Ten years ago last week, Alabama football was at its final high-water mark under Bear Bryant. The Crimson Tide was 5-0, ranked No. 2 nationally and coming off a 42-21 rout of Penn State. The next step for Alabama was to go into Knoxville and get its 12th straight win over Tennessee. The Crimson Tide was on its way to Bryant's seventh national championship—or so thought the legions in the red hats. Then came Saturday, Oct. 16, 1982: Tennessee 35, Alabama 28. After that, all was ebb.
Three weeks after the Tennessee game, Alabama lost to LSU for the first time in a dozen years. That was in Birmingham. On the following Saturday, Bryant's 57-game winning streak in Tuscaloosa ended at the hands of Southern Mississippi. Two days later an out-of-state sportswriter arrived in Bryant's office and was shown not to the usual low sofa—Bryant liked to conduct interviews from his desk as if he were peering down over a judge's bench toward that sofa—but to a chair drawn up beside the desk. It was as if the old man just wanted somebody to sit with him for a few minutes. He stared at nothing.
"I can't coach 'em anymore," he said. There was a silence of perhaps 20 seconds as the meaning was absorbed. This was the end of something that the mere word career could not begin to describe.
On Nov. 27, Alabama lost to Auburn for the first time in a decade. On Dec. 15, Bryant announced his retirement. Six weeks later, he was dead at 69 of a heart attack. Alabama football slipped into a dark age of grief and discontent from which it would not fully emerge until last Saturday, when Alabama again went to Knoxville but this time won 17-10. The victory came a decade and a day after the beginning of Bryant's end.
The revival of Bryant-era enthusiasm had first been detected in recent weeks on Birmingham's five sports-radio talk shows. "Everyone's talking about how if the Tide loses the Tennessee game, the world comes to an end," said WAPI's Paul Finebaum, who is also a Birmingham Post-Herald columnist. "I haven't heard anything like that in 10 years."
Those fears, however, were eased on Saturday. Alabama dominated Tennessee from the outset and left Neyland Stadium with a 7-0 record, a No. 4 ranking and a 17-game winning streak, the longest for the Tide since a 28-game run that began in 1978 and ended eight games into the '80 season. That streak brought Alabama its '78 and '79 national championships.
It is not as if the Tide has been devoid of accomplishment since Bryant's departure. The Bear's first two successors, Ray Perkins and Bill Curry, each took Alabama to short-lived No. 2 national rankings, in 1986 and '89, respectively. Curry even won the SEC crown in '89. Yet Perkins and Curry were viewed as pale imitations of Bryant, and their fleeting triumphs left the crimson-clad masses unfulfilled. "Perkins was a jerk, and Curry was a joke," says one alumnus.
Last Saturday, led by a coach who has gained the faithful's acceptance, Alabama had more on the line than at any time since the day Bryant's monolith cracked in the orange canyon by the Tennessee River. Not only does coach Gene Stallings walk and talk like Bryant, but as he nears his 58th birthday, he is starting to look like the Bear. Even his game plan was vintage Bryant: Keep it simple, keep it brutal; run at them and over them on offense, and storm and swarm on defense. Skeptics had claimed that Alabama's defense, No. 1 in the country entering Saturday's game, had not been tested the way it would be against Tennessee. Consider it tested. The Volunteers rushed for only 78 yards and didn't score a touchdown until early in the fourth quarter.
Alabama lore has it that Stallings, who replaced Curry in 1990, was Bryant's first choice as a successor. As a player under Bryant at Texas A&M, Stallings was one of 32 Aggies who survived the Bear's torturous 1954 preseason training camp, a.k.a. the Bryant Death March. He came to Alabama as an assistant under Bryant in '58—the year "Mama called" the Bear home to his alma mater from A&M—and left in '64 for the head job at A&M, one of several coaching positions he has since held in college and in the pros.
In 1960, Stallings literally wrote the book on Bryant's coaching philosophy: Bear Bryant on Winning Football. The bedrock of Bryant's success was defense. This season's defense, led by ends John Copeland and Eric Curry, has been likened to those of 'Bama's national championship years of '61 (Lee Roy Jordan and Billy Neighbors), '78 (Marty Lyons and Barry Krauss) and '79 (Tommy Wilcox, Don McNeal and Jeremiah Castille).
