Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie's Last Quarterby Randy Roberts, Ed Krzemienski
The extraordinary story of how Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and Joe Namath, his star quarterback at the University of Alabama, led the Crimson Tide to victory and transformed football into a truly national pastime.
During the bloodiest years of the civil rights movement, Bear Bryant and Joe Namath-two of the most iconic and controversial figures in American/i>
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The extraordinary story of how Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and Joe Namath, his star quarterback at the University of Alabama, led the Crimson Tide to victory and transformed football into a truly national pastime.
During the bloodiest years of the civil rights movement, Bear Bryant and Joe Namath-two of the most iconic and controversial figures in American sports-changed the game of college football forever. Brilliantly and urgently drawn, this is the gripping account of how these two very different men-Bryant a legendary coach in the South who was facing a pair of ethics scandals that threatened his career, and Namath a cocky Northerner from a steel mill town in Pennsylvania-led the Crimson Tide to a national championship.
To Bryant and Namath, the game was everything. But no one could ignore the changes sweeping the nation between 1961 and 1965-from the Freedom Rides to the integration of colleges across the South and the assassination of President Kennedy. Against this explosive backdrop, Bryant and Namath changed the meaning of football. Their final contest together, the 1965 Orange Bowl, was the first football game broadcast nationally, in color, during prime time, signaling a new era for the sport and the nation.
Award-winning biographer Randy Roberts and sports historian Ed Krzemienski showcase the moment when two thoroughly American traditions-football and Dixie-collided. A compelling story of race and politics, honor and the will to win, RISING TIDE captures a singular time in America. More than a history of college football, this is the story of the struggle and triumph of a nation in transition and the legacy of two of the greatest heroes the sport has ever seen.
I didn't think the world needed another Bear Bryant book, but this one digs a little deeper and blitzes me with new info. And to think a Purdue guy wrote it."Dan Jenkins, sportswriter/book author"
RISING TIDE is a riveting football story that doubles as first-rate, seminal historical investigation. Building the narrative around Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and Joe Namath, the authors interweave early TV and civil rights into the fabric of their story with great grace. An absolutely wonderful read!"Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University and author of Cronkite"
RISING TIDE will be on the All Time Top Ten List for the Crimson Tide nation, but it is not just another 'fan's book.' Anyone who wants to understand the roots of college football as Big Business will learn from this account of the bond between its two gifted and charismatic heroes. As an eyewitness to the Bear-and-Joe-Willie show, I can tell you that Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski got it right about how the Tide rolls."Howell Raines, author and former executive editor of the New York Times"
RISING TIDE is an absolute gem of a book about the twin pillars of white Southern identity: racial segregation and football, and how change was wrought in the heart of the old Confederacy that resisted it. RISING TIDE is an expertly written, must-read story of the intersection of athletics and politics."Gerald Early, author of A Level Playing Field and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Culture of Bruising"
[This is] a can't-lay-it-down book. In evocative prose, Roberts and Krzemienski recapture the drama, glory, and shame of big-time college sports set in an era of social upheaval. You don't have to be a Crimson Tide fan to enjoy this great read."George C. Rable, Charles Summersell Chair in Southern History, University of Alabama"
[Bryant and Namath's] years together fueled the growing popularity of college football and coincided with the unfolding of the civil rights struggle that emerged as the defining news story of the early 1960s. "Rising Tide" weaves the two elements in an informative and entertaining narrative with broad appeal"Associated Press"
RISING TIDE aspires to be much more than another jock biography. It tells a fascinating story lying at the intersection of football, race and entertainment... Gridiron fans, particularly those of a certain age, will enjoy this trip down memory lane. So, too, will readers interested in revisiting a nation in transition."Plain Dealer"
RISING TIDE reads like an ESPN Documentary but packs ten times the information and entertainment value. Its accessible but intelligent prose and deep-probing insights keep interest high throughout its chapters. Football, its impact, events, and mannerisms are flawlessly interwoven with the tumultuous recounts of a politically, socially, and racially evolving South."Atlanta Journal Constitution
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Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie's Last Quarter
By Randy Roberts, Ed Krzemienski
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Randy Roberts Ed Krzemienski
All rights reserved.
There's not a spot of ground out there that doesn't have a little of my blood on it.
—Bear Bryant before first spring practice at Denny Field, 1958
The new coach had arrived at Friedman Hall early, moving to the front of the deep, narrow room and repeatedly glancing at his watch. He was not about to begin early, and he assuredly would not start a second late. Tardiness for him was the sign of a deep moral failing, an unforgivable character flaw. "It reflected sloppiness and a lack of commitment," Bryant biographer Keith Dunnavant wrote. Finally it was time.
