Bear Bryant lived some of his best days on the verdant expanse of practice fields on the upper lip of the University of Alabama campus, and he died at a hospital just up the road from that hallowed ground now bordered at all points by a healthy run of redtop privet.
A big brick building rises high above a neon bustle of gas stations and dollar marts and chicken shacks on MacFarland Boulevard, with a great white sign painted on what looks like the top of an elevator shaft: Druid City Hospital.
Many of the coaches and veteran players on this year's squad who knew and loved Bryant call to mind a private vision of the legendary coach most every time they drive by the hospital. Depending on their moods, which tend to be much troubled these days, they often wonder what might have been the last words to come from his lips, or the number of the room he occupied in the end.
But more often than not, the questions that assault the mind carry the burden and resonance of the new Alabama history: what would Coach Bryant have done now that the Crimson Tide football team, at 2-5, has embarked upon its worst season since 1957 and found itself in a predicament that has no ready solution? And how long will this suffering continue?
Coach Ray Perkins, 42, now in his second year, says he knows the reasons why Alabama has evolved into the mule song of the Southeastern Conference, winners over only Southwestern Louisiana and Penn State. "But I'd never say why," Perkins promised the other day over lunch. "That would mean criticizing people I don't care to criticize. People who mean too much to too many people."
Namely Bryant, the man Perkins says he "will love for all time" and whose memory continues to paralyze the nation of supporters unwilling to concede its loss of college football dominance. Alabama is 0-3 in SEC play and has lost nine of its last 15 games, including one to Tennessee two Saturdays ago during which it squandered a 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter and lost, 28-27.
The last word on Bryant the coach is not that he was a lousy recruiter at the end of his 25-year reign -- only five seniors and four juniors now are starters -- but that with him died the pride and thunder of Crimson Tide football.
Perkins' dilemma is monstrous, although he says he's "been through a helluva lot worse." For starters, a largely unsympathetic media brigade contends people down home are looking for a rope and a good, strong limb on which to hang it. And nobody doubts who belongs in the noose.
On top of that, a vital faction of veteran players continues to reject Perkins' methods and embrace the memory of Bryant, who, as senior punter Terry Sanders put it, "was the greatest thing to ever walk around here."
"I think about the hell Coach Perkins must be going through," former quarterback Walter Lewis, now with the Memphis Showboats of the U.S. Football League, said. "I asked him the other day how he stands up to all the pressure from the alumni and all that. And he said, 'It comes with the territory. The way things are, you're either the sheep or the goat. There's no real in between.' "
Even when Joab Thomas, the school president, and members of the board of trustees expressed their support of Perkins, the former Alabama all-America continued to find himself under attack from a columnist in Birmingham who, Perkins says, does only "hatchet work" and draws attention to himself "at the pain and expense of others."
That columnist, Paul Finebaum, has written a number of less-than-kind pieces attacking Perkins and the team he described as "chumps" and "a bunch of losers." He even called the state of Alabama "Losersville, USA." As a result of his commentary, Finebaum said he has received several threats on his life and is "really afraid something'll happen to me."
Tom Lindley, executive sports editor of the Birmington Post-Herald, said much of the anti-Finebaum feeling is caused by Finebaum refusing to be "part" of the Alabama team. "That's breaking tradition," Lindley said.
Last year, Finebaum met with Perkins' attorney and set up an appointment with Perkins, who invited Finebaum over for a steak dinner at his house. That meeting was chronicled in a Sports Illustrated article by senior writer Douglas S. Looney, who reported a conversation between Perkins and his wife that ended when Perkins "crashed his fist to the table" after she said he did not have the personality to host his television talk show alone. Perkins "started ranting something about divorce," Looney wrote, and attributed the scene to Finebaum.
"That thing about divorce in the Sports Illustrated article -- if I thought I could do it, I'd sue them all," Perkins said later. "Because it was all a total lie . . . Can you believe my wife and kids had to read that garbage?"
