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Bear Bryant rumbles toward all-time coaching record

Bear Bryant's football career began in the hamlet of Moro Bottom, Ark.; it will end in the record books. Sometime -- maybe this season, maybe next -- his Alabama team will make him football's first 315-game winner. The current record is held by Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached into his 80s. A special bill passed by the Alabama legislature last spring has paved the way for Bryant to coach beyond the mandatory retirement age.

Naturally, the record is on his mind, but it doesn't appear to be an obsession. He's tried to tell his players to ignore the big countdown, which began the current season at nine and now finds Bryant a mere six victories away from his appointment with history.

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Once that day arrives, Bryant could easily hang up his houndstooth check hat and descend the 30-foot tower that's been his practice field observation deck, but he won't.

"If we break the record, he'll keep on coaching until he's ready to quit. He's said that," notes Crimson Tide defensive back Tommy Wilcox, assured that Alabama's coach is a man of his word.

Coaching, Bryant explains, has become a way of life. "I really don't think I could do without it," he says. "I still get a kick out of going to practice."

Football's simple pleasures have never been lost on him perhaps because he vividly remembers a time without them, childhood days spent picking cotton for a pittance. A country boy who easily could have lived out a William Faulkner novel, Bryant instead hitched his wagon to football and found it the escalator out of rural poverty.

Though rather awkward, his size and aggressiveness made him an all-state offensive end and defensive tackle for the Fordyce (Ark.) High School Redbugs. It was during these formative years that the name Paul William slipped into disuse after a short-lived stint wrestling a bear for money. The animas's muzzle came off and Bryant fled, never collecting a dime, but earning an engaging nickname that stuck. "Bear" really is a perfect fit, too, because the flint-eyed coach has a tough, backwoods look and a voice that rumbles up from within like a growl.

Not surprisingly, something of a mystique surrounds him and his well-drilled teams, which will follow the Bryant success formula of hard work ad mental toughness.

A stern disciplinarian who once was fond of the motto "Be good or be gone," Bear has supposedly mellowed, but players who think he's a soft touch are mistaken. Several of them found out the hard way the other week when he suspended four top players for breaking team rules. That's more than he'd ever disciplined at one time in his 23 years at Alabama.

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Certainly it was a clear indication that after 36 years as a head coach, including stops at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, he is not about to compromise his principles -- not even when the disciplined players could help Bryant achieve the 315-victory milestone.

He was no less unwavering in the '60s when he suspended two of the school's greatest quarterbacks, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, three years apart.

"I don't treat everybody alike," he says, "I just treat everybody fairly."

Like many in his profession, Bryant views football as something of a classroom for life. Above all else, he wants his players to leave Alabama as men ready to take on the third-and-long-yardage situations wherever and whenever they confront them. And not necessarily in pro football, which he hardly considers the end-all of the game.

Though Alabama has turned out its share of professional players, it's never been considered a farm team the way other schools are. That's because Bear loves to stock his roster with guys who have tremendous heart, but maybe not the size.

"My biggest thrill as a head coach is seeing an average player, one of those little old pine knots, playing like a winner," he explains. "And then to see that player get out of school and mature in stature, I get the biggest kick out of that."

Tommy Wilcox, you might say, is the prototype Alabama player -- small, scrappy, and totally team oriented. A heralded high school quarterback out of Harahan, La., the 5 ft. 11 in., 187-pound junior never batted an eye when asked to play defense for the Crimson Tide. A year ago he was a first-team Southeastern Conference selection and a second-team All America.

"You don't see Heisman Trophy winners or guys passing for 4,000 yards coming out of Alabama," he says. "If you go for the individual stuff you won't play. Coach Bryant wants you to have personal goals, but he wants your goals geared to helping the team."

Another thing he insists on is that each player put his best foot forward. "Coach Bryant says, 'I don't care whether you win or lose, show class,'" Wilcox explains. "You're playing in front of your folks and people from the school, so he wants you to act presentable out there. He wants us to be courteous -- yes sir and no sir to the referees -- and keep our cool. If another player wants to start a fight, you just walk away from him. And when we get beat, he doesn't want anybody making excuses."

Losing, of course, is something Alabama hasn't done much of since Bryant arrived at his alma mater in 1958. The Southeastern Conference's Coach of the Century has compiled a 218-41-8 record in Tuscaloosa, taken the Crimson Tide to 22 consecutive bowl appearances, and guided Alabam to mythical national championships six times -- in 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, and 1979.

His current squad has not looked especially sharp in compiling a 3-1 record, though it is ranked 10th nationally.

Asked what he would have done if hadn't become a football coach, Bryant replies, "I'd probably be the best plowhand in Arkansas. But I guarantee you I wouldn't be no average one!"

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