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Original Issue

High tide in Alabama

As the season opens, Alabama is bearishly strong and the Big Eight is ready for anyone

Beak Bryant, the Alabama football coach, is a disciplinarian, a perfectionist and a recruiter without peer. He is also a moaner. Indeed, he can moan so loudly that he has been called the pretender to the throne of pessimism. The king is Wally Butts, the Georgia coach, who once talked a sports editor into picking Furman over Georgia in a game that Georgia wound up winning 70-7. Southerners say that when it starts to rain, Butts and Bryant think of building arks.

Last week it was ark-building time. On Saturday the Bulldogs of Georgia, the 1959 Southeastern Conference champions, were to play the Crimson Tide of Alabama, the team that might have won last year's title if it hadn't lost to Georgia. Sobbed Butts: "We have the worst defense I have ever seen." He could spy only one dot of silver in the overcast: Georgia's superb passer, Francis Asbury Tarkenton, a preacher's son with a touch of devil in him on the field.

"We're like a baseball team with only one pitcher," Butts said. "Don't have the manpower. The Georgia team thinks it's going to win, but it believes it's a lot better than it is. And that includes Tarkenton." He leaned back, infinite sadness in his kind eyes, and put a hand on his stomach. "Hurts," he said.

At Tuscaloosa, Bear Bryant fretted and frowned, his 6-foot-4 frame jammed behind a desk. "We're in bad shape," he said, toying nervously with a Kleenex. "I've never seen so many injuries. We don't have time to test our boys. That Tarkenton is great. Their halfbacks are great, too. Now I'm not crying," he protested, the hint of a smile in his eyes, "that's just the way the cooky crumbles."

Throughout his career, Bryant has thrived on crumbling cookies. He started Maryland to national fame when he arrived on campus one day in 1945 with a busload of North Carolina preflight veterans. He had them enrolled and practicing that same day. He next moved to Kentucky and took that perpetual also-ran to 60 wins and four bowls. He started with nothing again at Texas A&M in 1954, and by midseason of 1957 he had turned that woeful loser into one of the nation's best football teams. And then in 1958, when Alabama, Bryant's alma mater, cried for help after winning only four games in three years, he came like Moses to lead them from the wilderness. Bryant's motto is, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

In coming to Alabama, Bryant had to leave some of his Texas businesses behind. "Exaggerated," he says of his business interests. "I owned three small apartment buildings, an interest in two oil wells, and I invested in raising mice for research work." In addition, he had a 1% piece of A&M football gates.

Businessman Bryant is prospering even more in Alabama. He is a member of the board of directors of a local bank and a local insurance company. He has a weekly hour-long TV program during the football season sponsored by Coca-Cola and Golden Flake Potato Chips. Pictures of Bryant are on every Coke machine, and the Bryant voice recommends potato chips from every radio station. The Bear is a big man in Alabama.

Much to the anguish of Bryant's coaching competitors, he is personally popular, a major factor when he and his 10 (yes, 10) assistant coaches recruit. "You've got to have chicken to make chicken salad," Bryant says of recruiting, and nowadays Alabama is a veritable poultry farm.

In three years Bryant has got the kind of players he likes and has got rid of the kind he doesn't. He drives them, teaching the most rugged football there is. "Some things are hard to teach at home," he said one day last week. "Sacrifice. The need to work. Self-discipline. You have to learn these to play football. I teach them, and my boys don't forget them when they leave."

His outdoor practices, some of which he has at dawn to beat the heat, are brutally tough, and noisy with the crash of body contact. His indoor sessions can be scarily quiet. He held one last Friday behind locked doors in the gym while rain from Hurricane Ethel beat down on the campus. When he walked in, conversation among the waiting players stopped in midsentence. They became agonizingly careful not to drop a ball or touch anything that might make a noise. As they walked through their plays, the backs and linemen all but tiptoed in their sneakers as the quarterback droned: "Left. Five-29 option. On one. Ready. Break hard. Set. Two. Hike." Each player pointed out where he should go, and the coaches watched. For errors.

Friday night Bryant took his team to a Birmingham hotel, where he fed the players their fifth steak, 14-ounce choice sirloin, in five days. The same night Butts flew his Georgia boys into town and took them to a movie. They saw Sons and Lovers, but they didn't like it.

They didn't like what they saw on Saturday either at Legion Field. In the first quarter, Bryant's Alabama showed:

1) No passer, but...

2) Its usual crushing defense, which last year gave up only seven touchdowns while earning a 7-1-2 record, and...

3) Most important of all, a running offense.

Using the new wild-card substitution rule (see page 23), Bryant soon had his team battering bigger holes in the Georgia line than Alabama's young backs really needed. In the second quarter they scored three touchdowns, more than they had made in any game last year.

Alabama held that lead almost casually through the second half. Georgia's Tarkenton completed 15 of 31 passes, but they were fruitless. It took a 78-yard punt return by a sophomore, Billy Jackson, on the next-to-last play of the game to set up the lone Georgia touchdown. The final score was 21-6. Bryant was standing on the sidelines about to walk to midfield to shake hands with Butts when Georgia scored. He looked irritated. You aren't supposed to score on a good Bryant team.

For once, Weeping Wally Butts had been correct as a prophet, even though he hadn't meant to be. Alabama had been much too strong for his one-pitcher team. In fact, Alabama's going to be much too strong for almost anyone. And don't let Bear Bryant tell you any differently.

While Alabama terrorized Georgia, Big Eight teams were proving that there has been another shift in football's balance of power and that the conference no longer can be dubbed "Oklahoma and the Seven Dwarfs." With Oklahoma idle, four Big Eight teams took on four from the Southwest Conference and three of them won. Missouri Coach Dan Devine was searching "for that little extra ounce of energy which is the difference between victory and defeat." He found about a pound of it. Missouri won easily, 20-0, over Southern Methodist. Ends Danny La Rose and Conrad Hitchler kept crashing into Arlan Flake, SMU's sophomore quarterback, and messed up pass after pass. On the rare occasions when Flake was given time by his line, he usually overthrew. La Rose was directly responsible for Missouri's final touchdown. He deflected a pass by SMU Halfback Doyce Walker, and Guard Tom Smith intercepted it, running 22 yards for the score. Said Missouri Quarterback Ron Taylor, "Our rush was tremendous. When you knock down as many passes as we did, they can't beat you."

Nebraska came from behind to upset favored (by two touchdowns) Texas 14-13. Senior Pat Fischer, a halfback in 1959 but a quarterback this year, gained revenge for last season's 20-0 loss in which he returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown only to have it erased by a penalty. On Saturday, Fischer scored both Nebraska touchdowns and passed for the two-point bonus that won the game. Texas had a chance to win, but lost when it tried to run the ball over for a two-pointer.

Kansas produced the biggest surprise by beating Texas Christian, the SWC favorite, 21-7. Ironically, one of the stars of the show was Bert Coan, a fast (9.6 for the 100), 200-pound, 6-foot-4 halfback who mysteriously left TCU for Kansas a year ago. Word had been circulating that TCU would be "out to get Bert" for defecting, but Coan showed no fear. He averaged better than eight yards a try, twice got off runs of 25 yards and scored once. "We didn't get him," said TCU Halfback Larry Dawson. "He got us. He's the best back I've seen in my three years. I had him trapped, and I said, 'Here's where I make old Bert respect me,' and then he ran over me."