They offered Bear Bryant big bucks to make a movie of his life. This was three or four years ago and John Wayne would play the part of the Alabama football coach. Of course. Type-casting. American originals both. Mountains of manhood. If Bear grew tired walking across a lake, Wayne would carry him on his back the rest of the way. So Bear said yes.But then he backed out.
"Cause the family asked me not to do it," he said.
"Hollywood," Bryant said, "they say you have the last say on everything, they'll give you any kind of contract. But if they get a lot of money involved, they're going to make something in there to sell."
Something sinful, perhaps Alabama losing to LSU?
"Be X-rated then," Bryant said.
Bryant still likes to win. He is 66 years old, his body is about 400 years old. With all the ruts and rough spots, his face looks like a piece of ground that needs water badly. He creeps around. It took him 36 seconds to climb the 34 steps of his watchtower at the practice field today. He holds the stair railing with both hands, pulling himself up. He has been coaching big-time football, as debilitating a job as there is, for 35 years now, and if he is an old man with a dozen pill bottles on his office desk -- pills for colds, vitamin pills, pills to get the digestive tract working with reckless abandon, Nikoban for his cigarette habit -- they say nothing about how much he wants to win football games.
"I tell you what it means to me," Bryant said. "It means a lot to me. I don't think it means in the same way it used to. I'm a lot more interested now -- you know, when you're young and fightin' for your life and tryin' to accomplish somethin', you gotta think about nothin' but winnin' football games -- but now what kind of people we turn out means a lot more to me."
And Bear Bryant went on about how he doesn't break the rules the way he has admitted doing when he was young and fightin' for his life. Now if a kid can't play the way Bear wants, he doesn't make him do it, he doesn't get down in a three-point stance and shug it out in the dirt with the kid the way he did at Maryland -- and Kentucky 30 years ago and at Texas A&M before he came here in 1958. Now Bear says of that kid, "if we don't help him prepare himself to compete later on in life, we've done a poor job . . . That's why I think if you do well in that, you're really winnin' whether you're winnin' games or not."
Well, now, Hollywood never made a movie about a football coach who lost all his games but turned out 292 brain surgeons. In his 35 seasons, Bryant's teams have won 292 games -- the third most by any coach, ever -- lost 77 and tied 16. Such numbers: Five national championships at Alabama, including last year's . . . From 1971 on, Alabama has won 93 games, lost 11, only twice in the nine seasons losing more than one game . . . Alabama has won 21 straight Southeastern Conference games . . . It is undefeated in eight games this year, stretching its winning steak to 17, and is ranked No. 1 in the nation.
And Bryant wailed a sad song here today. Poor 'Bama. Injuries galore. Ten men who have been in the starting lineup this season have been injured. Woe is the tide. The Tide plays LSU in Baton Rouge Saturday night.Alabama is much the better team and figures to win by two or three touchddowns. But if you listen to Bryant for a few minutes, he'll have you in tears.
"LSU will be highly emotional, they'll really be rarin' to go," he said. "And I never can tell about our team. (The day Alabama plays without reckless abandon will be the day elephants fly in formation.) I know we certainly won't be at full strength. We'll be about 80 percent of the team I thought we'd be. I never had a team as crippled as we were this week. Never been around one as crippled."
Such lamentations, old-timers here say, are signs certain that Bear Bryant is up for the game.
"You gotta watch him," a sportswriter said.
"All those injured guys will be out there playing like Gangbusters Saturday." Not all of them, for three or four have had knee operations, but the idea is the same: The more Bear poor-mouths, the more he's coaching.
"It's not recruiting that wins for Bear," said Alf Van Hoose, a Birmingham sportswriter who has seen Bryant's Alabama teams from the start, "He doesn't get -- doesn't ever go after most times -- the real bluechippers all over the country. Of his 25 recruits this year, 15 are from Alabama, and most of them weren't recruited by more than one or two schools.
"It's coaching that wins for Bear. It's coaching and spirit. He's often said he doesn't coach football, he coaches people. Give Stonewall Jackson the players, give Julius Caesar the players, they'll whip you. So will bear."
Paul William Bryant, who became Bear when he wrestled a bear at a country fair, is now wrestling with history. Only 23 more victories will make him the winningest, college coach ever. Amos Alonzo Stagg won 314 games in 57 seasons. Bryant, if he were to coach 57 years and win at his current rate of 8.3 victories a season, would win 473 games.
One of 11 brothers and sisters from Moro Bottom, Ark -- a hamlet described by Bryant as "a little piece of bottom land on the Moro Creek about seven miles south of Fordyce" -- Bryant played in the first football game he ever saw, getting a shoemaker to attach cleats to his only pair of shoes.
From Fordyce High, playing tackle both ways, Bryant was recruited for Alabama, where he became "the other end" opposite All-America Don Hutson on teams that went 23-3-2 won Alabama's first Southern Conference championships and beat Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl.
After six years as an assistant coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt, and after three years in the Navy, he became the head coach at Maryland in 1945.His team was 6-2-1. Fightin' for his life, tryin' to accomplish somethin', he left after a season for lots of money -- $4,000 a year -- to take over at Kentucky, where he raised a moribund program to umprecedented and unrepeated accomplishments: four straight bowl games, an SEC championship.
But, he worked at Kentucky alongside Adolph Rupp, the basketball Baron who owned the state's heart.
"I knew it was time to leave," Bryant said, "when they had a banquet and they gave Adolph a Cadillac and gave me a cigarette lighter."
