There he stood, propped up against the Legion Field goalposts, his houndstooth hat tilted slightly over his eyes, one leg casually crossed over the other.
Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant, probably the most legendary figure in college football history. Coach of six national championship teams, winner of 13 Southeastern Conference championships. Molder of men. The man who carried an entire league and his state on his back for 25 years.
Then, there’s me.
A 22-year skinny college senior at LSU, a broadcast journalism major working on several fall Saturdays as a field producer for ABC college football telecasts.
It’s Nov. 11, 1978, a glorious, clear day in Birmingham. No. 10 LSU, 6-1, is playing at No. 3 Alabama, 8-1. It’s the 15th time that the Bear is coaching against one of his former players, Charles McClendon, who was a lineman for Bryant when he coached Kentucky from 1946-53.
Growing up in Baton Rouge as the son of LSU sports information director Ace Higgins, I’d known Coach Mac all of my young life. Finally, when I started attending LSU and working in the SID office, one of my jobs was to drive Coach Mac, who was the Tigers’ head coach from 1962-79, to his Monday press conference across campus in the student union building.
I’d take the keys to the university car, scoot across the street to the football office, check in with Coach Mac’s secretary Mary Lee Davis and grab a film projector and film of LSU’s next opponent that Mac liked to show the media.
Of course, the film, thanks to nifty editing, would always portray the opponent, no matter how bad their record at the moment, as this unbeatable football machine.
“Fellas,” Coach Mac would tell the assembled media, “we’ll have to play our best football of this season to win this week.”
He would mispronounce players’ names with such conviction that you believed maybe LSU quarterback Steve Ensminger really changed his name to Enslinger, or that fullback Thad Minaldi was playing under the alias of Tad MacNalty. Or Alabama running back Major Ogilvie played better when he was referred to as “Major Oliver.”
The fact that Coach Mac often laughed at himself and was unflinchingly loyal to his players and coaches endeared him to those guys forever.
He would always call me “Young Higgins.”
One day when I was driving Coach Mac back to the football office from the Monday media luncheon, we stopped at a campus crosswalk. I saw some girls I knew. Coach Mac didn’t see me when I gave them a little wave.
When the girls stopped directly in front of the car, peered through the windshield and waved, Coach Mac waved back, laughed and said, “Young Higgins, look at that! All the young girls still love ’ol Mac.”
I never had such direct dealings with Coach Mac’s mentor, the Bear, until that November ’78 day in Legion Field when I was forced to do the unthinkable.
I had to tell Bear Bryant to get his team off the field.
My job as a field producer for ABC was fairly simple. During a game, on my headset, my job was to pass on to the producer in the production truck any injury information from the sideline. He, in turn, would relay it to the announcers. There were no sideline reporters.
But my task before the game was to make sure that both teams warmed up and got off the field in a timely manner so that the telecast could start precisely on time.
That meant by the time the game went live, the national anthem had already been played and both teams were standing at their respective tunnels, being held back by field producers (like me) before running on the field.
The absolute no-no for any telecast is to have it initially open while the national anthem is being played. That was made very clear to me that November day in Birmingham by an ABC producer with a thick New York accent.
Unfortunately for me, Alabama was late getting to the field to begin warmups. LSU, which got on the field on time, went through its warmups and left the field right on schedule.
But there was Alabama. Still on the field. Still warming up. The game clock ticking, ticking, ticking, ever closer to kickoff.
I’m standing on the Alabama sideline, minding my own business, when a voice crackles over my headset. It’s my New Yawk producer who says, “Alabama’s running late. You gotta get them off the field.”
I slowly process his request and ask, “How should I do that?”
“Go tell Bryant to get his team off the field,” Mr. New Yawk advises.
“B-B-B-Bear Bryant?” I stammer.
“Yeah, Bryant – tell him to get his team off the field now,” Mr. New Yawk demands.
