A Pair of Kings
Sure, national championships are great, but we all know that bragging rights live and die at the Iron Bowl. In advance of this epic contest, Ed Reynolds remembers some of the greats from both teams.
Paul Bryant and Ralph Jordan personified football royalty in my world. For two decades, Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan were the icons producing weekly football melodramas that starred an All-American lineup featuring Joe Namath, Pat Sullivan, Tucker Frederickson, Major Ogilvie, Snake Stabler, and Terry Henley, to name a mere handful.
When I was a kid in the 1960s, everybody had a television, but football-viewing choices were severely limited. For those games we couldn’t watch, men with unforgettable voices (Buddy Rutledge and John Forney, representing Auburn and Alabama, respectively) were the wizards broadcasting play-by-play action, casting a mesmerizing spell over autumn Saturday afternoons.
In the Beginning
Ralph Jordan became Auburn’s head football coach in 1951, winning the school’s first national championship in 1957. Dr. Lloyd Nix, a retired dentist in Decatur, Alabama, had a 19-0-1 record as the Tigers’ starting quarterback those two seasons. “I played quarterback in high school. When I got to Auburn, they told me they were going to put me at halfback,” Dr. Nix recalls on a recent afternoon. In the summer of 1957, Coach Jordan switched him to quarterback, where Nix mostly handed off or tossed the ball to his running backs. He always took the snap directly from behind the center instead of standing back several yards as today’s quarterbacks often do playing out of a typical shotgun formation. “I would have loved to run the shotgun. I would have loved to have the snap back there instead of running backwards and turning around and seeing what was going on,” he admits, laughing. “But we didn’t throw the ball much. We’d throw it maybe 15 times a game if we had to. Our defense was so good, we never did feel like we had to throw it.”
Larry Ellis was a blue-chip running back out of Murphy High in Mobile, recruited by Alabama, Florida, and Auburn, as well as approved for appointments to the Air Force Academy and West Point to play football. Ellis decided on Auburn his junior year. “Well, I was coming out of an era of impressionable football in the Southeastern Conference, very impressionable,” he says of his decision to stay close to home. The SEC’s current domination of college ball is nothing new to Ellis who played fullback from 1966 to 1968. “When I was 10 years old, Auburn had won the national championship in 1957; in 1958, LSU won the national championship; in 1960, Ole Miss and Johnny Vaught won the national championship. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant won it in 1961 at Alabama. You think the SEC’s just now dominating? Wrong. So, as a kid, I said, ‘I’d love to be a part of that.”‘
Nobody above anybody that I met at my young, tender age compared to Ralph ‘Shug’ Jordan because, very simply, he was what we might call a ‘man’s man.’ An all-around person. His military background was unbelievable. And once you met the man, it was just infectious. He was a role model and a guy that nobody else that I had ever been around would compare to. He hooked me.”
While Jordan was generally viewed as a gentleman, Ellis saw the coach’s temper on display a few times. The 1968 Sun Bowl against Arizona was Larry Ellis’s last game. At halftime, the score was 10-10. Jordan was not happy, uncharacteristically flinging his clipboard as he ordered the team’s seniors front and center. Ellis recalls: “Shug threw his clipboard across the locker room and shouted, ‘If you sons of bitches don’t go out in the second half and exert some leadership, I’ll have every one of you in spring training!’ He told us we’d be the blocking dummies for next year’s team during the upcoming spring practice since our scholarships lasted until the end of the school year.” Auburn went on to win 34-10. One of Coach Jordan’s comments regarding leadership still moves Ellis 43 years later: “Leadership is like a cooked piece of spaghetti. You put it on a plate. If you get behind it and push it, it has no direction. But if you get in front of it and pull it, it’ll follow you anywhere.”
Birmingham attorney Gusty Yearout was a walk-on at Auburn. “I tried out as a freshman, I didn’t have a scholarship. I made the team and they gave me a scholarship,” Yearout says. “I came back in 1964 and got hurt. There was one coach there who didn’t like me and he was on my ass. So I finally said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I was young and kind of immature, so I quit. But before the end of that fall season, I went to Coach Jordan and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake and had some personal issues. I just want to know if you’ll let me come back on the team.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can come back but you don’t have a scholarship any more. You’ve got to try out again.’” During his final two years at Auburn, Yearout was elected captain of the team.
