Last week, reminiscing about growing up with the late Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, I mentioned the upcoming ESPN film “The Junction Boys,” which deals with his infamous 1954 training camp at Texas A&M. Bryant put his Texas A&M players through the most grueling indoctrination this side of “Full Metal Jacket.” Seventy-six of 111 players quit, and Bryant later acknowledged that all the players — the ones who stayed and the ones who left alike — had been mistreated by him. To coaches of Bryant’s generation, a football scholarship wasn’t an invitation to play a game but an alternative to picking cotton or working in a textile mill. While Bryant’s background helped to explain his treatment of his players, it didn’t excuse it, a fact which, to his credit, he came to acknowledge.
Twenty-five years later, Bear Bryant attended a reunion of the “Junction Boys.” College football’s greatest disciplinarian apologized to the players he had wronged. He found to his surprise that most of them had long ago forgiven him.
If there is a 25-year reunion of the 2002 Alabama football team, what will Coach Dennis Franchione say to his former players?
Last week Coach Franchione, with Alabama’s football program rocked by scandal and NCAA probations that he had no hand in making, jumped ship for the football program at Texas A&M.
There’s nothing new in football coaches hopping from school to school to get a better deal. There’s even a certain irony in the fact that Bryant went from Texas A&M to Alabama while Franchione used Alabama as a steppingstone for a fatter contract at A&M. It could be argued with some justification that Bryant’s situation was a great deal different than Franchione’s, that he had initially refused the Alabama job because a friend of his was coaching there, that he stayed at A&M for four years and, after all, left the Aggies only to return to his alma mater. (“When Mama calls,” he said, “you gotta come runnin’.”)
But let that pass. The real difference between Paul Bear Bryant and Dennis Franchione is reflected in the attitudes of the men they coached. To former players and later disciples such as Jack Pardee and Gene Stallings, Bryant’s message at A&M was clear: “I’ll put you through hell, but at the end of it all we’ll be champions.” He kept his word. After a horrific 1-9 season in his first year at A&M, two years later the Aggies came back to an undefeated season and conference championship. Bryant delivered on his promise to turn them into winners.
In the midst of Alabama’s turmoil, with the NCAA delivering what many called “death penalty” probations to the football program, Franchione put up a Web site headlined “Accountability — Loyalty — Trust.” The coach was a fervent believer in all of those words, at least as they related to his players. He begged his 40 juniors and seniors, who could have transferred without penalty to other schools, to stay and hold the team together even though the probation ensured that none of them would ever get to play in a bowl game at Alabama. (Under NCAA rules, college football players are denied the rights of average American citizens to change schools at will, while football and basketball coaches are granted privileges reserved, in other times and places, for nobility.)
“I plan on staying at Alabama for the rest of my career,” he announced. “I guarantee,” he told several of them, “that I’ll be here for you through it all, regardless of what happens.” His players believed him, stayed, and played their hearts out to a surprising 10-3 season. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Franchione was using the team’s success as leverage to get himself more money from probation-free A&M.
Paul Bryant kept his word to his players while Dennis Franchione gave his word and then skipped campus, literally, in the middle of the night.
When Paul Bryant was buried in Birmingham in 1983, he took one piece of jewelry to his grave — a ring given to him by the Junction Boys, the Texas A&M players whom he had regretted working so hard. I wonder how Dennis Franchione’s 2002 Alabama team would like to bury him?
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I’m not going to try and tell you that Roone Arledge didn’t bring a lot of things into this world that I’m happy about. I like having “Monday Night Football” around when I want it, I like watching instant replays, I like the fact that he wasn’t afraid to take a chance on offending people by hiring strong personalities like Howard Cosell. I’m also aware that every one of these topics, and a great many more, are worthy of more space and time than I have available to me. No worry: I’m sure you can click on virtually any sports-related Web site in America and read everyone giving Roone Arledge his just due.
But when, I wonder, will Arledge be held accountable for Pandora’s box of ills he ushered into big-time sports? Frank Deford wrote that Arledge “changed the Olympics” by “personalizing the athletes by making them real people and concentrating on the individual sports and specific people.” I wonder if people who say things like that have bothered to think them through. “Personalizing the athletes”? Did the Jesse Owens story in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin suffer because television failed to “personalize” him? Olympic heroes from Eleanor Holm to Buster Crabbe to Sonja Henie to Woody Strode were so “personalized,” decades before Arledge’s radical TV innovations, that they became movie stars. Can anyone truthfully say that Olympic athletes after Arledge had more of a rapport with the public?
For all of the prime-time sports that Arledge helped turn the American public on to, can anyone say that he produced better baseball announcers than Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, or Vin Scully? A better pro football broadcaster than Ray Scott? A better boxing ringside man than Don Dunphy? Arledge’s real “find” as announcer — and I mean as announcer, not as a TV personality — was Keith Jackson in college football. But Jackson was a throwback to an earlier era and had so much individuality that he has practically defied identification over the years with ABC.
When Ralph Wiley tells me that “every time you hear the mighty Olympic theme, every time you see split screen of Vick and Finneran, every time you hear the concussive hit near the sideline or Peyton Manning barking, every time you see a prerecorded interview of a guy who just made a play explaining his interior motivation, these are Arledge moments.” Exactly. And every time I see a split screen my attention wanders back to the book or magazine in my hand. And every time I hear a prerecorded interview of a guy who just made a play explaining his interior motivation, I make a dash for the refrigerator.
All in all, the jury is still out as to whether Roone Arledge’s vision was as much about sports as it was about television.