The Missing Ring

How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football's Most Elusive Prize

Keith Dunnavant

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

The Missing Ring
1. BROKEN PLATES
The door flew open, and the room fell silent.
"Nobody had to tell us to shut up," recalled Louis Thompson, a Tennessee farmboy seated somewhere toward the back. "You just knew."
As Paul "Bear" Bryant walked to the front of the Foster Auditorium meeting room on the first day of September 1963, he looked out over the gathering without saying a word, carefully studying the faces of his fifty-one newest recruits to the University of Alabama football program. He glanced at the big clock on the wall, above the blackboard, and started winding his wristwatch. It was so quiet, even the guys in the back row could hear the metallic tumbling of the stem.
Seated in old wooden chair/desks--which some of the more robust specimens found confining to the point of discomfort--the players looked up at their new coach, who loomed over them like a giant. With his chiseled face and towering frame, the charismatic Bryant, just eleven days shy of his fiftieth birthday, exuded an unmistakable toughness, even to a bunch of eighteen-year-old tough guys. Tough, after all, was a language they all understood. His steely eyes said, "Don't mess with me. I may be getting older, but I can still whip your scrawny little ass."
"Well, we're a little bit early, but we'll get started anyway," he finally said in a gravelly voice deepened by too many unfiltered Chesterfield cigarettes, a voice dripping with the sound of whiskey-drenched nights, a voice reverberating with tons of ambition and precious little regret.
After welcoming the newest members of the Crimson Tide and telling them to go back to their dorm rooms that afternoon and write a letter home, Bryant started talking about the importance of working hard, getting an education, and setting high goals.
"Look at the men on either side of you," he said, and heads immediately turned back and forth. He told the players that many of them would not survive the grueling days to come--that many would not be willing to pay the price.
At this suggestion, the very same thought shot through the mind of every one of those cocky young athletes: Not me! He's not talking about me!
"But," Bryant continued, his piercing eyes moving around the room, "if you're willing to pay the price and do the things I ask of you ..."
Then he challenged them to win the national championship, placing the ultimate achievement in college football within their reach but beyond their grasp.
Toward the middle of his little speech, Bryant noticed a player in the second row not looking him directly in the eyes. The coach walked up to the young man and slammed his large right hand on the player's desk with a loud crash.
"Boy, you look at me when I'm talking!" Bryant said.
"That was a message none of us would ever forget," recalled Decatur recruit Byrd Williams, seated nearby.
In the moments before Bryant walked through the door, the players had noticed that the old wooden desks creaked with the slightest fidget, so as they sat rapt, their eyes focused on him like lasers, the young men struggled against their own bodies to remain perfectly still. No one wanted to make a sound, even if it meant freezing in an uncomfortable position, even if it meant defying the laws of physics.
"I was scared to death I was going to move without thinking and that old desk would creak," Louis Thompson said. "I already had so much respect for Coach Bryant that I didn't want to do anything to displease him, so I sat there practically paralyzed, trying not to move a muscle."
Enormous power surged through all that motivated silence. All Bryant had to do was flip the right switch.
 
The obsession of an entire state began with one man and one football.
In the fall of 1892, after graduating from Phillips-Exeter Academy, the prestigious Massachusetts prep school, William G. Little returned to his home state and enrolled at the University of Alabama, then a sleepy military college. Twenty-three years after Rutgers defeated Princeton, 6-4, in the first intercollegiate football game on American soil, the sport was all the rage in the Northeast and Midwest, but it remained little more than a rumor in the Deep South. The athletic Little returned to the Heart of Dixie all fired up about the game, and, as far as anyone knows, the leather football he brought back from Massachusetts was the first ever possessed on the Alabama campus.
Soon after his arrival in Tuscaloosa, Little convinced a small group of students to form the University of Alabama's first football team. Naturally, he was elected captain, and a local man named Eugene Beaumont, who had learned about the game during his days at the University of Pennsylvania, was selectedas coach. On November 11, 1892, the Alabama contingent crushed a unit consisting of Birmingham area high school students, 56-0.
Over the next three decades, the Alabama football program slowly grew in scope and accomplishment, consistently producing winning teams and becoming a source of pride for the student body. In the early years, the team was often known as the "Thin Red Line," a moniker most historians believe was borrowed from a Rudyard Kipling poem of the day. In 1907, after watching Alabama battle cross-state rival Auburn University to a 6-6 tie on an extremely muddy field, Birmingham Age-Herald sportswriter Hugh Roberts referred to the boys from Tuscaloosa as the "Crimson Tide," and the label stuck. In 1915, when most players chose not to wear headgear, flimsy as it was, a fearsome lineman /fullback named W. T. "Bully" VandeGraaff became Alabama's first All-American. According to news accounts at the time, VandeGraaff was so tough and so tenacious, he once tried to rip off his own badly mangled and bloodied ear so he could keep playing against Tennessee.
The first truly great moment in Alabama football history happened on November 4, 1922, when the unheralded Crimson Tide traveled to Philadelphia and stunned the powerful University of Pennsylvania Quakers, 9-7. Some giddy fan whitewashed the score on the brick exterior of a Tuscaloosa drugstore, a reminder that could still be read more than twenty years later.