So, I put down my headset and plead my case with anybody wearing a Crimson Tide staff shirt. Trainers. Managers. A couple of assistant coaches. Maybe even the guy wearing the Alabama elephant mascot suit.
My pitch is, “Hey, I’m Ron Higgins with ABC Sports. Do you think y’all could go to your dressing room soon. We really need to start this game on time. We appreciate it.”
It doesn’t work.
I walk back to my headset and tell Mr. New Yawk that I failed.
“HAVE YOU TALKED WITH BRYANT?” screeches Mr. New Yawk.
“Uh. . . .no.”
“GO TALK WITH BRYANT.”
I put down the headset and trudge toward the Bear like a man being led to the electric chair.
I’m thinking, “What’s the worst that can happen to me? His state troopers might grab me before I get to him and break my skinny arms. Or he could kick me in my rear end in front of 70,000-something people.”
But I keep walking. Straight down the sideline to end line, following it like a road map all the way to the goalposts.
And here we are. Me and the Bear.
He raises his head slightly and I can see his eyes squint from underneath his houndstooth. Before he has a chance to say “Who in the blankety-blankety blank are you?”, I plunge directly into my nervous spiel.
“C-C-C-Coach B-Br-B-Br-y-y-y-y-ant,” I blurt, trying not to hyperventilate. “I’m R-R-R-Ronnnnn Hig-g-g-gins with ABCCCC Sports. My p-p-p-producer said in order to s-s-s-s-s-tart the game on time, that you need to. . .”
And here’s where I pause, going into hyperspeed.
The Bear ponders my request for a nano-second, before he starts a low, growling mumble that sounds something like, “$@&%$ networks telling me to get MY team off MY @$%&! field.”
I don’t stick around anymore, fearing the heat of his words would melt my face. I flee and began walking briskly, trying to avoid an all-out sprint like a man running with the bulls in Pamplona.
I almost reach my headset when I hear the roar of the Crimson and White crowd.
I turn and look. Alabama is running off the field!
I put on my headset and Mr. New Yawk is now my best friend.
“Great job!” he says. “How did you get Bryant to get his team off the field?”
“No sweat,” I say without blinking. “I just told the old $%@&! TO GET HIS $%#@%! OFF THE FIELD!”
More than 30 years later, when I tell that story at various touchdown club gatherings in different cities across the South, it gets a huge laugh. Every time I think of it, I shake my head and smile.
This week considering the magnitude of Saturday night’s game between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bear and Coach Mac, how their personalities compare favorably to current coaches Nick Saban of Alabama and Les Miles of LSU.
The Bear and Saban share the gruff, no-nonsense, I-don’t-have-time-for-foolishness attitude. It is all about focusing so intently on the moment, the preparation to get to the moment, that there doesn’t seem like there’s ever time to savor the success produced by the moment.
It worked for somebody as driven as the Bear, and it has obviously worked for Saban, the only major college head coach in history to win national championships at different schools (LSU 2003, Alabama 2009).
Miles, whose 2007 LSU team won the national title, has McClendon’s relaxed, approachable, down-to-earth folksiness. Like Coach Mac unintentionally butchering players’ names, Miles can be linguistically challenged at times. Like Coach Mac, Miles is a fierce competitor who doesn’t let the game consume him. His players, while well-prepared, play relaxed and have fun.
The Bear, who died just a couple of weeks after he retired from coaching at the end of the 1982 season, and Coach Mac, who died Dec. 6, 2001, would be proud to watch these teams if they were somehow still here with us.
Come to think of it, they still are. Because when you watch this year’s Crimson Tide and Tigers, they are teams built on the two foundations that the Bear and Coach Mac embraced – strong power running games and hard-nosed defense that don’t like to give an inch.
Surely, somewhere in Heaven on Saturday, the Bear and Coach Mac will be watching. They’ll have a bowl of Golden Flake chips nearby, maybe a splash of bourbon on the side and marvel what has come to pass in the football programs they so dearly loved.