So four seasons at Texas A&M preceded Bryant's return to his alma mater, and now he is chasing Amos Alonzo Stagg. b
Six or seven years ago, everyone thought Bryant was going to quit. Why go on? He'd won everything. He turned down $1 million to coach the Miami Dolphins ("Bet they thank God for that," he said. "Cause they went and hired Don Shula.") Anyway, Bryant's health wasn't good -- friends were worried about him and the length of his cocktail time.
"Drifting, is what he was doing," said Charley Thornton, the Alabama assistant athletic cirector who handles publicity. "He didn't have any personal goals to work for. He's not good at working with a lot of things of once, but if he has one thing to do, nobody can do it better. I started dropping hints about Stagg's record.
"Bear never said a word to show he even heard me. Until one day, out of the blue, he says, "What did you say that guy's record was?
"And he didn't say anything again for a long time. At the Birmingham Monday Morning Quarterback Club two years ago, he came to me and said, 'Write down that stuff about those records.'"
And that night Bear Bryant went after Amos Alonzo Stagg.
"I probably shouldn't have said it, and I didn't mean it as strongly as it sounded," "Bryant said. "But every year, we'd go out recruiting and it'd be the same old thing: 'Bryant won't be there next year, he won't be your coach.'
"I was speaking of the Quarterback Club, and some kid, just the night before, he told me a recruiter said I wouldn't be coaching next year.
"So I told the club, and it embarrasses me really to talk about it -- I mean, just think about everybody who contributes to making a kid a winner and here comes a coach to take credit -- I said, 'As long as somebody's gotta have that record, it might as well be me and all you guys talking about me retiring might as well quit it because I'm gonna break Stagg's record.'"
So, at 2:30 every afternoon, Bear Bryant puts on a red jacket and a white baseball cap, walks through a tunnel to his practice field, drives a golf cart across the field and climbs up his tower, 30 feet high, from where he moves his eyes over every Alabama player, occasionally lifting up a bullhorn to send his rolling-thunder voice-down: "Wilcox, you're standing around down there . . . Get more pressure on defense. Can't knock 'em out of there like that. The holes won't look the same." . . . "Perfection now, perfection now. The fourth quarter."
You keep an eye on him all the time," said David Hannah, a senior defensive line-man, the fourth Hannah to play at Alabama, brother of pros Charles and John, son of Herb. "It's like the Lord looking over your every move."
Hannah is serious. Ten years or so ago, a fast-buck entrepreneur made up a photograph of Bryant walking on water. The coach's deification goes on. ("It's silky as hell," Bryant said, but he bought a picture, too, and he laughed a lot when someone told him about the SEC coach whose university president said, "I've got good news and bad news. The good news, is that the Lord called to wish you luck against Alabama this week. The bad news is He called from Tuscaloosa.")
"Talking to Coach Bryant," Hannah said, "you definitely get a feeling of something great talking to something minor. When you walk into a room with him, he has an awe about him. There are some guys on the team who will fake it and say they don't think that way, but I know that anytime Coach says jump, everybody says how far."
Bryant would deny that. "I'm a simple, old, ordinary barnyard coach," he said. The man has a humility fetish. He doesn't quote Virgil, as Joe Paterno does, and he doesn't recite the play-by-play of World II, as Woody Hayes did. He is extraordinary, nevertheless, for he has adapted so well to changing times in four decades that even if he disclaims any genius -- "I'm dumb, but I can take what somebody else invents and make it work for me" -- he yet is a master of his craft.
Forty-one of his former assistant coaches and players learned enough barnyard coaching to leave Alabama and became head coaches. Among them: Charlie McClendon, Paul Dietzel, Bill Battle, Howard Schnellenberger, Bum Phillips, Ray Perkins, Jack Pardee, Jerry Claiborne, Larry Lacewell, Babe Parilli, Jackie Sherrill, Danny Ford, Bill Arnsparger.
Bryant loves 'em all. And beats the hell out of their teams. His old coaches and players are 5-34 against the Bear and have lost the last 24 in a row. Because he couldn't beat Bryant, Battle was fired at Tennessee; same thing is happening with McLendon at LSU.
Friends say Bryant was in trouble himself at Alabama three years ago, that he insulted the university's interim president at a party (by saying he had approved the president's appointment) and was told to control his drinking or be fired.
"Aw, shoot," Bryant said, so disgusted he didn't use those exact words when someone asked him about the story.
"I stopped for one full year. Used to, every Saturday night after a game, have some drinks and a big meal. But I don't do that anymore. Have milk and cookies. Cigarettes, too, I'm trying to cut down on them, too.
"Hell," Bryant said, "when you get to be my ago, you gotta cut down on everything, I want to live a while longer."
Though Alabama has a mandatory retirement age of 70, Bryant, if he wanted to, probably could coach past that age.
"Oh, I don't know how long I'll coach," he said. "Some days, it gets late in the year like this, I get tired and think, jeesuz, why do I have to do this?
"But I don't know what the hell I'd do. I gotta do something. I want to coach as long as I enjoy it?"
Bryant is a millionaire businessman, in aluminum windows and meat-packing and houndstooth hats, but football owns him, defines him, makes him someone John Wayne could have done.
The telephone rang.
"It's still early in the week," the coach said for a radio man, "but we're badly crippled. Had 10 that didn't play last week, got several more but now. Gettin' some back today, but right now, worst crippled team I've ever had."