Acclaimed novelist Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, may have summed up the unlikely victory better than anyone else in 2000 when he wrote, "It was as remarkable to some as if today a team, from, say, Norway, came to Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama." Indeed, for in 1922, the South seemed like a foreign country to many in the North, who looked down on the poverty-stricken, largely agrarian, racially divided South as a bastion of inferiority in every human endeavor. In this context, beating Pennsylvania was more than a football victory; it was a triumph of the Southern spirit--proof that the South, that Alabama, could compete and win against the best of the North in football and perhaps other things, a provocative, radical thought at the time. The thousands of ecstatic fans who showed up at the Tuscaloosa train station to greet the returning warriors stood at the vanguard of a movement destined to sweep across the state. The Crimson Tide was no longer just a team. It was a symbol of pride, a symbol of hope, and in the years ahead, the vast majority of the state's residents would come to identify with it in ways many were not fully equipped to understand, bathing in the reflected glow of Alabama's glorious triumphs, and, in the process, feeling better about themselves and their beleaguered place in the world, when pride, like other life-sustaining commodities, was precious and hard-won.
The 1922 victory by the Xen C. Scott-led Crimson Tide gave Alabama its first taste of national notoriety, but the next coach, Wallace Wade, who arrived in 1923, fundamentally altered the program's arc. After capturing its second consecutive Southern Conference championship and finishing unbeaten and untied for the first time in 1925, 'Bama was matched against mighty Washington in the Rose Bowl, the only postseason game at the time. No one gave the Tide a prayer, so when the first Southern team ever invited to Pasadena shocked the Huskies, 20-19, on January 1, 1926, the news shook the sports world like an earthquake.
The victory gave the Crimson Tide its first national championship and strengthened the bond with its growing legion of fans, who could not help hearing echoes of the long-ago Civil War, which still cast a menacing shadow over their downtrodden corner of the world. When the Alabama train reached the South, it was greeted with huge throngs of cheering fans at every stop.
"We were the South's baby," remarked 'Bama end Hoyt "Wu" Winslett.
In 1926, Alabama finished another perfect season and was invited back for the second of six trips to the Rose Bowl, where the underdogs from Tuscaloosa tied Stanford, 7-7, to share another national title, a game broadcast coast-to-coast on the brand-new NBC Radio Network, spreading the fame of the Crimson Tide to every corner of the continent.
In the minds of sports fans across America, the name Alabama has been synonymous with excellence in football since the Roaring Twenties.
One of the most enduring dynasties in all of American sports, the Crimson Tide has claimed 12 national championships, more than any school except Notre Dame; played in an NCAA-record 53 postseason bowl games and won an NCAA-record 30 of those contests; finished 34 times among the nation's top ten since 1936, third among all programs; amassed an all-time record of 774-301-43 for a winning percentage of .712, fifth among all schools; won 10 or more games an NCAA-best 28 times; and captured 25 league titles, including 21 Southeastern Conference championships.
In the autumn of 1966, with the world and the sport on the brink of dramatic change, college football's most elusive prize tantalized one of the greatest of all Alabama teams.
After winning consecutive national championships in 1964 and 1965, Paul Bryant's loaded Crimson Tide entered the 1966 season with the chance to become the first team in modern college history to accomplish a threepeat--three straight years as the No. 1 team in the land.
Naturally, the Alabama players believed they controlled their own destiny, that they could write their names forever in the history books by winning everygame and successfully defending their crown. But they had no way of knowing that in 1966 at least, winning was not the only thing. They had no way of knowing about the invisible obstacle lurking ominously in the shadows.
 
The wagon always kicked up a cloud of dust. Even as he chased national championships at Alabama, that's how Paul Bryant would remember those formative days of his youth. In a cloud of dust.
Sometimes, during the frigid Arkansas winters, young Paul and his beloved mother Ida, all bundled up, heated bricks in the fireplace and sat on them to keep warm as the team pulled the wagon along the dirt roads of Dallas County. He hated this chore most of all, more than chopping cotton, more than milking the cows, more than plowing the fields in the heat of the Arkansas summer. The trip to their customers in Fordyce from their modest farm in the countryside took the better part of the morning, but it was not the boredom or the work or the exposure to the elements that bothered Ida's youngest son.
It was the hateful voices, because the children who invariably showed up to tease him about being poor had the power to make him feel inferior.
"Paul never forgot how that felt," said his sister, Louise.
Truly understanding the powerful 1966 football team is impossible without first examining and comprehending the life of the man who shaped it. Paul Bryant was not the greatest college football coach of all time just because he knew how to skillfully manipulate Xs and Os. His success was much more deeply connected to his mysterious ability to manipulate--and inspire--all kinds of players to reach.
Bryant spent his whole life running from those hateful voices, but the feelings of inferiority and hopelessness they spurred made him strong, not weak. As he grew into a powerful figure, all those feelings of emptiness and doubt inspired him to push himself, to reinvent himself, making Bryant one of the hungriest and most driven men ever to draw a breath.
The story of the 1966 Alabama football team is an extension of Bryant's untrammeled ambition. The story of the 1966 Crimson Tide is a reflection of the fire raging inside his soul.
