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If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride and never quityou'll be a winner. The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.
PAUL "BEAR" BRYANT
FEBRUARY 8, 1954
A bonfire licked the night sky as the mob surged in waves toward a grove of trees. Pvt. Gene Stallings sprinted across the campus, his spit-polished shoes stabbing the sidewalk. He heard the snare drums and the "yee-haws" and watched the rows and rows of handheld torches bobbing and flickering in the brisk wind as two hundred horns belted an old school song across the prairie. Half a football field away, Stallings joined the singing in a rich baritone voice:
"Good-bye to Texas University,
So long to the Orange and White.
Good luck to dear old Texas Aggies,
They are the boys who show the real old fight."
That morning, the skinny freshman from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas had heard the name. It hadn't rendered up a face. It seemed that Stallings had been too occupied with practicing football, marching to meals, saluting upperclassmen, catching hell, polishing his shoes, and rising to reveille. Texas A&M's search for a successor to Ray George had turned up a man with a peculiar nameBear Bryant. But it didn't ring a bell.
Stallings stuffed a black tie into the third button of his olive green military shirt and tucked his shirttail tightly into his light brown slacks. He'dbe doing military push-ups until Sunday lunch if his uniform failed to meet code.
As a young boy, Stallings had sat mystified beside the family's RCA radio back in Paris, Texas, listening as the words and descriptions flowed from the melodic voice of Kern Tips on the Humble Oil Football Network. He grew to be tall and rail-thin, but with enough athletic skill and savvy to catch the eye of recruiters. He believed that both his destiny and his birthright were to play in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day and then to someday coach the Aggies to that ultimate game. He had committed to memory the names of players and coaches in the Southwest Conference. But Bear Bryant, he wasn't from Texas, was he?
Bryant had arrived that night from Kentucky on a rocking windblown twin-engine plane just after dark and had been escorted onto campus by a howling, torch-waving contingent of Aggie cadets who drove their cars on both sides of the highway. There was much to know about this man. In eight years, he'd transformed a basketball institution into a football powerhouse and then quit when he didn't get his way. He'd coached a habitual loser and conference stepchild to a 60-23-5 record, a Sugar Bowl upset over one of Bud Wilkinson's great Oklahoma teams, and a Cotton Bowl victory against TCUa top-ten squad. In eight seasons, his Kentucky Wildcats finished in the Associated Press Top Twenty five times. Given the sorry facilities and the absence of football tradition, along with the specter of basketball baron Adolph Rupp, the state's most powerful man, no one in the history of the Southeastern Conference had done more with less.
Now he was running the hell away from Rupp.
The second-biggest divorce case of 1954 after Monroe versus DiMaggio might have been Bryant's split with Kentucky. A mandate from the governor was required to free Bryant from the final twelve years of his contract, and with that accomplished, he was apprised that all of the big-time and high-paying college jobs were filled. About the only thing left was at Texas A&M, where the Aggies hadn't clinched a conference championship since the week before Pearl Harbor. Now Bryant had a mess on his handsnot to mention a team that had lost its last five games in '53 by a combined score of 133-41.
"God, I guess I've gone and flushed down eight years of hard work," he told his wife, Mary Harmon, on the day he quit Kentucky. "All because Adolph Rupp gets the gravy." Mary Harmon cried.
Situated on the flat belly of central Texas, Texas A&M was what most folks called a pissant little place. The campus possessed all of the glamour of a stock showan all-military, all-male institution that looked like a penitentiary and boasted the color scheme of a grocery bag. Some folks called it a cow college. The only thing missing was a cattle guard at the front entrance. It was ninety miles from Houston, the closest big city, and had little to offer to a driven man like Bryant.
The University of Texas over in Austin was a country club compared to A&M. Texas students, known as teasips, liked to say that "A&M is where the men are men and the sheep are scared shitless." Football recruiters told top stud blue-chip prospects, "Hell's bells, son, you don't wanna go down there. They blow a horn to get you up, ring a bell to put you to sleep. No girls. No nothin'." No wonder they called the place Old Army. Texas A&M chancellor Marion Thomas Harrington feared that Bryant would take one look at this cold, colorless, and womanless world and run all the way back to Kentucky. So Harrington scheduled his interview for Dallas, more than two hundred miles to the northeast.
When Harrington strolled into the suite of the fashionable Fairmont Hotel on Ross Avenue that cold January morning, he quickly pulled the drapes. He took a seat near the center of the boardroom table and was flanked by Jack Finney and W. T. "Doc" Dohertyboth members of the A&M board of directors. The carpet was thick and a broad crystal chandelier lit the room.
