Legendary Bear Bryant will be a tough act to follow

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One of Paul ''Bear'' Bryant's favorite expressions is: ''I wouldn't know and I wouldn't tell you if I did.'' Sometimes there's a twinkle in his eye when he says this and sometimes his manner resembles that of a hanging judge passing sentence.

Bryant, of course, is retiring after Alabama plays Illinois in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, the 24th time he has taken the Crimson Tide to post-season encounters and his 29th bowl game over all as a head coach.

At this point hardly anyone needs to be reminded that the Bear is already college football's all time winningest coach (Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama) with 322 victories. His 38-year record will continue to shine just as brightly in the history books no matter what happens against Illinois.

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Still you know that Bryant's finish will be upbeat - the way Red Auerbach coaxed one more world title out of his Boston Celtics the year he quit and the way Ted Williams hit a dramatic home run in his last turn at bat as a major leaguer.

Whenever the Bear has philosophized about football over the years, he has always led with the line that no man can be a successful coach without a wife who is willing to put up with a lot of neglect. Then he shifts to the importance of getting a five-year contract wherever you go - the time Bryant feels he needs to build a winner.

Perhaps the chief reason the Bear has remained so long at the top of his profession is that early-on in his career he recognized the need to adjust; to always keep one foot in tomorrow. He won teaching the single wing; the Notre Dame box; the T; the pro set; the Wishbone and any other formation that was popular in its day. And he never overstayed his time with any of them.

Bryant, despite his legendary status, has never been considered an innovator. He doesn't invent plays or formations. But he'll take the other guy's best plays and defensive sets and make them better, which is pretty much standard operating procedure among football coaches.

As a recruiter, particularly in his younger days, his willingness to spend time talking with a boy's mother in her kitchen about the benefits of playing at whatever school was employing Bryant at the time has always paid rich dividends. But none of this would have worked, of course, if the Bear hadn't been a man of his word.

For the past several years, at least with the media, Bryant has been somewhat of a sly old fox when discussing Alabama victories. How can he take any credit for wins, he says, when he has delegated most of his authority to the assistant coaches on his staff. If you haven't already guessed, he still gets praised anyway in the newspapers.

Bryant got his nickname (and this story has been told many times before) after wrestling a live bear on the stage of a little theater in Fordyce, Ala. He did it not because he wanted to get mugged by a fur coat, but because the owner of the bear was paying $1 a minute to anyone who could stay in the ring with his animal.

Part of Bryant's motivation that afternoon was the summer job he had at the time which consisted of chopping cotton at 50 cents a day. Paul made himself a few bucks as a wrestler that afternoon and might have made a few more if the bear's muzzle hadn't started to work loose, or so the tale goes.

Maybe this is why Bryant's teams have also been so tough, mentally and physically. And why he once told reporters that he took particular pride in keeping track of how many teams didn't win the following week after playing his team the previous Saturday.

The press conference at which Bryant announced his decision to retire was a five-handkerchief production.

''This is my school, my alma mater,'' the Bear rasped to reporters. ''I love it and I love my players. But in my opinion they deserved better coaching than they have been getting from me this year. Actually we played only four or five games all season like Bryant-coached teams are expected to play.''

However, the Bear has promised to remain indefinitely as the school's athletic director.

Bryant will be succeeded at Alabama by Ray Perkins, the 41-year-old head coach of the New York Giants, who is about to complete his fourth year in the National Football League. Perkins, who played for Bryant at Alabama in the 1960s , reportedly has been given a five-year contract at $100,000 a year, the same as the Bear got.

Folklore about Bryant and how seriously he took his football runs deep in Alabama. The story about him that I like best concerned a 7 a.m. phone call to the football department at Auburn University one year to clear up some ticket problems between the two schools.

''Let me speak to your head coach,'' Bryant told the operator, before being informed that the gentleman in question always arrived at a much later time in the morning.

''You folks don't take your football very seriously over there, do you?'' replied the coach who sometimes slept in the same dormitory as his players the night before a big game.

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