Tag Archives: Coach Bear Bryant

Saban vs Bryant? That Is As Ludicrous as Batman vs. Superman!

26 Jan

originally posted on jayopsis.com

Saban vs Bryant? That Is As Ludicrous as Batman vs. Superman!

33 Years Ago…..

As many of you know – I try to post something about Coach Bryant on the anniversary of his passing away on Jan 26, 1983. The site I have dedicated to Coach Bryant is full of special memories.


In March of this year (2016) Warner Brothers will release a movie, “Batman vs Superman” that on the surface, seems to be a ridiculous title- but my understanding is that the storyline involves a conflict that ultimately results in the harmony and formation of the Justice League.

The confetti was still falling on Jan 11 after Saban’s 5th national title when the talking heads began the debate on who is the greatest coach…Bryant or Saban? This is an equally ridiculous question, but I do understand the human need we have to compare, contrast, and debate. I have always joked that heaven may have a football planet where we get to play all those scenarios…  we have eternity…right?

But just like the movie (if I am right about the storyline), the debate ultimately leads to a unique harmony of what has made Alabama football a special place in my life.


To save you some reading time- let me cut to the main point.

Coach Nick Saban has an opportunity to take on (as a competitor) his next great challenge and his hardest one. One that none of us would have the right to complain if he chooses to leave it or even fail to achieve it- and that is to survive the anticipated dip in performance.

I have no clue WHEN that may happen… but Coach Saban himself this year hinted that even he knows that it will come at some point….. and it will be a great challenge for him to stay the course.


In 1969, Coach Bryant’s Alabama team went 6-5, was only 2-4 in the SEC (they even lost to Vanderbilt) and was beaten 47-33 by Colorado in the Liberty Bowl.

Can you imagine what a Paul Finebaum show would sound like during that stretch?

To make matters worse, the 1970 team went 6-5-1 including the famous opening loss to Sam Cunningham and USC. USC outgained the Tide by more than 300 yards (559 yds of total offense) and whipped the Tide 42-21. Cunningham ran for 135 yds on just 12 carries.

We know the rest of this story- Alabama shocked USC the next season- went 11-1 and won the SEC, finishing #2 in the nation. That sparked the 1970’s as Bryant’s best decade.

IF- Coach Saban is able to persevere an inevitable dip … and guide the ship through the hurricane of doubters and dissent.. and then find a conference or national championship after that… then he would silence all doubters.

In the end…does it really matter?

The problem is that regaining that ‘winning edge’ in this modern era poses more peril than ever before… and deep in my soul I always stand amazed at the passion and energy of Saban to continue to do it. A mortal man would take his money, trophies, and ride his grandchildren on his boat.

In many ways… modern day football is a young man’s game…..


Now let me mention the HARMONY I find between the two coaches….. did you see it? It was on display… right on the Alabama sideline during the game.

Whenever former players feel comfortable coming around and want to come around- you know that a special culture is at work. Alabama’s sideline at the National Title game was packed with many adoring former players.

That is what both Coach Bryant and Coach Saban have in common. And the fact that Coach Saban has young men in such high regard of him in a generation that is more prone to mock and disregard elders… this is quite an achievement.

Coach Bryant towered in a day when it was more common to follow the leader no matter what.

But men followed him with such a passion that the bond still stays strong today.

Coach Saban has managed the same thing. But his ability to transcend generation, race, socio-economic differences, and regional differences is impressive!

Relationships matter…. and winning coaches know how to invest in their players in such a way that the players go through pain and persevere out of love and inspiration.


Football continues to display dramatic narratives and storylines- my favorite one is always the comeback story… someone who is cut down and counted out… but through perseverance and fight… finds victory once again.

It means a lot to me that Wade Phillips never stops fighting and builds a Superbowl bound defense.
I am also proud of Mike Shula and his work with the Panthers.
The personal stories this year are fun… Peyton Manning, Kenyan Drake, and I could go on and on….

When the Superbowl ends… then I will experience the winter of discontent…. but I also know that once again come August- the boys of fall will be dreaming again- everyone undefeated and expecting greatness…..



5 Jun

 These posts began in 2013……..

January 26 will mark the 30th anniversary of the passing of Coach Paul “Bear’ Bryant. I am going to take the month of January to reflect on my experience with him as a boy growing up in Birmingham during some golden days which culminated to my being a walk-on player his last season.

There are thousands of stories about Coach Bryant which add to the myth of the man. Even some of my recollection may need to be adjusted by comments/corrections. The fact that his life is surrounded by myth is proof of his greatness. Some of the stories I will relay were told to me as fact. Some that I will relay are 30 year memories of eyewitness testimony.

I will also mention that there are some amazing books out there about the life and narrative of Coach Bryant. It would take a lot of space to list all the ones I have enjoyed over the years.

I personally loved Coach: The Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant  by Keith Dunnavant
but there were MANY more!

I guess it is safe to say that I have never read a book about Coach Bryant that I did not enjoy.

Of course the movie was a big disappointment. I was still on the team when we were given a special premiere of the film. It was fun to see Wes Neighbors and Mike White in a movie. There is a funny story about how Thom Whitley’s character makes it into the final part.(Maybe another day- I wish I knew where Thom was). But, we were disappointed because a movie really can’t capture all that Coach Bryant meant to those who followed his life and career with such reverence. I did get to meet the wonderful person who played Coach Bryant’s (Mary Harmon) wife in the movie while we lived in Nashville.


