In fact, the only time the Bear has come a cropper has been when he stopped being himself--as in the late '60s, when all hell was breaking loose around the country.
"I just didn't know how to handle the change, so I started to think we must be winnin' by outcoachin', and anytime you think that, that's when you will get your ass whipped," he says. "Why, before that, I ate with my quarterback every day, but I got outta that, and then along came that rebellious era; that dope era, that why-you-want-me-to-do-this era. The players wanted to be like every other student, and you can't be that way and win. You just can't.
"But the biggest thing was, I was just doin' a lousy job. So when I understood that, I read the riot act to them and got back to work myself. I changed my approach, too. I used to tell a player comin' in, now you're gonna have to be a little bit better player each day, and you're gonna have to do better in your academics and learn lessons every day. And if you do this, you'll be a better person and be able to take your place in society better than when you came here.
"But the kids changed, so now I start the other way, at the other end of the barrel. I tell a boy, if you're not a special kind of person when you come here, I don't want you. See how I turned it around? 'Course, I do still tell 'em if I can't love you and pat you and brag on you, I don't want you. I think I can do that better'n anybody."
What exactly? Do you mean, inspire?
"I don't know. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you."
This season, as the Bear feared and as Alabama's relatively modest record attests--relative to other Crimson Tide teams, understand--he has been bedeviled by the pressures of the approaching record. At times he has betrayed his instincts and not pushed the Tide as vigorously as he believed he should for fear critics would accuse him of being selfish. It irks him, too, that the hullabaloo is somewhat manufactured.
"All I know is, I don't want to stop coaching and I don't want to stop winning, so we're gonna break the record unless I die," he says.
For now, though, there is no escaping the Hank Aaron or Pete Rose role he must play, by the numbers. Some alumni have donated a huge trailer, which is hauled back and forth between the two Tide stadiums, in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, so that the Bear can address the world in style after each home game. The trailer looks rather like something a TV preacher might take on the road, with a choir. There are chairs for more than 100 press, who peer up toward where the Bear sits in something of a pulpit-type arrangement. There is a red carpet on the floor and a clapboard wall behind him and a $4,800 sound mixer to snare and amplify his mumbled responses.
Of course, the Bear has long been the center of a real cottage industry in Alabama, with all sorts of icons and other Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant collectibles being turned out. The approaching record has served as an excuse to manufacture a whole new generation of Bear keepsakes, all "315" models: cushions, calendars, bumper stickers, banners, buttons, kerchiefs, statues and those large foam hands with the index finger raised. For folks with more expensive tastes, there are busts, guaranteed to be of a "stonelike material," at $50, commemorative coins (peaking at $1,250 for a platinum job) and paintings and original sculpture up to $4,500.