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My Hard Life and Good Times as Alabama's Head Coach
By Paul W. Bryant, John Underwood
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 John Underwood
All rights reserved.
When I was generating all that heat in the Southwest Conference in the mid-1950s, and Abe Martin of TCU was saying how I'd made the other coaches in that league put away their golf clubs, a Dallas sportswriter named Harold Ratliff asked me if I thought I was a genius. Ratliff always had the needle out. Compared with what a lot of folks were saying in those days, old Harold's twits were like love taps. I smiled — this was at a party and I was on my best behavior — and said, "No, Harold, I'm no genius. But I'm a damn good football coach."
I doubt there are any geniuses coaching football, but if you were to ask me if football is a coach's game, I'd have to say it is. And always was. And if you were to ask me why some coaches are going to win more than others — why they get their players to win, and why a certain few win consistently, no matter where they coach — I wouldn't tell you if I knew. This is my book you're buying, not my blood.
When I was at Kentucky I got booed one night by a group of students who came to the train to see us off for a game with Cincinnati. I had fired some of our star players, and they didn't like that. And we'd lost three of our first five games, and they didn't like that either, which I can understand. I didn't like it myself. In fact, I hated it. For a young coach — which I was then — so keyed up I couldn't get to work in the morning without vomiting along the way, it was not exactly heaven on earth. The Cincinnati game took on added importance.
Cincinnati had fine teams then, coached by Sid Gillman, who has been a big name in the pros and is with the Houston Oilers now. What I'm about to say should not be taken as a lack of respect for Sid. You have to appreciate that my collar was tighter than it is now.
We got to the stadium at Cincinnati and I sensed something was wrong. When we went out to warm up for the game there was nobody in the stands. Just a handful of people scattered around. I thought for a minute I was in the wrong place. When we finished our warm-up and the Cincinnati team still hadn't made an appearance, I said to Carney Laslie, one of my original assistant coaches, "What's that no-good, conniving smart aleck" — meaning the eminent Coach Gillman — "up to now? What the hell is that damn thief trying to pull?"
Carney just shook his head. He was as dumbfounded as I was.
I ordered the team back into the locker room — and then it dawned on me. I'd screwed up the schedule. We were an hour early.
I was too embarrassed to tell what I knew. I just walked around, up and down the aisles where the players sat waiting, my big old farmer's boots making the only noise in there. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I didn't say a word. For an hour I clomped up and down. Finally, when I'd used up enough time, I delivered a one-sentence pep talk, the only thing I could think to say.
They almost tore the door down getting out. Cincinnati was favored that day, but it was no contest. We won, 27–7.
For years afterward Carney Laslie and another longtime assistant named Frank Moseley used to tell the story whenever they spoke to football groups or at clinics, describing it as the greatest psychological ploy they had ever seen. I didn't let on because I was embarrassed. I finally spilled the beans to Carney fifteen years later, before he died, and I wish now I hadn't because he was sure disillusioned.
"You mean," he said, "that what I've been calling the smartest move I ever saw turned out to be dumb luck?"
I had to admit it was.
Well, if you'd rather be lucky than smart — and I've certainly been lucky — that makes a pretty good story. Bobby Dodd used to say if you think you're lucky, you are, and that's probably right. I've done dumber things trying.
I had a hot appendix at Kentucky in 1952 and was in the hospital just before our game with LSU. The team was all primed to win one for me (or in this case, without me), just like in the movies. Dr. Grandison McLean, my physician, said it was no sense my begging to go because it was impossible. He removed the appendix on Thursday night, and Harry Jones, one of the Jones twins who played so great for us and went on to make a fortune in real estate, came by to see me on Friday.
As he walked out Harry said, "Coach, you'll be there tomorrow, won't you?"
Not "Will you?" or "Can you?" but "You will."
I said, "Yeah, Harry, I'll be there."
And when the time came I dragged myself out of bed and went, just as I'd seen John Wayne do a hundred times. And the sight of me being delivered to them, held up on either side by attendants, was such a shock that my players forgot all their plays and got murdered, 34–7. I had to be taken back to the hospital immediately after the game, so weak and sore I could hardly move. If I'd stayed in bed to begin with, I'm convinced they would have won.
What we're talking about here, really, is motivating people, the ingredient that separates winners from losers — in football, in anything — and one way or another everything I've done most of my life has been wrapped up in the question of how to motivate.