"How many of y'all have girlfriends?"
They were football players, weren't they? Almost all of them had girlfriends, some more than one. Maybe the new coach was just asking a friendly question, a prelude to some clever down-home southern bon mot that would break the ice and get everybody loose and relaxed. Get the new regime off to a good start.
"Well, all y'all who raised your hands might as well pack your bags right now, 'cause you won't have the time to become football players."
No one laughed. Paul "Bear" Bryant's face was only just beginning to develop a crease or two, still decades away from its familiar deeply lined look—almost like a sheet of paper that had been crushed into a tight ball then smoothed into a flat sheet again. In December 1957 Bear was still close to his physical prime. He was forty-four years old, almost six-four, roughly 220 pounds, and ruggedly handsome. Everything about him seemed big and powerful—high forehead, large ears, wide powerful shoulders, thick hamlike hands, sturdy legs. He looked like a coach who could get physical with his biggest players—really get down without pads and go one-on-one with a guard or a tackle and win. He looked it, he could do it, and on occasions when he wanted to make a point, he did it. Even in an expensive tweed suit, a white shirt, and a Countess Mara tie, there was nothing about Coach Bryant that breathed a trace of softness or suggested he couldn't kick the ass of any man within hollering distance.
If there was anyone who doubted that statement, one look into his clear, cold blue eyes would set them straight. He seemed to look at the world with his chin slightly tilted down so that his eyes were skewed up, forcing him to furrow his forehead. It wasn't a calculated expression, but it had a chilling effect. Richmond Flowers Jr., who was recruited by Bryant, recalled that when you talked to Bear you tended to look up at him and he tended to look down at you. Others who knew him agreed: He had a gaze that was difficult to meet, the kind of penetrating intensity that made a man afraid to look into his eyes directly because it might be interpreted as a challenge, and fearful to look away because it might be taken as a lack of resolve.
On the morning of December 9, 1957, every player crammed into a classroom in Friedman Hall, the athletic dorm, was looking at Bryant. They had heard the stories about the coach—the tales about Junction Station in Texas, his take-no-prisoners method of coaching, his record of turning losing programs into winning ones. But they had not seen him in the flesh until that moment. Now, sitting in classroom desk chairs, standing in the aisles and crammed against the walls, some dressed in khakis, penny loafers, argyle socks, and letter jackets, others in slacks, button-down shirts, and V-neck sweaters, they waited for a sign of what was to come.
He talked a little about himself, about why he left Texas A&M, a team that had fallen just a few plays short of winning a national championship, for a team that was setting new records of futility at a proud football school. He had come to Alabama, his alma mater, for one reason, and it wasn't money. No, he said, "I could buy or sell any one of you. I came here to make Alabama a winner again."
And that meant a new philosophy and a fresh start for everybody. He made a guarantee and a promise. "Everything from here on out is going to be first class, which includes living quarters, food, equipment, modes of travel. And my staff and I are going to see that you play first-class football." He said that he was interested in only first-class boys on his team, the kind who regularly wrote letters to their parents, always used "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am," said their prayers at night, and went to church on Sunday. He demanded boys who took pride in how they looked and how they acted, ones who were excited about representing a great school and determined to represent their families and hometowns with real class.
If a boy knew he did not fit Bryant's definition of a first-class player, if he wasn't ready to give maximum effort, Bear had some advice. "If you're not committed to winning ball games, to making your grades, go ahead and get your stuff and move out of the dorm, because it's going to show. Pull out so we can concentrate on the players who want to play."
Beyond that, Bear didn't talk about the x's and o's of football. There would be time for that, and time for them to get to know him and him to get to know them. Right now, he said, "I don't know any of you and I don't want to know anybody.... I'll know who I want to know by the end of spring practice."
Bear was in a foul mood, and had been for some time. Coming to Alabama had cost him considerably, and money was the least of it. The chain of events that prompted his move from Texas A&M began far from the football field. In February 1956, after a three-year court battle, Autherine Lucy, a college graduate from Shiloh, Alabama, became the first black student to attend the University of Alabama. Her presence on campus prompted a series of protests, ranging from marches and speeches to violence. Though escorted to classes by university officials, Lucy was pelted with rotten eggs and forced to accept police protection to get off campus. The worst for her came after Alabama upset Vanderbilt in a basketball game. Students departing the game and nonstudents milling around campus formed a mob, chanting, "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Autherine's got to go!" and "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate!"
