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The Dawning Of A New Day
John Underwood
September 19, 1983
Bear Bryant's successor as Alabama coach, Ray Perkins, gets off to a good early start in the demanding business of following a legend
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September 19, 1983

The Dawning Of A New Day

Bear Bryant's successor as Alabama coach, Ray Perkins, gets off to a good early start in the demanding business of following a legend

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Ray Perkins is busy clearing up some misconceptions. For one, there's no metal plate in his head. The three holes are there all right, but no metal plate. And none of the holes in his head is the one he presumably had to have to take the job at Alabama as Bear Bryant's successor. Perkins thinks it's funny you should remember. The holes don't even show.

The way it was supposed to have happened was that when Perkins first played at Alabama in 1963 he-had a head-on collision with another freshman football player at practice. Perkins wound up in the hospital, a previously uncharted constellation spinning around in his brain. The constellation was diagnosed as a subdural hematoma. Perkins says he remembers how grim that sounded because Ben Casey, a television surgeon of the time, had to deal with one every other week or so. "When they said 'subdural hematoma' I thought, 'Uh-oh.' "

The holes were drilled to relieve the massive blood clot and salvage Perkins' football career and perhaps his life. An ore bucket full of stainless steel supposedly was used to cap off the operation. Bryant himself told the story, and hadn't he taken a room at a hotel near the hospital to better monitor Perkins' progress?

That's right, says Perkins. Except, forget the metal plate. On a clear day, he can't hear Radio Free Europe after all. He says he couldn't have played football with metal in his head, and all he wanted to do in those days was play football. Now, of course, he only wants to coach football, even from the hottest seat in college sport.

Looking nonetheless cool in his freshly pressed slacks and short-sleeved dress shirt, Perkins is sitting in what used to be Bryant's office in Memorial Coliseum at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa at T-minus-five days and counting until his first game as Bryant's successor. The game will be with Georgia Tech, an old—and formerly bitter—rival. Except for the paneled walls, the office is mostly new. The desk that Bryant used to loom behind has been replaced by one that is a few square yards smaller. The new rug is elephant gray, like the new sofa, and there are color-coordinated upholstered chairs in gray and crimson stripes and a large stuffed one that is solid crimson.

Like his desk, Perkins, too, is smaller than Bryant. And, of course, they look nothing alike. At 41 Perkins still has brown hair, which he combs in a kind of modified Buster Brown. The Bear's was sparse and gray when he died, at 69, on Jan. 26, just 42 days after Perkins took the job that Bryant had vacated. But there's a haunting reminder of Bryant in Perkins: his piercing blue eyes. Not the way they look, but the hard way they look at you. Card-counting eyes. Eyes of a bird of prey.

"Bryant used to say that to succeed in this business you have to be one-half coach and one-half son of a bitch," a visitor says to Perkins. "How much of an s.o.b. are you?"

Perkins doesn't answer. He lets the question sit there for a minute, the way Bryant used to. "I don't know," Perkins says at last, "but I'm tough enough." To keep people in Alabama happy you have to win, Perkins is told. "We'll win," he says flatly.

Perkins says the business of legend-following is another misconception that needs clearing up. He has talked to his players about this. He says he wouldn't have campaigned so hard for the job—he left the New York Giants' helm to take it—if it was the minefield everybody thinks it is. It doesn't bother him at all, he says, to be engulfed by the ongoing apotheosis of his former coach and benefactor. Bryant's image is everywhere in Alabama—on billboards, in hotel lobby showcases, in drugstore displays—and can be purchased in the form of everything from framed posters to a fiber-glass facsimile of a bronze bust. Right out front at the Coliseum, Tenth Street is now Paul W. Bryant Drive, renamed after Bryant's death, and the Tuscaloosa police are having trouble keeping the signs up. Souvenir hunters have run off with 10 since March.

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