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Once, years ago, his players practiced till they dropped--literally. It's amazing someone didn't die when the Bear was coaching back there at Texas A&M. If you took off your helmet, you were just a damn old sissy. But now, here the Bear is making sure they all drink exactly the proper amount of liquid and let their heads cool off.
Now he begins to trudge up the 33 steps to the top of the tower, where a chair, a bullhorn and a can of bug spray await him. The latter is for some hornets up there that don't appreciate what place the man in the tower holds in the human kingdom. He peers down on all his players. There are almost 130, counting the walk-ons, all in color-coded shirts--red for the first offense, white for the first defense, blue, green, yellow and orange--looking like game pieces on some great green, white-striped board. The Gridiron King will zero in on this one or that one for two or three plays, but, of course, nobody down there knows whom he might be watching at any given moment. He'll just all of a sudden yell out, "Nice catch" or "Straight up, straight up" or "You can't run any faster than that, get your ass outta here" or "Come on, come on, start showin' some class. Fourth quarter now, fourth quarter." But everybody feels the Bear is coming right down on him, which is the way he wants it.
The Bear says, "When I first came here, I was fightin' for my life out there on the field. Well, I'm still fightin' for my life. It's just that I don't have near as many years left." It is only at the very end of the second session of the opening two-a-days that the Bear lets himself lounge back in his chair. Then he just sits up there for a while, the pink twilight over his shoulder, watching the last of the maneuvers below. It's past 7 p.m. before he starts down the tower for the last time. "They were comin' off the ball pretty good," the Bear allows. Better be; there are barely two weeks left till the opener over in Baton Rouge against LSU. That will be number 307.
BY THE TIME Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant got back to Alabama, age 44, in 1958, he had already accumulated 91 coaching victories, at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, places on the fringes of Dixie. Now he was returning to his alma mater, to home.
The Bear is meaningful. That is his legacy--not just so many more victories. History has always been important to the South, and the Bear is a historical figure. It was right after another victory last month, number 310, and Billy had just driven him away in the Buick LeSabre, two motorcycle cops running ahead through the traffic, their blue lights flashing, when someone was moved to say, "They'll sure never be another Bear." And the writer from the campus newspaper, an Alabama boy, said, "Well, not unless there's another Civil War." And that is pretty much it. For Alabama, anyway, the Bear is triumph, at last; even more than that, he is justification.
The Bear hates all that joking about him being some sort of Dixie Christ (his card-playing friends back at Indian Hills refer to him as "Old Water-Walker"--behind his back), and he's right to, for whether or not it's a sacrilege, it's bad theology. The Bear is very human. That is the point. He is one of their own good old boys who took on the rest of the nation and whipped it. The wisest thing that the Bear never did was to run against George Wallace for governor, not so much because he probably would have lost and that would have burst the balloon of omnipotence but because he would have forced his fellow Alabamians to choose between their two heroes who didn't pussyfoot around against the Yankees.
Besides, the Bear doesn't properly belong in that line. Successful Southern politicians are pugnacious, like Wallace, perhaps mean, irascible at best. Southern generals, by contrast, are courtly and noble, permitting their troops to do the necessary bloodletting--within the rules, of course. The Bear is a general, and it is important to the state that he win his battles honorably. It is all the more significant that, during his time in the wilderness, the Bear admits to having cheated, to having wallowed in expedience; that it was only his conjoining again with Alabama that made him whole and pure once more. And what a union it has been!
There is a feeling in Alabama that most anybody can win at the prominent Yankee football shelters; hell, even an old Protestant like Ara Parseghian kept the wheel turning at Notre Dame. Larry Lacewell, the head coach at Arkansas State, who has been on the staffs at both Alabama and Oklahoma, offers this comparison: "In Oklahoma they all think they win just because it's Oklahoma. In Alabama they know why they do.... It's him."
While the Bear and a winning team would have advanced the redemptive process at any time, it was, however, all the more symbolic that he happened to arrive back home at precisely the moment when the Deep South-- Alabama above all--was being turned into a battlefield again. In one way or another, every white Alabamian was on the defensive, either out of shame or to dig in: Never! But for both types there was always the Bear to celebrate, the one intrepid native who was not only succeeding but also winning on a national scale with "skinny little white boys," as one Alabamian recalls. "There was something for everybody. Even if you weren't racist, there were certain historical imperatives to clutch to your breast. It was The War all over again; us poor, underfed, outmanned Southerners beating up on the big, ugly Yankees only because we were obviously smarter and braver."
It is certainly illuminative of his nature that the Bear took no lead whatsoever in the matter of integration. His defenders will claim that Wallace kept his hands tied, that the Bear wasn't even allowed to schedule teams with black players, much less dress any of them in crimson, and there may be a measure of truth in that. But given the Bear's surpassing popularity, he had it within his power to assume a burden of leadership. Yet he held back on race and let other--and less entrenched--Southern coaches stick their necks out first. Only after Southern Cal and Sam (Bam) Cunningham ran all over the skinny little white boys in a 1970 game, only when it was evident that the Tide couldn't win any longer lily-white, only then did the Bear learn his civics. It is consistent that the one knock against him as a coach is that he never had the faith or daring to be an innovator.