The mob blocked traffic and created a public nuisance. Although many of the protesters had no ties to the school, their actions alarmed Alabama's Board of Trustees, who voted first to exclude her from the university and then, after Lucy's lawyers filed a temperate complaint, to permanently expel her from the institution. She had been thrown out of school not for anything she had done but for what she symbolized to others.
Coming in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, the Lucy case represented southern resistance to the law of the land, and cast the university in an obstructionist, backward, racist role. It threw a pall over Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama had lost its role as a progressive leader in Alabama and seemed to wander aimlessly in the desert of lost causes. Interim president James H. "Foots" Newman developed a reputation as an ineffectual bean counter, and according to the Montgomery Advertiser, thirty or more of the top educators left the university, which seemed to be floundering.
Losing professors was one thing; losing football games was a different matter. Few students at the school or residents of the state noticed that some faculty members had slipped off to greener pastures, but everybody was aware of the slide in the football program. In 1955, J. B. "Ears" Whitworth had taken over the reins of a struggling program and steered it in the direction of total futility. In three years his teams won four, tied two, and lost 24 games. The program had resembled a Keystone Cops movie. Whitworth's boss, Athletic Director Hank Crisp, doubled as the defensive coordinator, undermining any sense of leadership. Whitworth ran practices without any real sense of planning or purpose. His player evaluations were erratic—he even benched Bart Starr. And the players themselves frequently engaged in drunken brawls, occasionally shot guns in their rooms, and at least once started a fire in Friedman Hall.
The program appeared doomed. Finus C. Gaston, the sports information director of the period, later remarked that Whitworth "didn't have a whore's chance" of correcting the ills of the program. Like interim president Newman, his experience and temperament were a poor match for the needs of the University of Alabama.
The year of change came in 1957. In September the university's search for a new president ended with the hiring of Frank Anthony Rose, a tall, handsome, imperiously thin Mississippian. He was a man of a few talents and enormous charm, and on the surface he seemed the very ideal of the New South. Rose was fond of talking about his boyhood when he picked cotton for fifty cents a day and plowed fields to earn money to attend Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. There he excelled in his studies, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated with a degree in philosophy and religion. After some additional postgraduate studies he became a professor at Transylvania, an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ, and, at the age of thirty, without an advanced degree, the president of the Kentucky college. It was nothing less than a meteoric rise, one accomplished seemingly without effort.
His gift, his near nonpareil talent, was talking. Onstage he could silence the birds. A series of speeches before national and regional groups led the National Junior Chamber of Commerce to name him one of the ten outstanding young men in America, an honor he shared with Robert F. Kennedy, among others. But he was even better in one-on-one conversations. Anyone who talked with him departed supremely confident that he or she had found a kindred spirit. In conversation he would smile, laugh lightly, nod his head, and mutter such rejoinders as "I know, I know, you're so right, you're so right." And if he wasn't agreeing with his fellow conversationalist, he was chatting about himself and the great plans he had for the future.
E. Culpepper Clark, a former faculty member and administrator at Alabama, and author of The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama, called Rose "spiritually impoverished" and totally lacking the "empathy gene." Although there was no denying that he was a captivating man, a quality that made him a first-class fund-raiser, Rose played fast and easy with the truth and creatively invented biographical incidents out of whole cloth. Well dressed in conservative but perfectly fitted suits, and bearing a striking resemblance to Crimson Tide football legend Johnny Mack Brown, Rose cut a dashing figure. No sooner was he in the president's office than he began to talk and raise cash. Between January 1 and March 7, 1958, he delivered fifty-four speeches, speaking earnestly about what was needed to make Alabama a great university. But greatness took money. Job number one, he figured, was to improve faculty salaries, a general line that made him immediately popular on campus.
And he was successful. In the immediate post-Sputnik environment the federal and state governments were shoveling money into education to guarantee America's success in the Cold War. It was the age of the great educational giveaway. Soon faculty salaries shot up like a Soviet rocket, enrollments increased, and new buildings began to sprout on campus, including, Clark noted, "a new administration building named for Rose and a high-rise dormitory named for Rose's equally charming wife, Tommye." People at the University of Alabama were striding forward, and Frank Rose was leading the way.
