Southern Pride In A Native Son – The Bear Bryant Legacy

Rex Nelson Archive PageIn “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer,” his 2004 book about University of Alabama football fans, Warren St. John described the highs that can come from the sport of college football.

“I always feel a mixture of misery and relief at the end of football season,” he wrote. “Like a boozer thrown in the tank for a forced dry-out, I miss the elixir even as I know that it does me good to go without. There is, after all, the not insignificant matter of having a life, of earning enough money to buy food and shelter, of doing all the things necessary, in other words, to keep myself alive until the next season. Pro teams continue to play for a few weeks after the college season ends, which helps ease the craving; but to mix addiction metaphors, the NFL for me serves as a kind of methadone; it’s football even though I don’t exactly care who wins – the drug without the high.”

That’s written like a true son of Alabama.

Beginning Tuesday, it will be methadone time. The college football season ends Monday night as Alabama and Notre Dame battle in Miami for the national championship. The television ratings should be huge as perhaps the game’s two most storied programs play for the title.

In most parts of the country, people will be rooting for Notre Dame, having tired of the Southeastern Conference’s dominance. Here in SEC country, where we hate each other during the regular season and then root for our conference brethren in the postseason (unless you’re an Auburn fan; in that case, you would never root for Alabama), most people will cheer on the Tide while hoping that the SEC captures a seventh consecutive national title.

My house will be divided.

I will be for Alabama.

My wife and two sons – all Catholics – will be for Notre Dame.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia during the 1960s and 1970s, the most important college football team in my life was Ouachita and the most important conference was the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. Arkansas, of course, was my team in the Southwest Conference. Alabama was the other college football team I followed closely in those days.

My father had played football at Ouachita in the 1940s with a south Arkansas native named Sam Bailey, a gifted athlete who would go on to become Paul “Bear” Bryant’s right-hand man. That gave us a bit of a family connection to the Alabama program. Bryant was, in fact, a childhood hero.

In November 1981, when I was a college student, I broadcast an Arkadelphia-Alma high school playoff game on the radio on a Friday evening and then drove through the night to Birmingham to see Bryant break Amos Alonzo Stagg’s record for the most wins ever for a major-college football coach. He did it in the nation’s most heated rivalry, the Iron Bowl against Auburn. Alabama had to come from behind in the second half against Pat Dye’s first Auburn team.

Not having slept since Thursday night, I decided to drive as far as I could after the game before getting a motel room. I made it only as far as Tuscaloosa before becoming too sleepy to drive. I still have the Sunday newspapers I bought the next morning. A print of Daniel Moore’s famous painting of Bryant on the sideline during that game hangs in my den. As an Arkansan, I’ve always taken pride in the fact that Bryant was a native of our state.

Alabama recruited the entire South during the 1920s and 1930s. After starring at Fordyce High School, Bryant played on Alabama teams that went 32-3-2 from 1933-35. Pine Bluff native Don Hutson was an All-American at Alabama in 1934 before going on to set numerous NFL records for the Green Bay Packers.

Wallace Wade won national championships as the Alabama coach in 1925, 1926 and 1930.

Frank Thomas won national titles in 1934 and 1941.

Come bowl time (there weren’t many bowls in those days), the entire South would root for Alabama whenever it headed west for the Rose Bowl.

On Jan. 1, 1926, Alabama defeated Washington in the Rose Bowl, 20-19. A year later, the Tide tied Stanford.

Alabama would go on to beat Washington State in the Jan. 1, 1931, Rose Bowl and defeat Stanford in the Jan. 1, 1935, Rose Bowl.

Alabama fell to California, 13-0, in the 1938 Rose Bowl. The Tide won the 1946 Rose Bowl, 34-14, over USC, making them 4-1-1 in the game.

Alabama has played more times in the Rose Bowl than any school outside the Big Ten or what’s now the PAC 12. It was Alabama’s success in the Rose Bowl that first put the Crimson Tide – and to a certain extent Southern football as a whole — on the national radar screen.

Given that history, it’s fitting that Nick Saban won the first of his national titles three years ago against Texas in Pasadena. Added to my lifelong fascination with Alabama football was the fact that native Arkansans of my age (I’m 53) were raised to hate Texas. I like Texas as a state (my wife is from there, after all), but I usually root against the Longhorns. The hook ‘em sign is an obscene gesture to Arkansans of my generation, and hearing the Texas fight song makes our blood run cold. My sons don’t understand this hate of all things burnt orange. To them, it’s irrational. To me, it’s natural. So it was sweet three seasons ago when Alabama vanquished Texas for its first national title in 17 years.

It’s important for the game of college football that certain programs be good. College football needs Notre Dame to be good. The same goes for Texas and Alabama. With the Tide gunning for its third national championship in four years, it’s easy to forget the long drought at Tuscaloosa before Saban was hired on Jan. 3, 2007.

Consider this:

  • Alabama was placed on probation in 1995.
  • Mike DuBose went only 24-23 as a head coach from 1997-2000 and had plenty of problems off the field.
  • Dennis Franchione left town after just two years for Texas A&M.
  • Alabama was placed on probation again from 2002-06.
  • In April 2003, it was reported that recently hired head coach Mike Price had spent hundreds of dollars at a strip club in Pensacola on the same night a woman from the club charged almost $1,000 worth of room service to his hotel room. Price was dismissed before ever coaching a game at Alabama.
  • Mike Shula had a mediocre 26-23 record from 2003-06 while committing the unpardonable sin of losing four consecutive years to Auburn.

Make the jump for the rest of the story.

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