He never removed what one of his friends called "that great mask." Paul William (Bear) Bryant stayed unemotional long after the end, long after his Alabama players had given more than their best tonight and then carried him from the sideline in a Tidal wave of victory. He even left us smiling.

"I'd rather feel sorry for a young guy like Mike White, who has his future ahead of him," Bryant said after his 323d success, 21-15, over White and his Illinois team in the Liberty Bowl, "than to look at that last roundup forever."

Charley Thornton thought Bryant's last public words as coach, after 38 seasons as an athletic treasure as no other in football, might be different. Misty, if not a stream of tears.

"A very emotional man," his lifelong friend and former publicist had said. "One of the reasons he doesn't talk about retirement with those close to him is that he's afraid he'll break down. But every week (late in the season) wasn't like it used to be.

"I called him the night before he made the announcement and he said: 'You'll never believe what I'm doing right now--watching a women's basketball game (Louisiana Tech vs. Tennessee) on ESPN.' Can you imagine that!"

Bryant had misjudged this team. Before the season, he'd bragged on it, said it might be one of his best. Four times it lost, once in Tuscaloosa for the first time in 18 years, ended the regular season in fact with three straight defeats.

Tonight, it played as hard as any 'Bama team, if perhaps not close to as well. Bryant had laid it on the line before the game, told the players it would be the 60 minutes of their lives. And they played that way.

"I told 'em," he said, "that whether they liked it or not, or I liked it or not, people would always remember them for this game. Because of circumstances . . . It was one of the hardest-hitting games, on both sides, I've ever seen."

Wicked, but inelegant.

Destined to swing 'Bama's way, White suggested.

Perhaps so. An Illinois kicker who never misses an extra point missed tonight. Tony Eason threw four interceptions. But three times when the Illini needed a critical throw, their leader was momentarily injured too badly to play. Each time Kris Jenner came on; each time Kris Jenner threw an interception. This may have been the first game a quarterback threw nothing but interceptions.

No pass interference the whole night; possibly divine interference.

Bryant said he thought about this being his final game once or twice, when Illinois was driving for the vinning points. 'Bama's players might have been dwelling on that, also, what Bryant had said about having to live with defeat for years.

Whatever, Tommy Wilcox made the play of his rich career, in the final 200 seconds. On second-and-five from the Tide 19, Eason threw a screen pass that seemed certain to fetch a first down. There was an escort bearing down on Wilcox, about to block him out of the play.

Never touched him.

The smaller Wilcox slipped by and made the tackle, two yards shy of that precious first down. Next play Eason was sacked--and hurt; next play Jenner threw his third interception.

Soon Bear was being carried toward the dressing room, not always aloft but with hundreds of players and admirers surrounding him. Chanting. Singing.

Had he heard it?

"No. I was joking with the players."

His wife had beeen unable to join him here this week.

"I called her last night," Bryant said, "and we both ended up sentimental."

Still, the public mask stayed intact.

What will he do tomorrow?

"Go to the office," he said, "check the mail, see of there's any I don't have to answer. Then, the good Lord willing, I'll go to a friend's house, where there's no one around, watch all the games and second-guess all the coaches."

Did this victory made up for the prior losses?

"No," he said. "It's just better than being 7-5. But they did show a lotta class."

If he didn't show that this was special, he said it. Time and again. He failed to wear his trademark, that houndstooth hat, on the sideline, opting instead for a brown baseball cap. He was back in costume for his farewell press conference.

"The 315th (which put him ahead of Amos Alozo Stagg as the winningest college coach of all time) wasn't that big in some ways," he said. "This one was really important, cause it was the last time out."

Is he relieved the media crush is over.

"I sure as hell am."

And that's how his final press conference as coach ended.