A big problem for the Tide is that its mystique is gone. In his weekly sports magazine 'Bama, Kirk McNair wrote, "The smell of blood is driving Tide opponents into a frenzy as they have an opportunity to take part in the kill." How did this happen so fast to a school that was national champ in 1978 and '79 (for the 10th and 11th times), went 10-2 in 1980 and was 9-2-1 in 1981, when it won its 12th SEC crown in 20 years?
Obviously, Bryant's retirement after the 1982 season is at the core of the dilemma. He was the winningest coach in history, with 323 victories. He wasn't simply the legendary Alabama coach for 25 years; he was Alabama football. Yet he contributed to its decline because, in the last half-dozen years or so before he retired, opposing teams kept telling recruits the Bear would quit and wouldn't be in Tuscaloosa for their entire careers. When asked about that by a recruit, he would, to his credit, respond, "Son, I can't guarantee you I'll be at Alabama as long as you."
In 1980 Bryant even told an old friend, Bert Bank, who produces the game broadcasts for the Alabama Football Network, "I should've retired after the 1979 season. We needed a younger fella." Indeed, says Bank, when people would tell Bryant in his waning years that they could "hardly wait for the season," he would mutter, "I can wait."
Auburn, which is king in Alabama these days, couldn't wait to capitalize on the uncertainty surrounding the Bear. Pat Dye was named coach in 1981, and he began to out-Bryant Bryant with his homey ways and good-ol'-boy backslapping. In 1982—Bryant's final year—the Tide lost a number of blue-chippers from the state to the Tigers, among them Bo Jackson. Others included Jeff Parks, the state's top prospect; Alan Evans, considered the No. 1 running back at the time he signed (he has since transferred to Tennessee- Chattanooga); defensive back Tommy Powell; defensive tackle Gerald Williams; and quarterback Pat Washington. When Ben Tamburello, a center from Birmingham, chose Auburn, the word is that that defection spurred Bryant to quit. Auburn also outrecruited the Tide in '83 and '84. This year the Tigers signed five players Alabama had coveted, notably running back Reggie Ware, the state's most sought-after recruit.
And let's face it, following a legend in the SEC isn't a secure line of work. At Auburn, Doug Barfield lasted five unhappy seasons after Shug Jordan's 25-year reign. At Georgia, Johnny Griffith endured for three after Wally Butts's 22. Billy Kinard flopped in 2� years after Johnny Vaught's 24 at Ole Miss. These days 'Bama followers are starting to call Perkins "Ears," after J.B. (Ears) Whitworth, who guided Alabama to a 4-24-2 record in 1955-57. But Perkins, who's nothing if not steely, says, "I just want to follow Coach Bryant, not replace him."
Perkins's background is a lot like Bryant's. Both grew up poor in small Southern towns, both were receivers on great Tide teams. Perkins, though, lacks Bryant's common touch. He also seems to lack a winning personality. Staring is his forte. Sitting next to him can give you a cold. Once, when he had Finebaum over to his house for dinner in hopes of winning nicer ink, Perkins said he was thinking about doing his TV show by himself, without a host. He asked his wife, Carolyn, what she thought, and she said, "I don't think you have the personality for it." According to Finebaum, Perkins crashed his fist to the table and started ranting something about divorce. He hosts the show by himself. He doesn't have the personality for it.
A longtime supporter says, "If Perkins found out there was one person in this state who still liked him, he'd call him up and tick him off." A doctor in Sylacauga wrote a letter to a local paper that said, in part, "...the ultimate loss is being saddled with a head coach...with the personality of a silicon chip." A newspaper poll disclosed that while 46% of those questioned rated Perkins good or excellent as a coach, 54% found him poor or fair.
Those who don't like Perkins have a litany of complaints: He took down Bear's famed coaching tower; he changed the helmet color from crimson to white; he retained only one of the Bear's offensive assistants; he locked doors that previously had been left open; he isn't good about returning phone calls; he changed the offense from the beloved wishbone to the pro-set; he replaced the veteran radio play-by-play man; he replaced the veteran trainer with a 32-year-old sports-medicine expert. Perkins obviously had every right to make all of those changes, but they left the impression of a man rehabilitating a program nobody thought needed rehabilitating. None of this would matter if Perkins were winning. The point is, he has tried to get out from under the Bryant shadow too quickly. "All he had to do," says one Tide fan, "was come in and be nice to people."
Then there's Perkins's inexperience as a college coach. In 1973 he was the receiver coach at Mississippi State. That's it. He then worked in the pros for nine years, finishing with a 24-35 record in four seasons as head coach of the Giants. But the pro and college games are different, in nuance if not in substance, and Perkins hasn't developed the right touch. Finally, people question his ability to judge young talent and to recruit it.
Certainly the loss of halfback Kerry Goode for the year in the season opener against B.C. was crushing. Goode tore ligaments in his right knee after running for a touchdown, catching a pass for another TD and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a third. Says Goode, "People here don't look at the fact that other teams are getting better. Some say it wouldn't be like this if Coach Bryant was here. I don't know." Quarterback Sutton, who has the look of a rising star, was shaking his head the other day, saying, "I never expected this to happen. It was like it was a nice sunny day and all the sudden the rain came out of nowhere. I don't understand why we're not winning. Maybe we just don't have the guts it takes."