• Mark Schipper

The Bear's Last Magic was Spent on Tuscaloosa

By Mark Schipper

“Forget it, it’s all changed, they took it away from me,” said Paul Bear Bryant, alluding to the five-man coaching committee convened to hire his successor at the University of Alabama.

That decision, which sounds wrong for all the obvious reasons, turned out to be folly. And in the ensuing stretch, which looked for the world like some kind of pagan punishment as implacable as fate, the Crimson Tide wandered rudderless in a seven-years penance before they were allowed, mercifully, to atone for their defiance. The temptation must have been strong, including some heady blend of ambition, envy, and hubris, to entice a small group of academic administrators to ignore the proffered wisdom of a college football demi-god, and defer instead to their own greenhorn judgement in picking not one, but two coaches, that didn’t appear anywhere on the Bear’s hand-made list.

“I think they thought Bryant was old or whatever and they just didn’t go by his wishes,” said Jack Rutledge, one of the Bear’s personal football assistants who worked with the old ball coach unto the day of this death.

At the top of his list, Bryant had proposed Gene Stallings as the Crimson Tide’s next football coach. He had presented a backup name as well but conferred with Stallings over his thinking on the matter and expected the university to acquiesce to what was his, frankly, unimpeachable judgment. When they did not, and then ignored his second candidate as well, the Bear, dangerously unhealthy and exhausted, threw in the towel. Twenty-eight days after he had coached Alabama to a final victory—a Liberty Bowl triumph over Illinois in the dusky, frosty December cold at Memphis, Tennessee—he was dead.

As the world moved on without the Bear in it, a state of affairs the Crimson Tide partisans found intolerable, Stallings stuck with the great Tom Landry as his top assistant at the Dallas Cowboys before taking the St. Louis Cardinals head-coaching job several seasons later and settling into the National Football League. He kept an eye on the Crimson Tide each autumn, assured that the greatest coach the Saturday game had ever known had called on him to hoist the standard and tend to the sacred fire, even if it hadn’t come to fruition.

“There ain’t no question what Bryant wanted,” said Stallings, referring to the double-barreled snub of nineteen-hundred-and-eight-two.

The man the college bureaucrats had relieved of the decision is a coach who still reigns today as a kind of mystical monarch of the sport—the chairman of the board at coaches’ Valhalla. Using the leverage of school by-laws and the back-alleys of procedure to ensure Bear Bryant would not get to pick your next football coach would be like handcuffing King Midas to stop his touching things on the off-chance he might break them rather than turn them to gold.

Bryant, over thirty-eight seasons, had traveled the coaches' long course of honors all the way to the top of the game. After seven years as an assistant coach he had walked away from his first head-coaching offer, made by Arkansas, to serve as a naval officer in World War II—where he ended up coaching service football, anyway. He had returned to civilian life, entering the first phase of his head-coaching career, and became almost overnight one of the game’s hot young prospects, a coach whose intense daily drive in practice shocked both his players and the curious crowds that began showing up to watch the way Bryant drilled a football team into order.

After a single successful season at the University of Maryland, Bryant quit and walked away from the autocratic university president Curly Byrd, who had been directly meddling with his coaching staff and players. He moved straight from College Park, Maryland to Lexington, Kentucky where the very next season he produced an outcome he would repeat over and over across eight campaigns, turning out the best football teams in school history, including the 1950 SEC championship, which climaxed in a Sugar Bowl upset over Bud Wilkinson’s mighty Oklahoma Sooners. Kentucky has not won an SEC title since.

Bryant left his now formidable Kentucky program following the 1953 season both to escape the dwarfing immensity of Adolph Rupp, who despite rumors of hostility was a friend of his, but more so an administration that had broken important promises made to the football program, an unforgivable failure of integrity to an old-fashioned country boy like Bryant.

At that point a nationally recognized, bonafide talent with nearly a decade of high-end production at minor football schools aback of him, the only questions left to answer were how high would Bryant climb and how long would he stay there. The coach moved quickly through a short middle period, harboring a raging desire to prove he was worth the steepest valuation the market would stand in the wake of his unhappy end at Kentucky. The Bear uprooted his young wife from the comfort of old-money Lexington and planted the family in College Station, where he would coach at Texas A&M for four seasons in the late nineteen-fifties.

In Aggie-land Bryant immediately carried out the most infamous training camp in college football history at Junction City, Texas, and then drove the ambitious agriculture and military academy over four autumns from the football doldrums to both an undefeated Southwest Conference championship, and the doorstep of a national championship, at which point—his talents a coach approaching the gold standard— “momma called” him home for good.

