It's absurd to believe that because Bryant said he knew less about football than he did about people that this meant he wasn't brilliant about football. Football got him "out of the Bottoms," he "tied" to it, and clearly he knew the game as well as or better than anyone. He was always doing something a little better or a little different, and if it was something he borrowed, like Darrell Royal's wishbone, he invariably improved upon it. He was so adept in winning at the limits of the rules that the NCAA watched him like a hawk. His use of the "tackle-eligible" pass was so sneaky-effective that the rules committee banned the play.
On the field, he seemed always to be three or four moves ahead of the competition. During one game in Birmingham, I was on the sidelines when he turned to his offensive coordinator—I believe that it was Mai Moore—and asked some technical question about the rules on quick kicks. I remember neither question nor answer, only that it struck both the assistant and me as a strange inquiry. It was first down at the time, and the other team had the ball. Two plays later, the other team quick-kicked.
For a Saturday afternoon, he was the consummate competitor, willing to test the odds. It was the gambler in him. He loved to gamble, and made no bones about it. It may have been the reason he was suspect when The Saturday Evening Post tried to pin a fix on him and Wally Butts in the 1960s, a bad bet that cost the Post dearly. Bryant's gin games were legendary for their arcane scoring methods, and his golf matches at the Indian Hills course near Tuscaloosa were raucous with betting arguments.
One afternoon I teed it up as a first-timer in one of his groups, having been allowed the dubious honor of leading off. We were a foursome only in the sense that we had four golf carts. There were actually seven players, and the bets were cross-wired with such complexity I figured I could make as much as $5.50 or lose a month's pay. Bryant said, "We got a rule on the first tee. Hit till you get one you like." I hit my shot reasonably straight, and far enough so that I couldn't see the writing on the ball, and decided one was enough. I stepped aside.
The other six hit until each got one he liked. When they were done, the fairway looked like a field of freshly sprouted mushrooms.
The craps tables at Las Vegas were no less familiar to Bryant than Indian Hills's contours. One night I was with him when he was availing himself of the action at a particularly crowded table. He had the dice, and was whooping it up and just having a wonderful time. Suddenly the man next to him pitched forward, nose first into the chips. What propelled him was Bryant. The man's right hand was gripped in Bryant's bear-like left. A split second before it had been in Bryant's pocket.
I was on the same side of the table, and all I saw was the man sprawling forward. Security guards moved in quickly and took him away. Bryant went back to the dice.
The next day we were at Pepperdine College in Malibu, where he was to speak to a group of coaches. It was the off-season and he had been playing hard. From childhood there have been many demons in his life, and drink was one of them then. He said he drank when he was bored, but for better reasons, too. Years later he went to a place where he could get help ("You got to have a plan for everything") and took on that particular demon head-to-head and won. I was glad to hear that.
But at Pepperdine he was drawn and washed out. Sweat popped out on his forehead before the meeting. He was barely into his speech when, with a clarity he reserved for crucial moments (no mumbling then), he said, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but is there a doctor in the house?" And he collapsed.
I was one of the first to reach him, and an ambulance was called. As we waited, he reached into his pocket and gave me his wallet. In the ambulance I checked the wallet to make sure I knew what I was carrying, and found it stuffed with $100 bills. He had taken a good piece of Las Vegas out with him.