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When the traditionally vaunted and feared Alabama Crimson Tide—with 26 straight winning seasons and a record 25 consecutive bowl appearances—lost 24-14 to Georgia last Saturday at Birmingham's Legion Field, the Tide's record fell to 1-4. That's Alabama's worst start since 1957—and in '58 it had a new coach, Paul W. (Bear) Bryant. You may have heard of him.
For eons the most famous cry in Dixie hasn't been "The South will rise again!" It has been "Roll Tide!" and to hear it is to be chilled to the bone, especially when it shatters the predawn in a hotel corridor. But times have changed. It's now "Whoa Tide!" Or worse, "Ebb Tide!"
Beleaguered Alabama coach Ray Perkins, now in his second year, bristled the other afternoon when asked how he contrived not to lose hope. "I don't even consider that," he snapped. "If you lose hope you might as well be dead. If you quit fighting you've got nothing. We will be back, without a doubt. Look, I know everything I do has been, is and will be compared to Coach Bryant. But I am not Coach Bryant."
The fans, of course, have been quick to pick up on the difference. They booed Perkins and his team off the field after the Tide lost 30-21 to Vanderbilt a fortnight ago. That was Alabama's first homecoming defeat since 1957. They call in to the talk shows. Groused one detractor over the air the other night, "Well, I'll tell you, Ray Perkins ain't a good coach." The fans also question his ability to motivate the players. A letter writer to Birmingham Post-Herald columnist Paul Finebaum said of Perkins, "The bottom line is he is a loser, and I don't want him around long enough to prove it." Of course, a cowardly strain runs through the naysayers, so they hide behind anonymous phone calls and unsigned letters.
Not Finebaum, who has helped whip up the discontent. The other day he wrote, "Welcome to the State of Alabama, Losersville, USA. A state where the fans obviously take the game of college football more seriously than the players." He went on to refer to the team as "chumps."
In sum, the fans have grown sullen, if not mutinous, and even Perkins admits that their mood ranges "from disbelief to sadness to disappointment to madness to hysteria." But Perkins has his defenders. One of them called Finebaum during his weekly talk show the other night and suggested, "If I was him [ Perkins], I'd assassinate you."
The problem is that most of what Finebaum writes and says is true. For example, he wrote, "It's sad to accept that a program once considered the greatest in college football has become a joke." Indeed, word spread through Tuscaloosa last week that the Tide would be hiring a new coach, a Chinese named Win Won Soon. An undercover organization calls itself the Jerk the Perk Fan Club. Perkins, whose record is 9-8 in a year and a half, has responded by blaming the media. At a press conference early last week, he said a lot of what was being written was——. Wrote Finebaum, " Ray Perkins has a lousy football team."
Nothing happened on Saturday to disprove that assessment. Most disheartening, perhaps, was that Alabama gave its best effort of the year, following losses to Boston College, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt and a victory over lowly South-western Louisiana. With only 1:28 gone in the game, Georgia fullback Andre Smith ripped 44 yards up the middle for a touchdown. Two minutes and 19 seconds later, Smith did the same thing, except this time he ran only 34 yards. In the second quarter, Bulldog coach Vince Dooley ordered up a fake punt on fourth and five that was good for 10 yards. Seven plays later Kevin Butler kicked a 34-yard field goal, and the score was 17-0. School was essentially out.
'Bama's freshman quarterback, Vince Sutton, did try to rally his shattered troops—and the Tide did roll in the second quarter and off and on in the second half—but his four interceptions were crushing. Ditto inopportune penalties and missed assignments. Lord knows that Alabama, which six weeks ago was thinking in terms of a national championship, tried. It just wasn't very good. Afterward, Perkins gathered himself together and faced the media, declaring, "I'm very excited about the future of this team."
Outside in the gloom a car drove away with a bumper sticker that read PERK UP OR PERK OUT. The stickers that say PERKINS' PRIDE aren't too popular these days. And in the parking lots, the disciples were decidedly grouchy. David Stephens of Tuscaloosa said, " Coach Perkins hasn't charmed the fans." Sitting in the back of a pickup truck with his buddies, Jim Owens of Nashville said, " Alabama players don't have heart, and they aren't knockin' people on their butts and runnin' over 'em. That's it." The highlight of the game for many fans came when a plane flew over the stadium trailing a banner reading: PHONE HOME DANNY FORD. Ford, the Clemson coach, is an Alabama alum and a favorite of some to replace Perkins.