Stallings gives Tide houndstooth bite

JOHN EISENBERG

December 31, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW ORLEANS -- Bear Bryant is still alive, which is something of a surprise considering that he died from a heart attack almost a decade ago, not long after his 323rd win.

Alabama's houndstooth-hatted coaching legend no longer is around in body, but he remains a major player in college football. His lingering presence just might decide the national championship this season. (Working title for the movie: "Ghost II: The Coach.")

The Crimson Tide can finish No. 1 by beating Miami in the Sugar Bowl tomorrow night in their much-trumpeted tug of unbeatens, and it is barely a stretch of the truth to suggest the title would be the seventh of the Bear's unmatched career.

See, the Tide would never be in such a gainful position were it not that the school and its Type A football fans are still so ferociously committed to pleasing Bryant. Yes, even though he has been gone for almost a decade.

It's hard for outsiders to understand, but Bryant's spirit still blows with the power of a gale in Alabama. He gave the state a quarter-century of teams that won six national titles and four of every five games they played, and in return the people made him a deity. They have named a stadium, street, museum, dorm and conference center after him. It goes without saying that their intent is to accede to whatever he would have wished.

According to the story making the rounds, what he wished was for Gene Stallings to replace him. Stallings was on Tom Landry's staff in Dallas then, but he had played and coached for Bryant and believed wholly in the Bryant doctrine of defense and rushing, keeping your mouth shut and employing coaches weaned on Bryant's methods.

But then the Bear was dead six weeks after his last game, and the school went in another direction, hiring another former Tide player, Ray Perkins, who had built a name and an ego in the NFL and did not kneel to Bryant's myth. It was the beginning of a difficult decade.

Perkins tore down the icon that had been the practice-field tower from which Bryant ruled, and the entire state freaked out. Perkins' four-year record of 32-15-1 was considered disappointing, although the truth was that Bryant's last recruiting classes had left a spare shelf. In any case, the rise of rival Auburn coincided, and no one was sorry when Perkins left after a season in which school records for pass attempts and completions were set.

But that was only a warm-up for the discord that marked Bill Curry's three years as coach. The former Baltimore Colts center was a rising star, but had neither played nor coached at Alabama, and from the moment of his hiring was dismissed by most Tide fans and former players as an outsider who would never understand. Worse, he was from Georgia Tech, the Tide's great rival for years.

Curry and the president who hired him got stacks of hate mail. A brick was thrown through Curry's office window. Curry won 26 of 36 games and a conference title, and rebuilt the tower, but committed the sin of going winless against Auburn. He quit in 1990, tired of the baggage.

From chaos came order, though. Instantly. When Stallings was hired, then recruited a spate of Bryant disciples as assistants, it was as if the state had been slipped a colossal Valium. All was right again. Finally, here was The Right Move, a hire of which Bryant would have approved.

Stallings was tall, commanding and wore a sports jacket on the sidelines like Bryant, spoke in Bryant's slow, low drawl, and, most importantly, produced sound teams that resembled Bryant's.

After seven years of wandering, Alabama football was back where it belonged. And three years later, with Stallings' record at 30-6, the Tide is back in the running for a national title with a team that rests on a strong defense and a solid rushing game.

The truth is that Stallings is considerably different from Bryant, much warmer and capable of changing to suit the day. Bryant confessed to a reporter in the last months of his life that he essentially couldn't coach the modern player wearing an earring and talking trash. Stallings can, although he has little choice.

But forget the details; it is the larger picture that counts here, one almost eerie enough to make you believe in ghosts: Alabama was off-track until it found the coach who satisfied Bryant, and now look.

"People still talk about Bear Bryant all the time, so much that sometimes it's like he's still here," Alabama fullback Tarrant Lynch said yesterday. "I know one thing. If he really was, he'd be real happy right now."

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