Bryant pulled an unfiltered Chesterfield from his shirt pocket, stamped it on the silver flip-top lighter, and quietly analyzed the men in dark suits.
"I don't know what y'all are tryin' to hide here," he drawled, flipping the lighter closed. "But you oughta know that when I was in Kentucky, me and Mary Harmon lived right next to the Idle Hour Country ClubI'm sure you've heard of the place. We were members. Hell, we had about the only air-conditioned house in Lexington. They paid me a good wage. You should also know, Dr. Harrington, I had lots of offers from schools all over the country. The Arkansas people flew me in and offered me an oil-and-gas deal about three years ago. I'd be a millionaire today if I'd took it. Anyway, boys, I want to be head football coach and athletic director. So, you see, I ain't comin' to Texas for no bullshit."
Harrington cleared his throat. "I can assure you, Paul, that our offer will be competitive with anything you'll find in any part of the country. In case you didn't know, Gen. Sam Houston's son himself was in our very first class. You'll just not find a finer place in America than College Station. You're going to fall in love with the place. It will grow on you, Paul."
Finney was the athletic committee chairman and a well-heeled oilman. "Tell me, Jack," Bryant said. "If we could offer any boy in Texas the same scholarship deal as the University of Texas and there were twenty good studs out there, how many'd we get?"
Slapping a flat palm on the table, Finney looked like a bulldog about to break his chain. "Ten, and I can guaran-god-damn-tee you that," he said.
"OK, boys, let's ante up," the coach said, leaning back and rocking his chair onto its rear legs. "How much money we talkin' here?"
"We've got $15,000 to offer," Harrington said quickly.
"You know that won't do," Bryant shot back, the chair tumbling forward.
Doc Doherty, an independently wealthy man, spoke up: "I'll write you a $10,000 check from my company every year."
"What about oil wellsthings of that nature?" Bryant asked, his eyes narrowing.
"We've got a man living outside Austin who'll take care of you," Finney said. "You'll have a beautiful house, two Cadillacs to drive, and all the damn money you and Mary Harmon can ever spend."
Bryant stood slowly and cracked the drapes. Fourteen stories below, the Dallas morning traffic buzzed along Ross Avenue. He gazed at Pegasus, the flying red horse that adorned the rooftop of the Mobil Building. Through the haze, he could see all the way to the tall tower with WFAA-TV emblazoned on it.
"Boys," Bryant drawled, turning toward the men. "I guess I'd better get on back to Kentucky and try to explain all of this to Mary Harmon. She's already cried her eyeballs out once. But you can look for me in early February."
Swaggering toward the door, Bryant turned and looked at Doherty. "By the way, Doc," he said. "I hear your campus looks like a prison. I'm sure everything'll be locked up pretty tight when I get down there."
* * *
Six thousand cadets packed the Grove theater as Stallings elbowed his way through the sea of military uniforms. One of the torches cast its light on Billy Schroeder, a tall, square-jawed boy of German descent who'd been a starting end as a sophomore in 1953. Billy's eyes seemed to be propped open with toothpicks, and he was smiling like he'd just chugalugged a keg of Lone Star beer.
"Bebes, we've been saved!" he shouted to Stallings.
Stallings had been called Bebes since infancy, when his older brother couldn't pronounce Baby Gene. He could never remember being called Gene and was even registered as Bebes Stallings on his Social Security card.
"I know it looks pretty good!" Stallings tried to shout over the crowd. "But I've never heard of this man!"
"Never even heard of himhow's that possible?" Schroeder said in disbelief. "This man's the greatest coach in college football! Shoot, Bebes, he's bigger than Frank Leahy. He's gonna put A&M football back on the map!"
Stallings had lived with constant and painful infections in his left ear since infancy, confounding doctors and causing almost total deafness. He turned his right ear toward Schroeder as the large boy hollered above the crowd, "Come on, Bebes! The rest of the team's up front."
Five students bounced onto the stage wearing white shirts, white pants, white belts, white socks, and white shoes. A stranger who'd just wandered onto campus might have thought they were orderlies from the funny farm. The yell leaders each wore flattops and had eyes bigger than flying saucers. They cavorted across the stage, shouting, "Whoa ha, gig 'em, Aggies!" They rolled up their sleeves and placed hands on their knees as the Aggie Band roared into the second chorus of the "Spirit of Aggieland."
