Former University of Alabama assistant football coach Jack Rutledge, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 80, has been remembered for his playing prowess and his role as a coach or administrator on five national championship teams. But instead of rings and trophies, many of those in Tuscaloosa who knew him remember his broad smile and his love of people.
The smile was so infectious that it could sometimes turn away the most fearsome wrath, as former teammate Bill Battle recalled on Saturday.
“Jack was a year ahead of me, I think,” Battle said. “He was a great guy. Of course, he looked like Governor (John) Patterson so everyone sort of ran with that and the nickname just stuck.
“I remember one incident so clearly. Coach (Paul “Bear”) Bryant called a meeting, brought all of us in. Something had happened at the dorm (then at Friedman Hall) — water balloons or something, some sort of foolishness. Well, there’s Jack sitting in the front row and you just knew he was involved one way or another.
“If you ever talked with Jack, you know he talked fast anyway but if he got nervous, then he really talked fast. So he started explaining whatever it was and started talking so fast that nobody in the room could tell a word he was saying. Then Coach Bryant stood up and broke into this great big grin and said ‘well, why didn’t you just say so?’ The whole room just broke out laughing.
“But Jack has sort of defused the situation. That’s just the way he was. You couldn’t help liking him.”
Rutledge’s links to the Bryant legacy were important, and caused former UA head coach Gene Stallings to hire Rutledge for a second stint as the director of Bryant Hall, the UA football dorm, in the 1990s.
“For all of us young guys who didn’t play for Bear, the ones who didn’t have a lot of those memories, he served as the link,” said Martin Houston, a fullback on UA’s 1992 national championship team. “He led us back to Coach Bryant. He would tell us stories about those teams. He was always that connection.”
Houston said Rutledge’s first priority, even ahead of football, was family. However, he combined the two by serving as a father figure to many of the players who lived at Bryant Hall, during and after their playing careers.
“I got married early and moved out of the dorm,” Houston recalled. “He and Norma (his wife), they would still come and see us and gave us advice. They had gotten married young, so they would tell us what to expect. We formed a relationship that lasted over time.
“For me, there was another connection because we coached together at Tuscaloosa Academy when my son Xavier was there. Coach Rutledge was probably around 70 but the intensity was still there. He’d get right out there with those 16-year old kids and show them what to do. He just loved being out there. The stamina might not have been quite as much, but the intensity level and the sharpness were the same as they ever were.”
Dr. Gary White, a close contemporary of Rutledge’s in his own years with the UA football program, pointed out another little-discussed facet of Rutledge’s coaching skill — his ability as a recruiter — when White appeared on Gary Harris’ local radio show last week.
“He was an outstanding coach,” White said. “He studied it and he lived it. But he was also a great recruiter. He recruited Tony Nathan (who played at Woodlawn High School, Rutledge’s alma mater) and I was recruiting Jeff Rutledge (at Banks High School), so when they played that great game at Legion Field, there he was on one side and there I was on the other. We used to laugh about that. But he was a very good recruiter. He loved people.
“We were close for all these years. I’m going to miss him.”
Funeral services for Jack Rutledge will be Tuesday at First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa at noon with a private family burial to follow. Visitation will be at the church Tuesday from 10 a.m. until service time.
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