Still, Cold War manna alone was not enough to succeed at Alabama. Although the state legislature had been notoriously tight-fisted with educational expenditures, raising money was the least of Rose's problems. An astute observer of the Alabama scene, a member of one of the state's leading political families, remarked that for whites in the late 1950s and early 1960s "there were only two topics of conversation: football and niggers." Football and race—they formed the substance of discussions at the country clubs in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa; at the meetings of the Birmingham Downtown Improvement Association, the Association of Citizens Councils of Alabama, and the Ku Klux Klan; and at every lunch counter, country store, and restaurant in the state. Football and race, race and football—they were what white Alabamians talked about, argued about, and commiserated about. They were what unified a state sharply divided along racial, class, and educational lines—and what any president of the University of Alabama had best be able to handle questions about.
After the settlement of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Lucy's expulsion from the university, the epicenter of the civil rights debate moved outside of Alabama. In the fall of 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, occupied the front line of the movement. Governor Orval Faubus's segregation stand and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's defense of federal authority captured the headlines. But the seismic quakes in race relations caused by Brown v. Board of Education and the Lucy case had not yet stopped. Little Rock might have pushed the University of Alabama off the front page, but the problems—and the questions—remained. When Rose took office the Board of Trustees wondered: Would he prevent the integration of the university? The faculty asked: Would he facilitate the desegregation of the university?
In typical Rose fashion, he answered both questions in the affirmative. The new president had, Clark believed, "the remarkable ability to convince everyone and anyone, from the staunchest segregationist to the most determined liberal, that he was on their side." Off the record, he expressed a variety of ideas for either "keeping 'Bama white" or "moving 'Bama into the mainstream." On record, he said little and did even less, hoping against hope that the fragile status quo would last forever. It wasn't much of a policy, but for a politically minded president there were not many other options.
Popularity was a fine alternative to policy, Rose must have judged, and the sure way to please everyone at Alabama was to do something about the sorry state of the football team. On November 9, 1957, almost three weeks before going on the university payroll, Rose led a small group of Alabama football supporters on an expedition to Houston, where they had a discussion with Bear Bryant. At that moment Bear was on top of the college coaching world. Under him Texas A&M had gone unbeaten in 18 consecutive games, and on the November 4 football poll the team was ranked number one in the nation. On the afternoon before the meeting, A&M had defeated SMU 19–6, making them 8–0. The team featured running back John David Crow, and only one time in their first eight games had the defense given up more than six points.
No one at the meeting was coy. More than just a great coach, Bryant was an Alabama graduate, a visible link to the school's legendary days of unbeaten seasons and Rose Bowl wins. Alabama, Rose emphasized, more than wanted Bryant, it needed him. Ears Whitworth had already been given his walking papers, so there was no air of conspiracy. Bear's concern, however, was for Athletic Director Hank Crisp, who had recruited him out of Fordyce, Arkansas, to play for the Crimson Tide. Bear had his faults, but a lack of loyalty was not one of them, and he refused to oust Crisp against his will. But there was no way he would accept the position at Alabama without total control of the program; he wanted no buffers between Rose and himself.
Beyond that, he was not entirely sure he wanted to leave A&M, where he had influential friends, a recently signed long-term contract, and prestige. He had been offered the Alabama position in 1947 and again in 1954, and both times he had turned it down. Bear ended the meeting by saying he would give it some thought, eventually suggesting a few coaches who would fit Alabama's demands.
As so often happens at meetings of these sorts, the participants departed with different interpretations of the outcome. Bear later insisted—and there is no reason to doubt him—that he had not agreed to take the job. But others felt that he was leaning in that direction. As usual, Rose had all the right answers. Crisp would—and did—endorse Bryant. A salary, never a sticking point, could be worked out. The meeting ended cordially, if inconclusively, with handshakes. Bryant had only one last demand—he wanted to keep the matter quiet. Regardless of where he coached in 1958, he was still the A&M coach, and his team had a national title in sight.
Excerpted from Rising Tide by Randy Roberts, Ed Krzemienski. Copyright © 2013 Randy Roberts Ed Krzemienski. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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Meet the Author
Randy Roberts is Distinguished Professor of History at Purdue University and the author of several books, most recently A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation and Joe Louis: Hard Times Man. His earlier books include biographies of Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, and John Wayne; a history of American sports since 1945; and books on Charles Lindbergh, the Mike Tyson trial, and the Vietnam War. He lives in Lafayette, Indiana.
Ed Krzemienski is a historian of sports and popular culture. He served as primary consultant for HBO's Emmy-award winning documentary, Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football, for which his manuscript on the subject served as a guide for production. He served in a similar capacity for HBO's documentary Namath, which also won an Emmy, and previously appeared on ESPN's Sportscentury documentary installment on Namath. An expert on college football, he has written on the subject for numerous popular publications, including ESPN's College Football Encyclopedia and ESPN's Big Ten Encyclopedia.
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