Fight! Fight! Fight-Fight-Fight!
Fight! Maroon! White-White-White!
A-G-G-I-E, Texas! Texas! A-M-C!
Gig 'em, Aggies! 1! 2! 3!"
From a rear corner of the stage, tucked into the shadows, Bear Bryant was bemused by the entire scenethe torches, the chanting, and five men dressed like Mr. Clean. The yell leaders twirled their hands and punched the air. The cadets, now swaying arm in arm, began to sing again. Next to Bryant stood Jones Ramsey, the affable sports information director who was fondly called the world's tallest fat man. Ramsey was there to coach Bryant on his speech.
"How many ya figure are here?" the coach asked.
"Best I can tell, about six thousand. Best damn turnout I've ever seen."
"How many we got in school right now?"
"Last count, sixty-two hundred."
"Then where in the hell are the other two hundred turds!"
"Don't know, Coach. Maybe we could send a posse out and hang 'em."
Crushing a Chesterfield beneath his large right shoe, Bryant said, "OK, what should I say to these toy soldiers?"
"My advice," Ramsey said, "is give 'em what they want. Hell, you could bring down the damn house with a loud burp."
This arena, this stage, was what Bryant had coveted since growing up dirt-poor in the Arkansas creek bottoms. Even on frozen mornings when he built the fire, slopped the hogs, and hooked up the team of mules to the family wagon, the boy kept dreaming. He recognized things about human nature long before anyone knew this about him. He often told himself, even on the darkest and saddest days, that someday he would be somebody.
At age forty, the face was dark and chiseled. He stood six-foot-two and weighed 220 pounds, and the frame bespoke a toughness. After fifteen years of chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, the voice had sunk to a gravelly bass, and he spoke with a heavy southern drawl that promoted an air of authority. For years Bryant had practiced and then perfected the art of walking slowly and talking slowly and of punctuating public speeches with stops and pregnant pauses so the crowd could hang on his every word. In spite of the drinking, the cussing, and the hard attitude, here was a man who could warm the pulpit.
Back in Kentucky, a good friend, Bull Hancock, had brought it all into focus one night as they were knocking back a bottle of Bryant's favorite bourbon. A hugely successful Thoroughbred breeder and owner, Hancock slapped Bryant's shoulder and said, "Paul, I don't think it's so much that you coach football as you coach people. You just have a way with folks."
That first night in Aggieland, Bryant wore a dark flannel suit with cuffed pants. A dab of Brylcreem mixed with his dark curls. Walking slowly to the front of the stage, he could see rows and rows of cadets far into the darkness. The army ROTC boys wore olive shirts with black ties, and the air force ROTC boys had donned dark shirts with green ties. Several flags signifying the colors of the squadrons and the companies were held aloft, and for a time Bryant could feel himself drifting back to his own naval days on the USS Uruguay, sailing to North Africa during World War II.
The torchlights created strange flickering flames that cast long and jerky shadows. Suddenly the adrenaline kicked in and his charisma bubbled to the surface. Bryant ripped off his suit coat and glared at the crowd like a man ready for a back-alley fight. He slammed the expensive fabric down on the stage and stomped it with both shoes. Whipping off his tie, he twirled it above his head and threw it down. He kicked and stomped the tie like a menacing rattlesnake and then danced around it. He mimicked the yell leaders by rolling up his sleeves almost to the elbows. Then he cradled the silver microphone in both hands and waited for the silence.
"Boys," he drawled deeply and resonantly and then paused. "It's time to win some damn football games."
Not since 1939 had there been such a thunderous roar on the spartan prairie. That year, A&M beat Texas 20-zip and the Aggies were voted number one in the final Associated Press poll. The sound washed over Bryant. Bebes Stallings, standing just below him, felt a piercing pain in his left eardrum, and he rubbed the lobe with his hand. The loudest cheers came from the Aggie players, standing just a few feet from the stage. Don Watson, a scatback from Franklin, pulled a tiny silver flask from his rear pocket and pumped a shot of bourbon down his throat. "I just saw God!" Watson squealed. Dennis Goehring, a stumpy guard, rammed a sawed-off little finger into the sternum of Bobby Drake Keith, who jumped more than a foot off the ground.
"Take that, you little sonofabitch!" Goehring hollered in a sandpaper voice before turning and grabbing at Watson's flask. Players backed away from Goehring, who possessed a devilish humor. Big Jack Pardee had a big smile plastered to his face and, as usual, said nothing. Marvin Tate was awestruck by the entire scene. Standing almost a head above the crowd, Schroeder tried to catch Bryant's eye, flashing him the thumbs-up "Gig 'em, Aggies" sign.
