There were times during University of Alabama football practice in the 1970s when you’d look around for Jack Rutledge, who coached the centers and guards on the offensive line, and couldn’t spot him right away. Then you’d take a second look and there he was — right in the middle of the drill. That didn’t mean he was standing there with a whistle and a clipboard.
It meant Rutledge had seen something he didn’t like — perhaps the center was tipping the direction that a play might go by the way he held the ball prior to snapping it. When that happened, Rutledge would toss his cap, bend over the ball and demonstrate the right way to do it.
There might be a scout team nose tackle lined up across from him, but Rutledge would get in position, snap the ball and fire across the line, right into the shoulder pads of that bemused freshman. He taught best, he would say, by showing, not telling.
Nonetheless, Rutledge was a great story teller, especially when reminiscing about his revered coach and mentor, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Many of his stories — some hilarious, some sentimental — were about the glory days Alabama enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s. Some have been written down by various authors or recorded on video for posterity.
Sadly, Rutledge passed away Thursday. He probably had a thousand more stories to tell, which is a loss for all of us.
Rutledge liked to talk, not so much about himself but about the two things he loved the most — his family, especially his childhood sweetheart, Norma, who became his loving wife, and his other love, Alabama football. Once he found those things, and they became a part of his life, he never let them go.
Rutledge could be tough. He came to Alabama as a highly-recruited fullback from Woodlawn High School in Birmingham but when Bryant arrived in 1958, he made the decision Rutledge could help the team more as an offensive guard. That meant playing both ways, offense and defense, for a coach who favored lean, tough linemen over bigger, slower behemoths. Rutledge filled the bill. He’d fight on even terms with players 50 or 60 pounds larger.
He was called “The Governor,” (pronounced “Guvnah,” as often as not). The nickname came about, not because of any aspirations to higher office but because his teammates decided Rutledge resembled former Alabama governor John Patterson. It stuck because Rutledge had the winning presence of a successful politician in those different days. He would smile, shake your hand, remember your name. That smile was his trademark.
In the later years of his career, he served UA as the director of the athletic dorm, Bryant Hall. The fit was perfect — Rutledge was a friendly father figure, but kept enough of his playing-day toughness to draw the line. Even after retirement, he would come to Alabama practice to watch, sometimes still wearing the tool belt he’d had on all day while helping his sons with a construction project.
He would chat about the team, the current one or the one he had played on 30 years ago. In my case, it was often about the Woodlawn days. He’d been teammates there with my father and loved to talk about it. But the conversations were never just about him, or the old days.
He’d unfailingly ask how things were going with me, or tell me about a column he had enjoyed. Both he and Mrs. Rutledge were always sweet, kind and sincere. He had a loyalty to his friends and his alma mater and to Tuscaloosa that never faded.
Jack Rutledge is part of Alabama history, a contributor to a glorious past, a rare breed of man. I just wish I could hear him tell one more story and share a laugh with him once more — a man I knew forever but realize today that it wasn’t long enough.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225
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