As the wins have piled up, The Bear has become proportionately more self-effacing, exchanging his houndstooth hat for a hair shirt after every game. When the Tide wins, it is because of the assistants and the boys and their mommas and daddies, everybody but him. When Alabama loses, he marches right in to see the winning coach and starts with the mea culpas. Of course, this isn't all that heart-wrenching for The Bear because he knows nobody believes him anyhow. It's like the Jack Benny cheapskate routine.
Hear, for example, from Kim Norris, senior majorette—Crimsonette—who has spent all her life ("I can barely remember Joe Namath") around Tuscaloosa: "It's really depressing when it does happen, when we do lose. I just try to put it out of my mind. I mean, nobody's supposed to beat Alabama. Nobody's supposed to beat Bear Bryant. But we know it's not his fault, whatever he says. It's the quarterback who fumbled or the sun got in somebody's eyes or it's just a bad day, but it's never Coach Bryant."
Probably to make it harder for anybody else to get a big head, The Bear goes on taking all the blame. Watching films of this season's Ole Miss game for the first time, he noted, after one good ground gainer, something called the "whoopee pass": "That's the only play I called all day." Minutes later, though, on his statewide TV show, the—not surprisingly—top-rated college football program in the country, he took no credit for the whoopee pass, but when Alabama failed on fourth and two, he was quick to shoulder the blame. "I send in all the bad plays," he announced, shifting comfortably in his sackcloth and ashes.
Or, for variety, sometimes The Bear prefers to go the other way, which is that he doesn't coach at all, hasn't for years. "I think I was a good coach once," he says pitiably. "Now I just have good people to coach for me. I do still know a whole lot about coachin' people." Of course, in this dumb-as-a-fox routine there is a kernel of truth: However inspirational football coaches are supposed to be, however creative, the prime requisite may well be an executive ability—selecting capable lieutenants, pointing them in the right direction and then just checking the compass now and again.
There was a wonderful moment in this year's Ole Miss game when the Tide was on defense and The Bear decided he would come over and palaver with his quarterbacks. Only it turned out that all the quarterbacks were clustered around Mai Moore, the offensive coordinator, who was drawing plays on a portable blackboard set up behind the bench. And when The Bear came up from behind, he could hardly see in. Worse than that, none of the quarterbacks even knew he was there, because they were staring so intently at the blackboard. The Bear looked so foolish, sort of like a little boy trying to peer over the big folks in front to see the parade going by. He would step this way and that, but he couldn't get in; there were always helmets and shoulder pads blocking his view. But did The Bear ever say word one? He did not. All he had to do was mumble boo and those shoulder pads would have parted like the Red Sea. But it was good enough for The Bear to see that the quarterbacks were all paying such strict attention to Moore—that's the whole idea, isn't it?—so, after a time, without anybody even knowing he'd been there, he just ambled off. It was a few minutes later, mulling things over, that he called the old whoopee pass.
Bum Phillips, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, recalls the first day he worked as an assistant to The Bear, at Texas A&M: "He told me to go organize the quarterbacks and centers. I got there early, and I looked around and there weren't any footballs. I waited and waited: still, no footballs. So I walked up to Coach Bryant and asked, 'You reckon those managers are gonna get those balls down here?'
"And he looked at me and said, 'Well, I don't know. But I'll tell you one damn thing. I ain't gonna get 'em.'
"On the way to gettin' the balls, I figured out the difference between the head coach and the assistant coach."
Unfortunately, a number of the 44 of The Bear's prot�g�s who have ascended to head coaching positions have never figured that out. "The trouble is," Phillips says, "a lot of these people might have known football, but they tried to coach like they thought Bryant coached. But he doesn't coach the way they thought he coached. Why, he'd give out the impression that he'd never let a player get away with anything. But at the same time, he did. And the people who worked for him didn't even know it. And he'd make everybody think he thought they were the best on the staff. It was the same way with the players. I don't know as he ever planned a damn thing he did. He just does it."
Yet except perhaps for laying on the old-dumb-me stuff a little thick, The Bear isn't a conniving man; as much as with any celebrity, the public figure matches his private man. He truly is genuine in how he cares for his players as whole people, and not just as split ends and centers. The woods are full of old associates he came to help in their times of travail. "I'll tell you the truth," The Bear says, "I can't even go to these conventions anymore. It takes me an hour to get to an elevator, from all these 50-year-old assistants asking me to he'p 'em find a job. It just breaks my heart." He cries when an old friend dies, and he harks back to memories of Mama regularly. At home, he does what Mary Harmon tells him to do, and he still says she's the prettiest girl in the world. He raises hell with the boys, pays deference to the ladies and pats little children on the head.