Of course, because I am connected with the Christian faith as a Bible teacher, I get asked OFTENDo I think Coach Bryant was a believer? And I tell people the following story, as it was told to me. Please stay with me until the end of this one because it is important to know an important general principle here.


Coach Bryant was very skeptical of religion, and he had good reason to be. My understanding was that Coach Bryant grew up very poor in Fordyce, Arkansas and his mom was a deep devotee to the Church of God. Part of that devotion was a belief that if you sought medical help, you were not showing faith in God as the healer.

Someone please correct my detail here: But my memory is that Coach Bryant lost a sister who would have lived if she had been taken to a hospital. Coach Bryant lived with an understandable anger toward that decision.

Coach Bryant had a deep love and respect (fear) for his mother and he grew up in a society that equated spirituality with smokin’, cussin’, drinkin’- so, though he did those things, he kept them very discreet.


One of my favorite Coach Bryant stories is that he put a jar in the coaches office and told all the assistants that he and them were to watch their mouths and if they cussed in front of the players, they were going to have to put money in the jar as a penalty.

One day the team had a really bad practice and Coach Bryant came in the next morning not happy about the poor effort. As they headed out the door for practice that afternoon, Coach Bryant took out a wad of cash from his pocket and deposited it firmly in the jar before practice. It was going to be tough on everyone that day!


I used to love hearing Wayne Atcheson’s story about starting the FCA chapter at the University of Alabama in the 60’s, making it one of the longest consecutively running FCAs in the country.

Coach Bryant was not keen on having an FCA program at the beginning. He was concerned that it made the players soft and not aggressive.

He completely changed his mind about the ministry and years later completely funded the ministry. But his concern was a legitimate one. (Another day and another topic).

He took time just about every year (and I distinctly remember this talk) where he talked to the Christians on the team about not losing toughness because of faith. His example was 3 killer linebackers that started for Baylor one year who all went on to be Baptist preachers. They must have made quite an impression on him!

But Mr. Atcheson (who I saw recently at Samford, and he is now working for the Billy Graham Association library) was always pleased to report that Coach Bryant told him that he used to think FCA was the worst thing that could happen to his team at Alabama and he now believed it was one of the best things about his team at Alabama.


There is no doubt that many of Coach Bryant’s players, staff, and coaches had enormous impact on him. I haven’t hear many people mention this, but the early death of Pat Trammel must have had a deep impact on Coach Bryant. We have been mourning the passing of Pat’s wife, Ba, who passed away Dec. 22, 2012.

And we do know the raucous legendary tales of Joe Namath, and Kenny Stabler.

But there was quite an impact on the state of Alabama from a spiritual standpoint from the strong public testimonies that followed Alabama quarterbacks Gary and Jeff Rutledge, Steadman Shealy, Walter Lewis, and (though it was after Coach Bryant), Jay Barker.

I would not be a Christian today were it not for the ministry of Jeff’s dad, Jack Rutledge at Ruhama Baptist church. Mr. Rutledge would show us bowl watches and made it clear that a being a Christ follower did not mean ‘weakness’ or ‘being a sissy’.

I loved getting to know Jeff more when he and I coached against each other in Nashville and I saw Walter Lewis recently (in Best Buy and Lowe’s of all places), he is doing well.

Of all of those, Steadman Shealy, is said to have had the greatest impact on Coach Bryant. When Steadman spent time after his playing days as a grad assistant coach, he reportedly had a big impact on Coach Bryant from a biblical teaching standpoint.


This is how it was reported to me from multiple sources.

Coach Bryant had long had questions about the gospel. You can’t live in the heart of the Bible belt and not be confronted with it. Though it often comes with mixed messages of human hypocrisy and abuse.

Billy Graham had numerous opportunities to lay down the message: We can’t save ourselves- it is a humble reliance on Jesus Christ.

But that message has a hard time gaining root in a man who literally fought his way out of poverty and loomed large as the man’s man of success and fame.

But he also could see the fragility of life. He was fading. And he had a huge, tender heart behind the scowl and rough exterior. He had a lot of guilt. He didn’t like how he treated his players when he was a young, fireball coach. The reason (I believe) he wore the ring from the junction-boys late in life was that it was a testimony that they held nothing against him for his demanding and often brutal techniques.

He held guilt about smoking filterless Chesterfield’s and hiding all the whisky just to please his mama and be protected somewhat from the flak of the crusaders and finger pointing whisperers.

In the end- this message was too easy and his sin seemed too big. Yes, he had given millions and helped people his whole life. He had showed class and dignity, but in his soul- it did not seem enough to measure up to the God he heard about as a boy, full of fury and wrath for vain sinners who loved the world and forfeited their souls.


There was this story: Coach Bryant heard that Rober Shuler was on his plane. The way I was told the story, it was Coach Bryant who approached him. And Coach Bryant gave a number of his personal objectons to the gospel message- mainly, it seemed too easy and there were a number of ‘Christians’ that he wasn’t too high on.

Dr. Shuler’s account says that Coach Bryant also said, ‘I talk to Billy Graham and I don’t get a feeling. And there is a part in the Bible where a prophet calls on God and God sends a bear to eat them. And the Bible says that Christian’s aren’t supposed to sin and I am on this plane smoking and drinking.”

Dr Shuler looked at Coach Bryant and said, “Being a Christian is not about feelings or deeds. It all begins with faith in what Jesus has done. Even if you don’t understand all about the Bible or God’s ways- an old evangelist used to say, ‘you are saved by the blood, not how much you know about the book’. And, Paul, Christians are not sinless. Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace not works.”

