Coach Bryant died 20 years ago today and it seems just about every newspaper in Alabama -- and some outside the state -- wanted to mark the event with stories and memories.
It was my pleasure to work for Coach Bryant for nine years. By "pleasure" I don't mean it was easy. Hours were long, days off rare. (We used to get a memo saying the offices would be closed on July 4; pretty much every other day was a work day. I think that's the reason Independence Day is still my favorite holiday.)
I was never aware of anyone who worked for Coach Bryant who didn't strive to do his very best at every task every day. It wasn't so much that he demanded it. It was because you knew he was working the same long hours and giving his very best effort, and you didn't want to disappoint him.
Almost every Alabama fan has a favorite memory of Coach Bryant. People who were not old enough to know of him -- even people who were not born 20 years ago -- have memories based on stories from others. And anyone who met him face-to-face has a special slice of life.
Over the years I have heard dozens and dozens of these personal moments. My daughter grew up with Coach Bryant's granddaughters. None of those women ever meet anyone who -- upon learning her identity -- doesn't share a story of Coach Bryant.
I hear many stories of things Coach Bryant "said" that I know -- and anyone who knew Coach Bryant knows -- he would not have said.
I don't know that I have a favorite story or a single memory of Coach Bryant. I covered him as a young sportswriter in 1968 and 1969, went to work for him in 1970, and left him (with his blessing) to begin ‘BAMA Magazine in 1979. I have a flood of memories that come upon me frequently. You have heard many who played for him or worked for him say they think about him every day.
Never doubt the truth of that.
I know the first time I met him I did not want to ask a stupid question. In those days I worked for the Birmingham Post-Herald, which did not have a Sunday newspaper. So after the Sunday paper reporters had finished, I asked if I could have a moment. I needed some fresh angle for a Monday story. He nodded. He was sitting on a chair and smoking a cigarette and I was petrified. I couldn't think of a thing to ask. Alabama had won, but not impressively. I screwed up every ounce of courage I could muster and asked something along the lines if just winning was enough or if he needed the team to play better to be satisfied. That probably qualified as a stupid question, but he gave me a good answer (winning was most important, but that performance wouldn't be good in future weeks; you don't stand still -- you're either going forward or backward).
He didn't come to my office too many times when I worked for him. One of those times was when he dropped by to tell me he was sorry about the death of my father. I had been in Birmingham for a few days. Only after Coach Bryant had gone did I learn that his brother had died the same day as my father, but I hadn't known about that to give him my sympathy.
When he announced his retirement, I wrote him a letter begging him to reconsider. I told him I thought Alabama football appeared to be at a crossroads and I couldn't think of anyone that could get the team on the right course. He had said once before during Alabama's resurgence of the 1970s that he hoped to be remembered as the man who rebuilt Alabama "again." He had done the rebuilding job when he arrived in 1958, but it had slipped in the late 1960s.
Coach Bryant wrote me a brief note, thanking me for my letter, but assuring me his decision was final. I don't have that letter. I guess I tossed it.
Like so many others, I expected Coach Bryant to enjoy his retirement. At the time Al Browning was working for me at ‘BAMA Magazine, but also doing special jobs for Coach Bryant. One of the tasks Coach Bryant had assigned to Al was to find Coach Bryant an office. He wanted to get out from underfoot from his successor, Ray Perkins. Even though Coach Bryant was still director of athletics, he didn't intend to stay in that position long. Al and I were scheming to try to find him an office near our ‘BAMA Magazine offices. But it was soon obvious Coach Bryant wanted an office closer to his home and closer to Indian Hills Country Club, where he was very much at home.
And like everyone else, I remember every detail of when I heard the terrible news. Al had called Coach Bryant's secretary, Linda Knowles, to see how Coach was doing. We had heard he was making a great recovery. Word wasn't out yet, but Linda knew. She told Al. He came to my office door (I was on the phone trying to get some recruiting news) and said he had to talk to me. I have never -- before or since -- been more stunned.
The following days are a blur. I remember time at the Bryant home. I had to get in touch with Sang Lyda, who was a trainer with the basketball team en route to Los Angeles for a game against UCLA. People were coming from out of town, but no one seemed to know what to do. The Cotton Bowl delegation, some friends of Coach Bryant, Charley Thornton (who had been my boss at Alabama and was now at Texas A&M), and others gravitated to my house. We sat and we drank and we talked into the wee hours, remembering the most charismatic man any of us had ever known.
I can't explain why he was so great. Unquestionably, he was in that very, very small group of coaches who could be considered among the greatest ever. He wouldn't have the fame without the numbers, but he was so much more than that. He's one of those men you know would have been a general in the Army or a CEO of a major corporation had he chosen a different direction.
But he chose to be a football coach.
And he chose Alabama.