- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"I'm not sure yet."
See? Tough to pin the man down.
At Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama, Bryant won 322 times. Along the way he picked up three or six national championships, depending on whose lists you consult. Bum Phillips used to say Bear Bryant won because he "didn't coach football, he coached people." I would refine that only to say that "coaching people" checked out to be a unique ability to communicate. The hard-eyed toughness, the mumbling and the baggy pants were only trappings. Bear outcommunicated everybody.
Before an important road game one year, he invited me to live with the team to get the makings of a story. At the pregame breakfast on Saturday, I sat next to an Alabama professor who had been invited along. Bryant curried faculty support by doing things like that, itself a form of communication. When he made his talk to the team, he barely spoke above a whisper. The players leaned forward in their seats, and one tipped over a glass of water. The spill hitting the floor sounded like Niagara Falls. When Bryant finished, the professor turned to me, awed. "If I could reach my students like that I'd teach for nothing," he said.
Effective as he was with a group, Bryant was even better one-on-one. In person he really communicated. He coaxed and cajoled, and scared hell out of people. He knew he could do this, inspire fear, and he used it like a wrench. Ray Perkins says he always respected and loved Bryant but was never intimidated by him. Perkins was probably in the minority. John David Crow stood outside Bryant's office door for more than an hour one afternoon at Texas A&M, waiting for "the man" to come out, but not daring to knock. And all Crow had done was win the Heisman Trophy.
Bryant's coaches were no less awed. One day he ordered his staff to "meet in my office first thing in the morning." Not knowing for sure what Bryant meant by "first thing," Assistant Coach Dude Hennessey slept on the office floor that night.
But the Bryant who could intimidate could also care deeply, and those who overlooked this part missed the best part. If he made use of your fear, he also wanted your love. Those who saw this sought him out. He enjoyed being sought out. My daughter Lori, when she was in school at Alabama, used to drop in on him unannounced, invading the posh inner sanctum of his office with a temerity much greater than my own. She bullied him with affectionate needling about his insatiable smoking habit, and he never turned her away.
Last week, when she heard he had retired, Lori cried. "I love that old man," she said. I told Bryant. "Yeah, my grandchildren cried, too," he said. "They're thinking about themselves, not me. I want to do this."
Most of all Bryant loved the communication with athletes, "getting my message across," and even if he scared them they sensed his empathy. Joe Namath never called him anything but "Coach Bryant," but told me their private pregame walks were voyages rich in discovery (or words to that effect). After a game late one season, Bryant invited the players and their dates to his house for a barbecue, a first for him, and while the party ebbed and flowed around the pool and patio, he sat inside listening to a rival team's game on the radio.
Eventually one of the players came inside, and then, in twos and threes, the others joined him, too. "After a while they were all lying around on the floor listening to the game," Bryant said. "I never had a better time."