Bryant spent the next twenty-five autumns back in Tuscaloosa, where he had played in the late nineteen-thirties under Frank Thomas, a legend in his own right who had quarterbacked for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame and won two national titles coaching at Alabama. By his fourth campaign Bryant had coached the Crimson Tide to the pinnacle of the sport, winning the first of six national titles, and then sustained a two-decade run of championship excellence that had no precedent in major college football.

Across those thirty-eight fall campaigns the Bear produced forty-six branches on his coaching tree, as former players and assistants were hired away as head men at college and professional outfits. While some teaching philosophies maintain the high-water mark of success is when a student surpasses the teacher, the Bear did not himself subscribe to that school. Over the decades Bryant ran up a 43-6 record against his former players and pupils—professionals in their own right who found it difficult to suppress their awe of the man—while annihilating any ambiguity about the nature of the relationship.

But Stallings had the pelt on one of those losses, taken from the Bear at the 1968 Cotton Bowl. Bear had loved Stallings as a player and hired him as an assistant for seven seasons at Alabama. Largely on the strength of Bryant’s recommendation, Stallings had become the coach at Texas A&M—where as a player he had endured Bryant’s torture camp at Junction City in nineteen-hundred and fifty-four.

Young Stallings had led the Aggies to a grinding 20-14 victory over the Crimson Tide in the mud-spattered, surprise-cold on New Year’s Day in Dallas. It was not just a win over Bear, but a big bowl upset on national television over the team of the decade, led that day by a first-team All-American quarterback in Snake Stabler who was playing his final game for the Tide.

Stallings and the Aggies watch the final seconds tick off the clock in Dallas, Texas, New Year's Day, 1968.

As the clock at the Cotton Bowl had ticked to zero, the Bear pulled low his houndstooth hat and got to looking mighty lowdown and shifty as he half-snuck through the postgame scrum to shoot in on Stallings like a wrestler, lifting him off the ground and making a, ’you son of a bitch, you beat me,’ spin while Stallings smiled, half bewildered, as he realized what was happening. The cameras clicked and whirred and captured the entire moment.

That the Bear, who hated losing with an existential dread possibly equaled by the combined angst of Vince Lombardi and Napoleon, was that happy for Stallings’ victory at his expense said more than any words could about his regard for his former player and assistant. The esteem had come from a kind of kinship because Stallings, like Bear, had a personal philosophy and an old-fashioned adherence to principles he would rather die than trespass against. Stallings had in 1963, when Joe Namath was Alabama’s quarterback, proved it to Bear. In that crises, Stallings had helped the Bear remember himself.

Bear Bryant scoops up his former player and assistant coach Gene Stallings after Stallings beat his Crimson Tide at the 1968 Cotton Bowl.

Joe Willy—a regional nickname bestowed on Namath, a well-loved northerner—was the best quarterback in college football, and Alabama’s offense took flight off the whip and snap of his right arm. But Namath, after the Crimson Tide’s upset loss to Auburn, had been caught drinking—a thing forbidden during the season—and a report of the incident had got back to Bear.

In an intense man-to-man conversation at the offices in the football residence—called Bryant Hall even then—Namath admitted taking down the beers over at Captain Cooke’s tavern with a group of friends.

Looking down with that heavy, furrowed grimness at his distressed and chastened quarterback, Bryant said: “Joe, I can either suspend you, or I can let you play in these last two games, and then I’ll have to resign. Cause if I let you play I’ll be violating all my principles of coaching.”

“No, coach, I don’t want that to happen,” Namath had replied, with all the devastation of what he had done crashing in at once. “I’ll take my punishment.”

But even Bear, whose laws were carved into stone tablets, was full of dread and indecision. This was not just some superb football player, Namath was a good kid, the team’s professed leader, and the player Bryant would later call “the greatest athlete” he’d ever coached. So he had gathered his assistant coaches for a meeting and, to the stupefaction of everyone present, appeared to leave the matter open to further discussion and consideration. What ought to be done about Namath?

Every coach, from offensive coordinator Howard Schnellenberger, to line coach Dude Hennessey, wanted to keep Namath active for the season’s final two games, which included the Sugar Bowl. Everyone except young Stallings, the twenty-seven-year-old Junction Boy survivor, who wanted to know what alien coach had invaded the body of Bear Bryant.

“If it had been me, you’d have kicked me off,” said Stallings, slowly and simply, and then held fast to his conviction that Namath deserved to be suspended for breaking the team’s rules.

