Bear Bryant sat behind his cluttered desk, smoking a cigarette. It was Tuesday evening and his weekly radio call-in show -- on the "Bearline" network -- was almost over.

"Coach," a caller was saying, "all I want to ask is that you stay around there at least until '84, 'cause that's when I'm comin' down and play for you."

"You do that," Bryant drawled back. "I'll be here then. Fact is, you'll be a dues-payin' alumnus before they get me out of here."

Sitting behind the big desk, huddled in a red jacket, the Mount Rushmore face tired after 14 hours in the office, Bryant hardly looked ready for much coaching. He is 67 and was in the hospital twice earlier this year. Doctors have ordered him to smoke no more than five cigarettes a day. When he walks, he shuffles his feet. The man who once wrestled a bear to earn his nickname doesn't look capable of whipping a cub.

And yet, he is still an intimidating figure. During a press conference this week, a reporter began to ask Bryant if he thought his linemen had been pushed around in Alabama's shocking 6-3 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago.

"About Mississippi State, coach," the reporter started.

"What about it?" Bryant shot back.

"Well, uh, their linemen, uh, they weren't that big and, uh, Notre Dame is, uh, much bigger and I was wondering . . ." There was silence in the room. "I was, oh, I don't even want to think about it coach. Forget it."

More important, the team Bryant coaches still wins games. Alabama had on 28 in a row until the Mississippi State loss and takes an 8-1 record and No. 5 national ranking into Saturday's game with No. 6 Notre Dame (7-0-1). n

"I don't do things like I used to," Bryant said, "I couldn't if I wanted to. Once, I did everything myself 'cause I didn't trust nobody but myself. Now I got to trust others. Fortunately, I got good people working for me." n

Bryant is still the catalyst. His mind is still sharp and players say his Wednesday night speeches to the team are as inspiring as ever.

But Mal Moore, the offensive coordinator, puts together the offense each week and Ken Donahue puts together the defense. Bryant still has veto power but he does not take part in the planning.

"They bring what they've done to me for approval," he said. "I always tell them to go ahead. Sometimes I'll approve something I don't think is any damn good because I don't want to discourage them."

On the practice field, the change is even more noticeable. As a younger man, Bryant personally demonstrated technique when someone failed to execute an assignment. He also was apt to tell anyone who messed up just how badly they had messed up -- emphatically, in the middle of a practice.

No more.

"I can remember his old tower used to have a chain on the front of it," said assistant coach Jack Rutledge, who played on Bryant's first Alabama team in 1958. "When something upset Coach Bryant, the chain would drop with a big 'twang.' When people heard that sound, everyone on the practice field would freeze. Every eye would be on Coach Bryant. He would come down those steps four or five at a time and you would just stand there hoping he wasn't coming for you."

There was a time when Bryant would stand on his tower, megaphone in hand and yell instructions at people and scream at mistakes. Now, the megaphone is used less.

"And when he uses it, he usually wants to compliment somebody," said Dee Powell, another assistant coach. "That's one of the biggest changes I've notices. He's much more into saying positive things now than he used to be. He's still competitive and still wants to win but that isn't all of it to him anymore. Having the people here enjoy what they're doing is important to him now, too."

Bryant is no longer capable of scrambling up and down his tower the way he used to, nor does he actively recruit the way he once did. He is still the key to Alabama's recruiting, however, simply because he is there. Players come to Alabama to play for The Legend.

The Alabama recruiting system works superbly. Assistant coaches do the scouting and draw a list of players they want to pursue. When the recruits come to campus with their families, all meet Bryant and spend some time with him. That is the main sales pitch.

Rarely does Bryant make a recruiting trip. If he is in Atlanta for a speaking engagement and a highly touted recruit lives there, he may visit. But he makes no more than a half dozen visits.The assistants do the leg work and they do the selling. What they sell is a chance to play for Bryant. w

"In this state, when Coach Bryant offers you a scholarship your lifelong dream had come true," said senior running back Major Oglivie. "I was like most of my friends who played football (in Birmingham). We all dreamed of playing for Coach Bryant."

It should be noted that around here no one uses the term "Bear." Bryant's wife calls him Paul, as does a small, select group of friends. To everyone else, he is "Coach Bryant."

"It would be an act of terrible disrespect to call him anything other than 'coach,'" assistant coach Bobby Marks said. "I don't think I could get the words out of my mouth."

Bryant's assistants respect him almost to the point of hero worship. There is a story told here about a loss seveal years ago that so infuriated Bryant that he called a coaches' meeting for 5 a.m. the next day. One assistant was afraid his alarm might not go off and he would be late. So he slept on a couch in the coach's conference room.

Bryant's top assistants have worked for him for many years and know what to expect. More important, they know what he expects from them. "He still sees everything on that practice field even though he's not as active," Marks said. "If he asks you about a kid after practice and you say he had a good practice, he's apt to say, 'Didn't you see him miss those blocks and jump offside.'

"When he comes into that conference room -- which resembles a corporate board room with its dark paneling and high-backed chairs -- you better be prepared. I remember once he asked me how a player was doing.

"I said, 'He's a great kid, coach,' and he broke in and said, 'I don't give a damn what kind of kid he is. What kind of player is he?' In that room, it's strictly football. Five minutes later, outside, he may want to know if that same kid's doing okay in school."

In essence, Bryant is the chairman of the board and his assistants are his vice presidents, each responsible for a different department. The president of the company, just below the chairman, is Donahue, who has the title of assistant head coach.

His drawl is more pronounced than Bryant's, his wit not as sharp. He is, in short, the ideal coach behind the coach. "My title doesn't really mean much," Donahue, 54, insisted. "I do a lot of the planning but I'm well aware that if things don't go right, Coach Bryant will probably jump right back into things.

"I delegate a lot of the responsibility, do a fair amount of the work. But anyone who thinks Coach Bryant isn't the backbone of this program makes a big mistake. You can do all the work you want but if you don't have the leadership at the top, the guy who knows what it takes to win, it don't make any difference how hard you work."

Bryant leads differently now than he once did. He is less rigid about team discipline, more lenient with those who break the rules and less likely to come down on players in front of their teammates.

Bryant is the first to admit his attitudes have changed. "Look, I've been everywhere and I've seen everything," he said. "I still like to win games. But I used to get so fired up to play Xavier or someone like that, I'd get sick and not be able to eat. That doesn't do any good.

"The only thing I worry about now is making sure this program is strong whenever I leave here so the next fella will have a chance to keep on winning. wI think I owe that to the people here."

Bryant says he will not recommend a successor. "a few years ago, I would've made a recommendation," he said. "But then I took smart pills. I'll let them (the school) choose someone. That way, if they make a mistake, it's their mistake, not mine."

But Bryant's departure does not appear to be imminent. Under state law, he would have to coach on a volunteer basis once he turned 70. Of course, the state legislature could change the law or grant Bryant an exemption. If Bryant wants the law changed, the law will be changed.

"When I leave here, I'll probably go directly to the cemetery," Bryant said in the deep, muffled monotone that is his trademark almost as much as his houndstooth hat. "What else would I do? I don't know how to do anything else. I can't even read or write."

So how he has managed to win 305 football games in 36 years if he is so incompetent?

"Football always came easy to me," he said, his tone a tad softer than normal. "When I was a kid, in college, in coaching. I guess you could say I know somethin' about how to win. I don't know exactly what, 'cause I'm not smart enough to figure it out. But I do know something about winning football games."