Years ago, two of the Southeastern Conference’s top young coaches – Bill Battle of Tennessee and Charley McClendon of LSU – had a conversation about their mentor, Alabama coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, a visit that Battle recalled in an interview with The Tuscaloosa News this week.
“Cholly Mac came up to me once at the SEC meetings and he said, ‘Bill, all they want to talk about is how many people he puts into head coaching jobs. They never talk about the ones he puts out,’” Battle said. “And it ended up happening to us, too.”
Bryant’s legacy and influence was such that 48 of his former players and coaches eventually wound up as head coaches in the collegiate or professional ranks. Of the remaining original member schools still in the SEC, nine out of the 10 schools – every one except Georgia – had a Bryant disciple at the helm at some point. (History has a funny way of repeating itself, as Nick Saban is placing former assistants in head coaching positions at a similar rate today.)
This weekend, when Alabama travels to Texas A&M, another branch of the Bryant coaching tree will be celebrated. The Aggies are honoring their 1967 Cotton Bowl championship team on the 50th anniversary of their Southwest Conference title and upset of Alabama in Dallas to end the season. Gene Stallings, who played for Bryant at Texas A&M, coached that team and, despite recent health problems, hopes to be in attendance.
That’s just another indication of the long shadow that Bryant cast over the coaching profession.
“Part of it was that he had such a long period of success,” Battle said. “He won in every era – the 1950s, the ‘60s, the ’70s and the ’80s. I don’t think people fully recognize the social changes that happened in America in those years, some of the biggest changes ever. From Lexington, Kentucky, in 1952 to Tuscaloosa in 1982, that’s a huge difference, but he was always able to be successful. So the people who worked with him were part of something special.
“He did a great job teaching, of paying attention to detail. He didn’t miss a thing.
“I came here from a high school program that won six games in three years. The big headline in the paper my senior year was “West End Finishes Successful 4-4 Football Season.’ So you can imagine what a change it was for me to come into his program. I learned absolutely as much as I could.”
There are seven active coaches today in either professional or major college football who either played for Bryant (five), coached on his Alabama staff (one) or served as a manager and student assistant with his team’s (one).
• Bruce Arians, the running backs coach at Alabama in Bryant’s final two years, is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He told ESPN in 2016 that his coaching philosophy is built on a phrase that he learned from Bryant over 30 years ago – ‘Coach ’em hard, hug ’em later.’
• David Cutcliffe, who was a manager and a student assistant for UA defensive coordinator Ken Donahue in the 1970s, is now the head coach at Duke.
“I watched tape with Ken Donahue for hours every morning before I’d go to class,” Cutcliffe said before an Alabama-Duke game in 2010. “I took advantage of every opportunity I could to see how Coach Bryant managed the staff, managed the squad. I’ve got books of notes that are very dear to me that I reference a good bit on things Coach Bryant talked about with big games, circumstances.”
When Mal Moore was hospitalized at Duke Medical Center prior to his death in March 2014, Cutcliffe would visit Moore on an almost daily basis and share Bryant stories.
• Sylvester Croom, an All-America center for Bryant in the 1970s, is now the running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans, where one of his protégés is former UA running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
“When I was an assistant (under Bryant) at Alabama, I wrote down a lot of things,” Croom told The News in an interview during his time as head coach at Mississippi State. “I still read them. I have incorporated a lot of it into the program. Even some of the old recruiting material they’ve got, hey, I take them and put them on our stationery. I’m not ashamed.”
• Amos Jones was a walk-on running back from Aliceville in the early 1980s at Alabama.
He took a job as an assistant coach when Arians was named head coach at Temple in 1983 and has served in both college football and the NFL. He has reunited with Arians and is currently the special teams coach with the Arizona Cardinals.
• Joey Jones was a wide receiver from Mobile’s Murphy High School and part of the 1980 Alabama recruiting class, playing three years for Bryant and one for Ray Perkins. He is back in his hometown as head coach of the South Alabama Jaguars.
• John Mitchell, who entered history as the first black player at Alabama in 1971, is currently the defensive line coach and assistant head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
• Mike Riley, a defensive back at Alabama in the early 1970s, is currently the head coach at Nebraska.
“I wasn’t a very good player,” Riley said on a recent Big Ten teleconference. “But Coach Bryant made me feel like I was. That’s what he did best. I appreciate that now, more than I did at the time, that it was a part of college football history.”
Battle says the Bryant disciples still in coaching 35 years after the man himself retired share one common characteristic.
“One thing I learned, though, was that no one could be just like Coach Bryant,” Battle said. “You had to be yourself. You weren’t going to be him. Now, some of the coaches who played or coached for him were more like him and some weren’t like him at all. But I had to be Bill Battle, Gene Stallings had to be Gene Stallings and so forth.
“I think the ones who are still coaching learned from him, but they aren’t trying to be him.”