1370077506_93d6f8fc36The phone rang and I picked up. A lady with a voice like honey said, “Hold for Coach Bryant.”

It was October 1979 and I was working as a cub sports writer at the Evening Independent, the afternoon rag in my hometown of St. Pete, Florida. I had been assigned to write an advance on the football game between the winless Florida Gators and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

It was a fool’s errand, but I wasn’t about to play the chump. I put in a call to the Alabama athletic department and told a student assistant I needed to talk to Bear Bryant. I figured I’d wait around an hour or so, tell the boss he wouldn’t talk, and skip out to the Tarpon Bar in time for happy hour.

My plan was foiled when Bear Bryant called me back.

Bear Bryant – the man who walked on water, cured sick babies, hot-boxed Chesterfields on the sideline and refused to take a higher salary than the president of the university. He promptly returned the call of a shavetail scribe, said nice things about his former player Charley Pell, growled politely at my stupid questions. He made my day, and even now, 30 years later, I admire Bear Bryant almost as much as any redneck Alabama football nut.

Unfortunately for them, Coach Bryant hasn’t been on the Alabama sideline for decades.  These days the mojo shoe is on the other foot. And it’s a fancy alligator shoe.

People badmouth Florida Coach Urban Meyer — but next to Slick Nick Saban, Meyer looks almost Bryantesque.

tim_tebow_(2)-1Everyone is sick of Tim Tebow — except the Gators and their fans who have already enjoyed two national championships during his career, and 22 straight victories.

Nobody knows which team will win when Florida and Alabama meet on Saturday in Atlanta. But if coaching and quarterbacking are going to make the difference, it should tilt Florida’s way.

Not that Saban is a bad coach. Calling plays and recruiting talent are part of coaching, but nothing trumps the fundamentals — blocking, tackling, catching the ball. Alabama does all of those things extremely well.

And Florida will be without their stalwart defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who was arrested for drunk driving in Gainesville this week. A ‘Bama friend of mine cackled that Saban had probably dispatched a winsome coed to lure Dunlap into intemperance.  My guess is he didn’t need any encouragement, but it’s a nice thought.

And yes, Alabama does have the one of the best running backs in the nation, Mark Ingram, and the best receiver in the game, Julio Jones.

But I’ve been watching the Gators since I was a kid. I remember my dad and uncle driving all day so we could go to Gainesville and see a guy named Spurrier playing quarterback. What I do not remember is ever seeing a Florida team that made as few mistakes as these Gators. They block pretty well, hit as hard as anybody, tackle like maniacs, and if a ball is up for grabs their defense usually gets it.

Florida’s skill players aren’t shabby either. And then there’s Tebow. If I weren’t a Florida fan I would probably hate him. That’s because he’s a winner, especially when it counts. He isn’t the best passer in the SEC, and he might not play quarterback in the NFL. But as long as he’s in the game the Gators will never give up – and they’ll somehow find a way to win.

Charles Walston

Charles Walston

A veteran of Florida and Georgia journalism and a renowned roadhouse musician, Charles Walston is now a speechwriter in Washington.

  1. I grew up in Alabama, an Auburn fan in the age of Bryant. It was tough duty, believe me.

    I never met the man but I have to admit, everybody I know who did had very pleasant things to say about the experience.

    That said, I have always wondered why such a cultural icon as Bryant, or Jordan, Dooly, Vaught or, come to that Rupp, took so long to recruit and play world class, black athletes. God knows there were, in the segregation days, plenty of them in the South. The simple act of recruiting and playing such a person by someone as culturally powerful as Coach Bryant would have made an enormous difference in attitudes and given cover to whites of all occupations and economic circumstances to do the equivalent.

    Legend has it that after Southern Cal came to Birmingham and took Alabama apart, Bryant was impressed with the many black athletes on their team. It is alleged Coach Bryant decided then and there the days of all white boy football teams were over. Interestingly, Coach Jordan, down in Auburn had already begun recruiting and playing black players the previous year. I believe Dooly had as well.

    In such a highly competitive business where every transaction is a zero sum game, I do not understand why it took any of them so long. It was a missed opportunity for the coaches and the entire southern population.

