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GAMEDAY: What Might Have Been

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By Larry Guest | Special to TideSports.com

This is an excerpt from a chapter of the book “Sports Icons ’R Funny ” by Larry Guest offered exclusively to The Tuscaloosa News and TideSports.com. The book, which also has chapters with inside stories about Joe Namath, Mickey Mantle and Shaquille O’Neal, among others, is available on Amazon.com and in e-book format on Kindle.

Of all the favored “Bear’s boys,” Steve Sloan, road-game roommate of the famed Joe Namath, was near the top of the list. Sloan played and coached under Bear Bryant and was tapped by the Coach to be his successor when time came to retire – a plan that went awry.

Whatever Coach wanted, Sloan typically was all too willing to provide.

Except on one occasion. After Sloan spent time as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, Bryant heard that Sloan had been offered the head coach job at Vanderbilt, the SEC’s long-running football doormat. He called and said he assumed Sloan would resign as a Georgia Tech assistant and take the head job at Vanderbilt. Sloan said he planned to turn down the offer, noting that legendary former Tech coach Bobby Dodd had advised him not to take the job at what many considered was a coaching graveyard.

“No, you’re gonna take the job,” insisted Bryant, who saw it as a way for Sloan to gain some head coaching experience for the role he envisioned for Sloan.

“Well, Coach —”

“What’d you say?” Bryant countered firmly.

“I said I think that’s a good idea.” Sloan typically relented to The Bear and was head coach at Vandy the next three seasons, leading the Commodores to their first two bowl appearances in decades. Impressed, Texas Tech lured him away and a couple of years into that stint, Coach Bryant called to make him a secret promise that has long remained the subject of rumor and speculation.

“He told me he would be retiring the next year and that I would get the (Alabama) job,” Sloan said.

Sloan recently affirmed in an interview for this book. A year passed and he heard nothing further, so when Sloan was offered the job of head coach at Ole Miss he accepted. Bryant called on the eve of the official announcement as soon as he heard the scuttlebutt. Three decades later, Sloan recalls the dialog as if yesterday.

“Listen, I heard you’re going to Ole Miss.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No. I want you to take this job instead.”

“Coach, I’ve already told them I accepted. I can’t just back out.”

“Awwww, they won’t care.”

Sloan kept his word to Ole Miss and spent the next five years trying to rebuild that once-proud football program when he could have inherited the gilded throne at his alma mater.

“Well, I wouldn’t have been a good replacement for him,” Sloan now rationalizes the only time when he chose not to follow the Bear’s personal dictum.

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A defensive back and quarterback, Sloan was a veritable pipe cleaner by body type, but a gifted athlete and tough. “Tough as a skinned mule,” Coach Bryant liked to say. (Old Nosy Here once asked him what a skinned mule was and what made it so tough. He laughed and said, “That’s just a sayin’ we used to have back in Moro Bottom (Arkansas).”)

The humble, engaging Sloan, now retired in Orlando, was and remains deeply respectful of Coach Bryant and vows he was the greatest motivator of athletes and staff he’d ever been around. Even when it cost Sloan his six front teeth.

Bama was undefeated midway through the ’64 season when they made the short trip to Starkville, Mississippi, to play what was then one of the league’s lesser teams, Mississippi State, with Sloan at the controls and Namath nursing a knee injury. State didn’t win many games during that era, but they were known for their tough, hard-hitting defense. “And they didn’t like quarterbacks,” Sloan muses.

With a small lead in the third quarter, Sloan ran a quarterback keeper to the sideline where he was blasted by a State linebacker and knocked under the Alabama bench. His helmet flew off and a telephone cord – communication to coaches in the press box – was wrapped around his neck. As he struggled to get untangled and back on his feet, he discovered his mouth was bloodied and team trainer Jim Goosetree rushed to investigate. The Bear quickly interceded, shoving Goosetree aside, and asked Sloan what was the problem.

“I think I hurt my mouth,” he said, wiping away blood.

“Lemme see,” said the Coach, who peeled back Sloan’s upper lip and rendered his diagnosis: “It’s just a chipped tooth.” With that settled, he sent Sloan back onto the field. (“I don’t think we even took a timeout. It all happened that fast,” Sloan recently recalled.)

Alabama held on for a 23-6 victory and retreated to the visiting team’s locker room, typically stark and uninviting dungeons in those days. Sloan, his mouth throbbing, found a broken, triangular piece of mirror taped to a wall and took a look at the damage. He was shocked to discover his six front teeth were either broken or knocked out completely. Haltingly, he went to the coaches’ dressing room to seek The Coach.

“I never tried to initiate a conversation with Coach,” Sloan noted. “But this time, well, I said, ‘Coach, I just looked in the mirror and I’ve lost, basically, all of my front teeth.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll buy you some new teeth on Monday.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ End of conversation.”

Sloan still sports that gleaming white row of six Bear teeth at the top of his ever-ready smile.

Later, in his third year as an assistant coach under Bryant, Sloan was given the game-day assignment of calling plays from the press box. He’d phone down to the sideline the next play or make a player substitution through another assistant, Jimmy Sharpe, who would then send in the play or substitute.