And Dr. Shuler looked at him- “I think you are ready to become a Christian, Coach.”

“In John 6:37, Jesus promises that ‘Anyone who comes to me, I will not cast out‘.”

“I can give you a ticket right now”

He took Coach Bryant’s boarding pass and wrote down these words:

MY TICKET TO HEAVEN“Any one who comes to Me, I will not cast out.” Jesus Christ. Jesus said it. He is there. I trust Him. I accept Him._______________________________Signature

I was told that Coach Bryant signed his name and that Steadman Sheley spent time teaching Coach Bryant from the Bible the truth of the simple but glorious gospel.
Sometime later, Dr. Shuler mentioned this story from the pulpit and called Coach Bryant to ask if he needed to edit it out from his televised program that was going to be broadcast over the nation.
Coach Bryant replied, “Don’t edit it out, I still have that ticket in my billfold and I would be proud for you to tell that story to the country.”
And, according to Dr. Shuler, Coach Bryant went into the hospital the next day for complications with his heart.


It is always a tough question to get.  In the end, I trust in a just, righteous, beautiful, and fair JUDGE to make that call. I do know that the Bible says, ‘No other name is given for salvation’ except Christ. No other sacrifice is accepted to wash away sin except for Christ. Jesus Himself asked if there be another way, let the cup pass.

Jesus says it clearly, “I am the way, the truth, and the life- No one comes to the Father except by me.”

I John 5:11-13 says it very well. “This is the witness, God has given eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life. He who does not have the Son of God does NOT have life. I have written these things to you, who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may KNOW you have eternal life.

The best question is not, ‘Was Bear Bryant a Christian?’ The best question is “Am I a Christian?“.

It is up to each of us to evaluate our life and see where we stand regarding the claims of Christ.

You may have great objections. You may not understand it all. Ask God to help you with that.

But don’t give me a question like “What about all the natives on a lost island who haven’t heard about Jesus”-you have heard about Him, just as Coach Bryant heard about Him.

For all of us, it is an ultimate question. And it has little to do with the trivial things that hold us back.
Don’t spend time pointing fingers around behavior and inconsistencies. All of us are in the same boat.

Are you going to sign the ticket?


5 Jun


Even though I did not live in Bryant Hall my freshman year- there are so many memories attached to that building.

I did get to move in later and even served as a student dorm assistant Coach Perkins 2nd/3rd year.

But I got to eat there, study there, generally spend hours hanging out in the game room- washed my clothes, etc.

I know all of the arguments for WHY the NCAA got rid of athletic dormitories- but it was a very important piece of Alabama football.

When the NCAA did away with them, it was primarily argued that the NCAA wanted the student athletes to experience college as a normal student would. They were expensive to build and maintain- and some schools just couldn’t afford a place like Bryant Hall as a luxury.

The problem with that argument is that no Alabama football player is going to be normal. These well known athletes are going to attract an entourage. Having the players all report to a single place at night was good and limited some of the more negative influences.

Bryant Hall’s success began with Coach Jack Rutledge, the ‘Guvnor’. He lived in the downstairs apartment opposite the dining hall. Coach Rutledge had a perfect temperament and style for dealing with the unique demands of football players, freedom, and protection.

It started with what he told us from time to time. It wasn’t a speech, it was kind of like a dad chat. In the midst of some story or conversation, he would say: “You know Coach Bryant has all kinds of connections in the state. He knows police officers, federal officials, detectives, FBI agents…. and if he is worried about what you are up to, he will have someone follow you. They will know where you went, who you ate with, what kind of choices you are making. He will get a full report when he wants it. My advice? You better act right.”

Bryant Hall had an amazing game room for what I had ever experienced. I saw some amazingly competitive pool, ping pong, and foosball games!

I wasn’t ever a Bryant Hall Pool Shark

The food was incredible as well. The ladies who cooked the meals at Bryant Hall were as close to mom as you might ever get away from home. They knew us, loved serving us, and never disappointed! It was warm food and a smile just when you needed it!

There was something comforting about walking into a safe place, grabbing that tray with a Bryant Hall logo on it, getting southern cooking, and sitting with your team mates and coaches. Just about every player always stopped and prayed. And just about everyone put ketchup on everything.

There was a ketchup routine. It seemed like almost every meal we had a brand new bottle of ketchup on the table. All the players new how to get it flowing. You pick it up, make three or four hard quick circles- pop off the top- and start shaking vigorously. Thom Whitely had a saying, “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle, first none will come and then a lottle!”

There was a problem with this though. Hardy Walker had introduced me to the girl who would later become my wife. And he dated one of my good friends from high school. So we both double dated one night and went to the Red Lobster. Amy Davis (who later became Amy Walker) had on a beautiful white dress!

We sat down, Hardy grabbed the ketchup and did the Bryant Hall swirling motion with all the force that a 280 lb lineman could. The bottle cap flew off and Hardy splattered Amy with gobs of Heinz!

Logo on Bryant Hall Food Tray

Another great part of eating at Bryant Hall was 10:00 PM SNACKS! They would open the Dining Hall and we came in to loaves and loaves of bread, cheese, chocolate milk and my favorite: a peanut butter/fresh honey mix.

No wonder I went from 185 to 200 lbs in about 6 months! And that type of eating would cost me dearly when I stopped playing football.

While I am on the subject of Bryant Hall, I need to add a few more stories under the Ray Perkin’s era.


Lee Clements is the good looking guy to the right

One night I kept hearing what sounded like a baby crying all night. It was a demon like-eerie howl.