Bryant had grudgingly accepted a sad realitythat the stepchild he'd adopted was ugly. He still wasn't sure, though, how far the Aggies had fallen. Many of these boys still hadn't been to the first grade when the Aggies last ascended to the Cotton Bowl. But as he looked into their bright eyes and eager faces, he could see hope.
"I want to tell y'all one thing," he said. "We'll win again. We must win again."
A cannon rolled in the distance and horns blared and Bryant knew he could have spoken all night and the cadets would have stood and cheered and waved their torches and sung their songs and boosted their banners. But the coach had learned a vital secret about communicating; a leader should carefully limit his time with the troops so that every syllable counted and every word was remembered. He could have promised them a championship that night. But he was certain he didn't have the livestock to back it up.
Bryant scooped up the tie and wrapped it loosely around his neck. He smoothed the lapels and stuck a hand in his left pocket. Tucking the folded coat between his hip and left wrist, he slowly swaggered away. Descending the stairs behind the stage, he set his eyes on Ramsey, who seemed besotted by the show. "You know, it was like strange voodoo out there," Bryant said. "They'd a hollered and cheered if I'd peed on the stage."
Turning toward the crowd a final time, Bryant said, "I know one thing about those fellers. Ten of 'em can out-yell a hundred of anybody else's."
Bryant paused once more to watch the bonfire and to feel the power of his own presence.
"I sure as hell lit a fire tonight, didn't I?" he said, slapping Ramsey on the shoulder.
* * *
The knock came softly at first and Bryant decided to ignore it. Anybody that limp-wristed wasn't coming into his temporary living quarters on the second floor of the Memorial Student Center, a low-slung brick building that had been completed three years earlier.
Fifteen seconds later, he heard another knock. "Go away, wimp!" he barked. "Come back when you get a gut in your body."
Then came the pounding. "That's better!" he yelled. "Open the goddamn door and come in."
It was Willie Zapalac, a fresh-faced assistant coach who'd played for the Aggies in the forties and was full of spunk. He was the only coach still hanging around from the days of Ray George. Willie thought he still had a job and in fact, Dr. Harrington had told him that he'd be retained regardless of who was hired. That seemed like a solid promise since Dr. Harrington was the chancellor of Texas A&M College.
But assistant athletic director Bones Gates had told Willie to pack his bags a few days after Bryant was hired. Zapalac persisted and Gates suggested that he take it up with the headman himself.
"Let me ask you a couple of things?" Bryant said after Willie took a seat. "What would you think about winning the Southwest Conference with this sorry bunch?"
"I think it could"
"You think," Bryant hollered loud enough to be heard across the street at G. Rollie White Coliseum. "I don't want a bunch of people around here who think. Now goddammit, answer the question."
"Based on what I know about the team, we could. I think"
"Mister, you've got one more chance."
"Yes, sir, it will happen," Zapalac said, jumping to his feet and saluting.
"Now get your ass out of my office. You're the only coach I'm keepin'. So don't screw it up. And never salute me again."
Bryant's eyes almost burned a hole in Zapalac's flannel shirt. "Son," he said. "On your way out, tell the next man in line to come on in." This puzzled Willie to no end. When he'd arrived at Bryant's door, no one else was waiting outside. Returning to the hallway, though, he bumped into head trainer Bill Dayton, who was leaning against the wall, checking his watch.
"Coach said g-go on in," a rattled Zapalac said. "Good luck, Bill."
For a hardworking man who dealt in bruised and battered bodies, Dayton was sharply dressed and starched. He wore khaki pants and a white button-down shirt with two silver ballpoint pens neatly aligned in the shirt pocket. His black shoes shone like mirrors, and his flattop was freshly buzzed.
"Bill, tell me about yourself," the coach said flatly, clearly in no mood for boasting or fanfare.
"Coach, as you know, I've been here six years and I have a degree in kinesiology. I have one year of medical school remaining and then I'll be a medical doctor. I am one of three licensed trainers in Texas. I go to work at six in the morning, and a lot of nights I don't go home until past ten. I love my work, I love Texas A&M, and there's nothing I'd rather do than work with Aggie athletes."
Bryant leaned back in his chair and tapped his forehead with a pencil. He reached for the cigarette pack, lit one, and then left it burning in the ashtray. He gazed through the window where he could see one of the companies marching to lunch. Turning toward the trainer, Bryant locked his gaze on the man's dark eyes.
