In the spring of 1989, Bill Curry was walking through a Tuscaloosa shopping center parking lot when he noticed an elderly woman staring at him.
Dressed to the nines, she stormed toward Curry and grabbed both his arms. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Coach,” she said. “Do you think we can win this year?”
Curry, entering his third year as Alabama’s head football coach, felt his voice shake slightly during his response.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “We’ll do better. I promise.”
It’s a moment seared in Curry’s memory. He had just won nine games, and would get Alabama to the Sugar Bowl by the following January. But by then, the university was moving on. Curry turned down an unattractive extension offer and skipped across the conference to Kentucky, far away from the type of people who assail football coaches in parking lots.
“It was utter conviction,” Curry said. “It was as if she were at the altar and she’s asking the choir boy, ‘Can you do it? Can you sing better? Can you get God to show up this time?'”
‘They had nothing’
Everyone in the South knew “God,” at least in a football context. He perched atop his metallic tower — “an edifice as familiar to Alabamans as the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville,” wrote Sports Illustrated in 1983 — during Crimson Tide football practice for a quarter-century.
Curry, a Georgia Tech alum and former NFL Pro Bowl center, first met Paul “Bear” Bryant at a college all-star game in January 1965, and had a chance to climb that tower while scouting for the Green Bay Packers a decade later.
“God almighty, that blew me away,” Curry said. “I go scrambling up those spiral steps and stand up there in the heavens with God himself.”
By that time, Bryant had spent two decades flipping a beat-up program into a “utopia,” to borrow a word from former ‘Bama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver.
In-depth analysis isn’t necessary when old coaches and players discuss Bryant’s legacy. The Bear simply was a better football coach than the men standing on the opposite sideline. As Alabama fans loved to say: Bryant could take his team and whip yours, and then take your team and whip his.
He was an innovator and a hard-ass. When assistant coaches questioned his seemingly ill-timed — but genius — decision to switch to the wishbone offense in the summer of 1971, he told them to shut it, or box up their belongings and hit the road. When star players failed to adhere to the program’s strict rules or became discontented, he watched them leave without blinking.
It was his way or the Interstate 20 highway — and his way was winning a hell of a lot more football games.
“Alabama’s an itty bitty state,” Oliver said. “And when he came, Alabama was down. They hadn’t won three ball games in the three years (actually four) before he showed up. Something like that.
“If he had gone to Georgia and coached 25 years like he did at Alabama, with the size of the state, the education system they have there, what have you … I’d guarantee you he’d have won 12 national championships. I believe that. I really, really believe it. Vince Dooley was there, what, 25? Won one. And he had Herschel (Walker).”
Gene Stallings arrived with Bryant as a defensive assistant in 1958. He remembered a run-down facility and an athlete’s dormitory without air conditioning: “They had nothing.”
Oliver and Mal Moore — a quarterback who went on to a lengthy coaching career and served as Alabama’s athletic director from 1999-2013 — hunted doves on the barren land that would eventually house Coleman Coliseum and a vast network of athletic buildings.
Despite the deficiencies, Bryant won. And won. And won.
He paid his assistants next to nothing, per Oliver. He treated his players like “dogs” in practice, per quarterback Richard Todd. But they all had a good reason to stick around: you couldn’t beat Alabama once you left.
“X’s and O’s when I was at Alabama were no different than anybody else’s X’s and O’s,” Stallings said. “But the players thought they were. They felt having Coach Bryant on the sideline was a 10-12 point advantage.”
As former wideout and future Tide head coach Ray Perkins explained: “He was one-of-a-kind when we were coming along. It was an experience I’ll never forget as long as I live.”
Bryant’s reach extended past the gridiron and into a depleted region licking its wounds from a century of supposed inferiority. He orchestrated a renaissance that reinvigorated any Southerner who watched the Crimson Tide travel to Los Angeles and South Bend and Ann Arbor and come away victorious.
Thus, he quickly became a symbol of hope, and then of triumph, for the South.
“You need to understand the Southern male personality,” Curry said. “With the Civil War, a whole way of life was lost, and the Southern male was emasculated. Then you come on forward through the Depression and the image of the poor white trash. Uneducated. No teeth. All that stuff. The whole South was caricatured that way, and this inferiority complex had developed after the war.
“So for all these years, there was this animosity building: How are we ever going to get even? Then along comes Bear Bryant.”
Two hundred and thirty-two wins later, Alabama was the best program in the country, and The Bear was immortal.
The man who rescued the Crimson Tide from the clutches of mediocrity in the 1950s — and turned Alabama into Alabama — was not around to witness the disappointing seasons that followed his fatal heart attack.
Common sense said there was no direction for Alabama to go but down.
Perkins, a former wide receiver under Bryant, was tasked with keeping the dynasty rolling in 1983. He removed Bryant’s legendary tower, killed off the wishbone and even replaced the longtime play-by-play announcer … but failed to escape the comparisons.
This is what The Washington Post wrote of the new coach before he’d called a single game:
Perkins is not legend, not yet, and folks in Alabama welcome the day he earns, like Bryant, a place above mortals, whether on a tower or while prowling the sidelines at the Sugar Bowl, national champions once again.