Finally, that morning, I had a hard knock at the door. It was Clif Thomas and I believe,  Kurt Jarvis. “We can’t get down for breakfast.” At Bryant Hall, everyone had to check in for breakfast- you didn’t have to eat- but you did have to wave at the dorm assistant who was tabulating attendance.

I walked out and saw no less than 15 big, strong Alabama football players stuck on the 2nd floor hallway because a big, gray alley cat had gotten in the building and was perched in the oval window midway down the staircase.

This was a BAD cat. I walked toward it and he hissed and swatted at me.

I went back up the steps and woke up Lee Clements. Why I thought Lee was a wild animal expert I have no answer for.

Lee ascertained the situation, went back to his room and came out….. with a mail bag.

He immediately began commentary, with at least 25 spectators, in his best Marlin Perken’s impersonation:

Welcome to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” He began to slowly sneak down the steps. “I’m going to stand back and watch Jim bag the creature.”

I wish I could describe this amazing situation.

Lee has this brown bag with U.S. mail on it.

A mean cat has his back arched and ready to rip.

Even though Lee is talking, the sound of the cat’s evil purring is slowly echoing off the staircase.

And then Lee leaped. The cat screamed!

He jumped 2 steps from the landing and landed on top of the cat’s head with the mail bag.

But somehow he missed!

Instead, he was holding an open mailbag and the hind quarters of a crazy, fire breathing, paw swinging monster! The cats head and paws were lashing out of the bag!

Lee is holding the bag away from his body and he starts running UP the steps toward all the players.
He was screaming and running with a new voice of panic:

You had Alabama football players ducking, running, and screaming as this crazy spectacle ran by.

Lee ran down the hallway, into the open covered connector to the Annex and tossed bag, cat, and all over the railing.

The cat, landed on his feet, and sprinted off into the woods.

Bryant Hall Lobby in Tuscaloosa News (L-R):
Joey Jones, Jay Grogan, Rob Cain, Paul Ott Carruth and me


When Coach Perkins got to Alabama, one immediate change he made under new Dorm Director Brad Bradford was to lock down Bryant Hall at curfew where no one could get in. If a player got in after lock-up, he was supposed to have to call Coach Perkins himself to be let in.

Two players (who I will leave anonymous for the time being) had, in their room, a rope ladder under their bed. If a player happened to miss curfew, all he would do is throw a few pebbles at the window of this room and they would lower the ladder.

But it was a PAY-PER-USE- so these two guys had quite a business going!


There was a downstairs TV room in the hallway going to Coach Jack’s Apartment. We didn’t watch TV there much- but it was a nice change of pace.

One thing we like doing was taking turns getting into the TV cabinet.

It looked like the TV was sitting on a solid piece of furniture- but it actually had a hidden door.

We would take turns hiding in that cabinet and waiting for an unsuspecting person to come in. We would then ‘clear’ out throat as a signal of a ‘visitor’.

THE HIDDEN PERSON would then start ‘talking’ like a voice coming from the TV. It was weird because the hollow cabinet actually threw the voice where it sounded like something ‘out of this world’.

Everyone in on the joke played it VERY cool.

One day we were watching a NASCAR race and Bobby Lee Hurt came in.

The announcer said, “And here comes Bobby Allison” and the ghost voice started saying ‘Go Bobby go, go Bobby go“. Bobby Lee hurt looked around at us, very confused.

Do you guys hear that?

We looked dumbfounded, “Hear what?”

Bobby turned on the lights.

The voice screamed.

He turned off the lights and the screaming stopped.

He turned them on and off quickly and the person in the cabinet could see the lights through a crack.

Every time the lights were on- the voice screamed.

Lights off- the voice stopped.

We sat perfectly still, in character, and watched the race.

The voice began to moan and scream.

Bobby got a wild-eyed look and ran out of the room as fast as I had ever seen him on the basketball floor.

And we never saw him in there again!


5 Jun


For a time to begin with such magic, newness, and expectations- the end of the 1982 season was a nightmare. When all the momentum has turned into a downward cycle, it seems like nothing can go right.

I never dressed for a varsity game that season. A typical Friday for me was playing in a scrimmage for guys who didn’t make the travel squad in what we called ‘the toilet bowl’. It was instituted when one of our redshirt players made a decision to go out drinking on a Friday afternoon and was rude to the dining hall ladies when he reported to dinner that evening. We were practicing every Friday after that. But it was real football and, as a QB, it was always fun for me.

My buddy, Lee Clements and his brother ( I can’t remember if it was his brother Mike who was in the goal line stand for the ’78 championship game or Pat who played at Austin Pea) went camping on the weekend of the LSU game. To my knowledge, that was the first Alabama game I had ever missed. My entire growing up life- I either attended, watched on TV, or listened on the radio every Alabama game. Though it was strange that I was going to miss it, we took off into the wilderness with no radio. We had a great time hiking and camping- totally detached from all that was going on.

When we turned on the car radio that Sunday after coming out of the woods- it was like listening to the aftermath of a state disaster- the score was LSU 20- ALA 10, but all the accounts were that it wasn’t even that close.

When we got back to Tuscaloosa, the dorm had this tense sense of fear. Jeremiah Castille said “He said he should have coached us better- all that means is we are gonna get killed this week.”

But there was also a rumor going around that Coach Bryant had alerted the press about retiring.

