The man on the city bus to Birmingham's Legion Field put his hand over his heart and said, "I love the Bear because I love America, and vice versa."

Consider his crimson dress: the houndstooth hat made legend by the old coach; the blinding, checkered sport coat, and the polyester pants stretched tight by his Alabama expanse. "You ain't from Alabama," the man said to someone and danced down the aisle, cheering his Tide, only to return breathing hard. "You ain't even from Mississippi. What do you know about history? Or genius or glory or pride?"

There was the night in the hotel lobby when Alabama head football Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant came into sight. He was wearing a tuxedo with satin lapels. When he walked through the crowd, the people parted like soft soil split by a plow.

"You stood on the same slab of concrete with him?" the man on the bus said, truly surprised. "Consider yourself lucky."

Although only two weeks ago, it seems much longer since riding that overcrowded shuttle bus from the motel to the stadium to watch LSU beat Bryant and Alabama for the first time in 12 years.

It was the twilight of a season in which Alabama has won only seven games, and lost three -- to Tennessee, LSU and, incredibly, in Tuscaloosa to Southern Mississippi. It was Alabama's first defeat in Tuscaloosa in more than 19 years, ending a string of 57 consecutive victories at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Bryant greeted a guest at practice while preparing for Saturday's game against Auburn. A year ago, the coach was the center of national attention as he readied his team to win a record-setting 315th game. But now there was no hoopla; only another game to try and win.

His face belonged in a coffee table volume of Norman Rockwell prints, somewhere between the chapters on soldiers and U.S. presidents. He possessed the gentle, calm countenance of the archetypal grandfather.

"Good meeting ya," he said.

His voice sounded like an old country bridge groaning under a great weight of snow and ice. "Nasty weather."

The visitor asked him about the season. "Disappointing," he said, and cleared his throat. "I'm disappointed with myself. I can't blame my boys, really. Neither my coaches."

The big color television facing his desk was tuned to the cable information station. A weather forecast, predicting more rain, ran across the bottom of the screen. John Lennon sang a song about wheels going round and round. The old man waved at the screen as if shooing a pesky mayfly, but didn't budge to turn the volume down.

"I know I'm spoiled when it comes to winning. Maybe that's why the season's been so hard. We're all so spoiled here. And I sure plan to stay spoiled.

"I don't want this institution to go down. That's what concerns me. That's why I said what I did about talking to the president (University President Joab Thomas) about taking inventory and starting up top. And I'm going to do it after the season. We're going to look at all that's going on within the program. But I've been saying the same thing over and over for years. I don't know why it's such a big deal all of a sudden. Tell you the truth, we'll be as good when I'm gone as we are now, maybe better. I just don't want to leave a sorry group. I want it to be good when I go; a better group.

"I miss the days when we had a small squad," he continued. "Best time I ever had in coaching was when I was an assistant. I could stay on the field more and rub shoulders with the boys. Even with the coaches now, I don't spend enough time with them.

"Things are different than what they were," he said. "I miss not seeing my players like I used to. I'd rather just sit and visit with a boy, just talk some. Ask him about his little brother or something."

After LSU beat Alabama, a young man--someone's little brother--stood on the roof of a Winnebago parked near the Tide dressing room and shouted to the Crimson crowd, "Bear Bryant can't walk on water any more, fools. He can't, he can't, he can't."

The boy swore he wasn't fogged by California port, just foolish with pride. A raw egg, thrown by a Boy Scout, had given him a bruise like a war wound. "Somebody who knows Bryant thinks otherwise," a friend said to him.

Bryant's boys could be your little brothers. They are grown men, surely, but still they look like washed babies, scrubbed, fussed over.

Tide center Steve Mott disclaimed the rumor that Tuscaloosa's water department drained all the lakes and lagoons in and out of the city limits to dissuade the old coach from journeying beyond the well-worn earthen paths. Mott was serious when he leaned back in the chair: "In my eyes," he said, "Coach Bryant does walk on water. There's nothing to describe the man. He's Alabama. The football team, the university, even the state. He's college football to me, too. No second spent with him will I ever forget. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, just to be near him."

Offensive guard Willard Scissum: "All that Bryant said about making changes at the top only convinced me more of what sort of man he is. If it took leaving to make Alabama the best in football, then he'd do it. But I never thought he was hinting at resigning. It was probably all misinterpreted."

Sophomore linebacker Scott McRae agreed. "People are saying he'll retire, but I know different. If anything, having a bad season will make him stay. I thought if we won the national championship he might leave. I hate losing, hate it, but everything works out. Coach Bryant will be back. We'll be back, too.

"We can't salvage this year," McRae went on, "not even by beating Auburn. Here in Alabama, if Auburn wins, the Auburn people come out of the woodwork, sorta like roaches.

"And down here an 8-3 season is considered a disaster," McRae said. "Everywhere in the state you go, people ask, 'What's wrong with y'all?' I tell them we're trying. It's all I can do. Sometimes I can't help but look ahead to next year."

The jock dorm, Paul W. Bryant Hall, is situated between a stand of pine saplings and a row of old fraternity houses. Two years ago, after Mississippi State slipped up on Bryant and his boys, beating them, 6-3, in Jackson, a florist's shop delivered an enormous funeral wreath of silk blooms to the dorm while the squad congregated for lunch. The dining hall grew obscenely quiet. But Bryant did not object to the florist's placing the purple wreath in the very center of the room. It was a lesson in humility.

"It backfired on State," a team manager explained. "The next year, we beat 'em and beat 'em good, right here in our own backyard."

Jim Carmody, Southern Mississipi's first-year head coach, said after beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa: "I don't think there's ever been a greater win in Southern Mississippi history."

And consider Alabama's McRae, who pounded his fist against his knee and said, "Sometimes it gets me that everybody guns at us."

And at LSU, Coach Jerry Stovall, who dared not smile minutes after beating the Tide, said: "It's been a long, long time. You just can't understand what it feels like to get kicked in the mouth 11 years in a row." He sounded as though he had just been notified of victory in a major election and feared word of a mistake, a miscount.

Stovall's star linebacker, Albert Richardson, unwilling to strip off his gear, was numbed by victory. "It's great," he muttered, "maybe the greatest day of my life, going to Birmingham and beating Coach Bryant and Bama." He sat alone on the bench in front of his locker. He put his helmet back on and bit down on the mouthpiece, chewing it like an orange peel. Maybe Richardson, like Stovall, feared somebody would take it all away. "Shedding your pads," somebody told him, "won't shed points from your half of the scoreboard."

Walking across the stadium turf hours after the Tide's loss to LSU, a young boy, maybe 11, chanted at the top of his lungs, "Bear lost. Bear lost." He sprinted to bigger boys loitering in the end zone and begged their assistance in bringing the goal post to earth.

When the crowd cleared and the night fell, you stayed and watched the last shreds of confetti catch a dirty north breeze and lift into the darkness. The legion of recreational vehicles and pup tents stationed near the stadium found little shelter under the pecan and maple trees dotting the parking lot. You watched their private fires, heard their music and chatter, hundreds of them.

They spoke with vivid recall of one man, an old coach named Bryant, and of genius, as if they knew both well.