"I'm going to make it short and sweet, Bill. I don't want a medical man messin' with my football players. I don't want a man who knows somethin' called kinesiology pampering my boys. I don't need a man telling my boys what's wrong with them. I need a man who'll stick 'em in the whirlpool, give 'em an aspirin, or tell 'em to take a shower when they've got a pulled muscle. I've heard all about you, Bill. You sit players out two weeks with a pulled hamstring. You sit players out two weeks with a hip pointer.
"Did they ever tell you that when I was at the University of Alabama, playin' football, I played a whole game against Tennessee with a broken leg? And, by God, it probably was my best game. I was an ol' slow boy, but I caught a long touchdown pass. I lateraled off to our quarterback for another one. And I got their quarterback three times behind the line. We won 25 to nothin'. Hell, Bill, I didn't need two weeks off. I just needed somebody to cut the damn cast off my leg so I could get out there and bust some ass!"
Dayton's heart had sunk into his glossy shoes. When first summoned by Bryant, he had figured it to be a get-acquainted meeting. Now, he was getting canned for reasons that seemed confusing.
"Get your ass out of my office, Dr. Dayton. You've got ten minutes to clean your shit out of my locker room and ten more minutes to get off campus. I'll mail your last check."
Minutes later, Dayton hustled through the trainers' room. He waved at student assistant Billy Pickard. "I'm going home, son. Go ahead and lock up tonight, Billy."
"But, Bill," Pickard said as Dayton shot through the door. "You've got the only keys!"
Pickard, a skinny sophomore with a peeled head, didn't know what to make of the panic in Bill's eyes. He couldn't imagine what had overcome his boss, a man rarely off the clock. Billy thought Dayton was the best trainer in Texas. Why, he had brought players back from injuries in two or three weeks and most had played the rest of the season without a limp.
Across campus, on the second floor of the MSC, Bryant paced restlessly. He felt alone and out of place at Texas A&M and, for the first time in many years, was experiencing some self-doubts. He'd made three bad career decisions in the last three yearsturning down the Arkansas job because the timing wasn't right; telling Alabama to come back later because he didn't want to undercut his former coach and old friend Red Drew; and stomping out of Kentucky, where Adolph Rupp would forever be king.
Bryant had gone ballistic when he thought Kentucky president Herman L. Donovan lied to himprivately promising to fire Rupp after a shameful point-shaving scandal rocked the basketball team. Instead, Donovan had awarded Rupp a contract extension and given him a new Cadillac. In turn, Bryant got a new cigarette lighter.
The last few days, Bryant had worried if A&M was where he was meant to be. Frank Thomas, his mentor and former head coach at Alabama, had told him long ago that he should be making his way in coaching by age forty. So, here he was at the magic number, wanting more than he'd already gotten and wondering if he'd already blown it. The Kentucky scene was still replaying in his mind when the two shiny sedans and a new pickup pulled up to the curb outside the MSC and parked. He watched from above as the men made their way through the front door, and for the first time that day Bryant smiled.
Then a ringing phone interrupted his good mood. On the line was assistant coach Elmer Smith, who'd been dispatched to recruit players at an Alabama high school all-star game.
"Got any boys worth a damn there, Elmer?"
"Yeah, Coach, there's one."
"Then sign him up."
"Coach, there's only one problem."
Smith paused. "He's only got one arm."
Bryant had barely hung up the phone when there was a loud knock. He was still chuckling when he opened the door and greeted five of the biggest powerbrokers that A&M had to offer. These men would be called "suits" in most places. But not in Texas, where bigwigs liked to wear boots, jeans, and hats and many of them chewed Red Man. Rich guys also liked to drive pickupsnice ones with air-conditioning.
Since the first year of recruiting was going nowhere, Bryant had called a meeting of the big wallets. He shook hands with Johnny Mitchell, a local oilman who once had hit 151 consecutive wells, missed 1, and then hit 18 straight. Also invited was Jack Finney, who had attended Bryant's job interview in Dallas. From Houston came Bobby Don Crockett, and from his ranch near Austin came Herman Heep, a rich oilman who had jumped the Aggie ship during the losing years but was lured back by Bryant's charisma. Heep had enough money to completely rebuild Texas A&M if he felt like it. The last man through the door wore jeans and a work shirt and hadn't shaved in about a week. He extended his right hand to Bryant, who knew very little about him. "Name's Sid Banker," he said in a cigarette baritone. "Some folks just call me the banker. You just call me Sid."
