Gene Stallings is a man of his word. Keeping that word meant so much to the former University of Alabama football coach (1990-96) that he defied doctor’s orders.
The 82-year-old Stallings suffered a major heart attack two weeks ago, but there he was Friday evening dressed in a suit ready to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his 1992 team’s national championship. He wasn’t going to miss a chance to reacquaint with his guys.
“A lot of people advised me not to do that, but I told ’em, ‘You go talk to somebody else because I’m going to go,'” Stallings said to reporters prior to Friday night’s celebration.
“You can’t believe how excited I am. First of all, just to be here. Literally. But to be able to see the players, the game is for the players not for the coach, and to be able to pay respect to the players, who had just an outstanding year, it’s a real thrill for me.”
Stallings has suffered two strokes and a heart attack in the last six months, but for the second consecutive week he’s attending a celebration for his former teams.
Last weekend in College Station, Texas, just a week out from suffering a heart attack, Stallings boarded a private jet and returned to his alma mater. Stallings played for legendary coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant at Texas A&M and also coached the Aggies. He returned to honor the 1967 Texas A&M team that won the Southwest Conference and defeated Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
What most saw as a struggle, Stallings viewed as a duty.
“Well it wasn’t any struggle at all. I had a responsibility and I was going to honor it,” he said. “So we didn’t really discuss it much with the doctors other than I sort of told them what I was going to do. They sent the private jet to pick us up and carry us down. As soon as the game was over, I left and went back. It was not a struggle, it was a real joy to be able to see the players. I was going to honor that just like I was going to honor this one.”
Alabama’s 1992 team won the first ever SEC Championship Game and was the first team in program history to win 13 games en route to a national championship season that culminated with at 34-13 win over Miami in the Sugar Bowl. That team’s defense is still remembered as one of the best in college football history.
“First off, what’s stands out about the 1992 team is we stayed healthy,” Stallings said. “Everybody who started the first game started the last game. That was a lot of the reason for our success. Then we got better as the season went on. I didn’t even give any thought to winning the national championship until we won seven, eight games. It was on a Monday night and we were watching practice and I said, ‘We’ve got a chance to win it all if we keep getting better and stay healthy’ and that’s what happened.
“First of all we had good players. Our scheme wasn’t necessarily any better than anybody else’s scheme except sometimes we did things a little differently. Our players were good players. We put pressure on the quarterback. In fact, it bothers me to go to a game now and see the quarterback sit back and sit back and sit back and sit back. That didn’t happen with that ’92 defense because our guys put pressure on the quarterback. If four couldn’t do it, we’d rush five. If five couldn’t do it, we’d rush six or seven. We made the quarterback throw the ball before he was ready.”
Stallings is anxious to see his former guys. He received phone calls from several after his health scares.
“I hear from them quite frequently,” he said. “I heard from quite a few of them and enjoyed every one of them.”
He said it was great to be back on Alabama’s campus.
“I had a heart attack a couple of weeks ago, had a couple of strokes before that so I’m literally excited about being back on the campus,” he said. “In fact, it’s a joy to see you guys. I’ve always had a good relationship with the media. In fact, when I retired from Alabama…guys who covered me regularly I held a little luncheon for them and gave them all a nice watch for the relationship that I had with them.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.