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Rain has softened the Alabama heat, but not for long. It had been in the high 90s the week before; it is now in the 80s, but the Saturday forecast for Birmingham, where the game will be played, is clear and hot. Perkins has allowed Popsicle breaks at practice. The workouts are closed, even to the old alumni friends of Bryant's who used to attend regularly. Some have been offended, but it doesn't change Perkins. He doesn't want "any distractions."
After practice, Gary White, who ran the athletic dorm when Perkins played at Alabama and is now the assistant athletic director, takes the wheel of Perkins' Buick Park Avenue and chauffeurs him to Birmingham for an "annual appearance" before the Birmingham Touchdown Club. After he signed in January, Perkins says, he made "60 or 70" appearances, sometimes two in a night.
He says it helped him remember why he loved college football so much—"Everybody gets involved, and the kids really want it." He tells the story of a pro player who balked at being traded because the team that wanted him was going to make him a starter, and he was afraid of getting hurt. "Money's the factor now," Perkins says. "Playing is secondary.
"I know these guys want to play," he says of the 'Bama team. "They've got the best attitude of any group I've been around, college or pro. I know because I was like that. If I could, I'd still be playing. I know they're talented, too. I've never seen a group that could catch the ball as well as they do."
"College or pro?"
"College or pro. And I know they're good people because I know what they come from. But I don't know what they'll do in a game because I haven't been with them in one yet. And I really don't know how all these changes have affected them. I think it's been a lot tougher for them than it has been for me. Look what they've gone through. Their coach retired. A new coach came in. The old coach died. The new coach put in a new offense. One thing after another."
Perkins is asked if he thinks his team has what coaches like to call "character," that special will to win.
"Yes, I do." He pauses. "Well, I take that back." He says he has studied the records and found a surprising thing. "They lost six games and tied a seventh the last two years. Four times in those seven games they carried leads of seven points or better into the last quarter—and lost. I'm not sure what that says about their character. Alabama teams are supposed to win in the fourth quarter."
White whisks Perkins into an elevator at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Birmingham and leads him to the ballroom jammed with 450 white male members of the Birmingham Touchdown Club. The ballroom is breathtakingly tacky, a cacophony in red, with chandeliers that look as if they've been blown from a bubble pipe. The membership stands and applauds as Perkins hustles up to the podium. He hasn't eaten, but it's too late for that. The fatty edges of prime ribs and hollowed-out baked potatoes litter the plates on the crowded tables. The membership is into the carrot cake.
Gaylon McCollough, a center on the 1964 Alabama team, introduces Perkins. McCollough is a big, handsome, square-jawed man who was on the search committee that chose Perkins. He's also the plastic surgeon who gave Bryant a minor face-lift a year ago. He introduces Perkins as a "fierce competitor," "intense" and "goal oriented." Perkins barely has time to scare the audience about Tech—"It's ridiculous, Alabama being favored by 19 points. Bill Curry thinks they can win the Atlantic Coast Conference this year, and Bill Curry doesn't blow smoke"—when the program makes a grinding shift of gears and goes into a live radio talk show. The announcer feeds the phoned-in questions to Perkins.