The darkness was closing in fast and with an unkind fury. Talk radio was still in its infancy, but there were ugly rumors surfacing about all types of things. The most hurtful thing was that someone had started a lie that there was racial tension on the team and that Walter Lewis had been in a locker room fight. The whole rumor was so ridiculous that we laughed- but life has a sense of piling on when things are on a slide.

Coach Bryant took some corrective actions. The next Big Meeting he said, “I’m not going anywhere. I will be here to 80 or 90 if I can keep getting results.” It just wasn’t delivered with the same swagger and we were still in shock.

No one saw the home loss to Southern Mississippi coming. But we had historically always had problem with an athletic QB. Reggie Collier was unstoppable that day. I still see some of his amazing plays in my memory. We made a late rally to give the home crowd hope, but in the end they beat us at Bryant Denny 38-29.

There wasn’t much joy in the compound- which was so different from the normal atmosphere in the dorm. You have to understand what good guys we had on the team back then. Normally, Mike Adcock, Doug Vickers, Mike McQueen, and especially Linnie Patrick were smiles and infectious in their personalities. But we were ALL DOWN.

There were 3 running backs dismissed from the team for attitude problems. But for the most part, there was no rebellion- there was just a sadness that we had let him down.

Auburn week had a different feel.

First of all, we pulled in some of our better running backs for the scout team practice.

It was a week of war! Auburn was running the wishbone as well and we went after our defense and they went after us!

The highlight of the week and maybe my most vivid memory from that part of the season was the last practice. We came out on the field and there was a hall of fame line-up of former Alabama players there.

No one had to introduce them- we knew who they were. I was especially excited to see Lee Roy Jordan, Major Ogilvie, and Joe Namath was in a fur coat! All of these guys gathered together at the end of the practice and took turns talking about the importance of beating Auburn.

The famous ending to all of that goes as follows:

Steadman Shealy: “Y’all know that they think they are gonna beat us this year.”
Coach Bryant: “I don’t care what those country bastards think.”- and he blew the whistle. Practice was over with a roar of laughter.

The problem was….. they did win.

And the way the game went- it was one of those…. you think it was ‘meant to be’.

Final Score-  AU 23- UA 22

Alabama had 27 first downs and Auburn had 11!
Alabama had 256 yds rushing to their 193!
Alabama had 251 yds passing to their 64!

There were those moments that made you wonder if  the outcome had been ordered.

We stopped Auburn on a fake punt which led to an easy 7-0 lead.

Then they had a 60 yard fumble recovery which led to a 7-7 tie.

We moved well and pulled back to a 10-7 advantage.

But they got an interception which put them ahead 14-10.

This was the old historic iron bowl- half the crown was orange and blue- half crimson and white. The roar at every momentum change made us all feel goosebumps.

We kicked a FG right before the half to go into the dressing room trailing 14-13.

We scored on the opening drive of the 2nd half but missed the 2 pt conversion- 19-14 Alabama on top.

And then we got what seemed to be the clincher- a Peter Kim FG toward the end of the 3rd quarter- 22-14.

I felt so good then- we had outplayed them and they had just been opportunistic!

But Bo Jackson kept the game within reach. He broke through for a 53 yard run and Al Del Greco pulled the game to 22-17.

Then, the play of the game happened…….

With less than 3 minutes left, Randy Campbell threw a pass toward Chris Woods and Jeremiah Castille cut in front for an interception!

We erupted in a sea of crimson cheer…..

Only to see the yellow cloth fly from clear across the field and land on the green turf.

Years later, when Jeremiah and I worked together at Briarwood Christian, I asked him if he had ever seen a replay of that play. He said “NO”. I said, “Do you think you interfered him?” He said, ‘I don’t think so”. And then he asked me, “What does it look like?”

I smiled… “I don’t know Bone- it was close.”

And it really was- so close that if you are an Auburn fan, you see it definitely as interference. If you are an Alabama fan- you see it as a great, game wining INT.

So the results are in: the ref was an Auburn man!

The call gave Auburn a first down at the 9 yd line.

Time was running down.

4th and goal at the 1 yard line!

When they handed the ball to Bo Jackson and he leaped- if you freeze frame it right there- you will see what amazing defense we were playing on that play.

We actually pushed their offensive line 1 yard back. When we first make contact with Bo, he is a yard short of the goal line!

But this amazing athlete, maybe the greatest of all time- made his greatest high jump ever.

Tommy Wilcox, Stan Gay, and Mike Pitts had given it all they had, but the ball crossed the goal line and Auburn had a 9 year bubble about to burst!

As Walter Lewis was intercepted, the crowd stormed the field and tore down the goal posts.

I watched with a silent realization…. the rivalry was back.

Coach Bryant spoke the truth. “Our team played well- probably the best they played all season. It just wasn’t enough.”

We were going to have a few days off and begin practicing for the Liberty Bowl.

Though we all knew the rumors going around… no one really could foresee what was about to happen.

Coach Bryant was about to inform the entire world that Memphis, TN would be the sight of his last game as a coach!

And I was going to be a nobody bystander eyewitness to it……..


5 Jun


After a layoff, we reported for practice on Dec. 2, 1982.

I had heard a couple of the seniors talk about how clever Coach Bryant had been in directing them to choose the Liberty Bowl.

He kind of floated that if they waited on the Fiesta Bowl, there might be a chance they ended up in Birmingham- which was hosting the Hall of Fame Bowl. Liberty it was!

Problem is- no one was excited about it at the time.

No one except me. Problem was that I was about to fall hard into an ongoing game of bait and switch.

We reported to our scout team meeting. Coach Amos Jones was waiting with plays drawn and film ready.

He made two immediate announcements.

