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THE FIRST of the two-a-days in the 24th year of Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant's tenure at Alabama takes place just after dawn on a steamy summer's day, Monday, Aug. 17. It would be winter, 4� months later, before the Crimson Tide would be finished playing; the team has gone to a bowl for 22 straight years and by now, as the Bear says, "we win two games, some bowl will invite us." Oddly, he overslept this morning. You'd have thought the Bear would have been raring to go, he being a legend in his own time, this being the start of his supreme season during which he would surpass Amos Alonzo Stagg's alltime record of 314 wins by a college football coach; besides, he's an early riser. But Billy Varner had to rouse him, up at his house by the third green at the Indian Hills Country Club.
Billy drives the Bear around in a Buick LeSabre. He has for six years, since, the Bear explains, "I started getting death threats and all kinda things." Billy was a bartender out at the club, and the Bear had him taught to shoot a pistol so he could pass the police tests. They get along beautifully, which is important because by now the Bear probably spends more time with Billy than he does with his wife, whose name is Mary Harmon if you know the Bear, and Miz Bryant if you only worship from afar.
But even with the late start, it wasn't yet six o'clock when Billy got the Bear to his office before the first of the two-a-days. The moon was still up, shining through the misty Alabama heavens.
The players started arriving around 6:30, driving the half mile or so from their private dormitory, Bryant Hall (of course). Where the Bear now has his football offices, in Memorial Coliseum, adjoining the practice complex, was all cotton fields when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa, coming over from the bottom country of Arkansas. It was the fall of '31, the Depression, and the segregated South was like a different nation then--one party, one crop, one sport and one dollar if you were lucky. "There wasn't but about three cars on campus then," the Bear recalls, exaggerating only a little bit. Now, as dawn breaks, his players drive up in all manner of vehicles; hardly a one walks the half mile from the dormitory.
The Bear meets briefly with his team--alone. "You wouldn't want someone else to sit in when you talked private with your wife, would you?" he says. Occasionally he drives home this point in somewhat earthier terms. He's still very close to his boys. He doesn't sleep over at the dormitory anymore, the way Joe Namath remembers, but there is still a tight bond. "I get so tired of it at times," the Bear admits, "but I do love the football, the contact with my players. I still get a thrill outta jes goin' to practice. Jes steppin' out there. I do. That's my hobby." Another thing he says regularly when strangers ask even innocuous questions about his players is this: "I wouldn't know, and I wouldn't tell you if I did."
The Bear puts on his baseball cap now, for practice. He is about the last man who has his hair and still wears a hat all the time. Outside Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant down in Alabama, you can tell bald men this way: They are the ones in hats. But if the Bear still has hair, it isn't so curly and bright as it used to be, so his jug ears stand out more. In fact, he can look very old sometimes, away from the sideline stripes. He is wrinkled and gray and his coat rides up high on his neck and his pants droop off his seat, and he just shuffles along. He looks, for example, a lot older than President Reagan, who is 70, 2� years his senior. "Yeah, but the President ain't run around and drank anywhere near so much whiskey as the Bear," a friend says. That's probably true, although not necessarily to the benefit of the ship of state.
"My doctor says I look 10 years younger than last year," the Bear was mumbling the other day when Billy drove him up to Birmingham for a luncheon at a hotel. He growls so low and so slow that when he made a commercial for Ford trucks not long ago, they had to speed up the sound track so Americans at home would understand it was Ford trucks he was extolling. "Ten years," the Bear went on. "Of course, in the first place he's lying, and in the second, there's all these pills--11 in the morning, alone. Why, I'm plain goofy now."
But now the moon is gone, the sun is up for the first of the two-a-days, and the Bear strides through the guarded tunnel that goes from the coliseum to the practice fields, under a fence topped with barbed wire and masked with high shrubs. And now the Bear is different. He is some kind of different. He is Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, and he seems an altogether new man, a whole lot younger. He puts out his cigarette and climbs into his golf cart and drives off toward his tower, which is celebrated this way in one of the ballads about him:
His reign of power
The ground has turned two shades of green by now, lighter where many footprints and one set of golf cart tracks have cut through the wet grass. It's likely to be more humid early in the day, when the dew is lifting, so the players are made to stop and rest regularly on one knee, with their helmets off, and receive liquids. They kneel all in one straight line, served by managers, so that it looks exactly like some huge, open-air Communion. "All right, all right," hollers the Bear. "Not all slouched up like a bunch of idiots."