With the votes in the meeting ended, but it wasn’t a democracy, and the potentate of the program retired to make his final determination. The next day, Bear announced the suspension—telling the rest of the staff they had not been thinking about what was best for the betterment of young Joe Namath and the Alabama football program—and began preparations for the season’s final two games without the sport’s best quarterback. That was the price that had to be paid and the program would pay it.

That same Stallings was the man Bear wanted to call back to Tuscaloosa to take over the program, and the candidate the committee, led by university president Joab Thomas, could not envision a future with. So the Tide wandered their seven years in the wilderness, first with a coach so defiant of the Bear’s imprint he became obsessed with erasing it; and the second so overawed and haunted by the ghost he replaced that he fled the job of his own volition. All the while the program’s passionate, disillusioned, and sometimes delusional fan base—a collective that only wanted Bryant and would have sold its packaged up soul at the crossroads to bring him back—grew restless.

Then, like it was meant to be, the second coach walked away following the 1989 season, unable to settle into a situation where the invisible energies seemed charged up against him. Stallings, who was in a bad spot under notoriously fickle ownership in St. Louis, had been forced out five games into the season and was looking for work. The moment had arrived for Alabama to end the futile effort to outmaneuver fate, and hire the man the Bear told them to hire. So they did, and, as the famous book says, it was good.

Gene Stallings coaching the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL.

At the introductory press conference Bear’s son, Paul Junior, who was known as a quiet and private man, had delivered the blessing and anointment, hugging Stallings in front of a room full of media and former Bryant players, while stating clearly into the microphones, “This is exactly what papa wanted.”

Stallings was the right man for the job in large part because he knew how to handle the ghost of the Bear. Like most football men who had been in extended contact with Bryant, Stallings never got fully over his awe, and didn’t want to—the humble study at Bear’s school of football and life had given him too much. He treasured it and wasn’t afraid to admit it. But what Stallings had that some others did not, was a thorough understanding of himself and a deep comfort in who he was. He would use what the Bear had given him where he could, but he wouldn’t try to be the Bear or some degraded copy of him

"First of all, you have to know what Alabama football is about, and it's about Bear Bryant,” Stallings said.

"He is the standard here, and everybody gauges you by him. I have no problem with that. I am not Bear Bryant, can't be Bear Bryant and can't coach his style. But, in my opinion, you have to hold on to what he left here. I wish I could consult with him.”

Three short seasons later, the low and gruff-voiced Stallings—he did sound a little like the Bear—had restored order to the realm. In the first order of business his teams had both halted, and reversed, a four game losing streak to their deadly rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Then, in 1992, the Tide won the Southeastern Conference title outright with an undefeated record, a run which included an epic, cold-blooded triumph in the first SEC Championship game over a superb Florida Gators team coached by Steve Spurrier, who was the shrewd, lethal revolutionary on the brink of a hostile takeover of the Bear’s old realm.

Stalling’s team went down to New Orleans, the South’s spiritual capital, and manhandled the undefeated, defending national champion Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl, where Bear had led so many teams to glory in decades gone by. The victory, the entire team and season, had been a Bryant Special made up the old way from beginning to end. It was exactly what the partisans were howling for.

A ferocious, bullying defense, the way Bear loved it, dismantled Miami’s mighty offense, essentially bludgeoning the most intimidating program in college football into submission, allowing only 13 points while returning an interception—one of three that night against the Hurricane’s Heisman-winning quarterback—thirty-one-yards for a touchdown.

The offense, a run-dominated, field position playing, conservative passing affair—the Bear’s preferred mixture—put up 27 points to go with the pick-six for a clean 34 on the night. The victory broke Miami’s twenty-nine game winning streak and ended what had seemed destined to culminate in back-to-back championships for the best program of the nineteen-eighties. Alabama’s win, it turned out, ended the Hurricane’s decade of dominance and destruction, it would never be the same for them again.

As the huge Alabama crowd at the Super Dome roared its approval, and the Tide players poured onto the field with Stallings hoisted onto their shoulders, it was the climax to an incredible autumn in which college football in the South was, for Alabamians, put back to rights, and the mystic chords of memory sounded throughout Tuscaloosa. Stallings, in recognition of his 13-0 national championship team, was awarded the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award by the Football Writer’s Association of America. It was the last of the Bear’s potent magic and he spent it on Tuscaloosa and his old friend Stallings.

Whaddya know about all that?

119 views0 comments