TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Legend has it that while doing his weekly TV show, Paul “Bear” Bryant would grab a quick smoke during commercial breaks.
One night, Bear dropped the lit cigarette in the trash can as usual. But on that night, the can lit up with fire, and as the cameras came back, the Alabama coach was pouring Coca-Cola on the fire.
It looked like he was pouring his sponsor’s product into the trash.
The next morning an assistant athletic director called the owner of the local Coke distributorship, who said, “Name your price. We aren’t letting the Bear switch to Pepsi.”
That’s how powerful the head football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide was, and it was believed no one would ever replace him.
That his six national championships and his 24-year record of 232-46-9 (.824 winning percentage) were marks that would stand forever.
Over the 25 years after Bryant’s retirement in 1982, five coaches came and went without making a dent in the program. There were bumper stickers that read “Dig Bear Up” after the death of the Moro Bottoms, Ark., native in 1983.
Gene Stallings was the first who had a chance, but he stayed just seven years. Alabama won the national championship in 1992 and four years later Stallings, one of the Junction Boys who played for Bear at Texas A&M, quit at the age of 60.
From 1995 until 2007, the prideful Tide won eight or more games in a season only three times, so it was time to open the bank and lure Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins.
The rest has been history. Saban is as highly regarded as Bear Bryant by the old-timers here in Tuscaloosa, and even more highly regarded by the younger fans.
Neither coach believed in moral victories, but they might have come close Saturday when the Arkansas Razorbacks stormed back from an 18-point deficit, only to get sacked late and fall 24-21 to No. 11 Alabama.
Saturday was Saban’s 195th win in 17 seasons against just 28 losses. He’s won six Natty’s (and one at LSU, making him the undisputed leader).
The man who will turn 72 on Halloween didn’t pace the sidelines any faster than usual when Cam Little kicked the Razorbacks to a 6-0 lead with field goals of 55 and 49 yards.
Yet, everything changed the next three possessions, and that determined the outcome.
Alabama’s next three drives covered 75, 83 and 64 yards — all ending in touchdowns — while the Hogs’ next three possessions netted a combined 11 yards.
The Tide had 170 second-quarter yards to Arkansas’ 8.
The 21-6 lead loomed large at intermission, and Alabama made it 24-6 with a third-quarter field goal. But what happened next was typical of Alabama this season, and only this season: They loosened their grip on the reins.
It was all the Razorbacks needed. The Hogs attacked hard and fast, driving 77 yards on 10 plays and finishing on a 5-yard toss from KJ Jefferson to lightly-used Isaiah Sategna for the touchdown.
Arkansas’ defense, which was very good the final 30 minutes, held. The Hogs mounted a 69-yard touchdown drive that was highlighted when Jefferson bulled his way through a sack and found Var’keyes Gumms, who raced 25 yards to the Alabama 13. Two plays later, Jefferson hit Rashod Dubinion for the touchdown.
The 2-point conversion pass to Andrew Armstrong made it 24-21 with 10:59 to play.
The Razorback defense stopped the Tide, who punted to the Hogs’ 8. But five plays later, the Razorbacks were at their own 44, about 15 yards from field-goal range, when Alabama’s front put it together and on third and 8 sacked Jefferson for the seventh time, the 27th in the past five games, for an 11-yard loss.
Saban milked the clock, but praise was coming for the Hogs.