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Bragging Rights: A Season Inside the SEC

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Bragging Rights:
A Season Inside the SEC,
College Football's Toughest Conference.

by Richard Ernsberger

Downgrade Football?

In the late 1980s former Alabama President Joab Thomas created a huge stir when he challenged the primacy of the school's football program. Thomas, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, declared that he wanted boost Alabama's academic reputation»so that people around the country would not perceive the university as merely a football school. If necessary to accomplish that goal, he said, less emphasis should be placed on the sport. A noble thought, but one certain to create big waves in Tuscaloosa. Larry White, the dour Alabama sports information director, could barely disguise his disgust with Thomas as he told me the story. Upgrade academics? Downgrade football at Alabama? That's like telling Romans to downgrade Catholicism. It was a hanging offense. College football is Alabama. Like their neighbors in Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama residents were stigmatized for decades for their sundry cultural sins. They were poor, uneducated, and racist. Cheering for The Bear, watching him pile up SEC rings and national championships, was about the only thing they could feel good about in the 1960s and 1970s. "Alabama may rank low among U.S. states in education or income, but we can be number one in football," says Clyde Bolton, a longtime sportswriter for the Birmingham News. "It's something Alabamans take pride in: Watch out, or we'll beat your ass." Adds Paul Finebaum, a radio talk-show host and columnist for the Birmingham Post Herald: "People here study Alabama football. They know who the third-team players are on the depth chart."

When it became clear that he was not a football loyalist, Thomas soon found himself a pariah. He was vilified by Bryant loyalists, who Thomas branded the "Bryant mafia"» a hardline faction that views Crimson Tide football like the Vatican views St. Peter's. In 1988, Thomas resigned.

Bill Curry was Alabama's football coach when Thomas was UA's president, and he had problems of his own. Curry had a successful three-year stint with the Crimson Tide between 1987 and 1989. He won 26 games and lost 10. But he resigned after the 1989 season, an unhappy man. It was an odd decision, given that his team had just gone 10-2 and won the Sugar Bowl. But Curry, who was close to president Thomas and former Athletic Director Steve Sloan, had become acutely uncomfortable at Bama. There were three problems. The first was that Curry was, like Thomas and Sloan, a guy who stressed academics within the football program. The second was that Curry was considered an outsider by many Alabama fans. He had played and coached at Georgia Tech, and he had no affiliation with Bear Bryant. He was not one of "Bear's boys." That made him suspect in the eyes of many Alabama folks. Curry remembers being picked up at the Montgomery (Alabama) airport by Mae Martin Tyson, the feisty daughter of Bear Bryant, shortly after he was hired. She wasted no time speaking her mind. "It broke my heart when they didn't hire one of Pappa's boy's, Mae Martin told Curry, "but you're our coach and I'm going to support you."

Curry's third problem was that he couldn't beat Auburn. He lost to the Tigers three straight times. That's a no-no in Tuscaloosa. After the third Auburn loss, somebody threw a brick through his office window. There were death threats. Alabama won the SEC that year, and Athletic Director Hootie Ingram offered to extend Curry's contract. But Curry says it was "drastically different" from the one he already had: "It was unacceptable." He resigned. Curry was so spooked by the experience that he accepted a job as coach at Kentucky-which is best known for its basketball. While he deplores the monomaniacal attitude of the UA athletic department about football, Curry will tell you that coaching the Crimson Tide was a "terrific privilege." He says: "You can put that crimson jersey on anybody»he may not be a great athlete-and he will play his heart out. He becomes somebody else on Saturday. You can work the team harder than the norm, and nobody will quit. A kid can't quit and go home to Dothan and say to his dad, 'I just quit the Crimson Tide.'" Bear Bryant hated quitters. Football matters in the South.

Pressure Cauldron

Bragging Rights
by Richard Ernsberger

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Excerpt Sections

Roughnecks and Romance: An Introduction to the SEC

Energy and Passion

A Secret Weapon

Downgrade Football?

Pressure Cauldron

On the Road

Fathers and Sons





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