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This deification is only as it should be, Perkins says. "The greatest honor of my life is following that man," he adds. His blue eyes narrow. "But when I took the job they asked me if I was intimidated by Coach Bryant. I said he wouldn't have wanted me if I was. I'm not replacing him; I'm following him. People say it's better not to follow a legend, but not everybody who follows a legend has to fail. The guy who says he'd rather follow the guy who follows the legend is too scared to be there in the first place. He doesn't deserve this job. It's the best coaching job in America."
There are other misconceptions Perkins would like cleared up. Things that have made some Alabamans believe he's just the unfeeling s.o.b. the Crimson Tide bargained for. They shake their heads over the changes he has made. No more wishbone offense, a Bryant specialty for 12 years. No more Bryant tower on the practice field, an edifice as familiar to Alabamans as the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville. No more this employee or that one—more than half the coaching staff and some other familiar figures, including the Tide's radio announcer for 25 years, were canned.
The impression is one of a ruthless young man knocking over symbols and treading on feelings, making up in insolence for what he lacks in tact. One of Perkins' biggest allies is Jerry Duncan, a former teammate who is now a Birmingham stockbroker. But Duncan, who also works as a colorman on 'Bama broadcasts, was incensed by the replacement of the radio man, John Forney, and told Perkins so. And when Bryant's old tower was found rusting on its side on a flatbed trailer behind a warehouse at Cain steelyard, the weeds growing up all around, it was easily seen as an insult to Bryant.
But is Perkins really so ruthless? Or is he simply a man returning to the methods that led to the glories he experienced as a player under Bryant: the national championship teams of 1964 and 1965, the undefeated team of 1966, which should have been similarly crowned. No wishbone? The Tide didn't use it when it won in Perkins' days as a wide receiver, and he never coached it anywhere. No more names on the backs of jerseys? "We've never won a national championship with names on the jerseys," he says. White helmets as well as the traditional red? "We used white helmets in the '60s." No tower? Perkins wants to be "down there with the players"—the way Bryant preferred to be at Perkins' age. The tower was left on the field for a while, Perkins says, but it became a "distraction." Now he'd like to see it put in the Hall of Fame or in a special place on campus for everybody to see.
Interestingly enough, says Perkins, the biggest change might well have been made by Bryant himself had he coached—and lived—on: the switch to a multiple offense, with a greater emphasis on passing. Bryant's coaching was marked by his willingness to adapt readily to trends, and with the more liberalized pass-blocking rules in the NCAA, another change appeared inevitable. "When I talked with Coach Bryant in '82 about bringing in a new offensive coordinator for Alabama, I named a guy I wanted but didn't get, and he said, 'Yeah, I'd get him, too, and then I'd throw the ball.' " Against Georgia Tech, Perkins says, Alabama will be throwing the ball—about once for every two times that it runs.
Most conspicuous is the absence of any controversy—or even a hint of negative feeling—about Georgia Tech. The old acrimony is gone. No one even mentions it, although at its bitter peak it almost ruined Bryant's career.
The bitterness had begun with an old rival's complaints about the helmet-busting style of football that Bryant's teams played. The rival was Yellow Jacket Coach Bobby Dodd, who taught moderation and chafed in the early '60s as Bryant's tougher approach stole the Southern spotlight. The issue eventually emerged in print after a Tech player's jaw was crushed by an Alabama linebacker on a sideline foul that was not seen by officials. Subsequent games were laced with rancor—and usually won by the Tide. Bryant said he took his "lunch bucket" when he went to Atlanta and always returned before dark.
Dodd pulled out of the series in 1964, and Tech dropped out of the SEC and into a partial eclipse. The estrangement between the schools didn't end until Bryant moved to conciliate in the late '70s. By then Tech was a faded name, no longer a national power, and Dodd was out of coaching, no longer a threat.
Now the rival coaches are Perkins and Bill Curry, who played under Dodd, and there is no animosity whatsoever. The two were, in fact, teammates—and occasionally roommates—for five years on the Baltimore Colts. Instead of brickbats they toss bouquets. Curry was the teammate Perkins went to for solace when his playing days were ended, partly because of injury, 11 years ago.