Going to law school had long been a goal for Yearout, but he was also attracted to coaching. Jordan gave him some invaluable advice. “Coach Jordan knew from the time I entered Auburn that I wanted to go to law school. When I finished in ’67, I had been accepted to law school but I had that football stuff down in my blood and in my throat,” he says. “I told Coach Jordan, ‘What I’d like to do, if you’ll hire me, is to coach for a while to see if I like it, and then go to law school if I don’t.’ Coach Jordan said, ‘Coaching is not as glamorous as you think it is. You have proven yourself as a leader and as a smart guy of football. But you have to go to law school first and then if you don’t like law school you can come back down here and I’ll hire you.’ And obviously it worked out a lot better for me to go to law school than it did to become a football coach,” he says, laughing.
Yearout credits players and staff more than head coaches for victories, however. “Coach Saban is a great coach and I think Chizik is a great coach. But basically, what wins football games is the quality of the football players and the quality of the staffs,” he says. “Head coaches have to have great talents to put all that together and motivate and all that stuff. But they don’t win games on Saturday. People get all this bulletin board stuff to motivate the team—but when you get hit the first time square in the mouth, that [motivational message] won’t work any more. You’ve just got to be ready to play. You can forget being pissed off.”
Innovation on the Field
In 1969, Auburn beat Alabama for the first time in five years using a weapon that Shug Jordan had rarely deployed—the forward pass. A sophomore quarterback named Pat Sullivan gave Auburn football a makeover by lobbing long throws downfield to split end Terry Beasley, who was legendary for running blindly at full speed with his head toward the sky looking for Sullivan’s passes.
“Coach Jordan and I were very close. He was known around the athletic department as ‘the man.’ He commanded that kind of respect,” Pat Sullivan says during a phone call on an October afternoon. “He was a Southern gentleman, but he was also a very disciplined person. He was a strict disciplinarian. We played Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl my sophomore year. Back then, the quarterbacks called a lot of the plays. We were at their 35-yard line and it was fourth down. Coach Jordan sent the punter in. And I sent him back out and called a pass play. We didn’t complete it. I went to the sideline and Coach Jordan met me, put his arm around my neck. People in the stands may have thought he was consoling me. But he actually said, ‘You didn’t understand that I wanted to punt.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, but I felt we ought to go for it.’ Well, he told me in no uncertain terms to go sit my rear end on the bench, to not get up until the game was over. Which I did. And I certainly never crossed him again. That was something that he and I laughed about as time went on.”
Sullivan was the first of three Heisman Trophy winners at Auburn. He recalls an intoxicated John Wayne at the Heisman banquet at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club in 1971. “When we were at the Heisman Banquet, John Wayne was the guest speaker,” Sullivan remembers. “John Wayne was well into a fifth of Scotch, and Coach Jordan got up and made a nice talk. As he was sitting back down, John Wayne reached over and put his arm around Coach Jordan and said, ‘Coach, you made a hell of a talk there. I may have a part in my next movie for you.’ And Coach Jordan never batted an eye; he looked at him and said, ‘Well, John, I come high.’ That cracked John Wayne up and he said, ‘Well, I think I can afford you.’”
By 1972, Pat Sullivan had graduated to the NFL and Auburn’s immediate future looked rather dismal. Losing the forward pass forced Jordan to return to his traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of football. The shining star of this dull offense was a running back named Terry Henley, who was anything but dull—on and off the field. He was named second-team All-American and led the SEC in rushing, averaging 93.7 yards a game. Henley also loved to run his mouth, endearing himself to the media with hilarious, brash quotes. His rapport with Jordan was unique.
“Well, Coach Jordan and I had kind of a different relationship. I mean, he was the coach and I was a player. But he was my buddy, he was my friend,” Henley explains. “I’d go by his house all the time and visit with him and sit down there in the den and talk about things. He was the daddy that I never had. Now, he was tough, too, like a dad is supposed to be. But he was a wonderful, wonderful person. Coach Jordan used to tell me that he never liked to see me before one o’clock because he said it always upset his lunch if he did.”
