Once you get past the luster of the Bear's 323 career wins, you have to wonder what it is an old Cougar finds so irresistible about following in the footsteps of a guy whose career seems as much about racism as it is Xs and Os.
While George Wallace was standing in the classroom door forbidding African-Americans from setting foot inside and Bull Connor, Birmingham's so-called public safety chief, was turning fire hoses on peaceful Civil Rights demonstrators, good ol' Bear Bryant was the noble warrior whose all-white ball teams served as a symbol of the power of the Confederate Way.
As Emory University's Andy Doyle has written so persuasively of Bryant's field dominance from 1961-66, "Most white Alabamians saw Bryant as a virtual demigod who was able to salvage the honor of a society that was being forced to alter many of its most cherished traditions. Alabamians and other southerners saw Bryant's national championship teams of 1961, 1964 and 1965 as a vindication of white supremacy and a victory that they were unable to duplicate in the political arena."
PRICE IS GIDDY OVER BAMA WHEN HE SHOULD BE TREPIDOUS.
Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.
Wallace said it. Bryant lived it.
Bear didn't see fit to put a black man on the field until 1971. Given his bigger-than-life stature in Alabama, that sin of tardiness should rank as criminal. He and he alone could have advanced race relations in the South by a decade or more if he'd made the move before he was forced into it for competitive reasons.
Think about it.
That's two years after men first walked on the moon.
That's five years after the University of Kentucky broke the color line in the Southeast Conference.
Eight years after federal troops had to be deployed to get two black students into the University of Alabama.
Twenty-one years after Washington State broke the color line in football, and just one year before WSU hired George Raveling, a black man, as its head basketball coach.
Editor's note: We've taken a lot of heat for running this column, particularly from 'Bama fans who suggest we've made this issue up from whole cloth.
For another perspective on this topic, read the following column written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam that appeared on ESPN.com:
Ask Conredge Holloway about the man Mike Price is so thrilled to follow. Holloway was a star prep athlete in Huntsville once upon a time. He was destined to become a big-time college quarterback. Just not at Alabama.
"He (Bryant) told me up front," Holloway explained to the Knoxville News-Sentinel: There was no room for a black kid to play quarterback in Tuscaloosa. So Holloway, who to this day salutes Bryant's candor at the time, went to Tennessee.
CONTRAST THAT with the experiences of Duke Washington, a black kid from Pasco who came to WSU in 1951. He was elected team captain of the Cougars in 1954. Yes, team captain. In 1954. That's four years before Bear Bryant took over the Tide.
Rosa Parks was a profile in courage. Bear Bryant was a profile in going along and getting along.
That's what makes Price's remarks this week so pathetically naïve and stupid. Sure, Byrant was a marvelous football coach. Maybe the best ever. But is it really an honor to walk in the shoes of a man who was cautious when he had the power to be bold?
Bear could have blazed a truly admirable trail. He had the stature and he chose not to use it.
Don't get me wrong. By all accounts, Bryant's post-integration teams were a picture of equality. And times have certainly changed down South in a very big way. Alabama is no backwater scene from "Deliverance," and the University of Alabama is a vibrant institution serving people of all races and colors.
But then you cringe when you stumble across an Associated Press story about Bear's son, Paul Jr. --- the same guy whose private plane Price giddily boarded this week --- and a controversy involving the black caucus in the Alabama Legislature.
Bryant Jr., in line to be a trustee at the University of Alabama two years ago, found himself in hot water when a 1989 Esquire magazine article resurfaced. Bryant is quoted in the story making racially insensitive remarks. Specifically, he is alleged to have said the grandstands at the dog track he owns are largely populated with "a low-class, low-income crowd. ... Down here, it's generally your lower class of Blacks, your welfare Blacks, you want 'em to have enough room to get in and out, but at the same time you want to get as many in as possible.''
Sweet home Alabama.
The same 'Bama where head coach Bill Curry dared to put some emphasis on academics in the late 1980s and found himself such a pariah that he quit after his third season.
Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike.
BAMA IS NOT YOU. Do you really expect us to believe a nice kid raised in Everett idolized Bear Bryant?
I could understand revering John McKay, who took a USC team full of black players into hostile Birmingham in 1970 and kicked Bear's lilly-white Tide all the way back to Reconstruction.
Now that's something to romanticize about.
But you expect us to believe you were secretly pining all these years for a house in the segregated South of Bear's reign? You can't wax nostalgic about the glory and honor of Bryant without acknowledging the era he helped shape. Alabama was at the center of the civil rights movement and Bear was the most admired citizen in the state. By definition, his legacy cannot be limited to wins and losses.
THE PRIDE JUST must be oozing right now from kids like Marcus Trufant and Curtis Nettles, Cougar co-captains who happen to be African-American. And junior tackle Jeremey Williams must be busting his buttons, too. His dad Wallace Williams was a standout Cougar under Jim Sweeney; Bear Bryant would have told him he'd be better off up North at Michigan State.
Come on, Mike. Look beyond the Xs and Os.
You're too caring, too reasonable, too educated and too color-blind to have dreamt about coaching the Tide.
With all due respect, you're deluding yourself with all your flowery words in Tuscaloosa.
You didn't dream about coaching 'Bama. The truth is that you unexpectedly found yourself wanted by a perceived super power. It didn't matter which one.
And that nonsense about taking care of your family is so trite you should be inducted into the Hollow Cliché Hall of Fame. Is it really that important, at age 56 with all the kids out of the house, to make $1.2 million a year rather than $800,000 or $900,000?
Of course not.
Mike, you're the victim of a mid-life coaching crisis. You're like the guy, married for 30 years, who suddenly finds there's a good lookin' belle batting her eyelashes in that come-hither way.
'Bama is one of the "haves" of the college football world. An attractive babe, if you will.
And you've been a "have not" guy your entire life --- a hard-working, blue-collar type as a player at Wazzu and UPS, as an assistant at WSU, UPS and Missouri, and as a head coach at WSU and Weber State.
You just couldn't help yourself, could you?
A program the likes of which never, ever gave you even a passing thought finally glanced your way and you fell like a 17-year-old virgin.
Yes, Mike, they like you. They really like you. At least for the moment.
We loved you, man, but your behavior this week has killed us. We all expected better.
NOTRE DAME, MAYBE. Perhaps even a Nebraska. Ideally, a lifetime in Pullman.
Two weeks before the Rose Bowl?
What's wrong with you? Did you think for even a second about how abandoned all your players would feel?
The Cougar Nation is now threatening to let loose a chorus of boos the moment you set foot in Pasadena. They'll be quick to follow with heartfelt chants of DO-BA, DO-BA, DO-BA.
You, Mike, could have been the Bear Bryant of Washington State -- albeit a color-blind version.
Instead, you're off chasing your misguided youth with goofy notions about being the "second-greatest coach" in 'Bama history.
That's a sad final chapter to what was shaping up as the time of your life.
Cline is a longtime Cougar fan from Spokane.