I was born into a house divided, meaning Daddy’s people cheered for Auburn football and Mama’s people were for Alabama. Both families were poor, like most people in Alabama then, and many today. Only a few had attended either university, but in Alabama, cheering for the Tide has never had much to do with whether you ever had any hope of going to college.
Every November my Uncle Freeman dressed as a female Bama cheerleader to perform his famous “Lady Roll Tide” routine for his bemused colleagues in the insurance office. (His boobs were rolls of toilet paper, as in “Roll Tide.” Probably you had to be there.) My Aunt Hanna couldn’t afford to attend the University but ended up teaching tennis and swimming there. She loved to dress up her dogs in homemade houndstooth outfits. On fall Saturdays she would drag her huge console radio onto the front porch so she could stay calm listening to the Bama game while weeding her petunias.
In those days Alabama was famous for all the wrong reasons: George Wallace, Selma, “Bombingham,” fire hoses, police dogs, Bull Connor. Only one thing in Alabama was famous for mostly right reasons: Paul “Bear” Bryant and the winning football boys of the Crimson Tide.
Bryant was no civil-rights hero, but he felt the wind blowing. When he finally convinced the white administrators in Tuscaloosa to let him recruit black players, he did more for the peaceful integration of Alabama than any white person except Harper Lee. He brought white Alabama something it never expected to have: black heroes. The problem was said to be complicated, but the solution was simple: it’s hard to hate somebody while you’re cheering for him.
Most people in Alabama didn’t hate anybody anyway. They longed to live in a state that was not the pariah of the nation. Also, excellence was in short supply. But on any given Saturday in autumn, the people of Alabama could witness Bryant leading the boys he recruited mostly from poor little Alabama towns to a display of athletic excellence that became the envy of the nation.
It was during the Bryant years that football ceased being a passion, pastime, or game in Alabama, and became our official religion. When all hope was lost, Bear Bryant descended on beams of light from golden clouds, by way of Texas A&M. Coaches come and go, but the Bear lives forever, like Elvis.
This is why, after seven attempts to find Bryant in the eyes of another coach, Alabama has fallen so desperately deeply in love with Nick Saban. Saban is Bear Bryant 2.0. He exists only to win football games. Nothing makes him madder than a player who doesn’t care. Watch him storm onto the field in a spitting rage, despite the fact that his team is leading by 51 points, because one of his linebackers dared to saunter off the field in a way that struck Saban as nonchalant. Watch the Coach get up in that young man’s face and give him the kind of tongue-beating he never got from his parents.
Nick Saban, like Bryant, is mean to his players in public. He jabs his finger and bellows at them. He is also a gentleman coach of the old school, who runs one of the least penalized teams in college ball and insists on perfect sportsmanship. His players love him fiercely because he screams at them and cares, and shows them how to be champions. And the fans love him too, in the wary way people can love someone who frightens them a little. If Nick Saban wants to run for Governor he can have it. If he decides to run for Pope, half the Baptists in Alabama will turn Catholic.
As a student reporter in Tuscaloosa in the 1970s, during Bryant’s last glorious run of victories, I quaked when I had to interview the Coach. He was friendly enough to students, but I couldn’t make out half of what he was saying in his basso Arkansas mumble. I constructed his quotes the best I could, praying I wouldn’t write anything that might make him mad and provoke another encounter.
At that time, the University president, David Mathews, was simultaneously serving in the cabinet of Gerald Ford as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. When I interviewed Mathews during a visit to campus, he suggested we walk over to the practice field “to have a look in on Coach.”
Whistles blew. Players slammed into tackling sleds. Bryant loomed, high in his famous tower with his bullhorn. He spotted Mathews. He waved him to come up, an invitation that was extended rarely, and only to important men.
Mathews, being the boss of the Coach as well as something like 11th in line of succession to the Presidency of the United States, motioned for Bryant to come down the stairs to meet him.
After an extended staring contest, the President shook his head, shrugged, and started up the stairs to pay homage to the most powerful man in Alabama.
A few years later, my Uncle Freeman had open-heart surgery and his doctor forbade him to attend the Alabama-Auburn game. Freeman fired the doctor and got two tickets on the 20. He did give up smoking Camels, and took up chewing cigars instead. He would chew his way through a box of Panatelas during an average game. The Alabama-Auburn game that year was was beyond average – Auburn had brought forth the incandescent Bo Jackson, and Alabama was on its first date with Ray Perkins, the first in the string of non-Bryants.
My father sat amongst the Auburn orange and blue. I was a traitor to his cause. I sat across the stadium, in the top row with Uncle Freeman above a sea of crimson and white. At the end, at the heart-stopping height of the game, Freeman’s newly stitched ticker got the better of him. He turned his back on the field, turned to stare out across the streets of Birmingham. “I can’t bear it, boy,” he said, clutching my arm, standing in a mound of chewed-up cigars. “I can’t watch. If he misses the kick, I swear to God I will drop dead right here and now.”
“Don’t look, Freeman,” I said.
Freeman gazed out over Birmingham. I watched Van Tiffin kick the famous 52-yard field goal that won the game. The stadium erupted in a roar that has never been surpassed in my experience. Uncle Freeman pounded my shoulders with both fists.
Freeman lived only another couple of years, but he died a happy man.