SI Vault
Frank Deford
November 23, 1981
Bear Bryant says that unequivocally after 43 years of coaching and 314 wins, tying Stagg's record, which he can break against Auburn
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November 23, 1981

'i Do Love The Football'

Bear Bryant says that unequivocally after 43 years of coaching and 314 wins, tying Stagg's record, which he can break against Auburn

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The Bear leaves such theorizing to others. Indeed, despite once being nearly lured into politics, he remains, cannily, a man of image, not of issues. As a consequence, The Bear appears to be something of a skeleton key, a man who can unlock whatever doors—especially of the past—that his admirers want to enter. Coaching may be a young man's profession, but for The Bear, his antiquity is a real boon. Why, he's so much a part of the storied past that it's like having Lee himself around; Hank Williams, anyway.

It is certainly illuminative of his nature that The Bear took no lead whatsoever in the matter of integration. His defenders will claim that Wallace kept his hands tied, that The Bear wasn't even allowed to schedule teams with black players, much less dress any of them in crimson, and there may be a measure of truth in that. But given The Bear's surpassing popularity, he had it within his power to assume a burden of leadership. Yet he held back on race and let other—and less entrenched—Southern coaches stick their necks out first. Only after Southern Cal and Sam (Bam) Cunningham ran all over the skinny little white boys in a 1970 game, only when it was evident that the Tide couldn't win any longer lily-white, only then did The Bear learn his civics. It is consistent that the one knock against him as a coach is that he has never had the faith or the daring to be an innovator.

After all, "adjusting well" doesn't mean having to be in the vanguard. And The Bear realizes his state is naturally insular and standpat; even George Wallace, remember, for all his fulminating, was primarily a counterpuncher. Alabama still styles itself as the "Heart of Dixie," and it takes a certain contrary pride in the fact that the Sunbelt and all its alien imperfections pretty much passed it by. Heart of Sunbelt? Barely a generation ago Birmingham was virtually the same size as Atlanta, but now it isn't even half so populous. On campus in Tuscaloosa, there is always the facetious student cry: "Thank God for Mississippi." Whatever Alabama might stand 49th in, Mississippi is sure to be 50th.

One lifelong Alabamian, a lawyer, says, chuckling sort of, "Essentially, we are sustained by the belief that we are purer than everybody but Mississippi, but better off than they are."

This backwater self-consciousness does create a sensitivity in a few of the more enlightened precincts in the Mind of Dixie, an apprehension that the more successful The Bear's football team is, the more the rather undistinguished state university, which incidentally shares its name, must suffer by comparison. The school's new president, an Alabamian and a Harvard man, Joab Thomas, has, for instance, confessed to friends how disturbed he is that the major faculty concern expressed to him so far is that their Tide tickets aren't so good as in autumns past. Indeed, for many in Tuscaloosa, The Bear's gridiron preeminence stands out as a guidon to follow into their own battles. Says Arthur Thompson, a respected professor of economics, "I see The Bear as an incentive, to make all of us here ask why can't we have as much success in our areas of the university as he does in his."

Yet, as a law professor points out, one clear legacy of Wallace that lingers in the state is an intellectual perversity, a tendency to sneer at all those pointy-headed liberal wimps. In this respect, it is significant that Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant is not merely indigenous and cultural, Southern and country football. He's the only game in town.

Alabama is part of that last swath of genuine football territory that hasn't been encroached upon by the pros: from the Georgia line, west through northern Louisiana and Arkansas, north including all of Tennessee, is a duchy of perhaps 15 million people, virgin to the NFL. College alumni are only a small portion of the whole fandom, which tends to think of the University of Alabama as a football team and nothing else.

Understand, if the university is a football factory, that isn't The Bear's fault. He isn't to blame that the woebegone library languishes, that professors in the English department didn't have telephones until seven months ago. Football runs deep. The most famous of President Thomas' predecessors was President George Denny, who directed funds to the construction of a stadium while having seniors teach freshmen. It was under Denny that a football recruit named Bryant was brought in, then given two courses at Tuscaloosa High to prop up his admission. Denny had seen the value of football; Alabama's Rose Bowl juggernauts had put the state on the map when precious else but the Ku Klux Klan was achieving that. Finally they named the president's greatest achievement after him: Denny Stadium. Two years ago it was renamed: Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The issue isn't simply: Does football diminish education? There are a lot of places besides Tuscaloosa where it is more popular to install AstroTurf than bookshelves. In fact, a great deal of it is just that The Bear makes a game so respectable, perhaps even too much so. Surely it is revealing how many of the Tide fans dress—overdress—for the games. To kill. To the nines. The large numbers of preppie fashion plates in an Alabama football crowd make it look like something out of O'Hara rather than Faulkner. It's just another way to dress up the game, too, make it more legitimate.

By now The Bear and football in Alabama are one and the same. He is football incarnate, which will make it very difficult whenever he must depart. Oh, sure, whoever succeeds him might well keep the victories coming, might keep filling the stadiums (the Tide has a spare in Birmingham) and traveling to the bowls. But it will never be so fine again. The Bear is exalted and he, in return, makes it possible for the people in Alabama to take football more to heart than others can. So when The Bear goes, it will not just be that one more link to the past will be broken, that a little more of that curious Southern combination of eternal knighthood and childhood will fade. It will be harder for football ever to mean so much again in Alabama. Not even winning will be quite the same.

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