They didn't carry him off the field, because he's too old for that kid stuff, and he took precautions with his hound's-tooth hat, assigning a policeman to carry the lid to safety. Make no mistake, though. The Bear loved this one like he ain't loved one for a long time.

"For them to turn it around that way," Bear Bryant said of his Alabama players, who beat Auburn with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, 28-17, "this is one of the greatest victories I've ever been connected with."

It was No. 315. Harry Truman was president when Bryant began winning. Amos Alonzo Stagg won 314 in 57 seasons. Bear's done it in 37. He's done it by cheating (self-confessed), by brutalizing players (of 96 Texas Aggies, 59 quit before his first game), by creating works of genius (his wishbone offense is winning while others have died) and by knowing when time no longer can resist an idea (he is 116-14-1 with intergrated teams).

Mostly, he's done it by being Bear. Good folks, as they say down here. No high-falutin fellow. Loved his momma, loved his poppa, loves his kids. Puts down a bucketful of whiskey, but just good stuff. When the doctor told him this year to cut the cigarettes down to two a day, Bear thought he meant two packs. Ain't nobody in Alabama who wouldn't bring the Bear a cake.

A pretty blond, maybe 20, brought a cake to his office two days ago, and you should've seen the Bear's eyes get real young.

"Hell," he said when she'd left, "if this was 40 years ago, I'd have kept her 'stead of the cake."

We're going to get to the part where President Reagan calls Bryant, who remembers the Gipper as a cub radio reporter, but it's important here to know the Bear doesn't mumble anymore. You win 315, your get so you think you can go on forever. "Gonna coach 'til they run me off," Bryant says. To show he's serious, not only has he cut down the smoking, he's cut out the mumbling.

Them damn Yankees, every time they come carpetbagging down here, they make a big deal out of Bear's mumbles. So he got sensitive about it. For a Ford truck commercial, they sped up the sound track so you'd know what he said. They paid him $52,000 to doa telephone commercial ("Have you called your momma today? I sure wish I could call mine."). Down here they understand every word, like it was written by God's finger on stone tablets, but Yankees say the coach is going over the hill and proof is he can't talk clearly.

Grew up in little Georgia town below Augusta, not that far from Plains.

"Gov. Reagan?" Dye said to Bryant, thinking Bear got it mixed up.

"Reagan, too," Bryant said. "But I thought you'd appreciate Gov. Carter more."

"Sure he called me," Bryant said, loud and clear, lifting his chest, nary a mumble in sight.

Of course The Gipper called, as he should, for if he is looking for heroes, he needn't look any farther than Paul William Bryant, born on an Arkansas river bottom, a kid who played in the first football game he ever saw, wearing his only pair of shoes (with cleats hand-nailed in), a kid who wrestled a bear at 12, iron-fisted his way into the Alabama starting lineup, and began at 32 a coaching career that would grow so rich in myth and drama he would define his profession.

"I was highly flattered," Bryant said of Reagan's phone call, "and I appreciated it, and the players did, too."

Bryant said Reagan reminded him he attended one of the Bear's practices in a tuxedo.

He sure can now. At 68, with the go-ahead from the state legislature to coach forever as long as Alabama doesn't pay him past 70, Bryant seems set on reaching Victory 400. Look at the numbers already: 42 of his 'Bama players have been all-America, 44 of his players and assistants have been head coaches, the Cotton Bowl this year will be Alabama's 23rd straight bowl game for Bear -- and if things work out, this team could be his seventh national champion.

"Gov. Carter called," Bryant said to Pat Dye, the Auburn coach who "And I reminded him that I first saw him as a cub reporter, or on the radio, when I played in the Rose Bowl."

That was Jan. 1, 1938.

As always Bryant was modest in victory. Thanked everybody he ever dealt with. Thanked his players mostly. Said if he'd planned it, he couldn't have planned it better than coming from behind late. "They're going to get behind sometime down the road, trying to make a living," said Bear, whose biography is called "Winners Never Quit."

"Thank heaven," he said when somebody asked why his players didn't carry him off the field. "I outghta be carrying them off the field. I would have, if I was strong enough."

He'd go home now, he said. Watch the game on TV, if his granddaughters got the recording thingamajig working right. Have him his usual milk, bread and onions. Talk to some old friends along the way, too.

Thanking everybody today, Bear took special care to mention special folks. "As for the record the players set today, I'm thankful to the good Lord for the many wonderful people at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and here. Carney Leslie and Frank Moseley had as much or more to do with this as anyone. I wish they could have been here."

They are dead.

"Ermal Allen, with the Dallas Cowboys, had a heart attack recently. Frank McGough helped in many ways and Marlin Mooneyham -- both of them have cancer. Ralph Genito is sick with something down in Florida. All these people make it more meaningful to me. I wish they could have been here."

And someone asked Bear's plans for the Cotton Bowl game with Texas on New Year's Day.

"Now, how in hell would I know my plans for the Cotton Bowl," Bryant said, loud and clear still, "when I haven't even quit shaking from the end of this game yet?"

Everybody laughed, including Bear.