This season, as The Bear feared, as Alabama's relatively modest record attests—relative to other Crimson Tide teams, understand—he has been bedeviled by the pressures of the approaching record. At times he has betrayed his instincts and not pushed the Tide as vigorously as he believed he should for fear critics would accuse him of being selfish. It irks him, too, that the hullabaloo is somewhat manufactured.
"All I know is, I don't want to stop coaching and I don't want to stop winning, so we're gonna break the record unless I die," he says. State law will permit him to hold his job through the 1983 season, when he turns 70, but should he desire, he will almost surely stay on after that, either with an age exemption provided by special state legislation, or through an obsure NCAA provision that permits one volunteer coach per athletic department. Normally, this is somebody who comes in to handle the kayaking team or ladies' handball, but it is just as applicable to the head football coach. The Bear is wealthy enough and could keep making a pile on side deals, so coaching on the cuff would be no great hardship. In any event, whatever the arrangements to keep him in his tower, it is understood that he has delegated a couple of his closest friends to tell him the truth if he ever starts to lose his marbles. He doesn't, says a confidant, "want to pull a Rupp and have to get dragged out of here."
For now, though, there is no escaping the Hank Aaron or Pete Rose role he must play, by the numbers. Some alumni have donated a huge trailer, which is hauled back and forth between the two Tide stadiums in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham so that The Bear can address the world in style after each home game. The trailer looks rather like something a TV preacher might take on the road, with a choir. There are chairs for more than 100 press, who peer up toward where The Bear sits in something of a pulpit-type arrangement. There is a red carpet on the floor, and a clapboard wall behind him and a $4,800 sound mixer to snare and amplify his mumbled responses.
Of course, The Bear has for long been the center of a real cottage industry in Alabama, with all sorts of icons and other Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant collectibles being turned out. The approaching record has served as an excuse to manufacture a whole new generation of Bear keepsakes, all "315" models: cushions, calendars, bumper stickers, banners, buttons, kerchiefs, statues and those large foam hands with the index finger raised. For folks with more expensive tastes, there are busts, guaranteed to be of a "stonelike material," at $50, commemorative coins (peaking at $1,250 for a platinum job) and paintings and original sculpture up to $4,500.
The Bear himself doesn't altogether discourage this harmless idolatry. He even turned a dollar or two once himself, in partnership with Sonny Werblin of Madison Square Garden, peddling replicas of his houndstooth hats. For the more reflective there is on display in two adjoining rooms of the Memorial Coliseum, the Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant memorabilia collection. The relics have been donated by the subject himself, and it is a solemn tribute, nearly hallowed.
Everything conceivable relating to The Bear has been exhibited: declarations, magazine covers, trophies, cartoons, keys to the city—from Sylacauga, Anniston, Florence, Gadsden and any number of other places; that is a whole section just by itself, keys to the city. There is an autographed photograph of Esther Williams.
And every picture of The Bear identifies him as Coach Bryant. It isn't only Coach Bryant and Lana Turner and Coach Bryant and Joe DiMaggio, it's Coach Bryant and Herman Hickman, Coach Bryant and Ara Parseghian, Coach Bryant and Bud Wilkinson. There is only the one coach.
Now on this particular sweltering day in the middle of last summer, the memorabilia rooms were almost asphyxiating people because the rooms had been shut up since school let out. The only reason they had been opened was because Frank House, the old catcher with the Detroit Tigers, had come down from Birmingham. House is a well-spoken man in his 50s, trim and handsome, but he has always been known as Pig around home—Pig House. He was in the rooms with Charley Thornton, an assistant athletic director, because The Bear had given Pig permission to take some of the objects for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
All of a sudden, here comes The Bear himself, wet from the heat, shuffling along, looking exceptionally old, his seersucker pants drooping down. He acted as if he had just stumbled this way, even though it was far down at the other end of the coliseum, on another floor, from his air-conditioned offices, and Billy was waiting to take him home to Mary Harmon. Obviously, someone had told him, Hey, Coach, you know Pig House is down there taking things out of your memorabilia rooms.
House looked up in distress; Thornton came to his aid. "You remember, Coach," he said quickly, "you told Pig he could take some of your stuff up to the Hall of Fame."