A LEGENDARY COACH RECALLS THE BOND HE SHARED WITH HIS PLAYERS
Paul Bryant , John Underwood
From SPORT ILLUSTRATED, August 29, 1966
THE TEAM I inherited when I went to Alabama in 1958 was a fat, raggedy bunch. The best players, the ones with the most ability, quit us, and recruiting was actually over, so we weren't going to get much for the following year except the boys Hank Crisp and assistant coach Jerry Claiborne had signed up earlier. But from that first day on you could tell this was a bunch of kids who were there with a purpose. I never had a group like that in my life.
I talked to each one of them individually, sat down and asked how they were doing and talked about their brothers and sisters, and visited. Other places I coached, Kentucky and Texas A&M , I just went in there and laid it on the line—we're going to do this and this, and either you're with me or you're gone. Well, I never had to do that at Alabama , and I don't know which is the best way, because we've won both ways. But I'll never forget that first meeting at Alabama .
I could just sense they were something special. I told them what I thought football should mean to them. I told them how I wanted them to conduct themselves, how to look, how I wanted them to act. Little things, like writing home to their mamas and papas, and smiling, and recognizing the contributions of others on the campus.
I told them that very first day about winning the national championship. Alabama had won four games in the last 36, and most of these kids were only 12 or 14 years old when Alabama was anything in football. But it was a school with a great tradition, and they were proud of it, which made winning a whole lot easier than it had been for me before. Our boys won three national championships and three SEC championships in the next eight seasons, went undefeated twice and played in seven bowl games.
As long as you know within yourself, and the guys with you know it, that you have confidence in the plan, you just know you are not going to fail. I never had a doubt about that. The idea of molding men means a lot to me. I'll tell you, it makes you feel like you've done right when a guy like Pat Trammell , who's a doctor now, stands up and says that you had more to do with influencing his life than anybody except his father.
I'm afraid I've hurt some of the others, but I've never asked anything of my players I wouldn't do myself. The truth is that if you really taught brutality and treated people as badly as people say I did, you'd never be able to get a good football player on your team. If you did, you wouldn't get anything out of him and you sure wouldn't win.
People ask me if I ever kicked a guy, and I say yes, I have. And if a boy lets me kick him and slam him around and he doesn't kick back, I've said I didn't want him. I'd demonstrate on a boy, show him how to block or do this or that and really let him have it, and then say, "Now you show me," and lots of times they'd belly up and really dehorn me. One boy did it and realized what he'd done and started running off, and I had to call him, "Hey, come back. You're my kind of player."
I think the boys respect you more when you show them you're willing to sacrifice as much as you want them to. I remember back when Pat James was playing for us at Kentucky and we were practicing down there at the Millersburg Military Academy. That was the first of our boot camps. The boys called it Hell Hollow. Anyway, I had a rule about being late for practice. You can't bend the rules for anybody, and one day Pat showed up late. When practice was over, I said, "Wait a minute, Pat. While you were dillydallying getting to work today, we had a kangaroo court and decided your punishment would be to go around and cover up all that mess out there."
We were in a cow pasture, and it was a formidable mess, too. He did. Well, the next day the trainer forgot to wake me or something, because I got there 20 minutes late, and when we headed in after practice, Pat says, "Uh, just a minute please, Coach Bryant . We had another kangaroo court while you were sleeping this morning. We decided your punishment would be to dig up all that mess, load it up and cart it off." I was out there two hours getting it done.
Well, you get older, and you're bound to do some things differently. Back then I probably beat our teams more than the opposition did. The thing is, if I had some of those teams I overworked now I might be able to get more out of them, or do it with a lot less punishment. Certainly after 21 years of coaching you should know a little more about pace. But you're never sure. Some of those boys we've got now don't know what it's like to be behind, to have to win in the fourth quarter when it's tough. And if you let them graduate without learning that, you've done them an injustice, because they're sure going to run into it in life. Coming from behind is a great lesson. I remember we were behind Georgia Tech 15-0 at the half in 1960, and our team came back and beat them 16-15. At Texas A&M in 1955 Rice had us 12-0 with three minutes and 27 seconds to play. And they had the ball. With a minute and seven seconds to play, we had them 20-12, and we had the ball on their four-yard line. That's what I call sucking up your guts.
It's been a long time since I called a team out of the showers and back onto the field, like I did that time at A&M with John David Crow when I said, "O.K., let's do it right." I take that back. We did have a little of the old style last year after we lost to Georgia in the first game. In the following week we weren't getting anything done, so I called a scrimmage.
It was still no good, so I said, "That's all, gentlemen," and when they started to leave added, "but be on the field at six o'clock tomorrow morning, because we're going to get this thing done." I said, "You're here to go to school, to get an education, but you're also here to play football. It works both ways. You promised to give your best. Now, if you don't like this, go on home. Tomorrow morning you're going to give your best or you're going to quit."
