The Bear meets briefly with his team—alone. "You wouldn't want someone else to sit in when you talked private with your wife, would you?" he says. Occasionally, he drives home this point in somewhat earthier terms. He's still very close to his boys. He doesn't sleep over at the dormitory anymore, the way Joe Namath remembers, but there is still a tight bond. "I get so tired of it at times," The Bear admits. "But I do love the football, the contact with my players. I still get a thrill outta jes goin' to practice. Jes steppin' out there. I do. That's my hobby." Another thing he says, regularly, when strangers ask even innocuous questions about his players, is this: "I wouldn't know, and I wouldn't tell you if I did."
The Bear puts on his baseball cap now, for practice. He is about the last man who has his hair and still wears a hat all the time. Outside of Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant down in Alabama, you can tell bald men this way: they are the ones in hats. But if The Bear still has hair, it isn't so curly and bright as it used to be, so his jug ears stand out more. In fact, he can look very old sometimes, away from the sideline stripes. He is wrinkled and gray and his coat rides up high on his neck and his pants droop off his seat, and he just shuffles along. He looks, for example, a lot older than the President, who is, at 70, two and a half years his senior. "Yeah, but the President ain't run around and drank anywhere near so much whiskey as The Bear," a friend says. That's probably true, although not necessarily to the benefit of the ship of state.
"My doctor says I look 10 years younger than last year," The Bear was mumbling the other day when Billy drove him up to Birmingham for a luncheon at a hotel. He growls so low and so slow that when he made a commercial for Ford trucks not long ago, they had to speed up the sound track so Americans at home would understand it was Ford trucks he was extolling. "Ten years," The Bear went on. "Of course, in the first place he's lying, and in the second, there's all these pills—11 in the morning, alone. Why, I'm plain goofy now." And he was, for a time. Also, like a lot of old men, he has weak kidneys. "Billy, have I passed all my pissin' places?" The Bear asked, as they neared Birmingham. They had, so at the hotel, people followed him right to the men's room. But The Bear never slights anybody if he can help it. When he greets someone, he keeps an arm around him, or, even after the handshake, he holds onto him by the wrist or forearm, as if momentarily he is going to send him into a huddle.
But now, the moon is gone, the sun is up for the first of the two-a-days, and The Bear strides through the guarded tunnel that goes from the coliseum to the practice fields, under a fence topped with barbed wire and masked with high shrubs. And now The Bear is different. He is some kind of different. He is Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, and he seems an altogether new man, a whole lot younger. He puts out his cigarette and climbs into his golf cart and drives off toward his tower, which is celebrated this way in one of the ballads about him:
His reign of power
From his tower,
The Gridiron King.
The ground has turned two shades of green by now, lighter where many footprints and one set of golf cart tracks have cut through the wet grass. It's likely to be more humid early in the day, when the dew is lifting, so the players are made to stop and rest regularly on one knee, with their helmets off, and receive liquids. They kneel all in one straight line, served by managers, so that it looks exactly like some huge open-air Communion. "All right, all right," hollers The Bear. "Not all slouched up like a bunch of idiots."
Once, years ago, his players practiced till they dropped—literally. It's amazing someone didn't die when The Bear was coaching back there at Texas A&M. If you took off your helmet or needed water, you were just a damn old sissy. But now, here The Bear is, making sure they all drink exactly the proper amount of liquid and let their heads cool off.
("You see, Coach Bryant was always very good at adjusting," Bud Wilkinson says. Wilkinson had 145 victories when he packed it in at Oklahoma in 1963 to run for the Senate. Why, he could be past 315 by now if he had stuck with it. Add it up for yourself. "The main thing about staying a coach so long is that you've got to want to," Wilkinson says.)
A freight train rumbles by, just as practice is ready to start. And suddenly, for no reason, The Bear starts to sing. "Love lifted me!" he sings. Well, it's more of a holler. And then again, the refrain from the old hymn: "Love lif...i...ted me!" Nobody ventures to ask The Bear why he has chosen this song here at the start of the two-a-days.
Now he begins to trudge up the 33 steps to the top of the tower, where a chair, a bullhorn and a can of bug spray await him. The latter is for some hornets up there who don't appreciate what place the man in the tower holds in the human kingdom. He peers down on all his players. There are almost 130, counting the walk-ons, all in color-coded shirts—red for the first offense, white for first defense, blue, green, yellow and orange—looking like game pieces on some great, green, white-striped board. The Gridiron King will zero in on this one or that one for two or three plays, but, of course, nobody down there knows whom he might be watching at any given moment. He'll just all of a sudden yell out: "Nice catch" or "Straight up, straight up" or "You can't run any faster than that, get your ass outta here" or "Come on, come on, start showin' some class. Fourth quarter now, fourth quarter." But everybody feels The Bear is coming right down on him, which is the way he wants it.