On SEC Championship Day, remembering Bear

Nick Saban’s trained assassins will play Missouri for the SEC Championship today. Still, I am at an age that when I think of Alabama, I think of Bear Bryant. Earlier this week, I spoke at the Meridian Rotary Club and told this story about my first one-on-one interview with Bear Bryant. People seemed to enjoy, so here it is again…

Cleveland
Cleveland

 

This was September of 1971. Alabama had just unveiled the Wishbone and stunned No. 3  Southern Cal at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, reversing a three-touchdown defeat the year before in Birmingham.

Bear Bryant was back.

What’s more, the Crimson Tide was to next play Southern Miss at then-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. I was an 18-year-old sports reporter for the Hattiesburg American, dispatched to Tuscaloosa to cover Bryant’s weekly press conference.

I had a new Ford Pinto, which was like having a new sewing machine without a needle. I left 30 minutes early to make sure I made the 180-mile trip with time to spare.

BearJust the Alabama side of Meridian, my left rear tire went flat. It was during a September heat wave and you could see the heat devils rising off I-59. I couldn’t get the jack to work. So I sweated and I cussed and I got grease all over me. Then I sweated some more and cussed some more and kept looking at my watch, knowing I was going to run late.

Long story short, I finally got the damned thing off and the other damned other thing on, and limped on to Tuscaloosa in my sewing machine.

Greasy, dirty and embarrassed, I got to Alabama athletic offices a few minutes after the press conference ended. Charley Thornton, Alabama’s splendid sports information director back then, looked at me and asked what happened.

I told him, and added, “Mr. Thornton, if I don’t get an interview with Coach Bryant, they might fire me.”

Thornton said he’d see what he could do and he walked down the hall. Then he came back and got me, and told me to follow him, and I did. And we walked into this spacious office with a desk about as big as an end zone. Behind that mammoth desk, sitting with his huge, socked feet propped up on on top of it, eating a barbecue rib, was Paul “Bear” Bryant.

He might as well have been God.

Thornton said, “Coach said he had 10 minutes for you,” and then he left.

It was Bear and me, all alone. He shoved a box of ribs over and said, “Charley tells me you’re Ace’s boy. Have a rib…”

I would have choked on it. I was still hot and sweaty with a parched mouth and throat, and now I was nervous as all Hades, as well.

I said no thanks, but that I really appreciated him letting me interview him during his lunch.

“Suit yourself,” he said. “They’re mighty good ribs. What can I do for you?”

I had thought of 100 questions on the way over. I had prepared some the night before. In my haste, I had left all that in the sewing machine.

I opened my mouth and . . . nothing came out.

I froze. I choked.

Bryant waited several seconds, then cracked a smile and then he growled, “Aw, shiiiittt, son, spit it out….”

It was as if he knew just what to say. Just as suddenly as I my brain had frozen, everything came back to me. I was fine.

My interview became more a conversation. He of course told me he was really worried about Southern, because they always played Alabama hard and he knew his boys might be feeling cocky after winning at Southern Cal. He made USM, which was an average team at best that year, sound like the Green Bay Packers.

That was him.

We went on longer than 10 minutes and then he invited me to hang around for practice. And then he drove me out to practice in his golf cart. And then he took me up on his tower with him.

I don’t want this to sound sacrilegious but it was as if I was up in heaven with deity, looking down on some big, fast earthlings.

I don’t remember much about practice except that Bryant pretty much let his assistants handle it. And Coach Bryant told me a good place to go to get my tire fixed before I headed back, and that I should tell them he sent me.

Later that week, I returned to Tuscaloosa — in someone else’s car — and watched Bryant’s boys dismantle Southern Miss 42 to 6. I covered many more of Bryant’s games over the years, games against State, Ole Miss and Southern and also bowl games that won national championships.

I remember covering one rare game that Bama lost and a sports writer asking Bryant why he had punted instead of going for a first down near the end of the game. Bryant ignored the question and the guy asked it again. And then again.

Finally, Bryant looked at the guy as if he were a roach he was about to smash and said, “Because, I was trying to win the damned game. I punted because I was trying to win the damned game.”

There was no follow-up question.

I covered his last game at the Liberty Bowl and I covered his funeral a couple months after he retired.

Many believe he was the greatest coach ever. He’d get my vote. He’s certainly in the first sentence when the subject comes up. And I also know this: He was mighty nice to me.

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