I watched the papers last week to see if Bear Bryant had "croaked." That's what he said he would do if he ever quit coaching football, and quit he had. A few years ago he told me coaching wasn't as much fun anymore, and I suggested he retire and rest on his abundant laurels. He looked at me as if I'd put my thumb in his soup. "Quit coaching?" he growled. "I'd croak in a week." I've heard him say that three or four times since, and Bryant usually does what he says he's going to do. Maybe he changed his mind about croaking. I hope so.
It will be irresistible now for sports historians and other armchair quarterbacks to dredge the 44 years of Bryant's coaching career for fragments to explain his greatness. I anticipate no new evidence. Bryant's success had a lot to do with his being tough to pin down. It was part of his genius that it was impossible to pin him down for long. Stifle his offense and he beat you with defense. Graduate his passing attack and he hammered you with wishbone running. Take him for granted at Kentucky and he slipped away in the night to win at Texas A&M. Bryant said and Bryant did, but he always kept you off balance doing it.
Even the timing of his retirement, after three straight losses at the end of a 7-4 Alabama season, was somewhat difficult to square. At 69 he was certainly entitled to hang up his hat, and he said he was "worn out." But he always said things like that. I thought he might wait to ride out on another national championship, always on the horizon at Alabama. Furthermore, he always said losing just made him "get up earlier the next morning to find a way to win." Apparently he isn't the early riser he used to be.
When I finally got through the labyrinth of telephone well-wishers and commiserators to hear for myself, I thought I had it figured out: Bryant loved Alabama so much he wanted to make the transition as easy as possible for his successor, Ray Perkins, the Giants coach and a former Alabama player, one of Bryant's "boys." It would be less burdensome for Perkins to follow a 7-4 Bryant.
"Well, sure," Bryant said on the phone. "It'll be better for Ray now than if we'd gone 11 and 0."
"It wasn't the losing itself that made you quit then? I didn't think so."
"Hell, yes, it was the losing," he said. "Four losses is too many around here. And I'm surrounded by young alligators." Alabama, he said, needed somebody who could recruit against all those alligators (read rival coaches) using his anticipated retirement against 'Bama in their sales pitches.
"You really are tired then?" I said.
"I feel great, actually. I got a lot of things I want to do," he said.