There were three bears at the Sheraton Washington Hotel last night, two stuffed and one getting along in years.
The 6-foot stuffed bears were in the lobby, each bearing a lapel tag commemorating a historic football game. The bear on the left was for Paul Bryant's 300th victory as a college football coach, the one on the right honored the victory that captured all football fans' fancy--Bryant's 315th, over Auburn last Nov. 28, the victory that gave him more than any other college coach in history.
The third bear was Bryant himself, the 68-year-old Alabama football coach who earned his nickname by wrestling a bruin as a youngster and whose admirers say has grown tougher since.
A thousand people paid $125 apiece to honor the man called Bear in an event called "America's Tribute to Paul (Bear) Bryant." At the head table, under a re-creation of the scoreboard from the Auburn game, sat the Rev. Billy Graham, comedian Bob Hope, college coach of the year Danny Ford, three other top college coaches, and the governor, both senators and all the congressmen from Alabama. In the ballroom sat Alabamans, would-be Alabamans and Alabama lovers.
They convened, according to Sen. Jeremiah Denton, because "in Alabama, Coach Bryant is second only to God. We believe on the eighth day, the Lord created the Crimson Tide."
This was no farewell. The mention of Bryant retiring never crossed the lips of the assemblage. Businessman Holt Rast, who flew up from Birmingham for the tribute, said discussions of Bryant's departure are not met with pleasure in Alabama. "It's sort of like talking about dying," said Rast, who played under then-assistant coach Bryant in the '30s. "We all know it's going to happen someday, but we don't discuss it."
For his part, the towering, craggy-faced Bryant said he'd keep coaching until he was no longer wanted or could no longer contribute. "I wouldn't feel right about losing," he said at a VIP reception before the dinner. "I plan to get better. I sure don't want to go down any."
The man he beat to become the winningest coach doesn't think there's much likelihood of Bryant ever giving up voluntarily. "He's still tougher than anyone in the business," said Auburn Coach Pat Dye. "How long can he go on? I don't know. Forever."
Alabamans are generally easygoing folks, and the seed for this event was planted at an easygoing Alabama-style evening out. "It was a happy little party (at a restaurant) across the bay from Mobile," said Sen. Denton, who was one of the partygoers. The idea was a national tribute in the nation's capital to honor a national record. Originally, said Denton, the plan was to fly up the restaurant's Cajun cook to prepare an Alabama meal, but there was an illness in the cook's family and she couldn't come.
So they settled for dinner for 1,000 at the Sheraton.
Scott Hunter, who quarterbacked Alabama in the late 1960s, helped orchestrate. He flew up with Bryant on Sunday and said "the coach was really excited."
If so, he didn't show it. For a man shunning retirement, Bryant had a lot to say about retirement-style activities, talking about bird hunting and bass fishing with Dye, and golf with Graham and Hope and anyone else who happened by.
President Reagan phoned from the White House to offer congratulations. Reagan said he'd read in Bryant's book about a game in which Alabama was down, 12-0, with three minutes to go and without the ball, but came back to win.
The president said he understood there was a pile of angry telegrams in Bryant's hotel room when he got back, from people who hadn't listened to the end of the game. "I've been hearing from those same people," Reagan said.
In the ballroom, those who came to pay tribute to the coach listened to Dixieland, ate filet mignon and paid their respects to a gray-haired gent who's never quite grasped the meaning of the verb "to quit." The rock band Alabama's scheduled performance of a specially written song, "In Our Hearts He's No. 1," fell victim to a faulty sound system, prompting emcee Keith Jackson to call it a first--"Alabama surrenders."
Organizers said proceeds will go to an academic scholarship fund at Alabama in Bryant's name.