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The Bear says, "When I first came here I was fightin' for my life out there on the field. Well, I'm still fightin' for my life. It's just that I don't have near as many years left." It is only at the very end of the second session of the opening two-a-days that The Bear lets himself lounge back in his chair. Then he just sits up there for a while, the pink twilight over his shoulder, watching the last of the maneuvers below. It's past 7 p.m. before he starts down the tower for the last time. "They were comin' off the ball pretty good," The Bear allows. Better be; there are barely two weeks left till the opener over in Baton Rouge, against LSU. That will be number 307.
By the time Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant got back to Alabama, age 44, in 1958, he had already accumulated 91 coaching victories at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, places on the fringes of Dixie. Now he was returning to his alma mater, to home, and in the very year that C. Vann Woodward, the distinguished Southern historian, was making this observation: "The time is coming, if indeed it has not already arrived, when the Southerner will begin to ask himself whether there is really any longer very much point in calling himself a Southerner." How could C. Vann Woodward know that, 23 years later, The Bear would be going for 315?
The Bear is meaningful. That is his legacy—not just so many more victories. History has always been important to the South, and The Bear is a historical figure. It was right after another victory last month, number 310, and Billy had just driven him away in the Buick LeSabre, two motorcycle cops running ahead through the traffic, their blue lights flashing, when someone was moved to say, "They'll sure never be another Bear." And the writer from the campus newspaper, an Alabama boy, said, "Well, not unless there's another Civil War." And that is pretty much it. For Alabama, anyway, The Bear is triumph, at last; even more than that, he is justification.
The Bear hates all that joking about him being some sort of Dixie Christ (his card-playing friends back at Indian Hills refer to him as "Old Water-Walker"—behind his back), and he's right to, for whether or not it's sacrilege, it's bad theology. The Bear is very human. That is the point. He is one of their own good old boys who took on the rest of the nation and whipped it. The wisest thing that The Bear never did was to run against George Wallace for governor, not so much because he probably would have lost and that would have burst his balloon of omnipotence, but because he would have forced his fellow Alabamians to choose between their two heroes who didn't pussyfoot around against the Yankees.
Besides, The Bear doesn't properly belong in that line. Successful Southern politicians are pugnacious, like Wallace, perhaps mean, irascible at best. Southern generals, by contrast, are courtly and noble, permitting their troops to do the necessary bloodletting—within the rules, of course. The Bear is a general, and it is important to the state that he win his battles honorably. It is all the more significant that, during his time in the wilderness, The Bear admits to having cheated, to having wallowed in expedience; that it was only his conjoining again with Alabama that made him whole and pure once more. And what a union it has been!
There is a feeling in Alabama that most anybody can win at the prominent Yankee football shelters; hell, even an old Protestant like Parseghian kept the wheel turning at Notre Dame. Larry Lacewell, the head coach at Arkansas State, who has been on the staffs at both Alabama and Oklahoma, offers this comparison: "In Oklahoma, they all think they win just because it's Oklahoma. In Alabama, they know why they do...It's him." Not even Adolph Rupp, who pretty much forced The Bear to evacuate Rupp's Kentucky fiefdom, could match him as an indigenous symbol of victory. Rupp affected the prevailing accent and became The Baron of the Bluegrass, but always and forever Kentucky knew he came from Kansas, a whole different place.
Ah, but The Bear is blood as well as guts. After musing about it for quite a while, it is only this homely theory he advances to explain why he is so especially adored in Alabama: "I'll tell you the truth. I think my playin' here had more to do with it than anything."
And, of course, the sport played was football. "Hell, used to be in the South, wasn't anything to do but go to a football game," The Bear says. "Well, either football or get drunk, I s'pose. Now you got more choices. Like now we got all these lakes—boats and fishin' and all that carryin' on." Understand: football isn't merely popular in the South—football is Southern.
Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald, two historians at Alabama, have advanced the theory that the Confederate temperament has been heavily influenced by the prevalence of Celts from Ireland, Scotland and Wales—and, says McDonald, "They've always been the meanest bunch of all." He goes on: "The Southerners are naturally violent, and football is the idealized ritual substitute for actual warfare. If you happen to be 10 years old, or 30, when a war breaks out, instead of being lucky enough to be 20, the Southerner—the Celt—will feel deprived of his manhood. Football can fill that void. For Alabama, The Bear is the Robert E. Lee of this warfare."
While The Bear and a winning team would have advanced the redemptive process at any time, it was, however, all the more symbolic that he happened to arrive back home at precisely the moment when the Deep South—Alabama above all—was being turned into a battlefield again. In one way or another, every white Alabamian was on the defensive, either out of shame or to dig in: Never! But for both types there was always The Bear to celebrate, the one intrepid native who was not only succeeding, but also winning on a national scale with "skinny little white boys," as one Alabamian recalls. "There was something for everybody. Even if you weren't racist, there were certain historical imperatives to clutch to your breast. It was The War all over again; us poor, underfed, outmanned Southerners beating up on the big, ugly Yankees only because we were obviously smarter and braver."