Bear Bryant gets a victory ride after the last game of his remarkable coaching career in December, 1982. (Photo courtesy University of Alabama)

Someone recently asked me: Who is the most unforgettable coach you have encountered in your long sports writing career?

The answer was an easy one, but requires some background. Indeed, it requires a story, which follows.

Rick Cleveland

This was back in September of 1971. I was an 18-year-old sports reporter, who could easily have passed for 13, for my hometown newspaper The Hattiesburg American. My beat was the Southern Miss football team, and they were about to play Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide juggernaut. I was assigned to do a feature story on Bryant and was dispatched to Tuscaloosa for his weekly Tuesday press conference. 

The Bear, as everyone called him then, 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. Younger readers need to know that back in the the 1960s and 70s, Bryant was practically deity in the Deep South. The word “legendary” doesn’t begin to describe the hold he had on football fans in this part of the country. Some folks in Alabama claimed Bryant could walk on water. I was not so sure he couldn’t. I was in awe of him.

Five years into my sports writing career, I was finally making just enough money to purchase a new car — just not much of one. My 1971 Ford Pinto sounded like a sewing machine and maneuvered only slightly better. I left 30 minutes early to make the 180-mile trip with time to spare. Just across the state line, my left rear tire blew. This was during a September heat wave. I struggled and struggled to get the lug nuts off, and then had problems with the flimsy jack. 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 and knowing I couldn’t make up time in my sewing machine.

Greasy, sweaty and quite embarrassed, I arrived at the Alabama athletic offices a few minutes after the press conference ended. Charley Thornton, Alabama’s splendid sports publicist, took one look 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 hallway. Then he came back and told me to follow him, and I did. We walked into this spacious office, filled with huge trophies and 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, was the man himself.

He might as well have been God.

Mr. 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 sweet-smelling ribs over and said in that deep, gravelly voice of his, “Charley tells me you’re Ace Cleveland’s boy. Is your mama as pretty as she always was? Here, son, 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. 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, and then his lips curled into a smile. This is what he said: “Aw, shit, son, spit it out.”

It was as if he knew just what to say. My brain freeze ended instantly. I got a splendid interview that was more like a conversation and lasted much longer than 10 minutes. 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.

After a while, the great man asked, “Are you in a hurry to get back to Hattiesburg? Why don’t you come out to practice with me?” And then he drove us out to practice in his golf cart. And then he took me up on his tower with him. I noticed several veteran Alabama writers, who had covered the Tide for years, down below. I am pretty sure they were glaring up at me thinking, “Who the hell is that greasy little kid?”

Bear Bryant in his customary pre-game position: Leaning on a goal post. (Photo courtesy University of Alabama)

After a while, I told Coach Bryant I really did have to go home and get to work. He told me to hand him my notebook, and then he wrote down a man’s name and the tire store where he worked. “Tell Joe I sent you,” he said. And so I did. Joe put on a new tire and wouldn’t let me pay. “If Coach Bryant sent you, the tire’s on us,” the guy said.

Five days later, I returned to Tuscaloosa — in somebody else’s car — and watched Bryant’s boys dismantle Southern Miss 42 to 6. It could have been 70 to nothing had Bryant not been such a benevolent gentleman. I covered many more of Bryant’s games over the years, games against Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss and also in bowl games that won national championships. I was standing right next to Bryant at his press conference after the 1979 Sugar Bowl when No. 2 Bama defeated No. 1 Penn State 14-7 for the national championship. Bill Lumpkin, a longtime Birmingham sports writer, asked Bryant how close a Penn State running back came to scoring a game-tying fourth quarter touchdown. Answered Bryant, smiling and holding his index finger and his thumb about an inch apart, “Bill, he was about as close as the length of your ying-yang.”

I also covered Bear’s last game at the Liberty Bowl in December of 1982, silently pulling hard for the Crimson Tide to beat Illinois, which they did. And I covered his funeral a month later. Trust me, presidents and kings have been buried with less fanfare. I, as hundreds of others, cried.

Many believe Bear Bryant was the greatest coach ever. I agree. I know this for certain: Nearly 52 years later, he remains my all-time favorite. 

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.