When a huckster came to Fordyce and offered the princely sum of one dollar to anyone brave enough to wrestle a black bear, young Paul, big, strong, and reckless, jumped at the chance. Not just to make a buck, although the chance to earn a nice payday was a significant motivator for a poor boy who gladly worked all day chopping cotton to make fifty cents. The experience with the bear was not just some ill-advised adolescent stunt that earned him a nickname. It was a window into his soul. Then as later, the need to prove something--to others aswell as to himself--was a powerful force in Bryant's life. In time, it would motivate him to push so hard against the boundaries of his own potential that no one could ever again have the ability to make him feel small.
Stardom as a hell-raising high school football player defined less by raw talent than steely will gave Bryant his first taste of self-esteem, and the scholarship he earned to the University of Alabama--where he played end for Frank Thomas's Crimson Tide powerhouse, including the 1934 national championship team that knocked off Stanford in the Rose Bowl--represented his ticket to a better life, fortifying him from the need to ever again step behind a plow.
But he never forgot how it felt to be hungry. He understood hunger of all kinds, and he knew how to exploit it.
The man who once played the game of his life against Tennessee with a broken leg--yet always toiled in the shadow of the more graceful Don Hutson, destined to become one of the greatest receivers in the history of the National Football League--saw football as a metaphor for the human experience. In Bryant's Darwinist world, only the fittest survived, and the fittest were not always the most gifted athletes. In fact, he probably ran off more great talents than any coach in the history of the game because they refused to bend to his powerful will. Conversely, he loved overachievers who were not very gifted but didn't know it. The survivors of his rigorous physical and mental training always knew how to fight for every last ounce of potential, and if they got knocked down, they always got up.
"Coach Bryant was determined to push you so hard--physically and mentally--that one of two things would happen," said Howard Schnellenberger, who played for the Bear at Kentucky and later coached offensive linemen for him at Alabama. "Either you quit, because you couldn't or wouldn't bend to his will, or you kept on pushing yourself to please him and, as a result, you kept getting stronger, more confident, and more determined."
After building championship programs at Kentucky and Texas A&M, Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa in 1958 with a reputation as the most demanding coach in college football. If nothing else, his infamous Junction preseason camp at A&M branded him as a man who set the bar in the clouds--and was willing to live with the consequences. When two-thirds of his team quit, unwilling or unable to sustain the punishment, the Aggies were left incredibly short-handed for the 1954 season. But two years later, the survivors of those ten days in hell led A&M to the Southwest Conference championship, a turnaround inexorably linked to the high standard Junction represented. In fact, Junction as an object lesson would loom large in the Bryant mystique for the rest of his career.
Emboldened by the A&M experience and resolved to reverse the fortunes of a once-dominant program that had won only four games in three years, Bryant pushed his early Alabama teams relentlessly. More than one-third of the athletes he inherited from J. B. "Ears" Whitworth quit in the first year. Even fewer survived from his initial class of recruits. But, like the marines, Bryant was looking for a few good men, and the determined souls who persevered would lead the Crimson Tide to the 1961 national championship, laying the foundation for the most remarkable quarter-century in college football history.
By the time the Alabama coaching staff started scouting the players who would become the freshmen of 1963 and the seniors of 1966, the Crimson Tide was headed to a near miss in the fall of 1962. Behind the arm of sophomore quarterback Joe Namath and a defense, led by ferocious linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, that surrendered just 39 points, Alabama finished 10-1 and ranked fifth in both wire service polls. The single blemish came in the ninth game of the season, when No. 1-ranked, defending national champion Alabama lost a 7-6 heartbreaker to Georgia Tech at Grant Field in Atlanta. After scoring a touchdown in the closing moments, 'Bama opted for a two-point run to win, because Paul Bryant and the Crimson Tide didn't play for ties. It failed. But Bryant didn't pout. Instead, he made sure his men understood that principles have consequences.
Even as Bryant skillfully cultivated a neatly ordered world guided not only by rules but also by values, his character came under assault. After most of the incoming freshmen had signed to play for the Crimson Tide in the winter of 1962-63, The Saturday Evening Post published a bombshell story alleging that Bryant and former Georgia head coach Wally Butts had conspired to fix the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game, a 32-6 Tide victory. In the article, Atlanta insurance man George Burnett told a captivating tale about how he had somehow overheard--due to a telephone company switching error--a conversation in which Butts supposedly provided information about the Bulldogs to Bryant. Even though no one in Alabama believed a word of the story, and the Crimson Tide nation immediately closed ranks around their leader, who bought time on statewide television to categorically deny the charges, the scandalous allegation threatened to ruin Bryant's career.
While waiting for his libel case to reach a Birmingham courtroom, Bryant went on the offensive as a witness for Butts at the federal courthouse in Atlanta on August 8, 1963. After Butts's lawyer methodically destroyed the credibility of the Post and its primary source, Bryant took the stand and, as Walter Cronkite reported that night to lead off the CBS Evening News, "laid it on the line." Defiantly, he refuted the charges, charming the jury, portraying himselfand Butts as victims of an overzealous, irresponsible media organization. It had been little more than a year since the same magazine accused Bryant of promoting "brutal football" after an unfortunate incident involving Georgia Tech player Chick Granning. The fix allegation was far worse, because some things were sacred to Bryant. The Post, which bungled the fix story to the point of absurdity, never had a chance. Bryant owned that room, like all others. Several days later, the jury awarded Butts $3.06 million in damages, a record amount that would later be reduced by a higher court. Six months later, just before his case landed in a Birmingham courtroom, Curtis Publishing Company, owner of the Post, paid Bryant $300,000 to go away and issued a retraction. Instead of being permanently damaged by the whiff of scandal, the vindication actually enhanced the Bear's already large national reputation.
