The Practical Joke

Prior to the 1991 football season, Cecil Hurt, sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News, and I dropped by Coach Gene Stallings' office to talk about the start of fall practice. Sports Information Director Larry White was also there, and maybe another writer or two. At some point in the conversation we talked about how good the practice fields looked. That led to "the joke."

The practice fields had been re-sodded and re-sculpted to improve drainage following spring football practice and they looked like the lawn at Augusta National, which is to say absolutely perfect. When the freshmen came in to practice for three days before the varsity, Stallings wouldn't even let the freshmen on the new fields. They practiced on the infield in the track stadium.

Stallings suggested I play a practical joke on Bobby Rice, who just a year or two earlier had just come over from staff engineer for the entire University to be engineer for the athletics department. Bobby is the brother of Billy Rice, who had played on Coach Bryant's first Alabama teams when Stallings was a young assistant coach.

I enjoy humor in just about all forms, but I had never been involved in a practical joke. We left it pretty much bare bones. Stallings said for me to take a golf club out on the practice field and he'd call Bobby and tell him there was someone practicing golf on the new turf. Larry White said he would schedule a meeting with Bobby to make sure he was in the building at the right time. We set it up for 2 p.m. the next day.

I can't explain how I let this thing grow in my head, but it became pretty elaborate. Stallings and I played at the same course and the pro at that time, Butch Byrd, was a good friend of us both. I went out to the club to get my clubs and then decided to take it a step or two further. I picked up my bag and my shoes and a "Panama" type golf hat. Then I asked Butch if I could borrow one of the tube-style pick-up bags full of range balls. And, I said, what about a flag. Butch gave me what I wanted.

Originally, I had it in my mind that I was going to stick the flag in the ground and put balls all around it so it would look like I had been hitting balls at the flag. Later I amended that. Mary Ellen Palardy was our circulation director and her daughter, Terri, was just about to begin a teaching career. I asked Terri (now Terri Carden) if she would be my "caddy," holding the flag for me.

After leaving the golf course, I stopped by the place where I get occasional landscape supplies, The Ground Floor. Norman Eiland runs that. I told him a little of what I was up to and wondered if he might have a square or two of sod I could buy cheap. He said he had some remnants I could have, and I took a couple of them.

I went back to my office and cut up one of the squares of sod into chunks about 6 inches by six inches. I also soaked them so the dirt sides would be very black, like they had just come out of the turf. I also soaked the full square and jagged up the edges of it.

Terri and I gathered up our gear and went to the football practice fields. A handful of players who had been working out watched us like we were crazy. In staff meeting that morning Stallings had told the assistant coaches about it and as we set up I could see in the football building that all the coaches and other staff people were gathered in the offices with the doors shut. But I couldn't see in Stallings' office and didn't know if he was watching and ready.

Terri took her flag to about the 20-yard line at one end of the practice field. We scattered about half the range balls around her. About 40 yards back towards the middle of the practice fields, and about 30 yards from the building, I put down the full square of sod upside down so that it would look like the results of a practice area. Out in front of it I put the pieces of sod upside down. I then piled the remaining range balls next to my "divot" area.

The first chance for a glitch came when one of the grounds crew started towards Terri on his lawnmower. She had to wave him away so he didn't run over the range balls. But he never told us we had to leave.

I propped my bag up and took out a sand wedge. I took one last piece of the sod that I had saved and put it on the upside down square. And I put a ball on top of that small piece of sod (which was grass-side up. I was swinging my wedge and just waiting, wondering if all this had been for nothing. Terri was standing down at the end of the field holding her flag, probably wondering if the joke was on us.

The players entrance/exit from the building to the practice field was a pair of double metal doors. Suddenly they opened with a loud bang. Out came Bobby Rice, running. Right behind him was Gene Stallings, and I could see Stallings mouth working. I knew he was giving Rice hell.

"Hey, mister," Rice shouted at me. "Stop!"

I hollered back, "Please be quiet when I'm trying to hit," and then swung the sand wedge as hard as I could, hitting the little piece of grass that was on top of the sod. The ball and "divot" went almost straight up in the air.

"Oh, my God," Bobby screamed.

Bobby was about 20 feet from me when I lifted up the brim of my hat and grinned at him. I can't describe the look on his face, but it was probably primarily disbelief -- that he couldn't believe I would be doing this on his practice field. And then he began to look around and realized his field wasn't damaged. And Stallings was howling with laughter. And Bobby knew he had been had. "Hook, line and sinker," he has said many times since.

Bobby said, "I didn't know if I could kill you before you killed me with that golf club or not, but that's what I thought it was going to come down to."

We were all laughing and Stallings said, "Bobby, I tried to talk him out of it..."

Terri came up and she thought the best thing about it was she got to meet Coach Stallings.

Later I found out what had been going on inside.

Stallings had been watching as I began to set up. Larry White had made his appointment with Rice for 2 p.m. in Rice's office, but when Larry got there a few minutes later Bobby already had someone in his office. Larry told him he'd wait in the hall.

Shortly after that, when Stallings saw we were all set up, Stallings went into the hall bellowing, "Bobby Rice! What's going on out on our practice fields? Where the hell is Rice?" Stallings' office wasn't but about 30 feet from Rice's and it really wasn't necessary but White said, "Bobby, I think Coach wants you."

Rice jumped up and hurried down the hall towards Stallings, who had begun moving down the hall in front of the assistant coaches' offices. Stallings was saying things like, "I can't believe we don't have any security for our practice fields."

Bobby caught up to Stallings near the end of the hall and they went into one of the coaches' offices to look out the window. Bobby said he nearly fainted when he saw "the golfer."

Rice took off for the stairs with Stallings right behind him, down the stairs and out the door to the practice field.

Later all the assistant coaches said the only thing that wasn't perfect is that the guy who handles Alabama's videotapes was just watching and didn't tape it.

It has been over 12 years since that practical joke and I still am asked about it probably once a month.

I have never even considered pulling another practical joke.

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