Posted by
John Milner
Alabama Fan
Member since Jan 2015
3702 posts

a damn good Bryant/Saban/Alabama article I surfed up on....

Columnist Larry Stone this week visited Alabama, where he spent 2½ years living with his family. While he lived there, it didn’t take long to find out that the one thing that united Alabamans was football, and that Bear Bryant ruled that domain.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – I spent Thursday morning transported back to my youth, specifically the 2½ years I spent at Virgil I. Grissom High School in Huntsville, Ala., when no figure loomed larger – or more mythic – than Paul W. “Bear” Bryant.

I had landed in Huntsville halfway through my freshman year. I was uprooted from Southern California when my father, a NASA employee, landed at the Marshall Space Flight Center to work on the Apollo program. My school, in fact, was named for one of the astronauts who died during a pre-launch test of Apollo 1.

Talk about culture shock. This was 1971, the heart of the George Wallace era in the post (but barely) segregation South. It didn’t take long, however, to find out that the one thing that united Alabamians, and uncorked their passion, was football, and that the Bear ruled that domain.

Even Auburn fans, who had their own iconic coach in Shug Jordan, had to concede that Bryant was king. There’s charisma, there’s aura, and then there’s Bear Bryant, who had the moral authority that comes with winning six national titles. Every high school football coach in the state, including mine at Grissom, Larry Robinson, tried to emulate Bryant’s imperious mien. The best description of Bryant I’ve ever seen was by Alabama native and author Rick Bragg, in Sports Illustrated:
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“… He could draw every eye in the stadium to him as he leaned against that goalpost during warmups, a growling, mumbling golem glued together out of legend, gristle and a little bit of mean. It was almost cheating, having him on the sideline, like filling your trunk full of cement blocks before a demolition derby.”

Coach Robinson had the gristle and the mean, but maybe was short on the legend part. I didn’t make it past spring football, coming to the instant realization that what was a pastime in California was treated here with an intensity and urgency that I didn’t share. So I stuck to baseball and became a mere observer of how football in general, and Alabama football in particular, was the true religion of the state.

On Thursday, I ventured back to Alabama for the first time since we returned to California before my senior year – some, gulp, 42 years ago. I was drawn, of course, by Washington’s appearance in Saturday’s Peach Bowl against Alabama in Atlanta, and decided to make a pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa. It was a three-hour drive that transported me back to the days of Johnny Musso (nicknamed “The Italian Stallion” four years before Sylvester Stallone co-opted it for Rocky), John Hannah and Wilbur Jackson, the heroes of my generation of Bear Bryant Alabama football.

What struck me, after walking around Bryant-Denny Stadium, and through the Walk of Fame at Denny Chimes, and touring the Paul. W. Bryant Museum, and talking to people at the Houndstooth sports bar, is that the impossible has happened.

Another mythical Bryant figure walks among us, and he is Nick Saban – already immortalized with his own statue outside the stadium, next to Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Gene Stallings and, of course, Bear Bryant, the other Alabama coaches to win national titles. Bear had his houndstooth fedora. Saban has his straw hat. They both have the everlasting adoration of everyone who bleeds Crimson and White.

Saban has amassed four national championships in a mere nine seasons at ’Bama, gunning for a fifth in Year 10 with the undefeated squad he’ll send out against Washington in the playoff semifinals. The reverence and awe with which Saban is treated by the populace — well, I recognized that instantly. Déjà vu. As one article I read put it – accurately, I believe – “If Nick Saban is a God, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant is Zeus.”

Radio host Paul Finebaum, who has covered Alabama and the SEC since the Bryant era, called Saban “easily the most powerful figure this state has ever had,” in an article last month. “I’ve never seen more blind devotion to one person in all the years of covering college football.”

Kirk McNair, founder and publisher of ’Bama Magazine, grew up in Birmingham and has covered Alabama football regularly since 1968. He hears echoes of Bryant – whose slow drawl is still vivid in my mind’s ear, having watched his coach’s show faithfully on television after every game – in Saban, and sees common ground among the once and current legend.

“In some ways, they’re alike, important ways,” McNair said. “And in some ways, maybe not so important, they’re not alike. The way they’re most alike is, in my opinion, they didn’t do things the same way, but they both believed their way was the way. And they convinced everyone around them – players, coaches, everyone – this is the way we do it, and this will work.”

The difference is primarily one of style, McNair believes.

“Coach Bryant was such a charismatic figure, the guy who walked into a room and everyone quit talking,” he said. “Saban would come into a room, and he would make sure no one knew he was in there, whereas Coach Bryant wanted to take it over, and did.”

It doesn’t matter his intent – Saban has taken over the room, the university, and the state. And if Saban should get the two more national titles to catch Bryant, and maybe then surpass him, well, Bryant is beloved and all that, but titles are titles.

“A lot of times people ask me, what if Saban passes Bryant? I say, ‘Let’s try!’ ‘’ chuckled Kenneth Gaddy, director of the Bryant Museum. “It would be a good thing. If Saban passes him, I’m all for it.”

Bryant’s stature in Alabama, however, is eternal, and unwavering.

“He’s revered to this day,” Gaddy said. “People told me when I started many years ago, it would diminish over time. That’s not true. He’s just as popular and strong a figure in college football, not just Alabama, as he was when he was still living.”

And Alabama football remains as much an obsession in the state – Auburn fans excluded, of course – as it was when I lived there.

“You can make friends in a hurry just by saying, ‘What do you think about the Tide?’ ” Gaddy said.

“There’s not a day in my life, I think, in a year, that someone’s not talking to me about Alabama football,” McNair said. “Not just because of what I do; it’s just what we talk about. We talk about recruiting, we talk about who’s going to be the quarterback, or whatever position is in doubt.”

John Milner
Alabama Fan
Member since Jan 2015
3702 posts

re: a damn good Bryant/Saban/Alabama article I surfed up on....
You want obsession? Just ask Saban Hardin Witt, a boy born in 2007, before Saban had even coached a game. Talk about blind faith. Or ask Krimson Tyde Steele — not to be confused with Crimson Tide Archer, both of whom are real-life people born to real rabid parents.

That mindset helps explain the 92,000 fans who jammed Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2007 – for Alabama’s spring game, lured by Saban’s recent hire.

“They welcomed him as Caesar, as pharaoh, and paid him enough money to burn a wet dog,” Bragg wrote upon Saban’s hiring in 2007.

I saw the first Caesar, the original pharaoh, way back in 1971 through 1974, back when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” was our brand-new anthem, not a staple on the oldies’ station.

Sweet home Alabama

Where the skies are so blue

Sweet home Alabama

Lord, I’m coming home to you

The skies were still blue in Tuscaloosa on Thursday, when I went back … not to my sweet home, but to a formative part of my life. Bear Bryant is still all-powerful in Alabama, a colossus emanating an aura that is tangible, even posthumously. But who would have guessed it, way back when? There’s a new God in town, and he wears a straw hat.

Alabama Fan
Ft Walton Beach
Member since Sep 2016
17038 posts

re: a damn good Bryant/Saban/Alabama article I surfed up on....
I attended and played football at Grissom HS 1969-73 (it opened in 1969). I didn't know the author well, but I knew Ricky Bragg pretty well, the SI journalist he mentioned.
This post was edited on 3/15 at 11:25 am

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