Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Rick Cleveland: The Bear and I

This was September of 1971. Alabama had just unveiled a surprise Wishbone offense and stunned No. 3 Southern Cal at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, reversing a three-touchdown defeat the year before.

Bear Bryant was back. What’s more, the Crimson Tide was to next play Southern Miss. I was an 18-year-old sports reporter for the Hattiesburg American, dispatched to Tuscaloosa to cover Bryant’s regular Tuesday press conference.

With No. 1 ranked Alabama coming to Ole Miss Saturday, now seems a good time to recount this story.

Understand, in 1971, in the Deep South, Bear Bryant was as close as we had to deity on earth. I had a new Ford Pinto with an engine that sounded like a sewing machine. I left 30 minutes early to make the 180-mile trip with time to spare. Just the Alabama side of Meridian, my left rear tire blew. This was during a September heat wave. I couldn’t get the flimsy jack to work. So I sweated and I cussed and I got grease all over me. Then I sweated some more and cussed some more, knowing I was late. I couldn't make up time in my sewing machine.

Greasy, sweaty and embarrassed, I got to Alabama athletic offices a few minutes after the press conference ended. Charley Thornton, Alabama’s splendid sports information director back then, looked at me and asked what happened. I told him, and added, “Mr. Thornton, if I don’t get an interview with Coach Bryant, they might fire me back home.”

Thornton said he’d see what he could do and he walked down the hall. Then he came back and told me to follow him, and I did. And we walked into this spacious office with a desk that seemed about as big as an end zone. Behind that mammoth desk, leaning back in his chair, eating a barbecue rib with his huge, socked feet propped up on the desk, was Paul “Bear” Bryant.

He might as well have been God.

Thornton said, “Coach said he has 10 minutes for you,” and then he left. It was Bear and me, all alone. He shoved a box of ribs over and said, “Charley tells me you’re Ace’s boy. Have a rib…”

I would have choked on it. I was still hot and sweaty with a parched throat, and now I was nervous as all Hades, as well. I said no thanks, but that I really appreciated him letting me interrupt his lunch.

“Suit yourself,” he said. “They’re mighty good. What can I do for you?”

I had prepared questions the night before, rehearsed them on my way over. In my haste, I had left all that in the sewing machine. I opened my mouth and . . . nothing came out. I froze. I choked.

Bryant waited several seconds, smiled and then he said, “Aw, (rhymes with skit), son, spit it out….”

It was as if he knew just what to say. Just as suddenly as my brain had frozen, everything came back. I got a splendid interview that was more like a conversation. He of course told me he was really worried about Southern, because they always played Alabama tough and he knew his boys might be cocky after winning at Southern Cal. He made USM, an average team at best, sound like the Green Bay Packers.

We went on longer than 10 minutes and then he invited me to practice. And then he drove me out to practice in his golf cart. And then he took me up on his tower with him. I felt as if I was in heaven, with deity.

Bryant pretty much let his assistants handle practice. And then he directed me to his favorite tire store and said to tell them he sent me. Later that week, I returned to Tuscaloosa — in somebody else’s car — and watched Bryant’s boys dismantle Southern Miss 42 to 6. I covered many more of Bryant’s games over the years, games against Ole Miss, State and USM and also in bowl games that won national championships.

I covered Bear's last game at the Liberty Bowl and I covered his funeral a month later. Many believe he was the greatest coach ever. I tend to agree. He’s certainly in the first sentence when the subject arises. What's more, he was mighty good to me.

Rick Cleveland is a syndicated columnist based in Jackson. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great story. Love the Tide or hate them, one has to agree that Bryant was one class act. RIP. BTW, it is worth remembering that the USM Golden Eagles (lead by QB Reggie Collier) dealt Bryant and the Tide a rare defeat in Tuscaloosa in 1982, which it turned out was Bryant's last game in Tuscaloosa before his untimely death.

Anonymous said...

Hail State!

Anonymous said...

Hail State and Fitz are gonna hang 40+ on the Tigers. Fitz gonna run all over them. The Hat will fall off Saturday.

Anonymous said...

im with you 7:45. Mullens is fired up and ready to show everyone that he can take 3 star players and beat 5 star players.

Kingfish said...

Toss dive right. Toss dive left. Post or wheel route on third down.

Two Questions said...

Why does Rick make every damned article about himself?

And when are State fans going to learn how to spell their own head coach's name? It's Mullen, not Mullens nor Mullins.

Anonymous said...

I believe Saban is about to replace Bryant as the best ever at BAMA. Saban has what, maybe 5 NC's now counting the one at LSU?

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).


Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.


In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.


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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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