Bryant had ordered a table for the meeting, hoping to create a kind of boardroom effect; that wasn't working. The head of the student center had sent up an old dining table that was covered with mustard and ketchup stains. It didn't seem to bother the Aggie sugar daddies, though. Some broke out cigars and flasks and didn't even ask for ice.
"Men. I don't need to tell you fellas that our recruiting's down. Just got a call from Elmer Smith. Sent him to Alabama on a recruiting mission and all he's coming back with is this one-armed boy. That's kind of been the sad story. Right now, we're in the fight of our lives to get John Crow out of Louisiana. Elmer's been baby-sitting him about every day. But the LSU people've offered John Crow everything but a saloon on Bourbon Street."
Two other targeted blue chippers were Ken Hall, a running back from Sugar Land, and Charlie Kruegerprobably the best lineman to come out of Texas in ten years. Hall, who had gained 4,000 yards as a senior, was called the Sugar Land Express. Krueger had grown up dirt-poor on a sharecropper's farm where the windows were covered with croaker sacks. Bryant suspected that Texas and Rice had already offered Charlie some cash and, as he liked to say, "It's mighty hard to turn down something if you've never had nothin' at all."
Bryant drew on a cigarette and turned toward Jack Finney. "A few weeks ago, Jack, I asked you a key question. And you told me that of all the big studs in Texas, you thought we could get at least half."
"Yeah, and I still believe it."
"Well, we're runnin' out of time."
Placing both hands on the table, Bryant assessed each face.
"I think that each and every one of you is sick and tired of the losing. A&M hasn't won a damn thing since before the war, and there's a lot of negative recruiting goin' on. All they gotta do is tell the top recruits that A&M's got no girls and we've lost the boy."
Bryant dropped a silver spittoon on the table. "I made my commitment when I took this job. Now it's time for you to make yours."
"Boys. Just think of this as going to church and dropping the dough in the plate. Let's see how much commitment you got in your hearts."
The first two rolls of hundred-dollar bills were bundled by rubber bands. They amounted to $5,000. From the corner of the table came another $5,000. When the tithing stopped, the spittoon was almost full. It all amounted to $30,000. Not bad. He'd never collected that much money in one sitting in Kentucky, where the bluebloods kept that much cash around for cab fare or for betting the daily double. He knew it would buy two or three good players.
"Boys, with this kind of money, we might just be able to fix the wagon and paint the barn. One more thing before you go. A couple of years ago, the NCAA got cute and started an enforcement division. Seems they've got their backs up. When I was at Kentucky, they put the basketball team on probation for shavin' points. Now, I sure as hell know the NC-double-A boys will come sniffin' when we start winning. They'll be checking our boys' rags and their rides. Every coach in the Southwest Conference will be pointing the finger at us. So I'm asking you boys to keep your mouths shut. There's nothin' wrong with a little discretion ever' now and then."
Bryant stood at the door and shook every hand. Sid Banker, the last man out, winked at him.
An important lesson Bryant had learned through the years was that you don't buy every boy. Studs with big up-front bonuses tended to develop an attitude you could spot a mile away. Clothes, cars, and pretty girls normally spoiled a boy. Bryant thought about a line from a Hank Williams song that had climbed the charts to number one in 1954: "Your cheatin' heart will tell on you."
At four that afternoon, the single-engine crop duster took off from a cow pasture about five miles from campus. It banked near the student center so Bryant, gazing from his window, could see it. The pilot dipped the wings twice. Then the plane disappeared into the high white clouds. The bagman had carved out a square block in a bale of hay. Ten thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills had been tightly wrapped inside a Texas A&M flag. The hope was that the bale would break apart when it hit the ground. They damn sure didn't want it cracking open in midflight. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars raining down from the heavens might be confused with divine generosity.
The engine whined loudly as the plane flew low over the house. Strapped tightly in his seat, the bagman grunted and then pushed open the passenger door. The bale tumbled from the plane and rolled end over end as it plummeted toward the field of brown weeds. To assure the mission was accomplished, the pilot banked the plane once more and soared over the house. Through the bare trees, the men could see two people running from the front porch. The maroon-and-while A&M flag was lying in clear view amid the broken pieces of straw. The pilot and the bagman smiled as the plane hummed toward home above the flat, barren countryside of central Texas.