Finebaum stands by the story. "At one point," he said, "Ray put his fist on the table and said, 'Carolyn, we're getting a divorce.' Then he looked at me and after a minute we all laughed about it . . . But I think that when he slammed his fist on the table, he was upset and definitely showing emotion. It was serious and so was he. No matter what he says, it happened."
Throughout the humiliation of the media barrage, with reporters coming from places such as Denver and Philadelphia, Miami and Chicago, writing stories that focused on this improbable season, Perkins said fan response continues to be positive. He said of the hundreds of letters and telegrams he has received this season, "only seven have been bad."
A listener who refused to give his name called Perkins on his live radio talk show the other day and said he should resign. "Ray Perkins ain't a good coach," the man said, and was immediately attacked by a number of callers Perkins said were "true Alabama people."
Last Thursday, several early-morning reports on Birmingham radio stations contended Perkins had called a press conference later in the day to announce his retirement. Perkins reacted with a smile and a shrug. "You see," he said, "some people out there know what I'm going to do before I even do it. And even when I'm not going to do it."
However detrimental to the morale of his program, criticism from the media continues to affect Alabama football less than the discontent and dissatisfaction evident among those staff members and veteran players who refuse to forget the standard set by Bryant as the high-water mark under which Perkins has quickly drowned.
"When I came here," Perkins said, "I knew and accepted certain things. I knew that where we are right now was a possibility. My eyes were wide open. And I knew that I'd be compared with Coach Bryant, and I accept that totally, though I shouldn't be. No one should have to go through that because no one is him or ever will be him. Still, though, I accepted that fact totally and understood why."
As an early step toward uplifting the program, Perkins redecorated the athletic dormitory, and although everybody said it was about time, it was hardly enough for those who continued to moan about his desicion to have Bryant's observation tower removed from the practice field. Why'd he have to hide it in the weeds the way he did, more than one player asked privately, and desecrate the old man's memory?
Perkins defended the action by saying it "bothered some of the boys" and he had a mind to "put the tower in a museum where it belonged," and most everybody agreed that that was decent of him, but the damage had been done.
According to one source close to the program, removing the tower was just the beginning of a succession of changes that many on the team saw as a steady stripping away of the tradition Bryant had fashioned out of hard work and individual sacrifice.
The venerable wishbone offense, which had propelled Bryant to many of his 323 victories and 11 national championships, was next to join the scrapheap. A high-tech pro set replaced the blue-collar charge, confusing some and angering others.
"People are still talking about the changes around here," Perkins said, "but all that was done before our 8-4 season last year and the Sun Bowl game. We didn't make those changes between last year and this year, and all we did was lead the SEC in practically every category you can name -- passing yards, passing efficiency, and we were second in rushing. I don't know why people continue to complain."
When Perkins went about changing the dorm, he took down what he called "the psychedelic wallpaper" and replaced it with an earthy, less energetic material that might have looked better on a wedding gown. He also put in some hanging plants and a couple of red and gray leather chairs and couches full of brass buttons. It was better, all right, but it looked like the lobby of an uptown savings and loan.
"You never hear about the good," Perkins said. "All you get is the bad."
The dining hall turned into a fabulous museum with pictures of all-Americas on the walls. It became a veritable Hall of Fame, a sacred place, and the biggest picture around was the one of Coach Bryant done up in oils on a gigantic canvas. You saw him as you walked through the great glass doors in the front of the building. He was smiling and he wore a baseball cap with a big "A" on the crown.
But in walking a short ways around the corner, more than one player had complained privately, there was another picture, just about as big and set even higher on the wall, of Walter Ray Perkins grinning and looking off to the left, as if not even interested in what you had to say. Bryant, on the other hand, looked at you with eyes that blazed with the passion of his terrific journey, and followed you no matter how far you walked from his steely gaze.
This, said the source, was what veteran players and staff pictured in their minds when they said Perkins had an ego that "could fill a room."
Perkins had, after all, been here only two years and already he had placed himself on the same pedestal long occupied by the fellow who had created everything Crimson Tide football stood for.
Behind their coach's back, some of the players laughed about Perkins' picture one minute, then promised to take it down the next. Although merely a symbol of changing times, it said more about the future of Alabama football than a disassembled tower or one bad season or a dinosaur offense that had probably already run its course.
