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On the second floor of the University of Alabama's new $4-million all-purpose arena are the offices of the athletic department. The publicity staff has little bitty offices, the basketball coaches have nice medium-sized offices and the football coaches—well, suffice it to say that those dudes have some elbow room. Right in the middle is the biggest office of them all, the Papa Bear's den, the place where Paul (Bear) Bryant sips Cokes from his private cooler, sometimes fools around with the putter leaning up against the paneled wall and, mainly, shapes the future of the Crimson Tide football team.
The office has all the comforts of home, including a TV set, thick carpeting and soft chairs, but what is really impressive is its state of readiness, like a general's war room or Mission Control. An intricate telephone apparatus rests within easy reach on the expansive desk. Green chalkboards are built into the paneling, all the better to make all those Xs and Os. Down the hall are two projection rooms, one for offense, one for defense. There, Bryant's players, relaxing in theater seats and air conditioning, can watch movies and be told what they did right or wrong.
The Crimson Tide did enough things wrong last season to lose—gasp—two regular-season games (to Mississippi and Tennessee). That was calamity enough, but then came that stunning 35-10 loss to Missouri in the Gator Bowl, the worst bowl loss any Bryant team has ever suffered. Whatever the Bear felt about that disaster at the time, this fall he is inclined to regard it philosophically, making some Bear watchers wonder if, at 56, the old boy is going soft.
"A bowl game is not a real true test like a regular-season game," Bryant says, the words rolling out slowly and evenly in that marvelous deep Southern tone, a voice that moves more Alabamans than Billy Graham. "There's a lot of guesswork from a preparation standpoint. I said this, too, when we enjoyed a good holiday season. The psychological buildup has a lot to do with it—it's helped us sometimes, hurt us sometimes."
Psychology. Bear Bryant is nothing if he is not a psychologist, and already this season's team is being aroused with homilies like these:
"We're still small. If you're small and have average speed, too, you'd better be a little hos-tile, and we haven't been too hos-tile yet by any means.
"Unless we have mighty good mamas and papas, we're going to have a disastrous year. Our defense is real inexperienced and, frankly, real weak. If we're not stronger on the field than on the blackboard, we're in trouble, bad trouble."
Alabama could have a hard go of it, as Bryant sadly suggests, but then again the Crimson Tide could be very good indeed. The schedule does not appear much stronger, or weaker, than usual, with Louisiana State the only dangerous away game. Alabama's three toughest games—Mississippi, Tennessee and Auburn—will be played in Birmingham, the Crimson Tide's second home.
The team may not be big by anyone else's standards, but—with a couple of 220-pound tackles around—it is bigger than the usual Alabama team. As always, Alabama will be quick and mean, and perhaps the meanest player of all will be a sophomore back who may give the Tide the running game it lacked last season.
His name is Johnny Musso, and Bryant himself says flat out that, "Musso at this stage is the best sophomore back I ever had with the exception of John Crow." That is a mouthful all right because John David Crow of Texas A&M was some player, his feet pounding over all the football teams in Texas. In Alabama's spring game Musso was the leading ground-gainer with 131 yards in 33 carries, including two touchdown smashes from inside the 10. "I wish I had more like him at the other positions," says Bryant, almost wistfully. "He can do everything—block, run, receive—and he can play defense without any practice."