No Coach Had Ever Won More

No reflection on the Crimson Tide would be complete without a tribute to Paul “Bear” Bryant. He had always believed: “In a crisis, don’t hide behind anybody. They’re going to find you anyway.”

The focus of college football was on Paul “Bear” Bryant. His focus was on Auburn. All of Alabama was waiting for him to break Amos Alonzo Stagg’s record of 314 wins. All he wanted to do was beat Auburn.

He would have a rare chance in 1981 to establish the record as the as the winningest college football coach of all time against Auburn, Alabama’s greatest rival and most fierce competitor, in the Iron Bowl, in Birmingham, on the last glorious Saturday of the season. The Bear could have asked for nothing better. He could have asked for nothing more. He would be trying to climb atop a record that had stood for 57 years.

Paul “Bear” Bryant wins number 315: Painting by Rick Rush

On the national level, he had become a myth, the stuff of legend, partly fact and partly fiction, caught somewhere between the veil of truth and a thread of contradiction. Bill Lyon, a syndicated writer for Knight-Ridder, penned: “He is sixty-eight now and, from a distance, he looks like a shambling old man, shuffling along, his face craggy and seasoned and creased, the eyes scrunched up from too many years of squinting into the sun. But up close, he is still a galvanizing presence … his eyes still glinting with hidden mirth, with passion … He has been nicked and sliced, and they have tried to chew off his ear, but the Bear still owns the briar patch.

“He has adjusted to some truly traumatic transitions in society. He has won with players who wore crew cuts, with players who use hair dryers. He has won with players who gave blind obedience and with those who rebelled. He has won with generations from the post war ‘40s, the unquestioning ‘50s, the protesting ‘60s, the racially stirred ‘70s, and now the unsettled ‘80s.  He has won with white kids, black kids, sharecroppers’ sons and millionaires’ scions.”

The players had come in all shapes and sizes, from cities, from small towns, from farms, rich and poor, as big as the bear, who once upon a time wrestled the Bear, quick like flashes of daytime lightning, ornery as horses with a burr under their saddles, the praying and the drinking kind, tough as leather, smooth as silk. They were devoted to the man who worked them, drove them, and pushed them far beyond their limits, and loved them like his own children. The faces and the numbers kept changing. The devotion remained steady.

Auburn had no interest in being part of history. Sooner or later, the Tigers knew, the Bear would own the record. They preferred that it be later. The Bear would not be denied, and his Crimson Tide went out, trailed much of the game, and watched Linnie Patrick sprint the final fifteen yards to give Alabama a 28-17 win. It had been a backyard family brawl of monumental and historic proportions.

Auburn Coach Pat Dye, a former Bear assistant, met his old mentor at mid-field. Congratulations were in order. He gave them. “Coach,” he said, “we whipped you in the statistics. I sure wish they counted.”

Bryant laughed. He glanced at the scoreboard. It was habit. He knew where the points counted. For 315 times, that’s where they had counted the most. He buried the pride he must have been feeling and was as disgruntled as ever when he strolled in to meet the press. “Offensively, we did not nothing in the first half,” he said. “The offense treated Auburn like their brothers or their children. It looked like we were afraid we were going to hurt them.

“To turn it around and come back the way we did was one of the greatest wins I’ve ever been associated with. I thought we played real well, but it looked like the Good Lord wasn’t going to let us win there for awhile.”

The Good Lord had not chosen sides. He was quite content to let Alabama win, even if Bear and the Tide had to do it the hard way. The Bear, He figured, could take care of himself. He always did.

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Caleb Pirtle III is author of Champions: Great Moments in the History of Alabama Football.

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