We went to Georgia Tech my junior year. In the first half, I fumbled at the one-yard line coming out of the end zone; I fumbled at the one-yard line going in; I fumbled at midfield; and I batted a pass up in the air for the other team to intercept—all in the first half. Now, a normal coach would have set you on the bench after the second fumble . . . So we go in 7-0 at halftime.” Coach Jordan tells the team how well they’re playing despite Henley’s poor performance. He said, ‘I want Terry to apologize to y’all.’ I just sat there and I thought he was kinda joking about me apologizing. He let out some vulgarity like you’ve never heard in your life . . . and, buddy, I jumped out of that seat and I told them, ‘I apologize to all of y’all for the way I’m playing. I’ll play better in the second half.’ Well, of course, the second half I go out and rush for a hundred and something yards; caught three or four passes; I caught about a 30-yard touchdown pass that broke their backs, helped put the nail in the coffin. And I ended up as SEC Player of the Week. After I caught the pass and ran it in for the touchdown, I came to the sideline. Coach Jordan wore an old rain hat . . . He put that hat on me and he said, ‘You the damnedest player I’ve ever had. You should be the coach. Here, you wear the hat.”
Being the team’s star, Henley felt he could park wherever he desired on campus, prompting a confrontation with Jordan. “Parking tickets!” exclaims Henley, howling. “Coach Jordan called me in and he was just eating me out. He said, ‘Are you a member of the faculty? Do you work in the janitorial department here at the university?’ I said, ‘Well, no, sir.’ I didn’t know where he was going. He said, ‘Why the hell are you parking in their parking spots? I’ve got $325 worth of tickets for you. I’m not going to stand for it. You’re going to have to walk to class like the rest of them. And I mean it!’ He was getting loud with me. So I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I stood up and he said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not finished.’ I sat back down and he said, ‘You’ve got a parking ticket for parking in [Auburn University] President Philpott’s space!’ I said, ‘Well, I knew he wasn’t going to be there that day, so I parked in his spot.’ And he said, ‘How did you know he wasn’t going to be there that day?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been going out with his daughter and she told me that he was going to Tallahassee that day, so I decided to park in his spot.’”
The Man with the Voice of God
My father and grandfather went to Auburn, so the rivalry’s dynamic was established for me at an early age. The Auburn-Alabama game was the most exciting, intense day of the year. It was the only time I ever heard my mother and father discuss divorce. Despite being an Auburn fan, my mom would annually scold my father for acting like a fool when he banged his head against the wall in frustration yearly as Alabama dominated Auburn in predictable fashion. My father was a deeply religious man, so notions of Bear Bryant walking on water created a conflict. There were weekends that I was convinced my dad really thought God was a Bama fan. He would glare at the sky whenever the Tide got “a lucky break,” shaking his head while muttering, “Somebody up there sure likes the Bear.”
The Crimson Tide was going through a drought in the late ’60s when Sullivan to Beasley was the rage at Auburn. Even Vanderbilt beat the Tide. “The ‘Bear’ Bryant Show” always preceded the “The Shug Jordan Show” on television each Sunday afternoon. Both were replays of the previous day’s game, featuring each coach’s observations and analysis. At one point during Bryant’s brief “down” years, alumni became so disgruntled that Bear told them to “go to hell” during the broadcast. A few days later, Bryant apologized. Newspaper headlines around the state proclaimed: “Alumni: Bear Says You Don’t Have to Go.” He really was like God.
Wide receiver Joey Jones, current head football coach at South Alabama who played for Bryant from 1979 until the coach’s retirement in 1983, is quite familiar with Bear’s intimidating presence. Jones remembers the first time he came face to face with the coach. “I saw him right before the first practice, we’d had a big dinner the night before,” he says. “He was sitting at the table and I walked over to him and he shook my hand and I said, ‘I’m Joey Jones from Mobile, Alabama.’ He looked at me like, ‘What in the world are we doing spending a scholarship on somebody this size?’ He looked at the coach that recruited me and kind of gave him a bad look.”
