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'THE NEWS SPREAD LIKE STEPPING ON AN ANT BED'
SI Reporter Ivan Maisel, who was born in Mobile two years after Paul (Bear) Bryant began coaching the University of Alabama's football team in 1958, was, like other Alabamians, deeply touched by Bryant's death at age 69 last week. He writes:
To those of us who revered him, the title of Best College Football Coach Ever sold the Bear short. He meant more to us than that. His death a month after his career-ending 323rd coaching victory—he lived three weeks longer than he allowed himself in his eerily prophetic and oft repeated comment that if he quit coaching, "I'd croak in a week"—hit the state harder than any disaster, natural or otherwise, in memory. So much of the history played out in Alabama over the past quarter century has been shameful—the schoolhouse door, Bull Connor's fire hoses, the state's continued low standing among its 49 brethren in per capita income, teachers' salaries and such. But the Bear was someone to whom Alabamians could point with pride.
Football coaches—successful ones, anyway—are looked upon as leaders of the community, and, in fact, high political office crooked its finger at Bryant more than once. Governor George Wallace often expressed his relief that the Bear never succumbed to the temptation. Wallace, just now beginning his fourth term in the state-house, is admired by some Alabamians, loathed by others. Bryant was admired by nearly all of the state's citizens, possibly even the folks at Auburn.
The statewide reaction to his death was initial shock—"The news spread like stepping on an ant bed," a radio announcer friend told me—followed by the sort of grief one feels when a family member dies. People instinctively mark on their internal calendars where they were when they heard momentous news—Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassinations—and so it was in Alabama with Bryant's death. Phone-in radio shows were deluged by callers who reached out for comfort, swapping accounts of personal encounters they'd had with the man and openly crying on the air in a sort of down-home version of the Islamic mourners' public wailing. The state withdrew into mourning for two days, and on Friday Bryant was given the kind of funeral normally reserved for heads of state. There were several houndstooth-hat floral arrangements at the cemetery.
The Bear, like most big-time football coaches, was probably lionized way too much. But it's necessary to understand what he meant to Alabama. One TV commentator likened the relationship between Bryant and the state to the one that existed between FDR and America in the Depression. Somebody else mentioned Joe Louis and the blacks of the '30s and '40s. Bryant was a winner, the winningest ever at his competitive profession, and the people of Alabama drew sustenance from that. For all the joshing about "Thank God for Mississippi," Alabamians really didn't like vying with that state for last place in too many things. If we held Bear high, it's because he elevated us, too.
PRECISE AND COMPACT
Was the good, gray New York Times yukking it up in its agate type last Saturday or were we imagining things? Certainly not the latter, because in the newspaper's sports "transactions" column that morning, right there among the hi-rings and contract extensions, was an item stating that San Diego Clipper Guard Lionel Hollins had gone on "paternity leave." What was going on here anyway?
Well, the item was more or less for real. It seems that the Clippers, who were to play the New York Knicks Saturday night, had just arrived at JFK airport when Hollins learned that his wife, Angela, had gone into labor in San Diego. He was given permission by Coach Paul Silas to skip the Knicks game, and he caught the next flight to San Diego. Trying to condense that into a few words, somebody at the Times came up with the paternity-leave reference. Sports editor Joe Vecchione later said, "It is funny, though it wasn't done to be funny. It was done to be precise and compact."
Speaking of precise and compact, Anthony Michael Hollins, the couple's first child, weighed seven pounds, 10� ounces. After spending a few days with wife and son, Dad was due to rejoin the Clippers in Boston early this week, his paternity leave having amounted to exactly one game.