Although it happened only three months ago, the day they buried the old man, Alabama Coach Ray Perkins rarely recalls the afternoon he and his boys rumbled down Highway 59 behind the hearse, all chrome and shine and memory, and across the barren winter hills with the steel mills blasting holes through the endless red heavens.

That day there were cars queued bumper to bumper on the shoulder of the road and in the ditches; people stood or knelt on the soggy ground, shouting goodbyes and praying in one allegiant chorus that lost itself to the noise of the death march.

The reflection of the sky sat on the road and in the eyes of the solemn faces, raw and red as if somebody had slapped them all for their grief. Looking east, then west, his boys seemed to be asking, "Where have we been, where are we going and what do we do now?"

The day they buried Paul (Bear) Bryant, it seemed the only thing not red in the state of Alabama were the cold blue eyes of Ray Perkins, eyes that, as Alabama's strength coach, Al Miller, would later say, "appear to be staring you down, but aren't; they're only letting you know he's interested in what you've got to say about lahf." As in life.

One can only imagine what Perkins saw and felt on Jan. 28 when crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Birmingham, through the high iron gates of Elmwood Cemetery and the dismal expanse of tombstones. There would be a big tree without leaves and beneath it, a shallow hole where men in dark silk suits would lay to rest a legend, and then what?

The drive back to Tuscaloosa, 50 odd miles, 50 odd minutes; a night wrestling the phantoms of despair; a morning to resurrect his sundered heart.

But what of the day? And the lifetime of days after this one, spent in the very office where the old man, forever pacing the crimson and gray carpet in a somnambulistic trance, engineered victory after victory, season after season, and thus journeyed into immortality.

"I never feel like he's with me in this room," Perkins said one day last week. "Because he's not; Coach Bryant's gone. And I really don't ever think about what it would have been like if he hadn't died, because that's not the way it is. Just the way things are, that's how I handle them, exactly the way they are."

Al Miller often recited lines from the book about the old man to keep him going when things went hard. He had read the book 3 1/2 times, the first time in the bookstore parking lot right after he bought it. He almost knew it by heart and loved the feel of the worn pages in his hands. Like the Bible, he could open it at random, with his eyes closed, and throw his finger down and read something to make his heart soar. He loved Bear Bryant.

When he got the job at the university, he saw the old man every day. He would come to the weight room early in the morning, sometimes before 5, to show the old man how hard he would work to win. Right before 6, he would walk to the window and stare out at the empty parking lot. He could see headlights in the distance, slowly cutting a path through the new dawn, and knew before the car made the block that it was him; it was Coach Bryant.

The car was a dark blue midsized sedan, nothing fancy, and the old man parked it in the same place every morning, the last slot in the front of the coliseum, right next to the outfield wall of the baseball field. He would watch the old man walk across the lot and to the door that led to the elevator and his office. Hearing the sound of Bryant's key in the lock, then his footsteps, Miller could feel the blood burn in his veins. When he saw the old man, he would say, "Morning, Coach." And Bryant would say, "Morning, Al."

Walter Ray Perkins, 41, is not a haunted man, not given to awkward spells of nostalgia like many of his boys who say they sometimes wake with mouths of cotton and cough the name of a dead man.

Boys like offensive tackle Doug Vickers, a two-year letterman from Enterprise, Ala., who thought he saw something recently while laboring through another inglorious afternoon of spring training, a grim apparition of which he could speak only in darkness and after the dormitory proctor had completed his curfew rounds. "It was Coach Bryant," he said he told his roommate. "I saw Coach Bryant, saw him like I'm seeing you, there in the shadows that the redtops made."

Many of Tuscaloosa's unvanquished, the old friends of Bryant, return to the practice field where he molded the lives of men and look for him, hints of him, in shadows across the artificial lawn. "The time I thought about him most was the first day I went out there after we buried him," Perkins said. "And I guess it was because that was the only time I'd been on that field when he wasn't there."

In a prescient moment, Bryant chose Perkins from an alumni of 45 former players and assistant coaches who have become head coaches in college or professional football, hand-picked the Petal, Miss., native as one might a pup from a hungry litter.

Bryant recognized that the heart of the new man could not beat in the chest of another, namely his own, and that his successor must be free of ancient haunts, unbound by the distant Saturdays in Alabama when everything was houndstooth, Johnnie Walker Red and tales of wrestling bears on circus lawns. If Perkins is akin to Bryant, it is because he possesses a manic desire to keep Alabama where he believes Alabama belongs--distinct, separate, unequivocally the best football school in America.