"We want to be like the old teams," says senior cornerback George Teague, who was in elementary school when Bryant won his last national title, in '79. "We want to get our names in the museum."
He means, of course, the Paul W. Bryant Museum, on Bryant Drive, near Bryant-Denny Stadium, in the town that so far is still named Tuscaloosa. Though Stallings has not designated a defensive coordinator, the de facto coordinator is Bill (Brother) Oliver, a defensive back on the 1961 team. Oliver likes to express a Bryantism, that a defense can't be measured until the season is finished. But last week he said, in a cracking voice, "I wish [Bryant] were here to see them play."
Of the South, William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past." Neither Perkins, a former Bryant player who was regarded as surly and aloof, nor Curry, a product of despised Georgia Tech and seen as inept, stood a chance at Alabama, because neither knew how to be a Bryant imitator in a place where Bryant isn't dead, and isn't even past. In Alabama, Bryant is "bigger than Robert E. Lee, bigger than Jesus," says Curry, a religious man and a former divinity student who wouldn't make such a statement lightly. Unable to bear the burden of competing with a specter in houndstooth, Curry left for Kentucky after the '89 season, even though the Tide had gone 10-1 before a Sugar Bowl loss to eventual national champion Miami.
Last week Jimmy Fuller, the offensive guards-centers coach, who also played for Bryant, sat in the shadow of the storied tower from which Bryant used to reign over practice and that stands now, unused, as a monument at the practice fields in Tuscaloosa. "There are some who still think Coach Bryant comes out on that tower," said Fuller. "They've never let that go. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that."
To such worship, add an obsession with football that is not quite matched anywhere else. Robert Barrett, who monitored sports gambling as an FBI agent and later served as an associate commissioner of the SEC, calculated that on football weekends in the 1980s, Birmingham was home to more bookmaking activity per capita "than any other city outside Las Vegas." Barrett, who still lives in Birmingham, adds, "From what I see, what I hear and what I know goes on around town, it has not abated one bit."
WJOX is a 24-hour sports radio station in Birmingham. Far larger southern cities, such as Miami and Atlanta, do not have 24-hour sports stations. Tide football is the lifeblood of all the Birmingham sports talk shows. "There's almost no talk of Auburn," says Finebaum, even though Auburn was the premier team in the state through most of the '80s. In such an environment, a following becomes a force that must be turned to one's advantage or it can become destructive. During his three unhappy years in Tuscaloosa, Curry had a brick thrown through his office window and received numerous death threats. Stallings, too, experienced the wrath of that following, when he lost his first three games as the Crimson Tide's coach in 1990. But he survived because he knows how to play the crimson mass like a violin—or rather a bass fiddle, as he drops his voice a couple of octaves to approximate Bryant's old mumbling growl. "I want [Bryant's] legacy to continue to grow," says Stallings. "I do everything I can to promote it. Nobody loves Coach Bryant more than I do." Present tense, of course.
On Sept. 26, Stallings reinstated to the team David Palmer, a spectacular kick returner-wide receiver who had had two drunken-driving arrests, one in June and one in September. In explaining his decision to lift the suspension he had imposed after the first incident, Stallings cited advice he had received from Palmer's counselors. "David needs to come as close to normal activities as he can," said Stallings. "Otherwise he's just going to phase out. Football is what he has." Stallings also admitted that he was "glad to have the points" Palmer provided in his first game back, a 13-0 defeat of Louisiana Tech in which he returned a punt 63 yards for the Tide's only touchdown.
If Curry had been coach and had had the audacity to allow Palmer to rejoin the team, "the streets of Birmingham would have looked like the Teheran riots," says Finebaum. "But people cut Stallings a little more slack."
The one quibble that the faithful have with Stallings—the offense is "sputtering," which is code language for sporadic coverage of the spread—is the same one they had with Bryant. "People are complaining about wins again," says Finebaum. "And that's a healthy sign."
Curry, a throwback to the Tide defenders of old, harassed Vol quarterback Heath Shuler.
MICHAEL PATRICK/KNOXVILLE NEWS-SENTINEL
The Tide ebbed after Bryant (right) hailed his conqueror, Vol coach Johnny Majors, in '82.
Unlike his two predecessors, Stallings has wisely shaped himself in the Bear's image.