While Bryant was no saint--he struggled for years with excessive drinking and developed a reputation for skirt-chasing--he lived by a certain code of right and wrong, especially in the context of the game. The hurt of the Post ordeal would never quite heal, producing an emotional scar that would linger for the rest of his life. Football had made him--and, in a way, saved him--so the suggestion that he would participate in such a sinister, cynical betrayal of the game's most fundamental values--and, by extension, his own--hit him where it hurt. It wasn't enough that he was eventually vindicated on the facts; the mere suggestion that he would fix a game was an insult to his character, because he knew somebody, somewhere might actually believe it, despite the evidence.
"They gave Coach Bryant a bunch of money but they could never give him back what he thought he'd lost," remarked former player and assistant coach Charley Pell, who testified on his behalf at the Butts trial.
Although the Alabama players tried to put the business out of their minds, the article hit them all hard. The allegation was a challenge to the integrity of the whole program, and as the eldest members of the 1966 team arrived on campus as freshmen during the Butts trial, the fix story struck them as yet another assault on the state of Alabama by the national news media. The year 1963 was a turbulent time to live in the Heart of Dixie, especially if you happened to be black, and in the view of many white Alabamians, the national media was contributing to the unrest roiling the state, not just covering it.
With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the epic battle to destroy segregation and other forms of institutional racism and Governor George Wallace--who had been elected in 1962 on a platform of "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever"--marshalling resistance that often led toshameless violence, the image of Alabama as one gigantic battleground in the civil rights movement permeated the national news.
Bear Bryant's dominant Crimson Tide was one of the few institutions Alabamians could legitimately feel proud of in 1963, so the timing of the fix allegation helped shape the mentality of the boys of 1966, who learned the meaning of Alabama football while being conditioned to be skeptical of the national media.
 
The building of the 1966 Alabama football team began long before any of the players arrived on campus. The same forceful, larger-than-life persona that helped Bryant emerge unscathed from the Post scandal hung over every aspect of the program--especially in the hiring of assistant coaches.
Like all successful leaders, Bryant understood the critical importance of surrounding himself with good people. "I never hire anyone unless he knows something about the game I don't," he was fond of saying. But Bryant looked for more than men who were skillful with Xs and Os, because he could always find good tacticians and good teachers. He sought out men who had such characteristics but who also were hungry, men to whom winning meant something powerful.
"We all had different backgrounds, but the key was that we all wanted to win more than just about anything in the world," observed freshman coach Clem Gryska, a native of Steubenville, Ohio, who played for the Crimson Tide in the late 1940s. "In Coach Bryant's world, that was always the key. If you valued winning, you were likely to do whatever it took, and that's the kind of guy he wanted."
Determined to maintain his dominant aura and the same level of intensity in instruction, Bryant liked to hire coaches with previous connections to his programs, either as players or assistants. He liked to hire young coaches, men with lots of fire who wanted to show him something and move on to bigger and better opportunities. He liked to hire tireless strivers who could form a connective tissue between him and the team, men who could transfer their passion for winning to their athletes like a virus in the bloodstream.
"If you were a football coach and you had any kind of drive, you wanted to work for Coach Bryant in those days," said Dude Hennessey, a former Kentucky player who took a $1,500 pay cut to join the 'Bama staff in 1960.
Bryant tended to be a magnet for a certain kind of coach who wanted to prove he could measure up, and such men were more than likely to be intimidated by him and anxious to do whatever was required to please him.
Case in point: In 1963, Ken Meyer happened to be in the right place at theright time, which attracted Bryant's attention. But he won a job on the staff with initiative, by proving how much he wanted it.
The week before Alabama played Georgia Tech in 1962, lightly regarded Florida State earned a 14-14 tie with Bobby Dodd's Yellow Jackets, and Bryant and several of his offensive coaches were watching the film. The boss was impressed with some of the ways FSU was attacking with its passing-oriented offense, and he turned to assistant coach Pat James.
"You know anybody on the staff down there who could talk to us about what they did against Tech?" Bryant said.
James nodded and went off to make a call.
Some months later, when Bryant found himself with a vacancy on the staff, he collared James on the way out of a meeting. "What about that guy down at Florida State? They had some pretty good ideas. Why don't you give him a call ..."
Ken Meyer, who had served as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in World War II, surviving twenty-five missions into the heart of occupied Europe, had learned much about football and even more about high standards while playing for irascible taskmaster Woody Hayes at tiny Denison College in Ohio.
"It was right after the war, and Woody mashed us every day," said Meyer, born in Erie, Pennsylvania, the son of a lighthouse keeper who spent his formative years moving up and down the Great Lakes. "He got rid of the ones who didn't want to work. I didn't mind working ... didn't mind it a bit."
Meyer, who recruited future All-Pro receiver Fred Biletnikoff, Florida State's second All-American, recognized an opportunity when it coldcocked him upside the head.
A few days after a short telephone conversation with Bryant early in 1963, Meyer set out from his home in Tallahassee to meet the Bear for an interview in Pensacola. The Alabama folks had sent him a plane ticket, but he didn't like the look of the weather.
