With the end near, if not quite in sight to his own way of thinking, with slightly more than a day left before his last game, the rarest figure football may ever know could take being one-downed no longer. The Bear was being trapped.

This pup from Illinois, Mike White, who wasn't even born when Paul William Bryant started stirring sport, had been laying it on in layers. Calling him The Great Man; saying what a thrill it has been this Liberty Bowl week for his players just to peek around a corner and catch a glimpse of the legend; gushing about how destiny had given the new kids on the bowl block the honor of playing mighty Alabama, blessed Bryant in his final hurrah.

Bryant also wants to win these pregame poor-mouth tests, and usually does. But the press conference late this afternoon was winding down and master White had a big lead on the master. There was only time for one desperate play.

"If there's a good muddy field (for the 8 p.m. game Wednesday night)," Bryant mumbled, "we already lead the league in fumbles. If we get beat, 50-0, that sure will help (Ray) Perkins."

Heckuva try, Bear.

He moves as slowly as the tide now, and because his Tide has ebbed back to the rest of college football, in his mind at least, Bryant will call it a coaching career after his 425th game. They might as well throw away the laces, for football never will be the same.

Bryant is everything you ever imagined in a legend -- and more. A prominent permanent part of athletic Americana. He even made it convenient for anyone who wants to create a football Mount Rushmore. No need to chisel anything out of stone; just use the face a lifetime of hard and heavenly times already has molded.

The grandest survivor -- that's how Bryant sees himself. Properly. Thirty-eight years in a cutthroat business. One generation grew up thinking him about the cruelest coach in creation; the next regarded him as a rather mellow innovator. He's broken rules and run off players at a sinful rate; he's also been close to inspirational. So much excess: winning, gambling, drinking, motivating.

Bryant has lost more games than many coaches ever win.

"The John Wayne of the profession," a former aide, Bum Phillips, calls him. The New Orleans Saints' coach worked for Bryant at Texas A & M in 1957.

"I took that job for one reason," Phillips said. "At that time I was 34 years old; I thought I'd get me a better high school job if I spent a year under him. That's all I really was after. I just wanted to see how he handled people. I wanted to see how he got the maximum out of people."

If those weren't the worst of times, they were close. Phillips came after the awfulness of Bryant's preseason camps at Junction, Tex., the experience most who endured it recall both with awe and embarrassment. Two busloads of players arrived; one left. Usually, groups of players drilled in scrubby areas between Quonset huts; sometimes, scrimmages were held in a nearby rodeo arena.

"Drive 'em and drive 'em and drive 'em, till they just got exhausted," said Willie Zapalac, who Bryant retained when he became coach at A & M and who now coaches the defensive line for Phillips. "Wouldn't give 'em water. We dehydrated 'em. Now the thing is to give 'em water every 30 minutes. That's the great thing about him: he's changed with the times.

"Hell, first spring training we had people passed out all along our practice field. They'd dropped, just couldn't go any more. Coaches'd go after 'em, shake 'em. Things like that. Course no one but Coach Bryant could get by with that stuff."

Bryant remembers.

"I'd try to be a better Christian," he said when asked about his regrets. "All the mistakes that can be made, I've made 'em."

He's going out in a stunning show of class, leaving at a time not best for Bryant but for his successor, Ray Perkins. Those closest to him, even those of us who can despise him and also admire him, would like to have seen Bryant either drop on the 50-yard line against Auburn or walk away after a 12-0 season and another national championship.

Bryant retires after a 7-4 regular season, after losing three in a row.

So Perkins will be following a legend, but not a legendary year.

Kenny Stabler, who has won more games than boy scout medals, admires Bryant for suspending him at Alabama. He remembers those ritual pregame walks, the coach and his quarterbacks.

"Maybe just a block around a hotel," Stabler said. "Not always talking about football. He was always a master psychologist."

Wednesday night will be historic; today wasn't bad. Only four coaches in the history of college football have won 300 games. Two of them, Bryant and Grambling's Eddie Robinson, were on the dais at the Liberty Bowl luncheon. Robinson offered a fine perspective on the coach whose record he very likely will shortly surpass:

"We (coaches throughout America) are glad you came our way. You've made us proud to be football coaches. You pulled yourself up from poverty to the pinnacle of success. You've been loyal to your roots and true to your friends. Your humility in achievement (Bryant also has been a most gracious loser the last two decades) is a tribute . . . "

Smiling, Robinson recalled the time a woman tugged on Bryant's coat and said, "Can you really walk on water?" And Bryant, whispering: "Some days I can."