TUSCALOOSA, ALA. -- To coach at Alabama is to taste catfish, hominy and black-eyed peas.
It is to know the gorgeous assault of magnolias, to be celebrated by a state that is part antebellum and part glass towers and, above all, to feel the heart-seizing drum roar of Roll Tide Roll.
In a state of such rich emotions, it is no surprise that the hiring of a coach from Georgia named Bill Curry was received with pure outrage and a death threat.
Steeped in the tradition of a university that has won more football games than any other school in the last 65 years (505-154-30), Alabama alumni were stunned at the hiring of an academic-minded coach with a losing record. Since Curry didn't even have the decency to be a Bear Bryant disciple, he was regarded sight unseen by Alabamians as clearly not their kind.
"Being coach at Alabama is like being a state park," Athletic Director Steve Sloan said. "And everyone wants to drive all over your picnic grounds."
The chief sources of outrage are Curry's 31-43-9 mark in seven years at Georgia Tech and his lack of ties to a deeply inbred football history. Even Curry's predecessor Ray Perkins, disliked as he was after summarily tearing down the Bryant coaching tower, was a son of Alabama. Curry's hiring has been interpreted as a grievous departure from Alabama traditions: at worst, alumni fear he indicates a deemphasis of the program; at best, they fear he is simply not equipped to deal with the strain of a huge program he is not acquainted with.
Curry maintains he is here to win "by Alabama standards" and began by defeating inferior Southern Mississippi last weekend. However, a truer measure will come when Alabama travels to defending national champion Penn State this weekend, and he is braced for a painful, perhaps even divisive, year.
"I certainly have not arrived and I don't have all the answers," Curry, 44, said. "But I'm qualified for this job. So I'm going to roll up my sleeves and go to work. And I'm going to be sure not to pay any attention to my detractors."
That Curry will lose some big games seems a foregone conclusion, as the Crimson Tide returns an inexperienced team that faces one of the nation's most difficult schedules. This laugher is making the rounds:
Have you heard the latest joke at Alabama?
"I think he'll feel exterior pressure he's not aware of yet," Sloan said. ". . . I would be apprehensive coming here even with everybody behind me."
An indication of how seriously Alabama alumni take the issue of Curry was given by the university president, Joab Thomas, who has said publicly that if Curry fails, his own days in office may be numbered.
"I would say he's exactly right," said Tommy Brooker, an end on the 1961 national champion Tide and now a local insurance executive. The Tower Rises Again
In taking over from Perkins, who moved to Tampa to coach the Buccaneers of the NFL, Curry has made up for the difficult circumstances with some gestures that have eased his entry into the Tide's cloistered midst. One of his first actions as coach was to get Bryant's coaching tower out of storage and raise it on the practice field, proclaiming it a monument. Then he campaigned across the state, meeting his critics personally and winning some over.
"A few of them came to me personally and said they wanted to explain their objections," Curry said. "I respect that. I don't expect them to approve of me, but I admire honest critics, people who look you in the eye and tell you how they feel. But I've got to be careful not to confuse warmness with results.
". . . We're looking each other in the eye, and that establishes a certain relationship. At least it's not this backbiting stuff. I go back to the fact that to earn my way into a family tradition I've got to do what's required, and that's win."
According to Sloan, Curry has earned at least the benefit of the doubt this season mainly through the force of his personality and some outstanding performances at alumni functions. By all accounts an inspirational speaker, he quotes long Teddy Roosevelt passages in a deep voice. His discussions with alumni groups border on the politic, and he has maintained photos of Bryant prominently in his office.
"Smarter than a treeful of owls," Sloan said.
Curry has also shown some gumption for a coach who was regarded as perhaps too nice a guy, and is intent on building a tougher image. Unafraid of being called presumptuous, he intends to raise a Curry coaching tower next to Bryant's ("It will be shorter," he said diplomatically). He frowningly calls his detractors at Alabama "The Fellowship of the Miserable," and when he received the death threat, he called his new boss and said, "When it's too tough for most people, it's just about right for you and me."
To demonstrate his resilience in the face of pressure, Curry points to his background as a center with Super Bowl teams of the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts, and as former leader of the NFL Players Association. At Georgia Tech, he said, he survived calls for his job as the Yellow Jackets went 2-19-1 his first two seasons. By 1985, he had won an Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year award for going 9-2-1. He does not apologize for his record at Georgia Tech, where he rebuilt a program from scratch.
"I would like to have had a winning record, but that's just an ego thing," he said.
The result of Curry's campaign is that Alabamians have gone from opposing him to merely being unsure what to make of this imposing coach with Captain Marvel build and unnerving gaze. Former Alabama and Dallas Cowboys player Lee Roy Jordan and Brooker were two of the more outspoken adversaries when he was hired. Jordan said, "If we're trying to end the Bear Bryant era at Alabama, we've made a giant step towards doing it." But both now say their only objection to Curry was that he is not an Alabama product, something that wounded local pride.
"He's a great guy and a good coach," Jordan said. "He's got some things ahead of him now. It takes some time and hopefully people will give him a chance."Poser for the President
Another source of anger among alumni was a perceived criticism of previous Tide athletic policies by Thomas, who observed that in hiring Curry, Alabama was "making a bold statement. There is too much wrong with college athletics."
"Contrary to what Mr. Thomas has insinuated to the entire nation, anyone who played under Coach Bryant was not a dummy," Brooker said. ". . . Mr. Thomas in essence chose to go outside the family. He graduated from Harvard, and I bet you bottom dollar Harvard doesn't hire outside its little family."
Thomas, while condemning the "level of insanity" football causes in some quarters of the state, has gone to lengths to alleviate fears that Alabama is abandoning the Bryant era. Clearly he does not mean to erase a tradition that accounted for six national championships spanning 1958-82.
"I hate losing," he said in the aftermath. "If I did not think we could keep a winning program, we would have made a different choice."
But Curry and Thomas face a more complex problem than just maintaining a winning record. Alabama is perhaps a prisoner of a romantic tradition that can never be equaled and is located in a rural area with little else to occupy its attention. No matter who the coach is, he will never be Bear Bryant.
No one knows that better than Auburn Coach Pat Dye. An assistant under Bryant during 1965-73 who has been on both sides of wins and losses involving the Crimson Tide, he suggests Curry may not yet appreciate the extraordinary level of the state's passion.
"Until he's won a really big game, or lost one, I don't think he can really know what it is," Dye said. "It's sacred here. Like the Auburn and Alabama game. Every year they play, and someone is going to lose. And half the entire state is going to be furious."