1) “Mathews, you’re going to be a running back for Bowl practice because Illinois has an NFL type thrower named Tony Eason. So, Billy Ray Pierce- you need to be ready to roll. You’re gonna have to get off that lazy butt of yours and help us.”

Billy Ray was one of the true characters on our team. He was a transfer from Arkansas and quite an athlete.

But he had a tendency to be a smart-alec- and even though Coach Amos loved him- the two went at each other from time to time.

Billy Ray: Coach Amos, what do you think talking to me that way?

Coach Jones: I can talk to you any way I want to.

Billy Ray: I’m not taking that.

Coach Jones: Well I’m not taking ANYTHING from ANYBODY from ARKANSAS.

Billy Ray: Oh yes you will take something from somebody from Arkansas!

Coach Jones: I ain’t ever taking ANYTHING from ANYBODY at Arkansas

and all Billy Ray did was point upward and to his left without a word.

We all got it immediately…… He was pointing at Coach Bryant’s office… the man from Fordyce, Arkansas!

And we all, Coach Amos included, broke into a huge laugh.

Yeah, bowl practice was going to be OK.

It was the 2nd announcement that I bought ‘hook, line, and sinker’.

2) “All right listen- Coach Bryant can only take so many to the bowl game. But here is a promise- If you practice with extra heart and hustle- you can make the travel list. And going to a bowl game is special. You are gonna get a watch, travel money- but if you loaf during these bowl practices- you ain’t gettin’ nuthin’!”

Now, I was the one totally dumb enough to believe that!

I studied the offense. I sprinted the drills. I got hammered by Dante Bramblett and Russ Wood all week. I still laugh about trying to pick them up on slide protection. They ran through me like I was a piece of paper.

When the travel list came out… my name was not on it. However, my roomie Thom Whitely was going to go! I was so excited for him and so dejected for me.

Now let me tell you an amazing story:

The year before- the same speech was made to the walk-ons/scouts about going to the Cotton Bowl.

When the travel list was posted- Johnny Lombardo noticed that he had been given the same song and dance… his name was nowhere to be found.

And then Johnny did the unimaginable. With his car packed, heading back to Ensley for Christmas- he parked his car at the Coliseum- walked right up the stairs- and right into Coach Bryant’s office!

Coach Bryant was seated at his desk.

“Coach Bryant?”

“Yeah son.”

“Well, sir, I was told that if I really busted it for bowl practices, I would get to travel. And I just noticed that I wasn’t on the travel list and was wondering if I could have worked harder or if there was something I let down on.”

Coach Bryant looked at him.

“Well, Johnny, I would have to look into it.”

“No problem, Coach Bryant, I really have appreciated this year and Merry Christmas.”

Johnny shook his hand. Walked down to his car and drove to Ensley.

In the meantime, Coach Bryant called in Coach Legg.

“How has Johnny Lombardo done during these bowl practices?”

“Johnny always gives his best Coach, why?”

“Well you need to find him and tell him he is going to Dallas.”

And ‘have to find him’ he did. Someone had to drive to Birmingham to let Johnny know and bring him back and Johnny Lombardo made the trip. Johnny and his brother Chris were made of the right kind of stuff!

I would not have had the guts to do that in a million years!

Dec. 15, 1982 changed everything about what this game meant.

It was written on the board in Bryant Hall for us to report to the annex. That RARELY happened.

When I sat down and saw all the extra people in there, I immediately knew I was observing history.

My memory fails me here a little- it seemed like he either read his speech before the media and then talked to just us. Or he talked to just us and then read the speech to the media.

His talk to us was animated, energetic, optimistic. He spoke of his plan to bring on his successor and stay on as Athletic Director. He said the next coach was going to need to be able to throw the football because of the rules and the way the game was headed.

Then, when he read his speech- he seemed tired and had no energy. It was like two different men! Again, 30 year old memory…….

Here is the transcript of the read speech:

There comes a time in every profession when you need to hang it up and that time has come for me at the University of Alabama.
My main purpose as Director of Athletics and head football coach here at Alabama has been to field the best possible teams, to improve each player as a person and to produce citizens who will be a credit to our present day society.
We have been successful in most of those areas, but now, I feel the time is right for a change in our football leadership. We lost two big games this season that we should have won, and we played only four or five games like Bryant-coached teams should play. I’ve done a poor job of coaching.
This is my school- my alma mater- and I love it. And I love the players- but in my opinion, they deserve better coaching than they’ve been getting from me this year and my stepping down is an effort to see that they get better coaching from someone else.
It is a great joy for me, personally, to have had the opportunity to coach at my alma mater. I know I will miss coaching, but the thing I will miss the most is the association I have had with the players, the coaches, the competition- all of those things that have made such a strong tradition at Alabama.
I can’t say enough, or thank enough, the coaches who are with me now- and those who have been there in the past.
I plan to continue as Director of Athletics and pledge my support to my successor in every respect, particularly in recruiting.

The storm was in full brew now and a pressure was building.

The rumor was already in the works that Ray Perkins of the NFL New York Giants was going to be the new coach.

Believe it or not- we practiced later that day. And it was so strange- it was not mentioned at all.

But the practice was terrible. To be honest, all of the practices had been terrible up to that point.

The dorm was a sea of visitors that evening.

I just drifted into the back ground and listened.. watched.

Practices never did pick up.

What did come into full view was that Ray Perkins was coming to Alabama.
All of the attention was about Coach Perkins and what his staff might be like and what his pro style offense may do to coaches and players.

