Rick Cleveland

Bear Bryant treated teenage Rick Cleveland with kindness

Paul “Bear” Bryant gave a helping hand to an 18-year-old Rick Cleveland.
Paul “Bear” Bryant gave a helping hand to an 18-year-old Rick Cleveland. Associated Press

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.

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