They just this week released a poll of the most influential people in the history of the Southeastern Conference, this marking the 75th anniversary of the most storied college athletic conference in the world, and to no one’s surprise, “Bear” Bryant was No. 1 on the list.
Coach Bryant, of course, was maybe the greatest football coach who ever walked, producing conference and national champions faster than a Las Vegas black-jack dealer, and it’s a fact that every man who ever ran for president of the United States after the early ‘60s until Coach died at age 70 in 1983 would spend time with him and pray for his blessing.
He was, in a word, a force. A workaholic, he knew something about everything, and he could have been the best at anything, be it running General Motors, installing the Alaskan pipeline, or farming 500 acres of nothing but worn-out dirt.
His God’s calling, however, was taking a bunch of scrawny boys and turning them into something big, bigger than any of ‘em individually would ever be. He recognized that early on, and … well, he became an American legend. As Jake Gaither, the wizened coach at Florida A&M, so succinctly put it, “He could taken his’n, and beat your’n … or he could take your’n and beat his’n.”
So many people, even this week, have asked me about our deal, the deep friendship we enjoyed, and when I read about the Birmingham News poll that named him the most influential man in an SEC crowd that includes so many giants the California redwood forest seems like only a south Alabama pine thicket in comparison, I would readily admit he was also one of the greatest influences in my life.
The whole thing started the first year I was invited on the old SEC “Skywriter’s Tour.” I was the youngest ever to be invited, largely because my family owned a newspaper, and therefore, I got to cover my first SEC game when I was 18.
I fell in with the right people early, maybe because the SEC publicity guy – "Scoop" Hudgens - was raised in Chattanooga’s East Lake before he went on to Vanderbilt way back in the 1930s, so I was on a pretty fast track from the get-go, all due to amazingly little skill of my own.
The “Skywriters” flew into Tuscaloosa late in the afternoon on my first year, and Alabama’s serenade began with a cocktail party in the lobby of the then-new Paul Bryant Hall, a lavish football dormitory that Coach had built as a shrine to his players.
It lacked for nothing. They’d gotten a fancy bunch from New York to come and decorate it, and brother, it was evermore a Taj Mahal. Coach Bryant didn’t miss a trick, and he wanted his players to know they were special every minute of the day. He also wanted them to give life-and-limb to stay there.
The “Skywriters” included the top sports editors in the South as well as some big national writers, all having votes on the weekly polls and the Heisman Trophy and – of course – the national championship, and it was a hard-drinking crowd, was it ever. They were pouring those drinks real dark when Coach Bryant got to the reception a carefully-timed 30 minutes after the rest of us.
Now Coach was a big man, I mean physically, but when he walked into a room, the presence he brought with him was staggering. He wasn’t a hale-and-hearty guy, but rather, he wore a scowl and he’d quietly say, “How are you, Benny?” or “Hello, Jack” or “How’s your family, Phillip?” as his eyes caught those of the ones he knew, all the while scanning the room and sniffing the air.
I was standing off in the corner, not yet comfortable with my traveling companions and admittedly intimidated by the guys whom I’d been reading since I’d started devouring Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News and any newspaper I could find since age 12.
Suddenly Coach Bryant was taking purposeful strides across the room right towards me, and about 100 people in the room parted like the Red Sea. He got right in front of me, not a foot away, and, in that raw voice he usually reserved for practice, growled, “Where the h*** did you get that d*** shirt?”
Lord, I wanted to die. I had on a green polo shirt, just a simple pullover. I’d thought about putting on a tie but hadn’t, and I didn’t know where I’d gotten the shirt, but right then I was too busy to keep from crying. I couldn’t think, so I just shrugged. I sure couldn’t talk.
Then Coach said with a terrifyingly twisted look, “I hate green. We just got beat in the bowl game by Notre Dame, and here you come in here wearing something like that! Take that d*** thing off!”
I was mortified. The room was silent, I mean pin-drop quiet, and with 100 people watching, I peeled it off. Coach then grabbed it and kicked it – my shirt – as hard as he could.
