By Drew Taylor
The Tuscaloosa News
Two days before he died, Paul W. “Bear” Bryant met with Walter Lewis in his office at the University of Alabama to discuss words they had in the heat of the moment.
A few weeks before, Bryant was leading Alabama against Illinois in the Liberty Bowl during the last game of his career. For Lewis, Alabama’s first black starting quarterback, the game was an emotional experience, not just because he expected to win, but because everyone wanted the longtime Alabama coach to go out on a high note.
During the 1982 season, the team faced a number of disappointments, including a 23-22 loss to Auburn during the Iron Bowl, famously referred to as “Bo Over the Top” after Auburn running back Bo Jackson jumped over Alabama’s defensive line to score the game-winning final touchdown.
“Everyone was really down because we had lost (four) games that year,” Lewis. “Everybody wanted to win because of that, but at the same time, we wanted Bryant to go out as a winner as well.”
During the second half of the Liberty Bowl, the game intensified after Lewis threw an interception. After Alabama was able to get the ball back, Bryant called a timeout on third-and-one to substitute two players on offense. Bryant’s decision caused Lewis to get angry because they were players he did not trust on the field.
To this day, Lewis does not remember who Bryant put in for that play, but he does remember getting in the coach’s face, telling him what he thought needed to be done.
“I was really disrespectful to him,” he said. “At that time, I wanted it my way and that was the way that it needed to be.”
However, Bryant responded in a way Lewis has not forgotten since: The coach grabbed him and started tapping his finger on Lewis’ chest as he looked him in the eye.
“He looked at me and said ‘Hey, you’re not the leader of this team. I am,’ ” Lewis said. “Right then and there, he got my attention.”
In that moment, Lewis realized he had put himself in a position he did not need to and had shown disrespect to his mentor. The team ultimately won the game, 21-15, but business between the two men was not done yet.
Before Bryant died, Lewis visited the Crimson Tide coach in his office to apologize for what he said. Bryant was not upset with him, but realized Lewis was coming into his leadership role in that moment, something Bryant had been teaching him all along.
“He said ‘Walter, you know, that’s a part of the game,’ ” he said. “That’s just the way it is sometimes.”
On Jan. 26, 1983, Lewis was walking out of class when he received the news that Bryant had died earlier that day of a heart attack at Druid City Hospital. Lewis heard the news from one of the cheerleaders.
“I was really in shock,” he said. “I didn’t want to accept it or believe it.”
Friday marks 35 years since Bryant’s death. He died less than a month after retiring from Alabama with 24 years at the university and 46 years of coaching in total. Despite time that has elapsed since Bryant’s death, many players, colleagues and writers not only remember where they were when they heard the news, but still hold onto fond memories and lessons from the man.
“You can’t imagine how many people’s lives he influenced in a positive manner, not just the players, but the people,” former Alabama quarterback Joe Namath said.
A mentor and friend
Namath, who served as quarterback for the Crimson Tide between 1962 and 1964, was in Dallas working on a theatrical production of “The Rainmaker” when he received a call from longtime Alabama trainer Jack “Hoot Owl” Hicks about Bryant’s death.
Namath was stunned.
“I remember when he told me, we were just quiet, just stunned,” Namath said. “We just sat there quiet, which was very abnormal.”
Beforehand, Namath had seen Bryant not long before he retired. He, Bryant and former Alabama linebacker Lee Roy Jordan were having lunch together when Bryant told them that since he would be turning 70 years old, he would likely be retiring from football soon. However, Namath said what Bryant said next ironically came true not long after.
“In that voice, he said, ‘I stop coaching, I’ll probably die within a year,’ ” Namath said. “I don’t know if it was that exact year, but that’s the way he felt about it. Football was his life, along with his family, but football was most of what he loved.”
Like many former players, Namath made the trip to Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham to say goodbye to his coach. In addition to Namath and many other players, thousands of people turned out at the cemetery to offer their final condolences.
“We were all part of a sad, sad day, saying goodbye and full of a lot of love,” he said.
Despite leaving Alabama and having the kind of career in sports and media that made him a national celebrity for decades, Namath said he still treasure his time with Bryant, from the team trips on the plane sitting next to him to little moments where they would talk about life.
“He did that with many players,” Namath said. “Every era he coached, he took time to figure out how his people were doing.”
Through the years, Namath and Bryant kept in touch, something Namath said he is grateful for.
“When you make your way traveling the road, you’re lucky when you find some mentors, some folks who care and will help teach you things,” he said. “You have to put effort in to do some things, maybe not the way you want to do them, but trust it’s the right way to go. He gave everyone the chance to do it the right way.”
For Namath, who has come back to Tuscaloosa at least once a year since his college playing days, the first lesson Bryant taught him happened in the first meeting with the team his freshman year. Upon hearing that lesson, Namath was admittedly confused.
“One of the things he said was that as a football team, he was going to teach us how to keep from losing,” he said. “I thought to myself ‘What? Keep us from losing? That kind of sounds negative.’ ”
However, Namath soon realized what Bryant was saying: that he was teaching the team how to prepare for games. However, this lesson was also applicable to life in general.
“He had so many wonderful ways of explaining to everyone how he thought it should be done and you sure better have done it his way or you were on your way,” he said.
Capturing a legend’s life
In a career spanning decades, John Underwood has interviewed and written about many athletes and coaches, but spending a year co-writing Bryant’s 1975 memoir, “Bear: My Hard Life & Good Times As Alabama’s Head Coach,” was an experience that formed a lasting friendship.
