As myth, monument and man, Bear Bryant defined college football the last 20 years. Parseghian sagged under the burdens, Hayes snapped, Royal and Broyles moved to the executive suite, McKay took the pros' money, Daugherty and Devaney and Wilkinson said no mas. Only Bryant went to his tower every day until, looking down, he saw the Xs and Os moving too fast for his old-man eyes.
Because his death came a week after his retirement last fall, it is easy to forget Bryant's reasons for retiring. Eulogies hang heavier in the mind than football talk. The football talk from Bryant was plain. He said the game was changing. He would need to put in a new offense, and he wasn't up to it.
"That's what made him a great coach," said Watson Brown, 32, one of the game's bright young coaches.
Bryant was in his seventh coaching season, working at Kentucky, when Watson Brown was born in Tennessee. After two spectacular seasons as offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt, Brown is the new head coach at the University of Cincinnati.
"Bear could see he was going to have to change things, the same way he did around '70, when he went to the wishbone," Brown said. "You know that story, don't you? He went down to Texas and watched Darrell Royal's wishbone. He sat down with Darrell. Bryant closed his practices all fall and then sprung the wishbone on Southern Cal in his opener."
With the wishbone offense and with an influx of black players he once promised would never play at Alabama, Bryant ended a two-year slide that threatened to leave the Tide among the nation's mediocrities. (How mediocre? Well, with Watson Brown at quarterback, woebegone Vanderbilt defeated Alabama in 1969, 14-10.)
Last fall, after a decade of extravagant success, Bryant could see in an 8-4 record unmistakable signs that once again the train was leaving the station without him.
College football with Bryant as the measuring stick was brutal beauty. The great teams built massive offensive lines to clear the way for waves of running backs. "Three things can happen when you throw the ball," Royal's famous pronunciamento said, "and two of them are bad." So Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan--the great ones--ran three times for every bold venture at passing.
The balance of offensive power has shifted so dramatically that last season, for the first time in NCAA history, major college passing yardage exceeded rushing yardage.
As recently as 1975, when the Bear was in full cry, NCAA records show that rushing reached an all-time high of 408.9 yards a game (for both teams). Passing yardage was the lowest in the two-platoon era beginning 10 years before: 239.2 yards.
Last season the rushing average was 337.1 yards.
Passing was 364.8 yards.
That's an increase of 125.6 yards passing. The figure has risen each year since '75. There was a record number of touchdown passes (2.16 a game), accounting in large part for a record scoring average (43.8).
"Except for the wishbone, all college trends have come from pro trends," Watson Brown said. "We have to be exciting, the way the pros are. People still want to see you win. But if you win and you are exciting, they go bananas."
If they go bananas, they buy tickets. Every big-time college needs the massive revenues of bananas-mad customers. Ergo: excite the customers by throwing the football.
"The most exciting sports offering on TV is the National Football League," said Dick Dull, athletic director at the University of Maryland. "I wish I could say it was college football, but it's the NFL. Of 14 or 15 people I interviewed for our coaching job, 12 were professional football people. I wanted to incorporate that NFL excitement into our program."
Dull hired Bobby Ross, the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive backfield coach, to replace run-run-run Jerry Claiborne. Under Ross' direction, quarterback Boomer Esiason set five school passing records and the Terrapins moved from 4-6-1 to 8-4.
Purposefully, Alabama hired Ray Perkins away from the New York Giants to replace Bryant. There are 11 new coaches this season at Division I-A schools. Four came from the NFL (Perkins, Sam Wyche at Indiana, Wally English at Tulane, George Perles at Michigan State). At least seven of the 11 moved up from offensive jobs.
"It is obvious," Dull said, "that American spectators are geared toward scoring. That's why they don't like no-hitters. That's why soccer hasn't caught on. They like high-scoring basketball games. Here at Maryland, we suffered with Jerry Claiborne because he was not offensive-minded and exciting. That's the primary thing going on, and I don't know if the coaches have responded to that. But everybody's passing more, I know that."
Maybe the passing sprees are symptomatic of a 1980s American urge for instant and repetitive gratification. Or maybe every 9-year-old kid watches TV in Tennessee and wants to be Dan Fouts or James Lofton. Or maybe athletic directors know ticket buyers no longer can be fooled into paying important money to suffocate in three-yard dust storms passed off as entertainment.
Whatever is going on, Bear Bryant knew it and knew he was too old to catch up. He saw the NCAA liberalize blocking rules to give quarterbacks more protection. He saw a 30-scholarship limit spread talent around, even turning Vanderbilt (!) into a bowl team. He saw kids wanting to play the passing game because it's more fun for even the linemen.
He saw an era ending, another beginning.
"I don't think it'll ever go back to a dominant running game," Watson Brown said.