The receiver learned the value of earning one’s own way. “The number one thing I learned from Coach Bryant was to make young men earn what they get. He did that with me, made me earn a starting position,” says Jones. “He didn’t give me anything, made me fight for it, and I’ll always appreciate that about him, not just rolling out the red carpet for anybody. Because when you do that, I think you get a much better, tougher football player who really had to fight for their job.”
Bryant didn’t do too much motivational talking on game day. “He did more during the week. His big speech came on Wednesday nights when we would have a big team meeting. He’d give a motivational-type talk then. It wasn’t so much during the games because they mainly worked at halftime, talking X’s and O’s and trying to make adjustments,” recalls Jones. “And even before games he wasn’t a big ‘let’s tear the door down’-kind of coach because I think he did so much of that during the week that he didn’t need that. That’s the way he operated.”
Two-time All-American running back Major Ogilvie agrees that Bryant wasn’t overly emotional. “We were really not a rah-rah kind of team. We didn’t play on emotion,” Ogilvie says. “I mean, there’s a certain amount of emotion that goes with adrenalin but we had so much poise and confidence, and we were so well prepared..” Ogilvie was on the team when Alabama won national championships in 1978 and 1979. “I was there when we won 44 games and lost four, so we had an awful lot of fun.” He recalls his introduction to Bryant well. “It was that day that I signed. I can remember going back in [his office]. I saw all the rings on his fingers,” says Ogilvie. “‘Cause keep in mind, I played on two state championships in high school and knew how much fun it was to play and be on successful teams. So, I walked back in there and asked him if I could see his rings. We chit-chatted for a minute.”
Nose tackle Bob Baumhower, who played for the Bear in the mid-1970s before starring for the NFL Miami Dolphins, came very close to chucking it all away.” He turned on a light for me, that’s for sure,” Baumhower admits with a quiet laugh. The player hadn’t had his heart in the game until that fateful meeting with Coach Bryant. “I played football for all the wrong reasons. I got talked into playing football in high school,” says Baumhower. “I enjoyed the game atmosphere and I enjoyed the camaraderie. But as far as thinking about the best I can be, I never had that mentality. I was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship only after the signing day.”
Baumhower didn’t enjoy playing offense his freshman year, so asked to be switched to defense. The coaches agreed, but Baumhower failed to pay much attention to conditioning during the off-season. “I don’t think Coach Bryant was real impressed with my conditioning. Instead of first string I was last string. I caught an attitude and said, ‘I don’t need this.’ I left football practice,” he says. “Coach Bryant got word to me that he wanted to talk to me and my dad that afternoon. The first thing he did—after he greeted my dad really warmly—was he looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well, I heard you wanted to talk to me.’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t talk to quitters but since you’re here, come on in.’ And he started working me right off the bat in that meeting. He made me start thinking about myself as a quitter. He asked me a question: ‘What did you do between spring practice and now to get better as a ball player and a person?’ And I couldn’t give him an answer. He went down a long list of players that had done things that he was aware of, whether it was a particularly player losing ‘x’ amount of weight, getting in better shape or a player getting stronger since the spring . . . He was real engaged at what everybody was doing to improve themselves for the betterment of the team. I couldn’t answer the question. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think you’re a quitter, Bob. I think you’re frustrated. But I don’t think you know what it takes to be a winner. You’ve got to change the way you think. And if you want to play for me, you’ve got to be the best that you can be and you’ve got to show me that you’re committed to give a hundred and ten percent and you want to be special.’ And I never thought in those terms before that meeting. And that’s what I mean by ‘turning my light on.’ My dad still talks about it. It changed my life.”
Baumhower and his old coach grew quite close after he left to play professional football. “The longer I got to know Coach Bryant, the better our relationship was. When I went to Miami, I would get phone calls from him, letting me know he was coming down,” Baumhower recalls. So my relationship with Coach Bryant, I still consider it a gift. And that gift, I keep getting benefits of it throughout life because he taught me so many things that have been good for me in a positive way through the years.” &