    Oh well, it doesn’t matter now.

  2. You can look at that as a glass-half-full, too. Word had it that Bryant had wanted to recruit and play black players, but felt held back. He used the Southern Cal game as a way to show fans and others that, yep, Bama needed black players. And his move is credited with shifting attitudes about race among many white people around the South. Ask the black players who played for him, and they’re fiercely loyal. He treated them with the same level of tough love that he treated white players.

  3. The legend grows larger as time goes by. My family and I were living in Mobile when he made his heralded return to Alabama. My son was in elementary school, and then we moved to Atlanta, and on to Miami. But when he finished high school in Florida he never looked at any other school, although we wanted him to go to a “better” academic school like Duke or Vanderbilt. That’s the kind of impression he made on the people of Alabama. My son met him on the campus once, and Coach Bryant stopped to talk to him for a minute. He was a great footbnall couch, but probably even bertter at public relations.

  4. Tom Baxter

    Yeah, Tebow worries me. He’s a football mutant. But the Tide wants this one awful bad.

  5. I hope you guys saw where Dan Mullen, whose Mississippi State Bulldogs played both Florida and Alabama, said the key to a Bama victory was to try and keep the ball in Tebow’s hands. Now this is the guy who was Tebow’s offensive coordinator for three years and who knows him extremely well. Mullen’s said his Bulldog’s strategy in their 10-point loss to the Gators was to keep the ball away from Florida’s other play makers. His quote: “Tebow makes lots of plays but Tebow doesn’t make lots of big plays” was to me very interesting.
    In the end all us folks who grew up on Bryant, Jordan, Vaught, Dooley and the like know football, for all the speed and the spread and whatnot, hasn’t really changed that much. Run the ball and play good defense. Won games then and it wins games now. If the boys in Crimson can do that, and it’s a big “if” against the Gator defense, they win. If McElroy has to win it for them with his arm, they lose, despite him growing up in that last drive on The Plains.
    And remember that Sabin has been scheming for this one since the last one. Only one coach has ever beaten Nick in back-to-back games and he’s coaching in Columbia now.
    Should be fun.

  6. Nice stuff. Thanks. I moved to Tuscaloosa in 1961, the year of Bear’s first Alabama national championship. I was 11. He was the only man my father ever considered a hero. I could discuss the man and the coach for days.

  7. Nice recollections of the Bear. I have a few myself, the best being covering his retirement announcement at the end of the ’82 season. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, especially among the Alabama sports writers who idolized him. (As a Tennessee alum, I admired him, but that was as far as I would go). I hated myself for thinking this at the time, but I mused that he looked terrible and wouldn’t live long. Sure enough, he was gone within a month of his last game.

    Despite his gruff exterior, Bryant was a kind and gracious man. He kindly consented to posing for my PR lady wife who came up with a Bryant promotion idea. She worked for the Red Cross in Birmingham and had coined the phrase, “Grin and Bear it, Give Blood.” His one growled request: “Please don’t make me pose with a damn teddy bear.” She even got him to pose with her — the picture is framed and hanging in our home.

  8. That was a lot more than he said to me when I went down to Sanford Stadium on a Friday to get some pearls of wisdom from Bear during their walkaround. He looked at me, turned to Charley Thornton, and said “Who is this?” It went downhill from there.

    Think it was the same year that Auburn was in town and I did an interview with Shug. Next week I got a long, handwritten note thanking me for my story. Wish I still had it.

  9. Cliff Green

    I met Coach Bryant in the early 1960s when Alabama was in Nashville to play Vanderbilt. I had a girlfriend staying in the motel where the Alabama contigent was headquartered. I left her room on the afternoon before the Saturday night game (don’t read anything into this) and The Bear was standing outside his room smoking one of his Chesterfields. He was all alone! Since I also smoked at the time, I stopped and said, “Hello, Coach.” He shook hands and we shared a cigarette. Today, I like to believe I somehow provided a few moments of relaxation for him. I was not an Alabama fan pressuring him to kill Vanderbilt, nor was I a Vanderbilt fan giving him grief. It was just two guys separated by several years in age having a smoke on a fall afternoon. The talk was small, weather and stuff, but I still remember that handshake.

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