There were some sad players, and even sadder coaches. Word was that some were being told immediately that they would not be back.

To make matters worse, my room mate really stung me today.

“What are you planning on doing, Jay?”

“What do you mean, Thom?”

“Well no way are you gonna play QB in a pro style offense!”

ouch! But he was right!

He said almost sarcastically, “You at least will be able to say you were that last wishbone Qb at Alabama.”

And looking back now, I could kick myself.

That one comment took me into a spiral where I got my eyes on myself and lost focus of the significant things that were happening around me.

Dec. 21 was a low moment.

They posted the last depth chart and the travel squad…. I was not on it.

And Coach Bryant climbed down the tower for the last time.

But I was too busy wondering what I was going to do- and missed the opportunity to soak in the moment.

I didn’t want to go home yet. The campus was a ghost town. I had almost no money and the dorm was shut down for the break.

And worst news of all, my roommate, Thom Whitley was in a trouble.

He wasn’t going to tell me- but I couldn’t help but notice there was blood in the toilet!

‘Thom, are you OK?!’

He was sweating and I finally realized- he is MAJORLY SICK!

He was running a fever and had blood in his urine.

But he didn’t want to tell anyone because it meant he might miss the trip!

We actually held hands and prayed as hard as I had prayed in a while. I was scared, but he was terrified.

We had found out that he was going to wear #12 which was the number Coach Bryant wore at Alabama!

And it did work out- Thom actually was in the game at the end of the game. He could forever say he played the last play of Coach Bryant’s career!

I got up late the next morning and drove by the coliseum.

I briefly thought about what Johnny Lomabardo had done!

“Amazing that he had the guts to do that!”

And I drove home to East Lake.

I would enjoy that game on TV- and I would literally run into Coach Bryant one more time before he passed away!

The next post will be “Last Game and Last Days”.

But I also have a few treats for readers in the works as well!


5 Jun


This is the Liberty Bowl Program that Thom gave my dad

To be honest, it was a lot to ask of a team to bear the weight of a legend and help him go out on top.

And, truth be told, Illinois was a GOOD football team! Tony Eason had set 9 NCAA records and 3 Big Ten records. The Illini offense had amassed  4,604 yards for the season- a number almost unheard of in the early 80’s.

One thing that bothered me about the match-up was that Illinois had won close games and we had lost close games. 6 of their games were decided in the last minute.

And, I couldn’t get out of my mind how bad we had practiced in Tuscaloosa, even after the retirement announcement.

Some of what I am sharing about just before the game came from Thom Whitely. But everyone was still amazed about the night before. There was a players only meeting, led by Jeremiah Castille where it was laid down in blood that everyone was going to focus on their job to win the game and not think about Coach Bryant.

But during the last minute reminders- as Coach Bryant was saying the usual stuff- he just got choked up- and no one said a word. Then someone just turned out the lights and every man in that room in the Kennedy Sportsplex sat in the dark and let it go.

On Dec. 29, 1982- I sat in my downstairs basement with a Bear Bryant picture over my TV.  I usually don’t pray for wins- but I was pleading with God to let Coach Bryant go out a winner. I was as nervous as I had ever been for a game on TV!

But when I saw the intensity in which our guys were playing- I got strangely calm and confident.

I will tell you this- it was the hardest hitting defense I have ever watched on TV. And Jeremiah Castille came to play! Rocky Colburn and the other DB’s made sure that if the ball hit a receiver’s hands- it was going to be lights out!

For a long time, I had a VHS cut-up of that game and I showed it to our Briarwood Christian team from time to time. It is nowhere to be found- but I am looking!

I did find a vintage clip from the game:


Bottom line- in a thriller- Alabama beat a good Illinois team 21-15 on a bitterly cold Memphis night and carried the Bear on their shoulders for one last time.

Jeremiah was the MVP for his Liberty Bowl record 3 interceptions and Coach Bryant was all smiles.

I was so relieved and proud- this is how it was supposed to end.

Coach Bryant notched his 323rd college football win in his last stand.  Even Mike White, the Illinois coach knew that was how it should have happened.


5 Jun


It was about this time of year- 30 years ago- that I saw Coach Bryant alive for the last time.

During the break after the Liberty Bowl, I had a lot of thinking to do. I had some decisions to make.

A big problem was my academic performance for that 1st semester- it was a disaster! I had always been an honor roll type of student, but new found freedom and football had taken its toll. My dad hit the roof when he saw the notice that I was on academic probation. It would take too long to list all my excuses- and none of them were that good.

A second issue was what to do about football. My roommate was right, I was never going to be a QB in a pro system- I was realistic to know that it was unlikely that I was going to be a starter anywhere at Alabama.

The newness of being around the big time program was gone and just being on the team didn’t really do much for me- no one cared that much- just an ordinary Joe- no real accolades or status.

But I did realize one thing- I loved my teammates! These were some of the most fun, caring, driven for the right reasons guys I had ever been around. Especially the walk-ons at that time. It was our little fraternity.

So right before I headed back to Tuscaloosa- I made two solid commitments- I was never going to be on academic probation ever again and I was going to try and be the best scout team player I could to help our team become as good as it could be. I moved to defense- strong safety- and began the process of getting better.

I had received a letter in the mail while on break that had my winter workouts listed. I was to lift weights every Mon/Wed/Fri at 6AM and report for running on Tues/Thursdays at 2:30 PM.

OH BOY! I’m glad I made my decision to keep playing before winter workouts began- I would have quit the first week had I waited to see how off season conditioning was!

