HANK WILLIAMS once
said he could throw his cowboy hat onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry after
he finished Lovesick Blues and it would get at least one curtain call. It has
been that way for decades in Tuscaloosa, except the hat is houndstooth.
Will Nevin, a
first-year law student, places an offering the night before every game at the
feet of Bryant's statue in front of the football stadium. He and his friends
leave a bag of Golden Flake potato chips and an old-fashioned glass bottle of
Coca-Cola, the sponsors of Bryant's old TV show. Nevin, 21, never saw the show,
never saw Bryant on the sideline. But the image of the Bear is alive in his
mind's eye. He just knows how it must have been, like hearing someone tell you
how sweet an old Mustang used to run, before it was put up on blocks in the
barn and covered with a tarp. The most you can do is run your hand over the
paint and imagine.
It seems like a
dream now: From 1958 through 1982 there were six national championships, 13 SEC
titles, a 232-46-9 overall record, a 19--6 mark against Auburn and a stable of
immortals that included Billy Neighbors, Lee Roy Jordan, Joe Namath, Kenny
Stabler, John Hannah, Ozzie Newsome, many others. But the Bryant magic was
about more than numbers, more than X's and O's and big ol' boys who would have
blocked a pulpwood truck if he'd asked them to. It was about how he could draw
every eye in the stadium to him as he leaned against that goalpost during
warmups, a growling, mumbling golem glued together out of legend, gristle and a
little bit of mean. It was almost cheating, having him on the sideline, like
filling your trunk full of cement blocks before a demolition derby.
After a quarter
century of dominance Bryant retired after the 1982 season with a 21--15 win
over Illinois at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, in the freezing cold. Less than a
month later he was dead, as if his life was hard-wired to the game. One paper
sent reporters to interview the grave digger, and on Bryant's burial day people
stood on the overpasses and the roadside, hands over their hearts, to watch a
hearse take away one of the best parts of their history.
At any flea market
in Dixie, you can still find Bryant commemorative plates. At every roadside
bar, church basement rec room or courthouse café, you can hear this joke:
Guy gets into
heaven. Sees an old man in a houndstooth hat walking on water.
asks Saint Peter, "is that Bear Bryant?"
Pete says, "that's God. He just thinks he's Bear Bryant."
NEVIN WILL always
love the idea of Bear and always honor his legend, but it is clear that praying
to a memory, however fine, has not worked amid so many missing elements.
"We want something to celebrate," says Nevin. "By God, it's our
In one of the most
storied, demanding and impatient programs in college football, the comparison
with Bryant has smothered the coaches who've come after him. With the exception
of his protégé, Gene Stallings, who delivered a national championship in '92,
schooling trash-talking Miami 34--13 in the Sugar Bowl, men have perished in
the shadow of Bear. It is his taped voice, God-like, that still booms across
Bryant-Denny Stadium at the start of every home game: "I ain't never been
nothin' but a winner."