In 1984, Perkins’ second season, Alabama finished with its first losing record since the year before Bryant arrived. Perkins won 10 games in 1986, but skipped town after accepting a job offer from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Curry, who snapped the football to Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas after his Georgia Tech career, came next.
By the time he returned to the Alabama practice field as a head coach in 1987, he was confident he could handle the spotlight.
“I thought I was worldly wise,” Curry said. “I had spent a lot of time in the NFL. I had been through the players’ strike. I was a president of the players’ association. And I’d played in a bunch of Super Bowls, so I thought I knew all about big-time football.
“I was wrong. Big-time football is where it’s the most important thing in life. All day. Every day. That’s what you have at Alabama.”
Stallings brought ‘Bama back to the mountaintop in 1992, earning a statue of his own next to Bryant’s. He and Florida’s Steve Spurrier built one of the best rivalries of the decade, helping the SEC kick off the conference-championship era in style.
But Stallings was at the tail end of his career, and his 1996 retirement led to an uneven — and mostly forgettable — decade featuring four different coaches and a brush with the NCAA death penalty.
‘A divinity status’
On Jan. 3, 2007, Alabama hired Nick Saban.
In an “only at Alabama” moment, the introductory press conference the following day included the following question:
What would it mean for you to have a statue on the Walk of Champions and how soon can we expect it?
(Earlier in the presser, Saban mentioned his title at LSU, but made clear he was “not going to talk about what we’re going to accomplish; we’re going to talk about how we’re going to do it.”)
Saban guided the Crimson Tide to a perfect 12-0 start during his second season, and won the school’s 13th national title the next season. He added three more titles following the 2011, 2012 and 2015 seasons, and even got his “wishbone moment” when he hired embattled offensive guru Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator.
Now, when Bryant’s and Saban’s names are mentioned together, it’s often to compare their elite attributes. Saban — facing tower-sized expectations — has persevered to become a modern-day version of The Bear.
“They’re both great psychologists,” Todd, the former quarterback, said. “Tennessee and Auburn, they probably had as many good players as we did. I just think Coach Bryant could get more out of his players than the other ones could. It’s the same with Coach Saban.”
Said Oliver: “Nick’s smart enough to protect the work Coach Bryant did. He’s smart enough to know how to utilize everything about it. He does a lot of things that Coach Bryant did in making young men better people. Built on it and built on it. And the program is probably at its all-time high right now.”
Statistically, Saban has a strong argument over Bryant. He’s 12-4 in postseason games featuring two ranked teams (counting SEC championship games); Bryant was 11-8.
Saban won a national title in four of his nine full seasons, and is favored to win a fifth on Monday against Clemson; The Bear needed 16 seasons to get his fourth national title, and 21 to get his fifth.
But Saban is not going to spend 25 seasons in Tuscaloosa. He’ll make the permanent move to his Georgia summer home on Lake Burton one of these years, having built a modern-day dynasty on the foundation Bryant provided decades earlier.
He’s a Hall of Fame heavyweight, one of the best college football coaches ever. He’s just not quite the same institution Bryant was: “God himself.”
“There’s a divinity status about Coach Bryant that he never tried to earn,” Curry said. “Didn’t want it. But it’s a part of his legacy forever, and I don’t think anybody else is gonna match it.
“From that standpoint, it wouldn’t matter who it was. But from the standpoint of being a great football coach, all you gotta do is look at Nick’s record. I think it’s harder to win a bunch of games now than it was then. I think it’s just incredible what he’s done.”
‘Are you getting bored?’
I’d like to posit an idea in line with statements by several former Alabama coaches and players: There is no “Nick Saban vs. Bear Bryant.” Saban’s true battle is with a fan base that expects a title every single August; it’s with the standard that Bryant set, and the one that Saban himself has enhanced; it’s with a country of football fans waiting for the slightest sign of weakness so they can tear him down.
When the history books explain how Saban’s and Bryant’s legacies stack up, they’ll have a tough time delivering a verdict, no matter how many more championships Saban wins before retiring to his lake house.
“I don’t think it matters,” Curry said. “I don’t know if it matters to Nick or not. It shouldn’t matter. What he wants to do is do a great job for his guys and win as many championships as he possibly can and make everybody behave and graduate. By golly, he’s doing it.
“If you’re gonna be one of those great, great coaches, No. 1, you’ve gotta have the tenacity … there’s no word to describe the intensity that guys like that have. (Vince) Lombardi was like that. Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas were like that. If you’re gonna be the greatest of all time at your position or skill, then you’ve got that stuff in you that won’t let you back off. Bryant and Saban both have it.
“So why not let that be good enough?”
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A couple days before the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve, Curry attended an awards banquet with Saban, Washington coach Chris Petersen and their wives. The former Alabama coach walked up to the current one and nudged him on the shoulder.
“Are you getting bored, just winning every game?” Curry asked.
Saban looked at Curry with disbelief and replied, “It is so hard.” As Curry grinned, Saban repeated: “It is so hard. The expectations are so high.”
Curry issued a response that Alabama coaches — himself included — have rarely heard over the past 34 years:
“Yeah, but you’re meeting them.”
He caught a flicker of expression on Saban’s face as he left the Alabama coach to finish his meal.
“I think he almost smiled,” Curry said. “Almost.”