"I get dozens of letters every week from people saying they don't expect me to do as well as Coach Bryant," Perkins said, "but that they're behind me all the way and wish me well. Why not expect this program to keep going without interruption? I do. I say to these people that they should expect it of me, because we are gonna win."

When Perkins decided to leave the New York Giants, where he coached four years, he met with his friend and attorney Bob Drake in Petal, a bedroom community of Hattiesburg that was, years ago, the lazy, Southern town in which Perkins learned what he calls "the work ethic," pumping gas at a Sinclair station all through junior and senior high school.

"I told Ray I was worried that everybody would compare him to Coach Bryant, that he would never see the light of day for the shadow that great man cast," Drake said. "Well, Ray looked at me with absolute confidence and said it didn't bother him one bit, not one bit. He was his own man. That was the first and last time we've ever talked about it."

Here in Tuscaloosa, where only a rare faction of antijocks is impervious to the climate of change, legions of bereaved still mourn the loss of Bryant. A counter worker at a fried chicken and biscuit stand off MacFarland Boulevard said, "I couldn't even tell you the name of the new coach. All I know is that when the Bear died, it was just like when Elvis died. It just ain't never been the same in America since."

From his office window, Perkins can see students playing tennis on the tartan courts bellied up to 10th Street (which soon will become Bryant Drive) and, to his left, spires and flag poles from Bryant-Denny Stadium (named in part after his predecessor).

With great strength and the wind at his back, Perkins could throw a stone through the front door of Paul W. Bryant Hall, the athletic dormitory. Certainly, the deification of Bear Bryant commenced long before his death. This town will never forget him. And this town will never let Walter Ray Perkins forget him either.

"No matter what he does," strong safety Rocky Colburn said, "people here are gonna compare him to Coach Bryant. I don't think they'll let him get away without doing that. Unfortunately, that's how it is in Alabama."

The visitor last fall was very humbled to meet the old man who sat in the pool of light that fell through the big picture window. The visitor said, "I bet Daddy wishes he Doug Vickers, a two-year letterman from Enterprise, Ala., who thought he saw something recently while laboring through another inglorious afternoon of spring training, a grim apparition of which he could speak only in darkness and after the dormitory proctor had completed his curfew rounds. "It was Coach Bryant," he said he told his roommate. "I saw Coach Bryant, saw him like I'm seeing you, there in the shadows that the redtops made."

Many of Tuscaloosa's unvanquished, the old friends of Bryant, return to the practice field where he molded the lives of men and look for him, hints of him, in shadows across the artificial lawn. "The time I thought about him most was the first day I went out there after we buried him," Perkins said. "And I guess it was because that was the only time I'd been on that field when he wasn't there."

In a prescient moment, Bryant chose Perkins from an alumni of 45 former players and assistant coaches who have become head coaches in college or professional football, hand-picked the Petal, Miss., native as one might a pup from a hungry litter.

Bryant recognized that the heart of the new man could not beat in the chest of another, namely his own, and that his successor must be free of ancient haunts, unbound by the distant Saturdays in Alabama when everything was houndstooth, Johnnie Walker Red and tales of wrestling bears on circus lawns. If Perkins is akin to Bryant, it is because he possesses a manic desire to keep Alabama where he believes Alabama belongs--distinct, separate, unequivocally the best football school in America.

"I get dozens of letters every week from people saying they don't expect me to do as well as Coach Bryant," Perkins said, "but that they're behind me all the way and wish me well. Why not expect this program to keep going without interruption? I do. I say to these people that they should expect it of me, because we are gonna win."

When Perkins decided to leave the New York Giants, where he coached four years, he met with his friend and attorney Bob Drake in Petal, a bedroom community of Hattiesburg that was, years ago, the lazy, Southern town in which Perkins learned what he calls "the work ethic," pumping gas at a Sinclair station all through junior and senior high school.

"I told Ray I was worried that everybody would compare him to Coach Bryant, that he would never see the light of day for the shadow that great man cast," Drake said. "Well, Ray looked at me with absolute confidence and said it didn't bother him one bit, not one bit. He was his own man. That was the first and last time we've ever talked about it."

Here in Tuscaloosa, where only a rare faction of antijocks is impervious to the climate of change, legions of bereaved still mourn the loss of Bryant. A counter worker at a fried chicken and biscuit stand off MacFarland Boulevard said, "I couldn't even tell you the name of the new coach. All I know is that when the Bear died, it was just like when Elvis died. It just ain't never been the same in America since."

From his office window, Perkins can see students playing tennis on the tartan courts bellied up to 10th Street (which soon will become Bryant Drive) and, to his left, spires and flag poles from Bryant-Denny Stadium (named in part after his predecessor).