"There was no way I was going to miss my one opportunity to interview with Paul Bryant," Meyer said. "I really didn't think I would get the job. I just wanted to be able to say I interviewed with him."
Just in case the weather prevented him from reaching Pensacola by air, Meyer drove to Panama City and spent the night. A couple of hours before dawn the next morning, when he got up and started off for Pensacola, the entire Florida panhandle was covered in fog, and all the airports were closed.
The sun was still trying to punch a hole through all that fog three hours later when Meyer pulled up to the gate at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.Bryant, who had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander during World War II, had attended a banquet honoring Lee Roy Jordan up the road in Excel, Alabama, the evening before, and driven to the base to bunk for the night.
"Coach Bryant got in really late last night, and he's gone back to bed," the duty officer said.
"But I've got an appointment with him," Meyer said, insisting that the young gatekeeper wake up his famous overnight guest.
A few minutes later, Bryant appeared at the door, wearing his bathrobe.
"Hell, I got up early, saw this fog, and figured you wouldn't be able to get here," Bryant said with a grin. "So I went back to bed."
The two middle-aged veterans visited for a while, conversing about football, the military, and life.
"He didn't say it in so many words, but I think the fact that I did what it took to get there on time made an impression on Coach Bryant," said Meyer, who accepted a $1,000 pay cut to become Alabama's backfield coach. "That fog probably helped me get the job."
Meyer's determination to make his appointment, to live up to his obligation, to be as good as his word regardless of the obstacles, told Bryant all he needed to know about his character. Bryant surrounded himself with coaches who were prepared not just to teach, but to get the job done, somehow, and the impact of such intangibles on the 1966 football team would be felt from day one, helping creating a climate of discipline and commitment.
In some ways, the college football world the boys of 1966 were entering in 1963 had changed little since Bryant rode assistant coach Hank Crisp's rumble seat out of Arkansas and strapped on the pads the year Knute Rockne died. The rules limiting substitution remained strict, meaning one-platoon was still the order of the day. Rugged, multitalented souls with stamina and heart still carried more weight than studs with special skills. Freshmen still could not play on varsity teams. All of the southern programs remained lily-white, and most of the northern teams who had broken the color barrier continued to practice varying degrees of tokenism. Because the NFL was still fighting its way out of the dark ages, salaries for all but the biggest stars remained modest, meaning most student-athletes still approached college football as an end in itself rather than as a launching pad to professional riches.
However, the scope of college football was bigger. The game cast a larger shadow, thanks primarily to television and radio coverage, which caused more people to follow the sport. In 1961, Alabama's Denny Stadium was enlarged to 43,000 seats, more than three times its size during the days of those great Rose Bowl teams.
All the additional money from tickets, TV, bowl games, and such allowed programs like Alabama's to award large numbers of scholarships. It would be a decade before the National Collegiate Athletic Association ventured into the realm of scholarship limitations, and before the Southeastern Conference dipped a toe into that water in the late 1960s, Alabama routinely signed sixty or more players per year. The ability to bring in so many athletes gave Bryant the luxury of taking chances and also afforded him the opportunity to lock up some players just to keep them from signing with a rival program, especially Auburn.
"You could gamble a bit more in those days," said Clem Gryska, who recruited northern Alabama. "You might take someone who was borderline, if you had a good feeling about him, because you didn't have to worry about having only a limited number of scholarships."
Having so many recruits on hand at any given time enhanced his ability to push them all to the breaking point, because no matter how many players quit, there was always someone else willing and able to do whatever he asked, in order to move up the depth chart.
In addition to their on-the-field responsibilities, each coach on the Crimson Tide staff worked a specific recruiting territory. While Alabama trolled for players in the neighboring states of Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia, Bryant's strategy was built around dominating the acquisition of talent in the Heart of Dixie, where he went head to head with Shug Jordan's Auburn program, which had captured the 1957 national championship.
With few rules governing how much time recruiters could spend on the road, Alabama coaches traveled constantly in pursuit of talent, often hopping in their cars after practice and driving into the night to visit with some talented stud or a high school coach who could lend a hand. Like every other aspect of Bryant's program, it was an incredibly organized, disciplined activity. Usually, coaches watched spools and spools of film on every prospect and saw him play in person at least once, often several times, before considering the offer of a scholarship. It was a generation before Internet recruiting sites and television and radio shows devoted to the pursuit of tomorrow's stars, and the 'Bama staff relied heavily on a complex net of friendly high school coaches and alumni to make sure they saw anyone worthy of a look.
Rather than filling specific needs, Alabama tended to sign an inordinate number of fullbacks and quarterbacks, solid athletes who could play anywhere on the field. Size didn't matter. In the age of the one-platoon, sixty-minute man, Bryant wanted players who could be molded into versatile, supremely conditioned cogs, driven, hungry animals who could be pushed beyond theirown perceived physical and mental limits. The freshmen of 1963, '64 and '65 who would grow up to chase a third straight national championship in 1966 represented the end of an era. The transition to the two-platoon game was just over the horizon.