“He was a special human being and I still feel that way,” Underwood said.
Underwood, a former writer for Sports Illustrated and other publications, first came into reporting and writing about Bryant after Little, Brown and Co., a publishing house, wanted him to work with Bryant on a book. During one of their first meetings together to talk about the book, Underwood set up some guidelines.
“One of the first things I told him was ‘You have to understand that when we work on this, you got to answer everything I ask,’ ” Underwood said. ”‘You can’t dodge things because not only will it look bad in the finished product, but it will make you look bad, as well as me and the publisher look bad.’ ”
To his surprise, Bryant was remarkably candid with Underwood about his life, a process that would go on throughout the book.
“He didn’t shy away from answering everything,” Underwood said. “He believed in college football as a great American tradition that shouldn’t be wasted away or defiled by people who were not of the best qualities.”
In terms of their public attraction, Underwood compared Bryant to Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams, another sports icon he collaborated with on books.
“When he walked into a room, people paid attention,” he said. “Ted Williams was the same way, not because they were big guys, but they had that aura about them.”
Underwood and Bryant’s friendship also played a part in Underwood’s family.
“When he met my wife-to-be, he said, ‘You have to marry that girl,’” he said. “I couldn’t turn him down, could I?”
Underwood ultimately could not go to Bryant’s funeral due to work obligations, but grieved in his own way as he wrote a tribute to Bryant in Sports Illustrated.
“I did a piece for the magazine when he died and I remember having a tear in my eye as I wrote it because he became a special person to me, just like Ted Williams,” he said.
Today, Joey Jones regrets not taking up an offer by Bryant shortly before he died.
Jones, a wide receiver for the Crimson Tide during Bryant’s last year at Alabama, saw Bryant at Coleman Coliseum a couple of weeks after the Liberty Bowl. As the team was ending its winter training, Jones and Bryant shared an elevator and talked about fishing, one of the few times Jones said he had private time with the coach.
“He said ‘I heard you like to bass fish,’ and I said ‘Sure,’” Jones said. “He added that his son had a few ponds on his land and that whenever it warmed up, we should go fishing.”
Jones and Bryant never got to go fishing, something Jones regrets, among other things.
“I was looking forward to the time to sit down and talk with him,” he said. “That never happened.”
Jones first heard the news about Bryant’s death over the radio as he and teammate Mike Adcock were stopped at a red light in front of the football stadium.
“We had heard he had gone to the hospital for a checkup, but then that news came out,” Jones said. “It was devastating.”
Going to the burial in Birmingham, Jones was struck by the number of people who stood by the side of the road in Bryant’s memory, holding signs along the interstate overpasses.
“It was probably the most awesome event I had ever seen in my life,” Jones said.
In many ways, Jones feels like Bryant taught him about how to be a man, something that parlayed to his future as a football coach, starting as an assistant coach at Briarwood Christian High School and later culminating in his decade as the head of the University of South Alabama’s football team.
“He was very fierce competitor, but he always did it with class,” he said. “I took that with me.”
Like many of Bryant’s former players, Jones said he believes the emotional investment he had in his teams had an effect on their performance.
“He taught me to have confidence and believe in myself,” he said. “As far as anything else, he would believe in others to the point that they would believe in themselves.”
Succeeding the Bear
In 1983, Ray Perkins had a huge task ahead of him: replacing Bryant as the Crimson Tide’s new coach.
Perkins, a wide receiver who started for Alabama from 1964-66, had been working in the NFL for several years up to that point and was then the head coach of the New York Giants. However, coming back to Alabama was a dream for Perkins, something he made known his first year in New York during an interview with former Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey) sports writer Dave Klein.
“He asked me specifically ‘What would you do if Alabama came calling?’ and I told him ‘I would walk to Tuscaloosa,’” Perkins said.
Despite the pressure of following Bryant with the team, Perkins considered it an honor.
“I had always wanted to be the person that followed him,” he said. “It wasn’t so much the job I wanted, but following the man that was in charge of the job.”
For Perkins, 35 years has been a long time to forget certain things about his last days with Bryant. He remembers seeing Bryant a few days before he died, but little else and nothing that would have indicated Bryant’s failing health.
“He was moving around a little slower, but that’s what we all do when we get a little older,” he said.
Nonetheless, he remembers how unexpected Bryant’s death was to him.
Over the years, people have overlooked what Bryant did for the families of his players, Perkins said. In the 1970s, Bryant established a scholarship fund to help players’ family members and children attend the University of Alabama. Since its inception, nearly 1,000 children of former Crimson Tide players have gone to college at UA through the fund, including Perkins’ two sons and a daughter.
“He was doing a lot more thinking forward than anyone ever dreamed of,” he said. “He was such a great caring individual about the players and families.”
Perkins said Bryant gave him some advice about how to lead the team, but that he gave him enough freedom to do things his way. Nonetheless, what stuck out to Perkins was the interest Bryant took in the people close to him.
“He wasn’t just a great coach, but he took an unbelievable interest in the young people that he was responsible for and he expected them to do a lot better than they ever dreamed and he went about his business that way,” he said.
To Perkins, people like Bryant do not come along often in life.
“He was an incredible person and to be in his presence was just an absolute honor,” he said. “He’s just a good, good, good man, through and through.”
Reach Drew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0204.