Four years ago, Paul William (Bear) Bryant began wondering if it might be time to think about turning in his houndstooth hat and retiring from coaching.

Bryant, 64 at the time, could think of nothing left to accomplish. He had won four national championships and countless Southeastern Conference championships and had taken his team to a bowl for what seemed like 1,000 straight years. He needed an incentive to continue.

A friend found it. Checking the record books, he found that Bryant could surpass Amos Alonzo Stagg's all-time record of 314 college coaching victories by continuing to win an average of 10 games a season for another five years.

Since then, Bryant has stopped talking about retirement. In fact, last spring, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that will enable him to continue coaching beyond age 70, the state's retirement age, if he so desires.

Every Alabama press release since then has mentioned Bryant's quest for the record. "I wish people would quit talkin' about it all the time," Bryant says whenever the subject comes up. But he smiles when he says it. He is excited.

He is at 306. His chance for the record could come as early as Oct. 31, in the stadium that bears his name in Tuscaloosa. If not then, there will still be regular-season games remaining with Penn State and Auburn, plus the inevitable bowl game.

The Bear should get his record before this, his 24th season at Alabama, his 37th in coaching, is over.

"All I'm worried about right now is this team winnin' a few games," Bryant has said repeatedly this summer. "I'll worry about that record when the time comes."

But with the entire country joining the state of Alabama in the countdown, Bryant knows there will be plenty of talk about the record. What's more, he doesn't mind talking about it. Better that than his health, last year's No. 1 topic, or his age, which comes up more with each passing year.

Bryant is not a 68-year-old who looks 55. Up close, he looks at least 68. His face is deeply lined, his voice is often a mumbled drawl. Often, he shuffles his feet when he walks.

But he still dominates a room. His self-deprecating wit often catches listeners off guard and his answers to questions are sharp -- often razor-sharp when he doesn't like the question.

"He can still jump all over you as quick as he ever did if he thinks you're letting down," Assistant Coach Bobby Marks said. "If you're unprepared for a meeting he knows it and he lets you know he knows it."

Bryant maintains that his closeness to Stagg's record is merely a result of longevity. Statistics say otherwise. A 1937 graduate of Alabama, Bryant began his coaching career in 1946 at the University of Maryland, compiling a 6-2-1 record in one season there. From there, he went to Kentucky and Texas A & M, winning big at both schools. Finally, his alma mater beckoned and he returned to Alabama in 1958. Since then, his record is 215-40-8. Overall, Bryant is 306-79-16.

He no longer jumps out of his tower during practice to demonstrate the proper way to throw a block. Much of the organizational responsibility for the program falls on the shoulders of Ken Donahue, assistant head coach; the other assistant coaches have virtual autonomy over their units.

Bryant still has final say on everything that goes on within the confines of the regal, red-carpeted office complex at Alabama. But he admits that he rarely overrules his coaches.

"Sometimes I approve something they've done even if I think it's no good," he said in an interview last season. "That way, they won't get discouraged."

Bryant spends most of his time being The Legend. He is constantly in demand for interviews and speaking appearances. He has weekly TV and radio shows. And, when anyone of note passes near Tuscaloosa, he inevitably wants to meet The Bear. Just as inevitably, he is granted an audience.

He says he is more mellow now, talks about bending and sometimes breaking rules when he was younger but says he would never think about doing that now. And always, he talks about how important he now thinks it is that his athletes graduate.

"When I was a student I didn't think much about getting the education," he said. "Now, I'm sorry about that. But I took my smart pills too late for that. I try to make most of my players get smart early."

His players, who have produced an average of 10 wins a year since Bryant converted to the wishbone offense in 1970, will almost all tell you two things: they came to Alabama to play for Bryant and he is still the man they look to as the program's leader.

"He can get you awfully fired up when he gets up and talks," said Major Oglivie, who graduated last spring after four seasons as a starting halfback. "I'm like any other kid from the state of Alabama. Playing for Coach Bryant was my dream ever since I was a little boy."

Which brings up one other note: don't go into Alabama and start talking about The Bear. People will look at you funny. It is "Coach Bryant," except to his close friends. They call him Paul. You will never see the man referred to as "Bear," in an Alabama press release.

Now, Paul William Bryant is approaching another milestone. When it is passed, what then? How will he find incentive to go on? "Well," he said, "I do still enjoy winning."

And how much longer will he go on trying to win games? "I imagine," he said, the gravelly voice deep and serious, "that when they take me out of here, I'll go straight to the cemetery."