 
The seniors of 1966 started out as war babies. The eldest, a hard-hitting fullback from Petal, Mississippi, named Ray Perkins, was born in 1941, a month before Pearl Harbor, but most of the young men who would become his classmates were born toward the end of World War II. The youngest members of the team tended to fall into the first year or two of the massive Baby Boom generation, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, although it would be some years before the Commerce Department's arbitrary statistical classification took on bold-type importance, turning the children born between 1946 and '64 into the most analyzed, hyped, and clichéd group in American history.
The boys of 1966 grew up learning the meaning of fear during the era of "duck and cover," their lives forever shadowed by the constant specter of the cold war against the Soviet Union. As teenagers, they watched with a sense of dread as downed American U-2 pilot Frances Gary Powers was put on trial ... as the Communists built the Berlin Wall ... as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The vast majority of the young men who were recruited to play for the Crimson Tide during those three years grew up in modest homes. Very few of their parents had attended college, so the chance to earn a degree, to trade football skills for an education on someone else's nickel, represented a significant motivation, a ticket to a better life. Many could have played and studied elsewhere. Nearly all chose Alabama for one reason--to play for Paul "Bear" Bryant.
John McKay, who won four national championships at Southern California and was a close friend of Bryant's for years, once said, "All of us as coaches would like to think a player comes to our school to play for us. But I honestly don't believe too many kids came to Southern Cal to play for me. With Paul, there was no doubt. They might've majored in business or education or whatever, but their mamas and papas sent them to Tuscaloosa to play for him."
Camden's Billy Johnson considered Auburn, because he wanted to study forestry. "But I wanted to play for Coach Bryant more than I wanted to study forestry," he said.
Given Bryant's reputation as a hard-driving, no-nonsense disciplinarian, the kind of player who was attracted to the Alabama program in those days saw it as a test. The Crimson Tide was a standard for excellence, and also, for toughness. "If you made the decision to go to Alabama and play for Coach Bryant, abig part of it was wanting to prove that you could play for him ... that you were man enough to play for him," said Byrd Williams, who turned down an appointment to West Point to sign with the Crimson Tide, where he became one of the seniors of 1966.
"You knew if you could play for Coach Bryant, you could play for anybody," said Kenny "Snake" Stabler, a talented quarterback from Foley, Alabama, who became part of the 1964 freshmen class. "I was just in awe of Coach Bryant. Plus, you knew you would win at Alabama, and winning was everything."
Stabler, one of the most highly recruited players in the South during his senior year of high school, turned down a $20,000 offer to sign with the New York Yankees organization in order to play for the Bear, but not before being courted relentlessly by most of the teams in the SEC.
Often, the big schools brought their hottest prospects to campus through the air, which was a new experience for most.
On a fall morning in 1963, the little four-seat turbo prop was bouncing all over the place in the soupy clouds, and David Chatwood was digging his fingernails into the armrest, trying to keep his breakfast down.
"Snake, you scared?"
"Hell, no, Chatwood!" came the twangy, high-pitched reply from the front seat, loud enough to be heard over the noise of the prop.
Stabler always was a talented liar.
Chatwood and Stabler, who played for rival high schools in Baldwin County (Fairhope and Foley, respectively) but had been close friends since grade school, were heading for their official visit to the University of Mississippi. It was the first airplane ride for both, and when the pilot landed the Piper Cub on the little grass strip in Fairhope to pick them up and circled the area so they could see their houses from the wide blue yonder, they felt like big shots, perhaps for the first time in their seventeen-year-old lives.
Like Chatwood and Stabler, most of the players headed for glory in 1966 were impressionable, wide-eyed innocents who could be simultaneously thrilled and frightened by such an event. The team was a product of a simpler world still steeped in traditional values, especially the vast majority who grew up in small southern towns, where things like air travel still seemed special, where high school athletes were valued but not coddled. The fact that they were not a bunch of worldly sophisticates would play a central role in defining the 1966 football team, because on the harrowing journey Bryant was preparing, characteristics like cynicism and cool were worthless, while traits like faith and characterwere absolutely essential. Theirs was a world before the end-zone dance and all of the self-indulgent behavior the act symbolized.
When the air started getting choppy on the flight through Mississippi, Chatwood wondered who would get his favorite shotgun.
"I mean I was petrified," he recalled.
The flight took the better part of two hours, and when the plane finally taxied to a stop in Oxford, someone from the university escorted them over to Johnny Vaught's office. Vaught, one of the most successful coaches in the history of the SEC, was in the middle of a 90-13-4 decade, including five conference crowns and a share of the 1960 national championship.
"At first my daddy didn't like the idea of my taking that trip, 'cause he knew I'd already made up my mind about going to Alabama," Chatwood said. "He didn't think it was right for me to lead Ole Miss on. So I called Coach Vaught and told him my mind was made up, that I was going to play for Coach Bryant. He said that was fine, that he sure would like me to come to Ole Miss and look around anyway. Maybe they could change my mind."
Not a chance.
When Chatwood packed his bags for Tuscaloosa, his daddy, a wholesale grocery salesman who never attended college, stopped him at the door. "Son, I'm breaking your plate," he said with a serious expression.
"I didn't need a translation," Chatwood recalled. "He meant that I had made a commitment to Alabama and Coach Bryant, that I was a man now, and that I better honor my commitment and go out and make a life for myself. I didn't have a home to come back to if I decided to quit, and I knew that even before he said it."