Back at A&M, Bear Bryant gazed at the drab buildings and watched the cadets marching in the fading afternoon light. He wondered if the mission had been accomplishedand if they'd gotten their man.
* * *
The old man sauntered into the training room, his crude hearing aid hanging from his neck by a worn and tattered shoelace. His back pocket bulged with a flat longneck pint of brown liquid.
"Hey, Smokey, what you got there in your pocket?" Billy Pickard said.
"That's my cousin I. W. Me and him are gonna have a long talk after a while."
In more than thirty years of athletic training, Smokey Harper was known as much for guzzling I.W. Harper as for rehabilitating players. There were three rules in Smokey's training room. "If the pain's above your neck," he'd say, "take an aspirin. If the pain's below your neck, take a hot whoolpool. If that don't work then, shit, son, take a hot shower."
No one was sure of the extent of Smokey's medical studies. He'd played some basketball at Mercer College and some backwoods semipro baseball in South Carolina with Shoeless Joe Jackson after the former Chicago Black Sox outfielder was banned from the major leagues for agreeing to fix the 1919 World Series.
"Shoeless Joe's the best damn hitter I ever saw," Smokey would say. "And the second-best drinker behind me."
From across the room, Billy Pickard observed old Smokey and wondered how he had been picked to replace a fine man like Bill Dayton. Now the locker room was alive with the clacking of cleats and the slamming of metal lockers. So many boys were trying to get dressed for the afternoon practice that they were knocking into one another. Players were sharing lockers, helmets, and jersey numbers. Dennis Goehring, his chubby face turning crimson, yelled across the room, "I'm gonna kick your ass today, Marvin Tate! Don't turn your back on me today."
Goehring then checked the team roster that was taped to the bulletin board. He was still a seventh-team guard, and Tate was a first-teamer.
"That shit's gonna change," Goehring muttered to himself.
Spring drills at Texas A&M were more like a calf scramble than football practice. Bryant had proudly scripted all of his drills to the minute, only to have the players trip over one another as they ran from station to station. A student manager would blow his whistle every nine minutes, igniting total chaos. Bryant was the first college coach in America to develop such a schedule, and the result at Kentucky had been a national ranking and bowl games. At A&M, it was causing heartburn.
Bryant had worked the boys until their tongues hung outand this was only spring practice. The season was still six months away.
"Ain't ever seen football players this bad," he said, standing at midfield, hands on hips, talking to assistant coach Pat James, a thick man with a chest like a beer keg. "Where in the hell'd they get these puke stains?"
"Coach, you won't believe this. But they've been signing up over a hundred boys every year for the last four years. If you're a high school kid in this state and your daddy's an Aggie, or if your daddy knows an Aggie, you get a free ride to A&M. Just like that."
"That's another thing buggin' me. Those dad-gum alums are callin' and writin' me every day. They're comin' out to our practices in busloads. I'd like to march over there and say, `I'm the chief and you're the Indians and get your asses off my goddamn field.'"
Bryant and James quietly assessed the Aggie men who stood on the sidelines with their buzz haircuts and their short-sleeve shirts. Many appeared fat and out of shape, and Bryant thought they looked like beer swilling red-baiters. These were not the country clubbers that were being produced at SMU and just down the road at the University of Texas. These were members of the Rotary Club and the Cibango Cluban all-male organization for Aggies. You were never sure if these guys actually graduated from A&M or not. They did brag a lot, though, even when the Aggies were losing.
James spit tobacco and smiled. "Coach, know how you can tell when an Aggie's been raking leaves?"
"He's got two broken legs from falling out of a tree."
Bear smiled for the first time that day.
In truth, Bryant had bigger problems than a bunch of meddling alums. Of the 200 players in uniform, no more than a handful could even spell football. It was almost whittling time, he thought. Otherwise, he wouldn't be able to distinguish the keepers from the turds. One boy who'd caught his eye was Fred Broussard, a muscular six-foot-two, 220-pound center from Cajun country in Louisiana. He was the biggest player on the field, and, at his size, Bryant thought he could be playing for the New York Giants.
The coach had logged mental notes on the big centersome good and some bad. When Fred felt like practicing, he could mow down anybody on the field. Other days, when his heart wasn't in it, he was mediocre, like most of the boys. Bryant didn't mind if a player was a little short in talent or stature if he compensated with a big heart. The players he hated were heavy on talent and light on guts. That was Fred all right.
