Alabama Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant is taking his Crimson Tide to the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 and they are going in style.Chartered flight, stewardesses hovering with hot meals, maybe a little tour of New Orleans and a quick sprint up Bourbon Street. Could be Bryant's mellowed a bit.
Things weren't always so soft and cushy for Bear Bryant's legions. If you don't believe me, just seek out any of the 28 survivors of the 1954 Texas A&M spring practice and ask them his definition of creature comfort.
Those survivors still are called "The Junction Boys" even though they're all middle-aged now. They were Bryant's first victims when he was just into his 35-year career that now marks him the third-most winning coach in college football with a remarkable 294-77-16 record.
Coming as he did off four straight bowl appearances as head coach of Kentucky, Bryant rambled into College Station, Tex., and remained firmly unimpressed with the macho, all-male military-clad Aggie student body. He fought off an impulse to give each of his players a sense-shattering Gen. Patton slap, and instead piled the lot -- some say it was 80 players, others claim it was more like 100 -- into two or three Greyhound buses and headed away from the bright lights of College Station.
The place Bryant chose for his football retreat was a spot on the map called Junction, Tex., a dusty collection of storefronts huddled at the intersection of highways 290 and 377 on the North Llano River. In defense of Bear Bryant, let it be said that he had not checked out the accommodations in Junction. He had heard it was a place Aggies went to take summer courses -- engineering, surveying, English -- and it was not entirely his fault that Junction turned out to be an Aggie joke.
You've heard the one about the Aggie mascot? It was a zebra. The Aggies named him Spot.
Well, that was what Bear Bryant had to work with in 1954, and he rolled up his sleeves as soon as the Junction Boys checked into their rooms. Well, they weren't exactly rooms, as it turned out.
"I'm sure that if that school is still there they have real dormitories now," chuckled Jack Pardee, head coach of the Redskins and one of the better known Junction Boys. "All that was there then were tents with screen sides. And cots, not even real beds."
"He would have put us through three-a-days," Pardee recalled fondly. "But the days just weren't long enough. He had us on the field that first morning at 5 a.m. and we didn't get off 'til noon. There were no lighted fields in Junction then, so we were saved by that when it got dark."
This football bivouac wasn't all canned spam. No, Bryant had arranged for the Aggie chef to accompany the team to Junction, and a dining-hall tent was set up. Ernest Hemingway would have called it a moveable feast. Jack Pardee says all it showed was, "Heck, the Army can travel!"
Bed and board attended to, Bryant next turned to the problem of entertaining his captives. Surely there were drive-in movies. "There was electricity in Junction," Pardee said, laughing like a man trying hard to squeeze back the tears. "But we didn't have time for anything light. That year we opened against Texas Tech, and I guess we caught 'em on film once or twice.
"About our only form of entertainment was to line up at this tall hurricane fence that surrounded the place and see who was running that night. Guys who didn't want to face the coach would speak out at night, head for the nearest highway and thumb a ride home. We'd line up and yell to each, 'Hey, there goes . . .'
"It was a nice little outing. Heck, if that was all you knew, you thought all football was like that. We were only there for 10 days. It just seemed like two months."
The quitters at that camp slunk away to become Texas targets for Aggie jokes. The 28 survivors known as the Junction Boys went on to strike fear in Southwest Conference teams until Bryant moved on -- back to his alma mater, Alabama, in 1958.
The Junction Boys still keep in touch with the man who viewed the rest of their practice days from atop a tall tower, orchestrating line drills and correcting quarterbacks' stances with a bullhorn-magnified bellow. Most of them called to wash him a happy 66th birhtday.
The Junction Boys met in Junction last May to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that 1954 spring practice that taught them all they cared to know about hard work. Ten of them are millionaires, and Pardee has not done too badly for himself, either. Bryant showed up for the reunion, too. No tents, no cots this trip. He has gone soft.
And if he needs inspiration in New Orleans in January, if tracking Amos Alonzo Stagg's record 314 wins isn't enough for the man in the houndstooth hat, he can always show the Junction Boys he's still tough enough to win 295. h