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1966: ALABAMA OR NOTRE DAME?

 

Jack Rutledge had a career at Alabama similar to Marv Goux at USC. Today, assistants consider most jobs as steppingstones. The path to coaching ascendancy usually involves coaching different positions, often offense and defense, at a variety of colleges, with some professional experience mixed in, all leading up to a “big break” as a head coach at the college level or in the NFL. Rutledge played for Bear Bryant at Alabama and was a member of his staff from 1966 until Bryant’s 1983 retirement. Today, he is still close to his alma mater.

 

I played for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant from the time he took over until 1961 and began coaching under him in 1966 until he retired in 1983. We should have won the title [in ‘66], but the voters took it from us. In 1967, he’d won all he could win in college by that time, so Coach Bryant was offered the Miami Dolphins job.

He always said if he retired, he’d die and go straight to the Lord; and you know what, maybe there’s some truth to that. He traveled with his mother, you know, who was a lay preacher, and a lot of that stuff that he said came indirectly out of the Bible.

Now, I’m not sayin' he was a straight-laced, Bible-preachin' type of guy. Coach Bryant was a man’s man. What I’m sayin' is he didn’t talk about the Bible a lot, but I used to look at the Bible a lot, and I’d find verses and things from in there that found their way mixed into his speeches. The best speech he ever made was at Tennessee, and it had Old Testament overtones about “We chose you, you chose us, and today we become one.” He was intimating that in a football sense his team was the chosen people, and he’d lead ‘em to the Promised Land, yes sir.

On Bryant and McKay. Coach John McKay was always with Bryant. Coach Bryant had the same relationship with other coaches; they’d see each other at speaking engagements and the like. He had a similar kind of close friendship with Bobby Dodd and stayed in touch with other head coaches. He’d call around and get all kind a opinions.

Now John Wayne and McKay were friends, and that’s how it came about that Bryant knew him. He picked up on that Wayne walk; he knew he needed certain things to make himself stand out, and that was one of ‘em.

Coach Bryant loved football, and that was all he thought about durin' the season. But after the season, if you played or worked for him, you weren’t personal friends. Sam Bailey was his top administrative assistant. Coach had key individuals, in recruitin', in life, and investments . . . but assistants and team players were not that close. But after they graduated, he would write telegrams, letters, stay in touch. So if he met you, he knew you.

Now, because of this relationship, it is possible, you see, that some of what the Southern Cal folks say is different from what we heard from or say. We saw a different Paul “Bear” Bryant than, say, his friend Coach McKay saw, huntin' or drinkin'. So what you’re gettin' after, about how he planned that game, well maybe it’s as you say, but I can’t say ‘cause I saw the Bryant I saw.

On ‘Bama players. Wilbur Jackson was somethin’ else. We’ll never really know how great he really was, but what I remember was him sittin' in the den, and he bought a car for his mom.

On the controversy surrounding Bryant’s statement. This story you’re talkin' about, how Coach Bryant was supposed to have said, “This here’s what a football player looks like,” well, it’s typical of his relationship with Coach McKay. It was typical of Bryant to honor him, to go to their dressing room. I know he did that, and he may have said those words, but I cannot remember or don’t think Coach Bryant would have brought Sam Cunningham into our dressing room. I would have remembered. I do remember Bryant comin' in. He was down, disappointed. . . . I think he said maybe, “That’s what a football player looks like”; I don’t remember exactly. I would have remembered if he did it the way some say it happened, with Cunningham on a stool or whatnot in front of the gathered team.

I don’t know where the story comes from. Maybe a certain person was going to write a book or make a movie. I can see that picture in my mind, the right side of that dressing room. I’d remember him being in that dressing room; he probably said something about Sam being what a football player looked like or was supposed to be. . . .

Jerry Claiborne said, “Sam did more for civil rights in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King [did] in 20 years.” I heard some of that. He was here by Bryant’s side since 1958, and he was close to Coach Bryant, through his career he took the plays. Claiborne was going to be the head coach; that’s what the plan was until Jerry left. He was Coach Bryant’s man through and through, his most trusted assistant.

On Bryant’s plans to integrate. I’ve heard things about that situation regarding Coach Bryant’s plan to integrate. As I say, I lived in the athletic dorms for 18 years and was there when Wilbur was signed. You remember Condredge Holloway? I recruited him. His whole family wanted him to come to Alabama. In the process of recruiting at the end, Coach Bryant brought him in the office, and he told him he couldn’t sign a black quarterback because “his people” wouldn’t let him play. Bryant never differentiated between black and white.

We never had racial problems at Alabama all the time I was here. We let all our players choose their roommates, and sometimes blacks and whites chose to room together.

Bryant wanted change. Why? Well, sir, as I say, there [were] people close to him who he talked to about stuff like that, but his assistants and players were employees, and he kept them at arm’s length. You can speculate that he was thinkin' about he couldn’t recruit black athletes, and he could have anybody he want play for him in the pros; plus there were a couple years around 1970 or so when the alumni [were] saying the ol’ Bear was past it, and he might’ve been tired of dealin' with that.