“See that hall over there?” he pointed toward a foyer. “There is a guest room, the last door on the left. You go down there and wait for me because we got to get an understanding! Good God-all-mighty…”
So as I hasten to do as I’m told, so scared I’m ready to vomit, it wasn’t lost on me that everybody in that room was tremendously amused, but nobody dared laugh out loud lest they, too, incur the wrath of Bear Bryant.
Bare-bellied, I am soon standing in the middle of this swank room, and it is immediately obvious this was his lair during two-a-day practices. There was a film projector set up on an antique desk and a stack of game films beside it.
A couple of cartons of Chesterields were on the dresser, along with several bottles of Bell’s No. 12 scotch, and a loaf of light bread was half-opened on this $25,000 French table with a jar of mustard, some fancy linen napkins and the prettiest sterling silver you ever saw.
There is a quick knock on the door (does somebody who is going to kill you knock?), and he doesn’t get the door shut before he starts laughing. “Roy, you’re a great sport! Welcome to Alabama!
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you so bad, but I felt like I had to set a tone for some of those uppity writers, the ones who don’t think their breath smells (or something like that), and I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time.
“Look over there in the closet and get you a shirt. I’ll get that other one back to you. Then get a couple of beers or Cokes or whatever you want and let’s visit for awhile. Dinner won’t be for another 20 minutes, and those other guys need to get a little likkered up before I tell ‘em what I need to say,” he added in a way that would have charmed Queen Elizabeth.
I opened the closet, and it was chock full of golf shirts, but I pulled out one that said “Bama Staff” on the front, and Coach howled with glee. “Oh, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you wear that out there!” I wouldn’t have taken a dime, but it was one I wanted.
We sat down in these two big chairs, my still-shaking hands trying to hold a can of Budweiser while he shook the ice cubes of his Bell’s, and within five minutes a friendship was solidified beyond description.
He made sure I had his home telephone number, and the one to the private line in his office, and he told me to make sure to tell his secretary, Brenda, who I was if ever I called and he wasn’t there because she could find him in a hurry.
Then he quickly changed gears, knowing I needed something to write, and we talked about John Hannah, an All-American at Alabama at the time, and how much he appreciated the way Baylor School’s Luke Worsham had influenced John.
Coach wondered how Charlie Hannah, who was still playing at Baylor, was progressing and did I know anything abut two little black kids at Howard who were still in junior high named Charles Morgan and Reggie White.
We finally went to dinner, and when we walked in, “Bear” Bryant’s arm over my shoulder and me wearing that “Bama Staff” shirt with a can of Budweiser in my hand, I got one of the only standing ovations of my life.
Coach Bryant made his point, but that night, he also gave me his stamp of approval. From that minute on, I couldn’t go to Tuscaloosa that somebody wasn’t whispering, “That guy’s one of Coach Bryant’s best friends.”
When Coach would close practice down through the years, the FBI couldn’t get through the gate, but the managers would scramble to let me in, and his assistant coaches, running from one drill to the next, would always jog close enough to speak.
The “Skywriters” also loved it, one of their own shrugging in front of “The Bear,” and they not only wanted to know what was said, they were jealous, and to me at the time, that was extraordinarily delicious.
In the years that followed, Coach Bryant always stayed within an arm’s reach. He’d call, just out of the blue, and ask had I heard anything about Tennessee getting rid of Bill Battle or what about the Strickland kid at East Ridge.
When my son was born, the very next day, he FedEx’ed baby Andrew a football scholarship to Alabama, and at his funeral, I stood next to Joe Namath. That’s the kind of deal we had.
About four or five days after my first “Skywriters” trip ended, Brenda sent me my green shirt, neatly washed and folded just so, but I couldn’t tell you what became of it.
What I can tell you is that in my bedroom right now, in the third drawer of my dresser, is one that reads, “Bama Staff,” and I wouldn’t dare wear it. It’s far too precious for that.