“When Joe and I were the quarterbacks, we called our own plays. So this was something of a new trend, especially to Coach Bryant,” says Sloan. “It was kinda funny in one respect. If the play I called worked, Coach would just stare ahead. But if the play didn’t work, he’d turn around and look up at the press box with a scowl. I’d sort of try to duck down behind the counter.”

At the end of that 1970 season, in the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston against the Oklahoma Sooners, things got a little bizarre. Sloan’s communication from the press box was almost exclusively to Sharpe.

But during the close game, Bryant, who was going for his 200th career win, took the headset from Sharpe and instructed Sloan: “We gotta get (Ron) Durby in the game!” You never told Coach Bryant you couldn’t do as he instructed, but in this case Sloan was conflicted as to what to say. But Durby, a very good offensive tackle in his day, had graduated five years earlier and Sloan knew at that time Durby was a lawyer (and later a judge) in Chattanooga. “I said, ‘Coach, I don’t know if we can do that or not.’ Well, that was the wrong thing to say. About five or six strong words from him, I was made to understand that we had to get Ron Durby in the game. I looked all around in the press box to see if Durby was there. What is funny is that Coach never mentioned that again. Nor did I.”

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Sloan recalled another anecdote with a religious aspect. A strong Christian and daily reader of the Bible, he had taken the job of offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and was heavily involved in recruiting after that first season, working 14 hours a day. A call came in from Coach Bryant, who was attending the national college football coaches convention in Chicago. He wanted to know if he could ask Sloan a question. “Of course,” Sloan assured. “Go right ahead, Coach.”

“No, I want to ask you in person. Get on a plane and come up here to Chicago.”

Sloan protested that he was dog tired and in the middle of recruiting and hadn’t planned to attend the meeting in Chicago.

“No, you come up here tomorrow. I’ve got an important question to ask you,” the Coach persisted.

Sloan sighed and agreed. Next day, he flew to Chicago, took a cab to Coach Bryant’s hotel and went to his room. “In the Christian faith,” the coach began, “how does a man’s works come into it?” (Many believe a person’s good works while alive are enough to make it to heaven, whether or not they had formally accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.)

There was a Gideon Bible in the room and Sloan opened it to Ephesians 2: 8-9 and read: For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves. It is the gift of God. Not by works so that no one can boast.

“So no matter what you do, salvation’s grace is a gift,” Sloan explained.

The Coach pondered that a moment and said, “OK. Thanks.”

With that, Sloan cabbed to the airport and flew back to Atlanta. All on his own dime, of course. And that was fine. Whatever Coach Bryant wanted. Except to go back on his word to Ole Miss.

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After I joined The Orlando Sentinel in 1973, my new bosses picked up from my scribblings that I had good access to the famous Alabama coach. So they assigned me to cover a game in which Alabama would play host to then-woeful Florida State in Tuscaloosa, primarily to collect material for a lengthy feature story on The Bear.

I called and asked if I could have some time with him in the hours after the mid-afternoon game to flesh out the feature story. With Alabama a four-touchdown favorite, it figured that he would be in a good mood after the expected rout. But Florida State didn’t cooperate. The pesky Seminoles jumped in front and were still leading late in the second half. Alabama pulled out a narrow victory, but Coach Bryant was mortified at what was nearly a monumental, embarrassing upset.

His somber, irritated comments in the postgame press conference was what you’d expect from a coach who had just lost, 35-0. I figured my appointment to visit him in his home that evening was out the window. At the close of the press conference, I caught his arm and offered that, under the circumstances, we could do the home interview some other time. He shook his head, jotted down his address in my note pad and told me to show up about 7:30.

When I arrived, the Bryants and another couple had finished dinner and were having ice cream while listening to the radio broadcast of an important SEC game matching two of his former players, LSU coach Charlie McClendon and Tennessee coach Bill Battle.

After the ice cream, the LSU-Tennessee game reached halftime and Coach Bryant ushered me into his study for our rambling interview. I kept noticing over his shoulder a framed, abstract painting that seemed vaguely familiar. I asked him about it. “Some guy painted it and sent it to me. Mary Harmon framed it and hung it up in here,” he said with a shrug, as if it were of little consequence.

I asked to take a closer look and it suddenly hit me: It was one of the many paintings Sports Illustrated had commissioned, to use as cover art for their issues on major sports events. This particular one depicted Alabama’s deciding touchdown in an epic game against Tennessee. The “some guy” was legendary sports artist LeRoy Neiman.

There over Bear’s shoulder was a near-priceless oil by LeRoy Neiman.

Some guy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: After stints at the Brookhaven (Miss.) Daily Leader and Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, Larry Guest moved to The Orlando Sentinel, where he was the paper’s syndicated lead sports columnist for 28 years until his retirement in 2000. He became one of the nation’s most respected and well-known sports columnists. Three times, he was voted by his peers the Sports Writer of the Year in Florida, a state blessed with a plethora of colorful and gifted sports scribes.

Two of his previous books, “ARNIE: Inside the Legend” and “The Payne Stewart Story,” made various best-seller lists. The other tomes were “Making Magic,” an account of Orlando’s acquisition of an NBA franchise with Magic exec Pat Williams, “Confessions of a Coach” with NCAA champion coach Norm Sloan, “Larry Guest Lite,” a collection of Guest’s more humorous columns, and “Built To Win,” with Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz. Guest and his wife Mary reside in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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