Lookin' back, from my perspective, the problems we had, it’s not racial; it’s the environment you’re in. A lot of folks lived in the country, they all worked and were equal. . . . Now all of us are able to get the same education. A lot of people out in the country could not get into college; now they all get an equal education. No one should be held back. So many of us saw grandparents who had their first car or TV. As society modernized, people could see and hear about so much more, and that’s how we set aside our differences.

On ‘Bama’s national championships. Now, comparing 1966 vs. 1978, well in ‘66 Coach Bryant had won three titles and was dominating football. A lot of people hate trophies and want ‘em shared around. They’d given him the title because he’d been so strong, so maybe they wanted it to go to somebody else. Then we’d gone down, and in the 1970s we were back winnin' or almost winnin' titles almost every year. In 1977, we were 11–1. I think we should have been national champions, but we lost to Joe Montana and Notre Dame, who came from fifth to first after beating Earl Campbell and Texas in the Cotton Bowl. We should have won titles in 1976, 1977, and from 1978–79 we had a tremendous team, just a great team.

In 1970, I didn’t see the change comin' via the USC game. Coach Bryant would never talk about it like this, about society. He never complained like when Notre Dame won the national championship instead of us. . . . He never wanted to hear negatives, he never complained to officials about a call. He always said he wanted to be sure, so he’d never have to second guess.

On Bryant. I recall Buddy Brown; he played up in Canada. They had a day for Wayne Hall, one of Buddy’s friends. Bryant went up to ol’ Buddy and, why, he apologized to him for movin' him to the offensive line. “You could have been a great defensive lineman,” he told Buddy. He said he was sorry, that was what he needed Buddy to play on that team. . . . Coach never forgot stuff like that.

In life, he never forgot anything. He still has a scholarship for the children of all his players. It started with Pat Trammell, his quarterback in 1961, and he had cancer and passed away. He’d never gone pro, he became a doctor, and the coach set up a scholarship for the needy ones, but now it’s for all his former players. There’s a grant set up with interest for all of them.

In Junction, Texas, he was brutal and hard. . . . Bryant’s theory was that he had doctors trained to fix the hurt, and he was fixin’ to do our business. Bryant was not about makin' money but making things happen.

Coach Bryant was a team man; he didn’t like single individuals as it related to his football team. I was on the freshman team when he came in from Texas A&M. Gene Stallings had been in Junction. Five or six guys came with him at ‘Bama and put us through three months of that thing. We had great players here. A lot of those athletes were tremendous people who still could not put up with it. Bryant wanted to know who wanted to play. I was one of 14 who went through that.

Coach Bryant didn’t want married men on his team, but Coach Bryant tells me he and I had an agreement, because I was to get married. So I talked to Thomas Helling, and he told me I could play as a married man. On the sideline in 1958, I asked Bryant could I be red-shirted, and he said yes. So I started 16 games between Lee Roy Jordan and those guys.

Now I’m going back [in time], but the players, they accepted Bryant, because he was tough but in a fair way. The only guy who complained was Steve Wright, who was not his type of player. He played pro several years.

Coach could change with the times. Hair, for instance, they started growing it longer. Coach Bryant looked through a book and marked the styles of what he would or wouldn’t let them do. He wanted them clean, but some of the black players, if they shave too close it causes in-grown hair, so he changed and let them not shave so close. These were the little details he attended to.

He was the kind of person who could pick out any individual’s full potential, and he said he needed 110 percent out of them. But he wouldn’t ask people to do things they couldn’t do. But it didn’t matter who you were, if you followed the rules, if you gave the effort, Coach Bryant was with you. In the early years he dismissed guys, but in later years he put players on the second or third team. He’d tell the players what [they] needed to do to get back in good graces. He gave you a chance. If you overcame that, all was forgotten. If you didn’t, then at the end of the semester, they quietly didn’t report back. They all accepted it, what he did for them.

There were these social changes, but he saw it. This is why he’s so great a person: he was totally abreast of all that was happening. He had certain people he respected in different subjects who would know in-depth the situation, and if he had a problem in that area, he would call the person. . . .

He was on top of stuff, if change was going to happen, he had the loyalty of people and it never leaked out. He kept the secret of the wishbone all through two-a-days. We’d not practice the wishbone. We’d practice the old offense, then the writers would leave, or he had canvas put all around and install a new secondary; we’d work on it and have a 12th man out there.

I’m 66 years old. I have tractors and dump trucks; that’s my hobby. Now I have a computer, and so I’m archivin' what people are doing. You just verify what I say, when you call around and ask about Coach Bryant, in that he was always on the phone gathering a lot of information about the world.

In my life, I lived with the strongest, the best chosen, most physical people, I’ve lived a life of roughhouse, but Coach Bryant taught us about life, how things go on a curve, and you get down but you fight and get back up. If not for Coach Bryant, I don’t know what I’d have been. But I’m set up now because Coach Bryant taught me the way to live life.

I've dealt with cancer surgery a few times over the last years, too, and I keep fightin' it off, and I thank the Good Lord, Jesus Christ. He's come into my heart. That's how I look at racial issues, through Him. I lived in certain times but I've come to know that all people, of all colors; there ain’t no difference between races; we’re all people under the Lord.