Coaches always want to know how you make winners out of chronic losers, a problem familiar to all of us. You seldom inherit a warm bed in this business. Maryland had won one game the year before I took that job. Kentucky hadn't won as many as six since 1912 and had never been to a bowl game when we got its program going. Texas A&M hadn't had a Southwest Conference championship in seventeen years when we won it there in 1956. At Alabama the tradition was rich, and tradition is something you can tie to, as a start. But the Alabama teams had won four games in three years when we arrived in 1958.
There is no formula, no prescription I could lay out. But I wouldn't tell coaches that. I would tell them about my first season at Texas A&M. I never had a season like it. We lost nine games, and everybody was on us, and it was a matter of picking up the paper today and reading something a little bit nastier than what had been in there the day before.
Talk about gut checks. We had taken the team down to training camp at Junction to find out right off who the players were and who the quitters were, and the quitters had outnumbered the players three to one. I remember Mickey Herskowitz had come down to Junction for his paper, the Houston Post. He said his boss, Clark Neyland, heard there was dissension on the squad, and he came to find out about it.
I said, "Now, son, are you going to quote me on this?"
He said, "Yessir."
I said, "Well, you call your boss and tell him I said if there isn't any dissension now, there's damn sure going to be in a hurry, and I'm going to cause it."
And he wrote it that way.
We struggled along, down to the end of the season, and were getting ready to play SMU. The kids we had left had been playing their hearts out every week, and every week I was afraid they were going to throw in. But they were hanging in there all the time, losing games by a point or two or a touchdown, and all the time winning the people over. And certainly winning me over.
They'd been dead all week in practice before the SMU game, and I wondered, what could we do? What was left to try? I'd run out of ways to motivate them. Elmer Smith, one of my assistants, said he remembered one time when he was playing for Ivan Grove at Hendrix College. Grove woke him up at midnight and read him something about how a mustard seed could move a mountain if you believed in it, something Norman Vincent Peale, or somebody, had taken from the Bible and written in a little pamphlet. It impressed me.
I didn't tell a soul. At 12:00 on Thursday night I called everyone on my staff and told them to meet me at the dormitory at 1:00. When they got there I said, okay, go get the players real quick, and they went around shaking them, and the boys came stumbling in there, rubbing their eyes, thinking I'd finally lost my mind. And I read 'em that little thing about the mustard seed — just three sentences — turned around, and walked out.
Well, you never know if you are doing right or wrong, but we went out and played the best game we'd played all year. SMU should have beaten us by forty points, but they were lucky to win 6–3. In the last minute of play we had a receiver wide open inside their 20-yard line, but our passer didn't see him.
Several years after that, Darrell Royal called me from Texas. He was undefeated, going to play Rice, and worried to death. He said he'd never been in that position before, undefeated and all, and his boys were lazy and fatheaded, and he wanted to know what to do about it.
I said, "Well, Darrell, there's no set way to motivate a team, and the way I do it may be opposite to your way, but I can tell you a story." And I gave him that thing about the mustard seed. He said, by golly, he'd try it.
Well, I don't know whether he did or not, but I remember the first thing I wanted to do Sunday morning was get that paper and see how Texas made out. Rice won, 34–7.
So if you ask me what motivates a team, what makes them suck up their guts when the going is tough, I'll tell you I don't have the answers, but I know for myself I've been motivated all my life. When we were losing at A&M — and I never doubted we would win with the boys we had left — the losing just made me get up a little earlier to get started the next day.
I still get up at 5:00. I'd like to sleep later but after thirty-seven years in this business I find I can't. To me it's still time wasted when you sleep past 6:00. At Alabama one morning at 7:00, I placed a call from my office to Shug Jordan or somebody at Auburn, and the girl said nobody was in yet. I said, "What's the matter, honey, don't you people take football seriously?"
Everybody thought that was a nice joke, but I meant it. You can get the Auburn people now at 7:00, or thereabouts, because they've been trying harder. To be honest, they soon copy everything we do. As an example, they were using those big, burly boys and we beat 'em with little quick ones. They switched to the little quick ones and we went to the big ones and beat 'em some more. Now they're back to the big ones. It's flattering, actually.
At Kentucky I was always so keyed up I didn't know what it was to get to work in the morning without having to make an emergency stop along the way. When our Alabama team bus was taking us to the game at Lexington last year we passed the little filling station where I usually left my mark. I pointed it out to the players. My private monument. I've had some terrible gut checks, too, I'll tell you, and I've cried like a baby over some things. Literally cried.
