Even now, Bear’s shadow is larger than Saban’s

by Gary Shelton on January 8, 2018 · 0 comments

in Alabama, College football, general

Monday, 3 a.m.

He was not the tallest man I've ever encountered. And he was not the heaviest.

Somehow, however, Paul Bryant left the biggest shadow.

He was all leather and sinew, as if he had been cut from a saddle. His voice came from deep down inside of him, and by the time it reached the surface, it was a rumbling, whiskey-soaked smoker's voice. He would stare at you, and you would swear he could see through your soul.

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This was the Bear. The man who invented third down.

At the time, I was a wet-eared kid who knew, maybe, one-tenth of what I thought I knew. I was a smart-ass from a tiny newspaper in Georgia, a kid who hadn't done nearly enough to qualify for the beat I had been assigned.

But for a journalist from Columbus, Ga., Alabama was a tough beat. If you covered Auburn, heck, was a 45-minute commute. If you covered Georgia, you could stop in Atlanta. If you covered Georgia Tech, it was all interstate.

Alabama, on the other hand, was a long, winding trip through the speed traps and barns of Alabama, so no one else volunteered for the beat. Which is how a kid covers a Bear during Bryant's last two national championship seasons. They were excellent teams, and they wore down the competition, and they owned the Sugar Bowl.

Now, as Alabama has risen again, from the ashes of the Mike Shula era, and once again is the team to beat in college football, it is difficult not to remember the Bear, and the way he would look at you and blink, as if considering whether you were worthy of serious thought. Then he would answer slowly, taking time with your questions, no matter where you were from.

Another win tonight, and once again, the question will be asked.

Has Nick Saban reached a plateau that not even Bear reached?

Maybe. Football is harder now. Recruiting has gone national, and more teams seem to take the game seriously. The money is bigger, and the stadiums are fuller, and the fans are more impatient. Bryant won championships after losing his last game of the season; that wouldn't happen these days.

That said, I still don't think Saban's footprints are quite as deep as Bryant's. Bryant, it was said even then, helped to decide the success of politicians. He went through opposing coaches the way some men go through shoes. He certainly influenced the fashion sense of adult men who would deck themselves out in crimson houndstooth.

I still remember him in the end zone before games, leaning on a goal post, watching his troops in their tearaway jerseys go through the motions. And I remember his team coming in waves. In the same years I covered Alabama, I finished my degree at Auburn. I still remember a slightly little coed, all straight teeth and golden curls, turning to me one day in class and saying in her sing-song voice "Hey, Gary, this year, we're going to beat Alabama, right? This year, we're going to win."

And, foolish me, I turned to hear and said "Alabama's going to wear you out."

I don't think she ever talked to me again.

It was interesting attending the other school during Bryant's last championships. I remember the campus newspaper once ran a photo of Bryant picking his nose. "Picking a Winner!," it gleefully cried. Ken Stabler, in a possible retaliation, held up a beer pop-top and proclaimed it to be an Auburn class ring.

And that's the thing about this rivalry. It never stops. Oh, on the day they play, a lot of schools hate their rivals. But in Alabama, the schools hate it each other on Feb. 18 and May 3 and July 28 and every other day.

Years later, I was covering the Miami Dolphins, and Dwight Stephenson was named NFL Man of the Year. In the back of the room, Dwight's wife Dinah and I sat and told each other Auburn-Alabama jokes. Her's were better.

And now, instead of Bear, we have Nick.

I'll say this for Saban. He's come as close to the Bear as any of us would ever have guessed. Saban doesn't win them all -- Bryant didn't, either -- but it usually takes an historic game to beat him. DeShaun Watson at the end. Auburn and the pick six. And so forth. Saban's team has sucked all of the balance out of the SEC ... it's a town with one mansion for the most part. Every now and then, another school crops up, but it doesn't last.

Saban's job is tougher, however. He faces stricter college rosters than Braynt did -- Bryant would often sign a player simply to keep him from going elsewhere. He plays more games. There is now an SEC title game.

But Bryant coached against Georgia's Wally Butts and Auburn's Shug Jordan and Florida's Ray Graves and Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd and Tennessee's Robert Neyland and Ole Miss's Johnny Vaught. And he beat them all.

Still, it's a debate.Is football better now, or was it better then? Is winning harder, or is the talent diluted? Are Bear's six titles -- some of them challenged -- better than Saban's five (one at LSU)?

Probably, it depends on your viewpoint. Your age, the games you remember, the titles won.

Me? I can acknowledge that what Saban has done in this era is tougher.

Still, when you measure the shadow, Bear's was bigger.

At least, it will be until Nick gets to 10.


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