Fred was jogging down the field on punt coverage when he stuck out a big paw and managed to trip Billy Pete Huddleston, a rabbit-quick halfback who was one of the best kick returners in the conference. Billy Pete hopped to his feet and, without warning, smacked Broussard in the nose with a left jab. Blood now smeared on his face, Fred was no longer just a lazy, overfed boy. He hit Billy Pete with a left-right combination that knocked his helmet flying. Billy Pete retreated and Fred landed several punches, knocking him down before the coaches could pull him away.
Later, as they stood on the sideline, Broussard approached his small tormentor. In a high, soft voice, Fred said, "Billy Pete, why'd you do that? Billy Pete, I like you."
Billy Pete cracked a smile that hurt immensely. "Believe me, Fred. It'll never happen again."
Day by day, Bryant was becoming more and more confused. He didn't expect the Aggies to match the talent he'd had in Kentucky. Still, some of the boys played as if they'd never had good coaching. Some couldn't block or tackle and he'd never seen more botched snaps. Some of the boys, like Billy Pete and Goehring, at least had the scrappiness to pick fights, but others were so polite that they didn't cuss, belch, or even smell bad after practice. A perfect example was Billy Schroeder, a tall, dark-haired end who wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful.
At the end of practice, from the corner of his eye Bryant saw Billy approaching him. His helmet was tucked beneath his left arm, and his head was held high. Schroeder extended his right hand. "Coach, I just want to tell you how proud I am to be playing football for such a legend. I called my mom and dad last night and told 'em how excited I was." Schroeder wouldn't let go of the coach's right hand.
Finally yanking free, Bryant mumbled, "I wouldn't get too carried away, son. You might not feel the same after fall drills."
Schroeder's smile was frozen even as Bryant coolly turned his back and walked away.
About an hour later, the fresh drinks arrived, and it took Bryant about five seconds to knock back the first tumbler of bourbon. They had chosen the White Way Cafe across the main drag from campus. Jones Ramsey knew he was losing ground when he saw Bryant slam down his first drink.
The White Way Cafe was more a saloon than a restaurant, but a Greek cook there turned out the best chicken-fried steak and turnip greens in central Texas. Bear loved to soak his corn bread in the thick white gravy. On this warm, humid spring afternoon, though, they hadn't come to eat. They'd come to pound bourbon.
"You know that big-assed Fred Broussard?" Bryant said.
"Yes, sir, I do believe I helped make him first-team All-Southwest Conference last year," Ramsey replied, his chest swelling.
"Well, if it happens again, you're fired."
Ramsey almost dropped his drink. "Yes, sir."
Broussard had received film grades in the 80s and 90s from the previous coaching staff. But Bryant's top mark for him in any game was a 37. But that's not what really pissed him off. Fred had been allowed to come back to the team three times after quitting.
Bear turned up the second bourbon and slammed down the tumbler. "There's gotta be some changes around here. I'm gettin' ready to cut the squad, to yank some boys off the field. I can't see around the trash. I'm gonna tell about thirty of 'em that they can't play football anymore. Oh, they can keep their scholarships. But they'll have to work around the locker room, do odd jobs like cutting the grass. We need some boys to chalk the field and such."
Ramsey stared into his drink. This was preposterous, he thought. Given Bryant's temper and the manner in which he was putting away bourbon, he decided to approach the matter slowly and with caution.
"They'll come out of the woodworkthe alums, I mean. You see, Coach, the old Aggies have been runnin' the program since the end of the war. You start cuttin' their boys and you're messin' with their nuts."
Bear groaned and lit a Chesterfield. He'd stomped off and quit jobs at Maryland and Kentucky for reasons that didn't begin to approach this.
"You know what I think," he said, knocking an ash to the floor. "I think we should blow it up and start over. The wrong people've been runnin' the joint for too long. Let's just torch the barn and kill the rats."
Ramsey was accustomed to putting out grass fires. But now the phone would be ringing off the wall. Bryant would be axing boys who had oil and political ties. Rich Aggies from Texarkana to El Paso would scream into the phone, "What in the hell is this man doing to our football team?" Ramsey would try to be patient: "I'm not sure, but, you know, the man won a lot of football games in Kentucky. So let's give him some time." Newspapers from Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio would publish tall headlines about the radical changes. They'd be laughing in their martinis at the University of Texas.
The second drink hit Ramsey's stomach like a bombshell. Meanwhile, Bryant was ordering another round. The coach from Kentucky was just getting warmed up. Soon folks in Texas would know much about this man. Some would love him. Others would rue the night he dropped in from the dark, roily sky.