Well, I didn't even tell the coaches whether there would be a meeting or not, but I knew I must have shook them up, too, because Dude Hennessey slept the whole night in the coaches' office. We came out there in the morning at six o'clock and, boy, I was praying we'd do well and nobody would get hurt. I flipped that ball out there, and they liked to knock the ends out of the stadium. Weren't out there more than 15 minutes. And I said, "Well, wasn't that fun?" and they all said yes. "Wasn't it ridiculous yesterday? You got to know how stupid it was to come out here and wallow around when you can do it like this and have people compliment you. You can have some fun, and then we can win." If we'd gotten somebody hurt I'd have died, but we didn't. And of course we didn't lose another game all year and beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 39-28 for the national championship.
Well, that's the situation with a team. Individually it's a whole lot different, and you have to learn what makes this or that Sammy run. For one it's a pat on the back, for another it's eating him out, for still another it's a fatherly talk, or something else. I know I've sure missed on a lot of them.
I know one boy at A&M came and told me he didn't like the way I handled things, flat out didn't like my approach to the game and, I guarantee you, that opened my eyes. I don't say I would have done different, but I sure didn't feel very good about it. We lost some good boys when we first started at Alabama , too, and if football didn't mean enough to them, I was glad I found out, but the prospect of losing a boy now never enters my mind. We hardly get a loser anymore. I know so many in the past, if they'd known what I was thinking, what I had in mind—if I'd had the sense to tell them—they'd never have quit. And I know now, too, that some who quit didn't mean to. Like Richard Williamson, who is on my coaching staff right now. He missed practice one day and thought he would quit, but he was back the next day with his daddy. If I'd stuck to that thing about once a quitter always a quitter, I'd have lost a good one there.
Well, I've said how proud I've been of some of the boys who stuck with me, and I'm sentimental about them, I guess, because I've been the proudest when a boy had to take the most discipline and then came back and proved himself. But I guarantee you I never had a gut check over a boy like I had with Joe Namath . Joe was the best athlete I've ever seen.
He's blessed with that rare quickness—hands, feet, everything—and he's quick and tough mentally, too. Anybody who ever watched him warm up could tell that football comes easy for Joe. If you know his background, though, you know life hasn't been so easy, and you know, too, why he wears those dark glasses and flashy clothes and sometimes acts a little brash.
Well, we were coming down to the end of the 1963 season. We had a game with Miami , then Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl , both on national television, and we had taken some time off. This woman came to a couple of my coaches and told them Joe and some of his friends were over in her store drinking. When I heard it I was sick. Nauseated. I checked with my people who were supposed to know, because I'd been hearing things all year, and they still hadn't heard it. I went to the dorm looking for Joe. I couldn't find him there and went into the dining room to have a cup of coffee. He came in and sat down with me and started talking about game plans. I said, "Joe, let's go back to my room. I want to talk with you."
I told him what I'd heard, and I said, "Joe, you know I'm going to get the truth, and I don't think you'd lie to me." He admitted it. I didn't know it for months, but there were others involved and they let him take the rap alone. Anyway, I told him to go see coach Sam Bailey, who would give him a place to stay, because I was suspending him from the team. He said, "How many days?" I said for the year, or forever, or until he proved something to me. I said, "I'll help you go somewhere else if you want to, or get in the Canadian league, or if you have enough in you to stay in school and prove to me this was just a bad mistake I'll let you back on the team next spring."
I went back and called the coaches together and told them my decision and asked if they had an opinion. Every darn one of them said let's do something to save him. Except one. Bebes Stallings just sat there and shook his head and said uh-uh. He said, "If it'd been me, you'da fired me, wouldn't you?" I said yeah. He said, "Well, let him go." I thanked the coaches and asked them to wait outside and told Sam to have Joe wait. I sat in there two hours. Oh, my, I cried, I did everything. Finally I called them back in, and called Joe in, and I said, "Joe, everybody in this room except one pleaded for you. But black is black and white's white. I'd give my right arm if I didn't have to do it, but if I didn't, I'd ruin you and ruin the team, too, eventually." I said, "You're suspended, and I don't give a damn what anybody in here says. You're not going to play. The university could change this decision if they wanted to, or I could. But if they change it, or I change it, I'll resign."
And I'll never forget, he said, "Aw, no, coach, I don't want you to do that."
I called the squad together and told them. When I finally told his mother, a real wonderful lady, she cried and begged me to take him back, and someone up there in Pennsylvania got 6,000 signatures on a telegram. But taking him back was out of the question. I hadn't done a good job with Joe, I know that, because if I had, this would never have happened. But if I let him go another year, we wouldn't have made it as a team, and I may be wrong as heck about this, but I believe Joe would tell you that he wouldn't have made it either.
Could we win without him? No, I didn't believe so at the moment. But after I got to thinking about it, shoot, you can do anything if you want to bad enough. We outlasted Miami 17-12 and beat Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl 12-7, and Steve Sloan and Jack Hurlbut were just wonderful filling in for Joe.
After his senior year, when he was so great and made all that money signing with the Jets , Joe came to see me before he left and said something that made me about as proud as I've ever been. He said, "I want to look you in the eye"—that's one of my expressions—"I want to look you right in the eye and tell you, you were right, and I want to thank you." I wouldn't take a jillion for that.
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Edited by Noah.Dreams, 31 July 2008 - 09:08 AM.