When they quit, most of them did so at night so they could make the long walk to the bus stop under cover of darkness. Paul (Bear) Bryant would sometimes watch from a place in the shadows, taking a drag on a Chesterfield, maybe allowing himself a trace of a smile.
Quitting made the most sense. Reason, after all, didn't allow for getting up at five o'clock each morning and spending days in the searing Texas sun. Or for retiring to a cot in a Quonset hut, thinking the day's horror was done, only to be rousted and ordered to leave yet more of themselves on the field under the stars. But reason was not what Bear Bryant was looking for in the 117 young men he brought to Junction, Texas, in 1954, before his first season as coach at Texas A&M. In the Bryant hagiography, that training camp in the Texas hill country is recalled as "the march to the desert." Its purpose was, in Bryant's words, "to find out right off who the players were and who the quitters were."
He found out. Camp was supposed to last two weeks. Fearing he wouldn't have enough bodies to start the season, Bryant called camp off after 10 days. Twenty-seven players remained.
At one point during that truncated fortnight, a man from the Houston Post showed up, having been dispatched to Junction by an editor who had heard tell of dissension on the team.
"Now, son, are you gonna quote me on this?" Bryant asked.
"Yessir," said the man from the Post.
"Well, you call your boss and tell him I said if there isn't any dissension now, there's damn sure going to be some in a hurry, and I'm going to cause it."
It was hard not to think of Bryant last fall when dissension broke out all over college football and coaches seemed powerless to stop it. In September, after Memphis State lost its first three games, 84 Tigers boycotted practice to show their displeasure with coach Chuck Stobart. In October the South Carolina Gamecocks, following an 0-5 start, voted to ask coach Sparky Woods to resign. In November players at Oklahoma refused to practice until coach Gary Gibbs explained to their satisfaction why one quarterback was getting more playing time than another. Think about it: On the very campus where Bud Wilkinson had delivered monologues so effective that one of his former players, Ralph Neely, remembers, "He had you convinced you could run through a brick wall"—a Sooner coach convened...an encounter session. Someday soon a major-college football team is going to release its fight song on the Windham Hill label.
Even the most secure coaches are furiously rewriting the rules to accommodate Kids Today. Just this spring Penn State's Joe Paterno, who would be a latter-day Bear if there were such a species, set up a "players' council." He and select seniors now meet regularly over breakfast to air gripes and share feelings. "I never thought college football would become like Central America," says ESPN commentator Beano Cook. "Kids don't understand that it's supposed to be a dictatorship."
Bryant never faced a player revolt, so we don't know precisely how he might have handled one. But we can be fairly sure that neither he nor any of his contemporaries—not the soft-spoken Wilkinson nor the oft-spoken Darrell Royal of Texas; not Ohio State's Woody Hayes, who once loosened the scams on his cap so he could later rip it apart to make a point, nor Southern Cal's John McKay, who in his first season demoted half the previous year's starters—would have broken out the healing crystals. In Junction when Bryant kicked an all-conference center off the team for walking off the field in the middle of practice, five other centers went to the coach to plead their teammate's case. Before they could say a word, Bryant shook their hands. "Good morning, gentlemen, and goodbye, goodbye, bless your hearts, goodbye," he said. Then he dismissed them from the team.