Monday, 4 a.m.
He looked as if he was cut out of leather. He sounded as if his voice was being dragged across the rocks. When he stared at you, you would swear he saw clear to the other side.
He was Bear Bryant.
And he still matters.
The years have not been kind to Bryant. These days, it is easy to laugh at the years when his championships were decided before the bowl games were played. You can scoff that football then wasn't the big business it is today. You can laugh that his never had to negotiate a football playoff. And, yes, you can become one of the increasing voices to say that what Nick Saban has done in his time is more impressive even than what Bear did in his.
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Still, Bryant matters. Even now, he matters.
I was a young man when I first started to cover Bryant. In those days, the reporters around the Alabama program wore wide eyes and dry throats, and Bryant sat in the front of the room like a cross between John Wayne and what we imagined Teddy Roosevelt to be. And his teams? They came at you in waves, and he always had three or four guys to play at every position.
I covered Bryant's last two championships, and they were seasons at which to marvel. They were tearaway jerseys and wishbone offenses and Houndstooth hats and unfiltered cigarettes and profane press gatherings and recruits that covered the field like herds of buffalo. They were kickers named Davis, an entire family of them who became surgeons.
There was the adaption of the wishbone offense. There was the integration of his football team.
Saban has made a lot of people forget all of it. They should not.
"I think Bear Bryant is probably the greatest coach that ever coached college football, and that would be my vote, and it would stay that way for a long time, because he had success over a long, long period of time,” Saban was saying Saturday. “The environment of college football changed dramatically during his time, and he won championships running the wishbone, he won championships passing the ball. He effectively changed with whatever his players could do and whatever was required at the time.
More than anything, Bryant was a man who changed his times. He had a great impact on integration of college football in the South, which may be his most significant accomplishment, and I think a lot of those things that he accomplished, I don't know that anyone else could provide the leadership that could match that.
Now, if you want to talk about the success that he had, that's rivaled by no one, as well. And he does loom large, and we're happy for that because the things that he did created our opportunity to be successful because of the tradition he established at the University of Alabama.”
To me, here was the most special think about Bryant. He coached, well, against stadiums. Or, at least, against the men who stadiums are named for. Against Bobby Dodd and Johnny Vaught and Shug Jordan and Darrell Royal and all those other coaches who are considered the best their schools ever had. He beat Joe Paterno for a national championship. He beat Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes and Vince Dooley and Frank Broyles and Charlie McClendon and Lou Holtz and Johnny Majors and Don James. He had a .641 winning percentage against coaches in the Hall of Fame, and the only five guys – Ara Parseghian, Bowden Wyatt, Royal, Neyland and Dan Devine – in the Hall of Fame had winning records against him.
By comparison, Saban hasn't beaten men who cast such long shadows – yet.
Yes, Bryant won a pair of titles when he lost the bowl games. But can you believe the Tide didn't win another title in 1966? Heck, Alabama was a two-time defending national champion that year, and they were the only team in the nation who was unbeaten and untied. So if you're going to scoff at titles Bryant didn't win, don't you have to acknowledge the one he should have won?
Look, we all love to live in the moment. We want to think the greatness we're seeing has never been attained before. I get it. No one wants to talk about an era 35 years ago but old guys who will tell you that Jackie Gleason was a hoot, too. And that Elvis could sing.
But here's the deal. A man coaches in the reality of his time. If Bryant didn't face scholarship limits, well, his competition didn't, either. If he didn't face a playoff, no one else did. If his guys got away with tearaway jerseys, well, stores in other towns carried those, too.
In the end, however, Bryant won six titles, and he carried himself they way legends do.
Has Saban caught him already? Has he passed him?
But in some ways, Bryant is still leaning on that goalpost, master of all he sees, the houndstooth on his head and a long shadow at his feet.
For those who saw him, they will never forget.