The distinct smell of cigarette smoke hung in the air as two dozen grown men, give or take a handful, stood in near silence in a reverent semicircle as they hung on to every word that came forth from the man sitting on the couch.
At the age of 20 years and two months, I was in the presence of the very first legend I had ever stood within 10 feet of.
The unmistakeable voice of Paul ‘Bear” Bryant still echoes in my memories as does the kindness and patience he showed a fledgling sports reporter, who was not only way out of his league, but still at least two years shy of having to shave on a weekly basis.
One of the things that Coach Bryant did that day was to lead the University of Alabama football team to a 35-0 Homecoming win over Virginia Tech. The other was to treat a squeaky-voiced, out-of-place, beginner with undeserved respect and kindness.
Coach Bryant won 323 games during his legendary Hall-Of-Fame career and amassed six National Championships, holding many, many postgame interviews, but none would be as impactful to my life as the one he held in a small room just yards from the end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium on the Saturday afternoon of Oct. 28, 1978. How I even found myself standing before Bryant on that fateful day was a bit of a whirlwind. Working as a sports correspondent for The Meridian Star, I had been able to cover a junior college football game or two and just one week prior to covering the Alabama-Virginia Tech game I had been sent 30 miles east of Meridian to cover Livingston University in its 13-3 Homecoming loss to Austin Peay. It was NCAA Division II football, but I actually found myself walking the sidelines of a college football game and felt I had reached the big time.
Then later that week Billy Watkins, sports editor of The Star at the time, said he wanted to talk to me. It seems they didn’t have anybody available to cover the Alabama game that week and didn’t want the press pass to go to waste, so he offered me the opportunity of a lifetime. I had covered a couple of University of Southern Mississippi games for the student newspaper as a college freshman two years earlier, but nothing on the level that now stood before me.
I’m sure he offered me plenty of advice, as did Bill Zimmerman, who tried his best to take me under his wing no matter how much I unexplainably resisted, and off to Tuscaloosa I went.
The game was never in doubt from beginning to end. Near the end of the fourth quarter the veteran reporters began to make their way out of the press box and down to the field, so I dutifully followed.
And there, less than 45 minutes later, I found myself in the presence of greatness.
I don’t remember for sure, but it’s quite likely that Watkins, Zimmerman, and anyone else who knew I was headed to the University of Alabama to the shrine of college football gave me one simple piece of advice about how to handle the interview room — KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT AND LISTEN.
And I did just that … for about 10 minutes.
I just couldn’t help myself. All of the seasoned veterans were delivering deep, interesting questions, which Coach Bryant was thoughtfully answering. Then somebody, somewhere — obviously deployed to that tiny room with the specific assignment of making me look foolish — said this: “Are there any more questions?”
Everybody looked around and nobody was saying anything, then some unseen force reached deep inside my voice box and pulled out some squeaky high-pitched words that I am sure bloodied the ears of every dog within a mile of the stadium.
Honestly, I can’t even begin to remember what I said, probably because it wasn’t decipherable on any level, but I do clearly remember what happened next.
The room went eerily silent. The legend himself, Paul “Bear” Bryant, leaned forward and looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Come here, son.” My memory is not clear on this, but I would say Las Vegas would have given you even odds to this day that at that exact point in time urine was running down my leg and filling up my shoe.
Somehow, someway, I managed to move toward Coach Bryant. He asked me my name and amazingly I remembered. He then extended his hand, gave me a firm handshake, introduced himself, then asked, “Now what’s your question?”
The question didn’t really matter, nor did the answer. In the world of sports small men and women with big names often ridicule those they deal with. I’ve personally seen college, professional, and even high school coaches lash out at reporters, causing much embarrassment and ruining their own reputations with their actions. But on this day Paul “Bear” Bryant chose to empower rather than destroy. He will always be a legend in my mind, and not just as a football coach, but as a person.
In my 45-year career in journalism I’ve interviewed more well-known folks than I have room to jot down on paper, but twice in my life, and only twice I that I can remember, I was absolutely star-struck. Tongue-tied would not be a fair enough description.
The first was obviously Coach Bryant, the second was when I came face-to-face with my personal childhood hero, Atlanta Braves’ Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro. That’s a story I will weave for next week’s column.
And in case you are wondering, what you read today was not the third part of my “Tale of Three Coaches” that begin with Art Nester two weeks ago and was followed by Jim Redgate last week.
That will come the first week of March. Until then, be blessed!
Austin Bishop, AKA The Old Sports Dude, has been covering high school, college, amateur and professional sports since 1975. He will be retiring from the journalism business at the conclusion of 2021. He may be contacted by email at [email protected].