Like every other Alabama coach in the past 26 years, Saban has had to deal with the massive shadow of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.
Even Gene Stallings, one of Bryant’s former players and the last coach to direct the Crimson Tide to a national championship, has a record that pales in comparison to Bryant’s six national titles between 1963 and 1979 (That’s not counting the 1966 team that went undefeated but was denied the title by voters who went for Notre Dame and Michigan State instead.).
Bryant’s houndstooth hat, gruff demeanor and deep rumbling voice that issued a long list of memorable quotes made him perfect material for aspiring sportswriters.
“Momma called,” he said famously when explaining his decision to return to his alma mater. Later, after USC tailback Sam Cunningham shredded Bryant’s defense, he allegedly brought Cunningham into the all-white locker room and said, “This is what a football player looks like.”
Before the titles and his return home, though, Bryant had coaching stints at Kentucky and Texas A & M. While at A & M, he put his team through a brutal regimen in Junction, Texas to weed out those players who were not tough enough to meet his relentless demands.
The book is pure football macho, filled with lengthy descriptions of Bryant’s punishing workouts that pushed his players to verge of exhaustion, if not death, and his drinking at night with the other coaches.
Some moments are hard to read, like when Bryant viciously kicks a player who has nearly passed out. Even for those years, in which a coach’s authority reigned supreme, his actions seem over the line. In a reunion of the Junction survivors a quarter of a century later, the coach issues an incomplete apology which the alumni are all too happy to accept.
But the majority of the men who made it through the month in the dusty West Texas town knew they had accomplished something and were part of the foundation of a new tradition at a previously moribund program.
Stallings, Pardee and the other less heralded players went from a 1-9 record their first year, Bryant’s only losing season of the 38 years he was a head coach, to winning the Southwest Conference two years later.
At the time of his death, 28 days after he coached his last game in 1983, the only piece of jewelry on Bryant’s hand was a gold ring with the word, “Junction Boys.”
Saban is known himself for his fiery demeanor and tireless drive. While it remains to be seen whether he and this year’s version of the Crimson Tide will add to the rich legacy Bryant forged, it is clear that people wanting to understand the roots of that tradition would do well to read Dent’s book.