Oh What A Night With Paul Bryant

It was happenstance that I was able to sit on a sofa with Coach Paul Bryant and watch Neil Armstrong make that one giant leap for mankind. I can hardly believe it has been 40 years.



It was a late summer staple for those who covered Alabama football in the Paul Bryant era. Bryant would host a golf tournament at Willow Point near Alexander City, "The Bear Bryant Golf Classic." It was attended by sportswriters who covered Crimson Tide football, a few radio and television types, some of the major sponsors of Alabama football, and a few bowl representatives. Also present were Alabama's assistant football coaches and Basketball Coach C.M. Newton. In fact, it's where I first met and formed a friendship with Newton.

I shared a room with John David Crow, who had won the Heisman Trophy playing for Bryant at Texas A&M and who was coaching Bama's running backs. It was fun to listen to Crow and Sam Bailey, Bryant's chief assistant, talk about the special traits that made a back like Johnny Musso. I'll admit that I miss the opportunity to interview assistant football coaches and wish Coach Nick Saban would relent on that policy.

In 1969, Bryant would meet with a very few writers from around the Southeast when the SEC Sky-Writers Tour" hit Tuscaloosa, but that was limited primarily to the big city newspapers.

His "Bear Bryant Golf Classic" outing was designed to give many writers (mostly from in Alabama) a view of the upcoming season in a relaxed atmosphere. One treat was a cookout at Bryant's cabin on Lake Martin. He was the steak chef and did them about like most men, which means he didn't burn them. There was a ride on the Bryant pontoon boat. And there was plenty to drink.

That night in the cabin, the television set was on to what I think was the only available channel, WSFA out of Montgomery. That was the NBC affiliate, so I didn't see all the Walter Cronkite coverage we have seen in the last few days following Cronkite's death.

I was interested in television that night as we were reportedly going to be able to watch men land on the moon. I thought that we were going to be able to watch the event live was about as amazing as the actual event.

Bryant's assistant, Billy Varner, was manning the bar and that had the attention of many, so I was able to snag a seat on the sofa. Bryant was fascinated by coverage of the moon landing. He came in and sat at the other end of the sofa. Most of the guests were milling around.

Someone spoke to Bryant and he turned away. When he looked back at the TV, there was an animated sequence showing how Armstrong would descend from the lunar module to the surface of the moon. Seeing this, the coach exclaimed, "There it is!"

Mrs. Bryant was sitting behind the sofa. "Papa, that's just a cartoon," she corrected.

It was in all ways an extraordinary evening for everyone who saw it, and the topic of conversation deep into the night at Lake Martin.

I can't remember what we learned about Alabama football that weekend, but I suspect it was more than I'll learn about Bama or any other SEC team this week at SEC Media Days in Hoover. For economic reasons, a few conferences ended their media day events this year and at least one conference reduced from three days to two.

I have thought for many years that the coaches and players representing the league schools provide precious little news at Media Days. That doesn't mean there isn't a value. I will spend time with the likes of Dave Stirt from "Fightin' Gators," Mark Murphy from "Inside The Auburn Tigers," Tony Barnhart from Atlanta, and George Lapides from Memphis. These days, the information comes from the news gatherers.

I thought about this today when having lunch with C.M. Newton. He asked me if I had already worked out my guess at how the SEC would finish this year. (I told him I liked Florida "because of their schedule. They don't play anyone as good as they are.")

SEC Media Days even has a golf tournament. I'll play with Doug Layton, as I often did in the "Bear Byrant Golf Classic." I don't think the tournament at Bent Brook compares to one in which I might play with Bill Oliver or Pat Dye, as we did in Alex City. And SEC Media Days can hardly compare to a few days with Paul Bryant, Particularly when you throw in a moon landing.

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