- Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s Last Quarter by Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski
The story of Paul “Bear” Bryant and Alabama Crimson Tide football may be a familiar tale for writers of sports history, particularly given the recent domination of college football by the Tide, but this well-crafted account sets a new standard for the subject. The arrival of Joe Namath, a quarterback from the steel country of western Pennsylvania, to Bryant’s team produced one of the great odd couples in sports. The freewheeling Namath epitomized the coming cultural revolution of the sixties: stylish, resistant to authority, and pushing the limits of personal behavior. When his grades and test scores prevented him from signing with programs like Notre Dame and Maryland, he landed in the lap of Bryant, the severe and authoritarian coach from the Jim Crow South. Some parts may seem redundant to students of Bryant and Namath, but the authors have done their job well. The legend of the tower is reconfirmed, when the freshman Namath was invited to the spindly steel coaching tower where Bryant scrutinized his team’s practices. Bryant had invited no previous player to the lofty summit, and the incident signaled Namath’s special status as a quarterback for a new age.
Perhaps the strongest section of the book is the second chapter that sets the context for the rise of Southern football. Southerners in the early twentieth century were consciously seeking economic progress and a degree of cultural acceptance by the broader nation. Football became one manifestation of this drive for assimilation. As college football enjoyed its heyday in the 1920s with the prominence of programs such as Notre [End Page 144] Dame and Michigan in the Midwest, Army in the East, and Stanford in the West, the South lagged behind and often fared poorly in interregional competition. But an Alabama victory in the 1926 Rose Bowl (the only bowl at the time) fueled regional pride and signaled the arrival of Southern college football on the national stage.
What follows is a fairly standard retelling, but the authors manage to do it better. Sports history is often written by enthusiasts who focus on the plays and the games. Here, the context is never far from the narrative. Namath brought to Alabama distinctively Northern attitudes of racial tolerance, although he rarely exhibited those attitudes in the tense climate of George Wallace’s Alabama. Football talk is kept simple and to a minimum, although a book of this sort will naturally contain significant text devoted to describing the games and the seasons. Some telling vignettes emerge, however, from the authors’ extensive interviews with Namath and others. As a freshman, Namath refused to call a play using the “n” word and substituted a Hungarian word instead. There is a detailed account of Namath’s suspension for the 1964 Sugar Bowl after he and a friend’s drunken carousal caused them to abandon their car near a sorority house. When Bryant polled his coaches as to his punishment they agreed to allow him to play, but assistant Gene Stallings, who later led the Tide to the 1992 national title and who had recently had a son born with Down’s Syndrome, insisted that Namath be held to account.
More subtle themes emerge in the carefully crafted narrative. One is the growth of Bryant as a result of coaching Namath. Bryant was notorious for his harsh practice regime, especially in preseason conditioning. The tale of the Junction Boys is well-known, where Bryant ran a brutal camp in extreme Texas heat when he coached Texas A&M. But here we see him easing his practices and even allowing the players to drink water, previously seen as a sign of weakness.
One vexing question is left unanswered: did the rise of Crimson Tide football impact the issue of civil rights at Alabama in the early 1960s? Certainly, Bryant was no activist, and Alabama...