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UNBEARABLE BURDEN
William F. Reed
January 22, 1990
Bill Curry couldn't escape Bear Bryant's shadow at Alabama, so he left for Kentucky
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January 22, 1990

Unbearable Burden

Bill Curry couldn't escape Bear Bryant's shadow at Alabama, so he left for Kentucky

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The main tasks for new Alabama football coach Gene (Bebes) Stalling?, successor to Bill Curry in the job made sacred by the late Paul (Bear) Bryant, will be to restore order and convince the nation that the university really is more than the football factory it seems to be. How else to explain the forces that drove Curry, a good coach and a good man, to leave Alabama—where Bryant won 232 games and six national championships from 1958 through '82—for Kentucky, which has won more than six games only twice in the last 35 years?

The 54-year-old Stallings is a former Bryant player (at Texas A&M from '54 to '56) and assistant (at A&M and ' Bama from '57 to '64) who was fired this season as head coach of the NFL's Phoenix Cardinals. When he took the Alabama job, at least a dozen former Tide players—including Bart Starr and Lee Roy Jordan—attended the press conference to show support for Stallings, who said, "I'm no Bear Bryant." The problem is, he also may be no Bill Curry, which would be the bitterest pill of all for those who contributed to the ugliness that marked Curry's tumultuous, but successful, three years in Tuscaloosa, culminating last season in a 10-2 record, a tie for the Southeastern Conference title and the school's first Sugar Bowl trip in a decade.

The Curry saga exposed, more than anything, how provincial football in the Deep South still is. "Blood is thicker than water" is a Southern way of saying that roots and family are more important than anything else. Ever see the cartoon of a grizzled old Confederate soldier with an angry scowl on his face and the caption, "Forget, hell!"?

Well, Curry was a victim of that mentality. Try as he might, he couldn't overcome his enemies, whom he identified as a clique of former Bryant players, some deep-pocketed boosters, certain Alabama athletic department employees and members of the Birmingham press.

"It's an unusual scenario in Alabama," said Curry, a former Pro Bowl center who played for Super Bowl champions at Green Bay and Baltimore. "I have never seen anything like it, nothing to even approximate it. Even at Green Bay, with the level of fanaticism we had there, it's not as obsessive as this. There are a lot of great people and great fans in Alabama, but there also is an element that believes if you don't have that Alabama pedigree stamped on your forehead and you don't beat Auburn, you're nothing."

His detractors say that Curry, 47, was too thin-skinned and too sensitive to handle all the pressure of living up to Bryant, who is a virtual deity in Alabama and throughout the South.

Less than a month after his final game, a 21-15 victory over Illinois in the 1982 Liberty Bowl, Bryant died, leaving Ray Perkins, a former Tide star and his hand picked coaching successor as both head football coach and athletic director. Perkins's mission was to maintain the Tide's supremacy in the state—and the league—in the face of a strong challenge from hated Auburn and its coach, Pat Dye. The task was too big for Perkins, who went 8-4, 5-6, 9-2-1 and 10-3 before bolting to the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in December 1986.

When Perkins left, Dr. Joab Thomas, then the university president, hired Steve Sloan, a former Alabama quarterback, to be the athletic director and Curry to be the coach. The appointments were announced simultaneously less than a week after Perkins had resigned, and the immediate reaction was uproar. Sloan was O.K., he was a Bryant man. But Curry? Never mind his clean-cut good looks, his almost evangelical intensity, his reputation for decency. Here was a guy who had never played or coached for Bryant, who had a losing career record as a coach, who was 0-7 lifetime against Auburn and who, worst of all, had played and coached at Georgia Tech.

Bryant hated Tech. Bear was jealous of former Yellow Jacket coach Bobby Dodd, one of the most successful coaches in college football, who didn't take the ironfisted approach to the game that Bryant did. In addition, the Atlanta papers blamed Bryant for encouraging dirty football after a celebrated 1961 incident in which a Tide player hit a Tech player after a play was dead.

The final straw came when Bryant learned that an Atlanta writer, Furman Bisher, was involved behind the scenes with the infamous 1963 Saturday Evening Post story alleging that Bryant had conspired with Georgia coach Wally Butts to fix a game. The Tech-Alabama series ended in 1964—it resumed for six seasons in 1979—but the bitterness lingers to this day. Forget, hell.

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