The football season had not really been bad. I mean, yeah, I got beat to death- but playing HS football under David Cutcliffe at Banks was tough and hard… so I kind of excelled in that.

But nothing in my previous life prepared me for what became known as MILLER TIME! Now if ANYONE should have known, it should have been me. I was getting the Al Miller personal training program that whole time I was rehabbing my hamstring. Now I know that he really was ‘taking it easy’ on me.

Coach Al Miller was staying on with Coach Perkins and you could tell from day 1 that he was personally committed to re-building the program himself. Squats/Power Cleans/Bench/Box Jumps/400’s/200’s/Lower Gym torture sessions/and ‘circuit training’ were daily tools to tear us down to lifeless pieces of slime.

I could hardly walk across the quad to my classes after my morning torture!

This is no lie- I woke up one dark morning at around 3:00 AM and began crying! I knew that in 3 hours I was about to do 3×10 parallel squats at 80% of my max, but I was too sore to walk to the bathroom!

Somehow though, we made it. I distinctly remember what Randy Edwards looked like after 8 weeks of Miller Time and realized there was a method in the madness.

So here is how I ‘ran’ into Coach Bryant.

We went out in t-shirts and shorts to run no matter HOW cold it was. But when it rained we had the unfortunate alternative run in the Coliseum concourse. Any time I showed up to the cage to get my workout stuff, I already knew if we were running in the concourse by all the depressed faces among the players.

Running with Coach Miller was almost cruel. He gave us a distance and a time. We ran in two groups line and skill. If one person came in ‘late’- even .01 after the deadline, that rep did not count…. for anyone!

Let me repeat that. Say we ran 400’s. Coach Miller would announce, “Men, you have 4 400’s, and they all have to be under ____ time for skill and ___ time for linemen.”. And so we took off and sheer panic started as he began barking the time’ 45…..46…..47……48…” and we would all cross. When the last guy crossed, it was about to be known if we nade it or not! YES! We made it! 2 down.

But then the big guys would be up and we would begin praying…. because if the linemen were late… we all missed it.

Now, everything that made that bad… made running the concourse worthy of interrogating terrorists. Not only was there a weird distance- 1 lap around the concourse. There was a weird time. But then you add… no lanes… slippery floor… and doors and water fountains… and fire extinguishers.

Let me give you a visual. While I was at Alabama, someone took me to Greenetrack to watch the greyhounds race. Seeing 20 Alabama football players slipping and running around a continuous blind corner, elbowing for life and death- almost dead- was like watching those dogs run and slip and fight to the finish!

And yes! The inevitable did happen.

One day we had just finished what appeared to be our last rep. I was standing there, hands on my head, trying to stay conscious while gasping for air.

Now it was the big boys! Come on guys, you can do this! If they made it in time, we had lived another day!

So they were off. And it was weird because in the concourse, they just disappear around the corner and you just start praying that they will come back in contact within reach of the time. Sort of like Mission Control waiting on the shuttle to get through the atmosphere.

And here they come like a bunch of scared water buffalo running from a lion! (I don’t remember the times). Coach Miller: “35!….36!….37!….38”- come on guys- we are cheering…..

And then it sounded like an indoor explosion!

Someone flung the door open right in front of our eyes and a big, massive man (it may have been Hoss, Hardy or Gary Otten) hit the door at full speed. BOOM!

I have no idea who opened the door- poor soul! All I could focus in on was a man was down and Miller Time is still counting…. “41!….42….43!”

He got up- bear crawled to his feet, sprinted, and dove across the finish line.

Coach Miller clicked the stopwatch.

“45.1- Sorry men….. that one did not count.”

And we lined up again.

So here is the last time I saw Coach Bryant. This is my most vivid of all my mental pictures.

We were running the concourse.

There was about 4 of us in the lead, coming full sprint around the endless curve.

The door flew open and out stepped Coach Bryant! He turned quickly. We all slid to a stop!
We almost plowed him over!

And we just stood there for a second. Face to face with the man!

He smiled and we laughed!

He turned sideways and we resumed running.

We missed the time and there was no need to tell Coach Miller why.

But I will tell you this- that image I have of Coach Bryant has always been such a blessing to me. He was tall, smiling, he looked good to me- he seemed so happy!

The last time I saw Bear Bryant alive, I literally almost ran into him!

It was just maybe a week later that we were all going to experience a deep hurt.

Here is what is left for my blog for Jan. 2013 and then I will move on.

I have some memories about the funeral I want to record- and then I want to relay some stories from other Bama folks who are much more authoritative than I to share some tributes.

On Jan. 26, I will be posting some paragraph type tributes that have been sent in. Please type a short memory and email it to me: jayopsis@gmail.com– you can even make it anonymous. I will publish those on the anniversary date.

I could write more about my time at Bama. With the help of Lee Clements, Scott Connell, Ricky Colbert, Chris Lombardo, Ernest Carroll, and many others… we had a nice run at becoming great scout team players. I am likely never to blog about how Lee Clements and I drove to B’ham to buy Auburn decals to decorate the white helmets for the scout team or how we dressed in orange and hid in the bushes right before practice to jump out and trash talk the starters during practice.

But the Lord was good to me- I made the Dean’s list academically almost every semester after that and enjoyed every second I served the football team.

I learned so much about football by playing QB, strong safety, and wide receiver. It all helped me as I started my coaching career.

Thanks for bearing with me- when I saw that it was 30 years approaching- I knew I needed to record some thoughts before they were gone forever!  It was a special time to be at Bama.