With great strength and the wind at his back, Perkins could throw a stone through the front door of Paul W. Bryant Hall, the athletic dormitory. Certainly, the deification of Bear Bryant commenced long before his death. This town will never forget him. And this town will never let Walter Ray Perkins forget him either.

"No matter what he does," strong safety Rocky Colburn said, "people here are gonna compare him to Coach Bryant. I don't think they'll let him get away without doing that. Unfortunately, that's how it is in Alabama."

The visitor last fall was very humbled to meet the old man who sat in the pool of light that fell through the big picture window. The visitor said, "I bet Daddy wishes he had my eyes this minute to look into yours," and the old man laughed, then coughed and coughed as if he couldn't stop. The visitor wondered if he should pat him on the back and felt guilty for upsetting the old man, who was very weak and, some said, dying. After a minute the old man cleared his throat and said something the visitor couldn't understand. The visitor thought the old man sounded like a feeble bridge of rope and balsam boards swinging over a great abyss, swinging with the weight of all eternity. Then the old man repeated himself, louder this time, and the visitor felt his heart in his throat, hearing: "I respect a man who'll call his daddy Daddy and his mama Mama."

The tower from which Bryant coached his 25 Alabama squads to a 323-85-17 record is gone, removed by Perkins after the season and hidden somewhere on campus for safekeeping.

A sand pit, over which wooden gurneys were placed to accommodate the taping of sudden swollen limbs, is all that remains. "Every time I look in the direction of the old tower, I get sad," linebacker Scott McRae said. "I see Coach Bryant looking down at us. I'm glad they hid it like they did. If Coach Perkins had ever gone up there, it just wouldn't have been the same."

Perkins moved the tower (to a location he refuses to disclose) not because he fears it may haunt his workday, bringing to mind some vague, sentimental vision of the old coach, but because he has no use for it.

Perkins is not legend, not yet, and folks in Alabama welcome the day he earns, like Bryant, a place above mortals, whether on a tower or while prowling the sidelines at the Sugar Bowl, national champions once again. "I'll never try to be like him," Perkins said. "I can only be myself. And though I'm a product of Alabama and Coach Bryant, with five years here ingrained in me, I'm not him; can't, and never will be."

Perkins also cleared out Bryant's office in Memorial Coliseum; no lonely tacknails, no ghostly squares remain where pictures and plaques used to hang on the rich, varnished walls, all in grave deference to another man's triumphs. As of Dec. 15, when university President Dr. Joab Thomas announced Perkins as successor to the winningest coach in the history of football, it became his office, his work domain--now big and bright with the perpetual glow exuded by the new set of Naugahyde wing chairs and love seats that face his desk.

Bryant's furnishings were seatworn, tweed carcasses with springs and stuffing spilling out, ancient relics for which he claimed no need. And the television, the behemoth console that stayed forever tuned to the cable television information station and the hillbilly-rock and gutter-funk that made his boys feel at home, is also gone.

"It's a hard thing," said McRae, a junior from Huntsville. "I know we can win without Coach Bryant and that Coach Perkins, with the sophisticated pro system he brought in, will be great for Alabama football. But a day doesn't go by that I don't think about Coach Bryant. I dream about him often. Whenever I get into a bind, I ask myself: What would Coach Bryant want me to do?"

He must remember everything and forget nothing.

Steve Mott, now 22, was 17 the first time the old man shook his hand. But even now, he sometimes finds himself thinking about the old man's hand, how warm it was, and his fingers as thick as oak roots, only softer. The old man had come all the way to New Orleans to ask him if he wanted to play football for Alabama, where Bryant promised he would make him a man.

And there was the hotel room in Mobile, waiting to play in the Senior Bowl, when he received word that there was a telegram for him at the front desk. It read: PLAY HARD AND SHOW YOUR CLASS, COACH BRYANT. But he had lost the telegram, the last he'd ever hear from the old man, and now he was dead and buried, like all the long autumn afternoons in Tuscaloosa he could never have back.

And even the old man's tower was gone. He remembered first hearing that they had taken it down; he had pretended it was just another mean rumor. But all that day word kept going around like a virus you can't shake. He remembered how the old man looked up on that tower, up there in the sun, and how overwhelming he looked climbing down.

He would walk through the players and there wouldn't be a sound save the tap-tap-tapping of a rolled-up depth chart against the old man's leg. You could see how he wasn't looking right at you, but over you, as if studying something of great importance on the horizon. He would cough, clearing his throat, and make sure everybody was absolutely quiet before saying: "We got a long, long way to go, boys, a long, long way to go."