got redshirted because he wasn't good enough to win. He's done pretty well this spring, except he's fumbled too much. He can kick and that's good, but he needs to work on everything." The coach lights another cigarette. Is Joe Jones progressing satisfactorily then? Is he safe? "I really don't know myself who's got to go when we make our cuts," states Bryant. "These boys come here with the understanding it's a one-year deal. I think it's a good rule, too. So we'll just make a list and when the grades come out we'll make the decisions. That's all I can say."
On Saturday, April 22, the players are taped early in preparation for Alabama's annual Red-White intrasquad scrimmage. Joe Jones is playing for the White team, captained by Running Back Tony Nathan. The teams are equally divided and Joe is scheduled to substitute at right halfback for Nathan, who rushed for 15 touchdowns and a 6.2-yards-per-carry average last year while Jones marked time.