MULE': After The War Comes The Rat Race

Barry Krauss recounts the meeting many, many years ago.

"I walked in," he said, "and there was the greatest coach in football standing, waiting for me, with his hat in his hand. The fact that he had his hat off in our house made a big impression on my mother. She took his hat from him and put it on her head and had her picture taken with him. Afterwards, she said, ‘Coach, I love this hat. Do you mind if I keep it?' But Coach (Bear) Bryant wasn't taking any chances. He told her, ‘Mrs. Krauss, I'm afraid the NCAA wouldn't allow that.'"

We all know how that little recruiting foray of more than three decades ago ended up. A reminder shows up just about every New Year's when one of the most famous images of championship football is displayed: an airborne Mike Guman of No. 1 Penn State trying to crash land into the end zone a half-yard away and being denied by a rising Scud missile wearing No. 77 – Krauss of the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

The two teams swapped rankings at the finish of the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

It was a national championship won, at least in part, by Bryant's successful recruiting sortie to Pompano Beach, Fla. in 1974.

Bryant always had a knack for reeling in blue-chippers of a certain mindset – tough, focused athletes who could, and would, play in his single-minded program where winning and championships were not options but obligations. Evidence: Bryant's record six No. 1 teams.

Bryant was a seminal figure in Southern football, not only because he became the standard other coaches strove to reach on the field, but because he changed the culture of recruiting in the SEC.

Today's mad offseason proselytizing, the subjective grading of unproven prospects combined with the tabulations of matching them with the schools they sign with, the proliferation of recruiting interest from a shrug of the shoulders to a multi-million dollar industry are all the residue of Bryant's influence.

One of the salient points of the fawning, flawed, but still fascinating "The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant," by Allen Barra is the imprint Bear left on recruiting, and not just at Alabama where he had his greatest success.

Until Bryant entered the SEC at Kentucky in 1946, much of the harvesting of players was done by mail. If a kid answered with a ‘yes,' he was in. If the answer was ‘no,' another player down the street – or in the next town – might get the scholarship. One size more or less fit all.

"After the war, the rat race began," Bryant would later say, with a knowing smile, no doubt.

Before that, each SEC school of that time more or less had a certain area and most of the players there would gravitate to that program. Southern football coaches of that era spent the spring working on their golf games.

The Bear shook things up. Just because Kentucky was in the SEC didn't mean that its natural recruiting territory was the less populated Southern states, he reasoned.

Also, Barra noted, some Southern coaches had an aversion toward recruiting Yankees; Bryant would have recruited Eskimos if he thought they would win for him. With a little extra effort, he could tap into the rich recruiting fields of Ohio, West Virginia, and, most especially, the Pennsylvania mining towns with their tough second-generation boys of Eastern European stock.

In other words, if there was a good player to be had, Bryant thought he might as well help his program as anyone else's. That's how prominent football names like George Blanda, Bob Gain, Babe Parelli, Walt Yowarsky, and, later, Joe Namath came to be associated with Bryant.

And Bryant knew how to draw them to him. There was the force of Bryant's personality to consider, Barra said. Gain was coveted by, among others, Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh. According to Gain, Bryant won "by challenging me. It was master psychology – he read me perfectly. The others said, ‘We want you, we want you.' But Bryant sort of approached me with an attitude that said, ‘I think you're good, but are you good enough to play for me?' I bought it."

Former Auburn coach Pat Dye, once a Bryant assistant, still regards the Bear as "the greatest recruiter I've ever seen. When he set his mind to it, he got just about any boy he wanted."

Dye recalled the courting of a prospect named Joe Kelley. A much sought-after quarterback from Ozark, Ala., he attracted coaches from all over the country, including Nebraska's Bob Devaney, Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty, and, of course, Auburn's Shug Jordan.

Dye drove with Bryant down to Ozark to find the rival coaches already in the Kelley's living room making their pitch. Bryant walked in smiling and shook hands with all the Kelley family and friends, then greeted all his fellow coaches, who looked at him warily as they smiled back. After the introductions, Mrs. Kelley announced that she would be serving snacks to everyone. Bryant spoke up immediately: "Mrs. Kelley, you just stay put. I'll be happy to get you something. Would you like a cookie with your coffee?"

"Coach Bryant went right into the kitchen," Dye recalls. "When he called back to her and said, ‘Mrs. Kelley, how do you like your coffee?' the other coaches just stared. They knew they'd lost that recruiting battle."

---

Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net.


Tiger Blitz Top Stories