They resented his intrusion nearly as much as they resented the mean trick fate had played on them, robbing the beauty and the glory at the end of their college careers. And although they publicly declared their loyalty to the program and hoped that the best of what they represented would endure, they knew Alabama wasn't Alabama any more, and probably never would be again.
Where was the "TEAM me" stuff of old? some players asked coaches. Why had the University of Alabama suddenly become Perkins' Pride? His name was everywhere and on everything.
The summer football camp for high school kids became The Ray Perkins Football Camp. Perkins had even cut out the moderator on his television talk show and faced the camera alone, stiff in a fancy coat and tie and wringing a souvenir program in his hands. All you heard was a concrescence of programmed chatter.
What hurt, the source said, was watching a glorious and prideful past, marked with a tradition of humility and hard work, suddenly take a back seat to one man's future.
"I shoot from the hip," Perkins said, "and a lot of people don't like that. There are too many people who don't know how to deal with straight talk, and I'm a straight-talking guy.
"I don't think in terms of being fair, really. That's not the right word. I think in terms of doing the right thing and making the right decision. If I went around worrying whether I was fair or not, I'd make a lot of wrong decisions, see what I mean? I could make a decision that might be fair for two players and wrong for 28 others."
Used to be, one player was heard to say, when you played for Alabama, you played for "all the good people" who saw Crimson Tide football as representative of some long-forgotten ideal, of an America that honored raw-boned country boys who played football with an intensity that defied comment by the human tongue.
Shoot, the same player ventured, biting his lower lip, there was a time when people in North Dakota saw you on TV and cheered, "Roll Tide" when you won and cursed the darkness when you lost.
When you lost? When you played for Alabama, you never lost, no matter what the scoreboard said.
To those haunted by the proud memory, Alabama and its long stretch of triumphant seasons died the very moment the groundskeepers at Elmwood Cemetery thrust a spade of earth on Paul Bryant's coffin.
"There's no comparison between Coach Bryant and Coach Perkins," Lewis said. "Their philosophies are somewhat the same to a certain extent, but the way they handle situations is totally different. Believe me, Coach Bryant was a cut above all the rest. Nobody will ever wear his shoes, not even Coach Perkins.
"Time was when people ate it, lived it and they died it. If Alabama had a terrible day, people had a terrible day. People didn't want Coach Bryant to die. They didn't want to let him go and they still don't. I realized what had happened, though. I had to go on. I have a life I want to live. So does Coach Perkins. But some people won't accept that. They won't accept him no matter what he does. Maybe it's gonna take time, but people down here, they might need forever."
Auburn won the in-state recruiting war against Alabama during Bryant's last two years, and everybody knew it, what with Coach Pat Dye doing a polished impersonation of the Bear every time he walked into a prize recruit's living room. Dye was a winner right down to his talk of Mama and Daddy and bird dogs. He even doubled his chin and grumbled like a backwoods dawdler.
There were plenty of folks who saw through this, but others -- especially that brood of 17-year-old boys who saw this Auburn man as a reincarnation of their lost hero -- took to it with the same blind devotion that once called a legion of gifted athletes to Tuscaloosa and a football team quartered on the banks of the Black Warrior River.
Ben Tamburello was a fine example of Bryant's failure in the end. When the old man visited the gifted center at his home in Birmingham, Tamburello thanked Bryant with all his heart, and said it was a dream of his to shake the great man's hand and have the opportunity to go to Alabama and play football. But that didn't change his mind about his decision to sign with Auburn and play for Pat Dye. There was more opportunity there, Tamburello said.
"Out at Auburn," Perkins said, "I'm sure they're having a good old time."
Perkins remains upbeat, even under the strain of this difficult transition. He says he's happy. He says he loves knowing he "can help a kid along, and give him something to remember."
And he says he has "the nucleus" of a championship team. You can call him nuts and crazy for saying so, he said, "but I got an ego and I got a lot of pride. I also have a future here. We'll win some ball games. You just wait around a little while."