I cried from Houston all the way to College Station the night they put us on probation at A&M. I had to suspend the best athlete I ever saw, Joe Namath, with two games to play at Alabama in 1963, both games on national television, and I cried over that. I cried like a big fat baby when I got up there in front of those Aggie players to tell them I was leaving to go to Alabama. And in private I've cried out of plain madness over the dirtiest journalism I've ever seen, when I had to defend myself and my program and my boys against the worst kind of lies.
It's an old story. You stick your head above the crowd and you're going to have people trying to knock it off. We've done it wherever I've been, got it up there pretty high, and they've tried, and I've had to be darned active defending myself. Duffy Daugherty used to tell me, "Bear, you may not be the best coach in the world, but you sure cause the most commotion."
Football has never been just a game to me. Never. I knew it from the time it got me out of Moro Bottom, Arkansas — and that's one of the things that motivated me, that fear of going back to plowing and driving those mules and chopping cotton for 50¢ a day. I used to think it would be nice to wind up being one of those guys who gets up on a Saturday morning and goes fishing, but I know now it'll never be. Benny Marshall, the late Birmingham News sports editor, asked me once, "How long can you go on like this? How long does it last?"
I said, "Why, I guess I hope it lasts forever."
I've found, over the years, that I'm not alone in my obsession. I remember that first year at Kentucky, 1946, when we were trying to determine which boys the game meant a lot to. It was difficult because so many were just coming out of the service. In our second game that year we played and beat Cincinnati, who had beaten Indiana — the Big Ten champion the year before — and I didn't know how a team was supposed to act before a game. But I knew this bunch was really fired up, really motivated.
I looked around the room, and I had a kid in there named Jess Tunsil who had been a prisoner of war for about three years, and another named Jim Babbs who's a principal of a high school in Lebanon, Tennessee, now. Babbs had fought on Iwo Jima. And I got to thinking about it, looking around, and I said to myself, hell, here are all these guys and me who never fought anybody, and if they can get so emotionally worked up over a game of football after what they've been through, then football must be something pretty good.
I believe that football can teach you to sacrifice, to discipline yourself. Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech has been quoted as saying some super-tough coaches have found they can take a group of lesser boys, an inferior team, and beat a superior team by super-tough conditioning. He's right about that, and I'm flattered if I fall in that category. Some teams get all those big, fine, wonderful athletes, and they play about 75 percent, and teams that live tough and play tough and are dedicated beat their fannies seven out of nine times, which our boys did with Georgia Tech. Has anybody thought to ask the boys if it was worth it?
Dodd and I were at odds there for a long time. We had been close friends before, and we have mended the fences and are friends again. Tech is back on Alabama's schedule. But for a while our philosophies and objectives were in direct, bitter conflict. I had a hate for Georgia Tech, and the entire city of Atlanta, too, for any number of reasons, and I probably let it blind my respect for Bobby.
I said once, years before, that nobody in the country could coach like Dodd and win, as easy as he was with his training program. All those between-meal snacks and water breaks, and playing volleyball instead of scrimmaging. Jess Nealy of Rice used to say he'd like to play the guy who coaches like Dodd every Saturday. Not play Dodd — play the guy who coaches like him. I would, too, because only Dodd could get away with it. And he did during those twenty-two years coaching the Georgia Tech teams. He won.
Bobby was one of the best at the game strategists who ever lived, a coach who came up with the right decision at the time when a decision was needed. So-called Dodd Luck and Grant Field Luck were really Dodd Smart. He could get more out of players who had ability than anyone. Over the years I've proved less able to motivate that type of player. The player I can reach is the one who doesn't have any ability, but doesn't know it. My way, therefore, is opposite to Bobby's, and it is true that mine is also a much tougher way.
I've tried to teach sacrifice and discipline to my coaches and my boys, and there were times I went too far and asked too much and took out my mistakes on them. I've made a lot of stupid mistakes. I know that. I lost games by overworking my teams, and I lost some good boys by pushing them too far, or by being pigheaded.
I'm older now, and I hope not as dumb, and some things I would do differently because I know better, but that doesn't change my mind about the value of hard work — hard work and mental toughness.
Listen, does your boy know how to work? Try to teach him to work, to sacrifice, to fight. He better learn now, because he's going to have to do it some day. Lloyd Hale was a sophomore on that first team we took to Junction, and he asked me one time what I meant by "fight." Well, I don't mean fistfight, like we used to do back in Arkansas, I told him. I mean, some morning when you've been out of school twenty years and you wake up and your house has burned down and your mother is in the hospital and the kids are all sick and you're overdrawn at the bank and your wife has run off with the drummer, what are you going to do? Throw in?
Excerpted from Bear by Paul W. Bryant, John Underwood. Copyright © 2007 John Underwood. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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