The image of the broken plate resonated across the entire team. One way or another, every man who signed with the Crimson Tide was negotiating a passage from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence, understanding that he was entering a world of enormous expectations with no real safety net, a Technicolor jungle where everyone he knew--and many he did not--would be counting on him, and, in no small measure, living vicariously through his adventures. The elder Chatwood was not being mean to his son; he was not banishing David from his life. Rather, he was demonstrating, with a memorable and easy to understand symbol of tough love, that he was not about to make it easy on him to view his commitment to Alabama frivolously by offering him a refuge from the moments of doubt and weakness surely to come.
In the land beyond mama's kitchen table, all plates had to be earned.
The idea of the broken plate spoke to the kind of hunger that could be sated only by learning to stand on one's own feet and achieve--the deep, abiding need to prove something to the world, to stake a claim, to earn a better life. Among the players who were destined to survive at Alabama, hunger was not an optional characteristic. It was a life force that drove, fortified, defined them all.
The broken plate was their connection to Bryant, who knew how to motivate such individuals better than any coach who ever lived.
For some, the Alabama scholarship was like a life preserver tossed into the drink at precisely the right time.
Fate smiled on onetime dropout Ray Perkins on the night when 'Bama assistant Dude Hennessey arrived in Mississippi to scout another player. After Perkins ran for three touchdowns and intercepted two passes, Hennessey offered him a scholarship on the spot. "You didn't have to be a genius to see what he had," Hennessey later said.
What he could not see was that Perkins, who was holding down a full-time job at a gas station while keeping his grades up and playing football, had essentially been on his own for years. His carpenter father struggled with alcoholism, and his mother suffered from an illness that often left her bedridden. Football had already saved him, in a way that Hennessey could not yet understand, and the brash splinter of a man had a fire inside him that no one could extinguish.
Even though Perkins had no other offers--not even from nearby Southern Mississippi--he played hard to get. "I'd like to hear it from Coach Bryant," he said.
That was the first time Hennessey realized there was something different about Ray Perkins, but not the last.
Like Perkins, Jerry Duncan had somehow escaped the notice of the big-time college recruiters, despite rushing for more than 1,700 yards as a senior. His only real opportunity to play college sports came from tiny Georgetown College in Kentucky, which forced him to try out for a scholarship that required him to play football and basketball.
By the time Duncan's high school coach pulled Bryant aside at a coaching clinic in Raleigh and told him about the hard-driving guy who wasn't very fast, big, or strong but who had something deep inside that made him play his guts out on every snap, graduation had come and gone and the leading rusher in the state of North Carolina was reluctantly preparing to head to Georgetown. He wasn't too excited about the idea, but it sure beat milking cows for the rest of his life.
Clem Gryska could not believe it when Bryant told him to drive to Sparta,North Carolina, a speck of a town high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and sign a player none of the coaches had seen.
"You don't want me to watch some film first, talk to his coach?"
"No. Just sign him."
"That was very unusual," Gryska said many years later. "It was just one of those gut feeling things."
When Gryska treated Duncan and his father, a dairy farmer, to lunch at a local diner and gave his sales pitch about Alabama football as they munched on country ham sandwiches, he asked Jerry if the high school had any film of him running the ball.
"Shoot, we don't even have a camera," Duncan said with a devilish grin.
From the perception of a more complicated age, the way Duncan arrived on Alabama's doorstep seems difficult to believe. He wasn't an afterthought. He was a reject. No big-time school wanted Duncan, and the only reason he landed a scholarship to Alabama was because Bryant took a shine to his high school coach, admired his persistence, and gave him his word, which was like gold.
Years later, Bryant told a reporter, "In the meantime, we'd checked film on Jerry, and he didn't show us much. If I hadn't promised his coach a scholarship, I really don't think we'd have gambled on him."
In a very real sense, Duncan owed the chance much less to his demonstrated ability on the football field than to Bryant's sense of honor in living up to his word. But an opening was an opening, and with a foot in the door, the farmer's son was determined to make something good happen.
The recruiting classes destined to provide the athletes for the 1966 team were filled with Jerry Duncans, relatively untalented, overachieving players whose potential could not be fully measured on film.
Several of the boys of 1966 caught the attention of Alabama's recruiters by having older brothers who played for the Crimson Tide, including a talented kicker from Georgia named Steve Davis. In fact, Davis's father, Pig, had been the first athlete ever recruited by Bryant, when he worked as an assistant coach for Frank Thomas in the 1930s.
Davis, who played on Alabama's 1937 SEC championship team, later regaled his six children with colorful stories about his days wearing crimson. During the 1938 Tennessee game at Legion Field, while trying to field a punt, Davis was clobbered from behind, a vicious hit which he thought deserved a flag. Once he pulled himself off the grass, Davis limped up to a nearby official, who had watched the play unfold in front of him.
"Hey, Ref, did you see that?" Davis said with a look of frustration.
The official glared at him. "Son, there are men playing here today. If you're not one, get off the field!"
After completing his undergraduate studies, Pig became a highly successful high school football coach in south Georgia, winning more than two hundred games while building powerhouse programs in Tifton and Columbus. After eldest boy Tim, with an assist from his daddy, earned a football scholarship to Alabama, second son Steve followed in his footsteps, arriving as a freshman in 1964. Younger brother Bill would continue the family tradition, kicking for 'Bama from 1971 to 1973.
Tough like their coach father, the Davis boys grew up as hard-hitting position players--until the accident. When Tim hurt his knee as a high school sophomore and required surgery, which led to a freak infection, he lost fifty pounds and nearly died. Deeply affected by the situation, Pig encouraged his sons to take up kicking, where they would be less prone to injuries. While big on education, Pig earned only about $5,000 per year as a high school coach, and he sat his boys down and told them he could not afford to send them to college.
"He encouraged me to kick and see if I could earn a scholarship, and there was never any doubt about me going to Alabama, if they would have me," Steve said.
On the recruiting trail, Bryant's dominant presence could be Alabama's secret weapon. He could walk into a home and charm mamas and papas as effortlessly as diagramming a belly play.
In the world of broken plates, most fathers and mothers connected with Bryant because they saw him as an extension of their values. In buying into his sales pitch, they viewed him as a surrogate parent who was providing a whole new family for their son, helping him negotiate the difficult transition to adulthood and his own set of plates, literal and metaphorical.
When Bryant walked through the front door of Joe Kelley's house in Skip-perville, a small community near Ozark in southeastern Alabama, Florida State's Bill Peterson was on his way out. The two coaches shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and Kelley's mother escorted the Bear to their big round kitchen table. While she served everyone coffee and homemade cake, Bryant poured her a cup of coffee. Then he sat down right next to her.
As Bryant spent most of the next two hours speaking directly to the mother, telling her how he would take care of Joe and help him get his education, he devoured two pieces of cake, sipped on the coffee, and smoked several cigarettes, finally wadding up a pack of Chesterfields on the table next to his plate.
During the conversation, Kelley, a highly sought quarterback, passed a noteto 'Bama assistant Richard Williamson, seated next to him. "I've made up my mind," it read. "I'm going to Alabama." Williamson didn't want to interrupt his boss in the middle of a sales pitch--even though the deal was apparently closed--so he discreetly passed the piece of paper to Bryant, who ignored it.
"The whole time they were talking, my mother sat there eating her cake and drinking the coffee Coach Bryant had poured for her," Kelley said. "That was the first and last cup of coffee my mother ever drank. She didn't like coffee. But when he left and I asked her about it, she said she thought it would have been rude not to drink that coffee, after he had been so hospitable to serve it."
She kept the empty pack of cigarettes as a souvenir.
When Bryant showed up in Muscle Shoals to sign running back Dennis Homan, the whole town buzzed with excitement. Homan felt powerless to his charismatic presence as the big man sat in his living room. "It was sorta like Uncle Sam coming to see you. You don't say no to Uncle Sam," said Homan, who signed up to help make the state's football team safe from mediocrity.
John David Reitz and Steve Spurrier, two hot prospects from east Tennessee, rode to Tuscaloosa for an official visit in the backseat of Reverend Spurrier's car. Every time they stopped along the way, they prayed. The morning after touring the campus and meeting with some of the players and coaches, the Presbyterian minister and the two recruits sat down for breakfast at the Stafford Hotel in downtown Tuscaloosa with Bryant and several members of his staff.
When Bryant picked up his fork and started to dig in, the preacher gave him a nasty look. "Bear, don't you think this food is worth praying for?"
"I never will forget the look on the face of those coaches," said Reitz, who subsequently signed with Alabama. "I thought every last one of them was going to crawl under that table."
Bryant put down his fork and the preacher blessed the food. But when signing day rolled around, he lost Spurrier to Florida.
Chris Vagotis grew up tough on the mean streets of Canton, Ohio, the middle child of Greek immigrants. His mother worked three different waitress jobs to support her three kids, who had been abandoned by their father, a gambler on a long losing streak.
Like most of the tough guys in their working-class neighborhood, Vagotis appeared headed to a life in the steel mills or the military.
But his size and strength helped him become an outstanding lineman at Canton-Lincoln High School, and he already had an offer on the table from Georgia when Alabama called and asked him to visit. When he started telling his friends that he had the chance to play for Bear Bryant, no one believed him. Yeah, Chris. Sure. Let us know when Vince Lombardi calls!
During the trip to campus, fullback Eddie Versprille pulled him aside. "Let me give you a piece of advice," he said. "If you only like football, you'd better not come here. Come here only if you love football. You gotta love football to make it here."
Vagotis lacked the maturity to know whether Versprille was letting him in on a little inside information or trying to work him with reverse psychology. But it wasn't important for him to know.
"I'm eighteen and all full of piss and vinegar, and I'm thinking to myself: I'm as tough as any of you sons of bitches!" Vagotis recalled. "I was going to show them how tough I was."
The next summer, when Vagotis stepped off the airplane in Birmingham, he walked past a sign for a "colored restroom." As he came up behind the bus that would take him to campus, he noticed the "Heart of Dixie" license tag, which, in his distorted view of the South, equated to a vanity plate for the Ku Klux Klan.
"All of the sudden, I started feeling like I was in a different country," he said. "I started thinking that I probably wasn't prepared for how different it was going to be, how hard it was going to be for someone like me to adjust."
It was only a matter of time before Vagotis discovered how much he had in common with all those good ole' boys.
After all, the hunger that brought them all together was universal, and he was just another guy with a broken plate.
THE MISSING RING. Copyright © 2006 by Keith Dunnavant. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.