Paul William Bryant was 48 — but looked older to this 23-year-old, of course — that November morning 59 years ago. It was Saturday, in his spacious if not overly plush office, and he was feeling uncommonly happy for a big-time coach about to go to war. In case you didn’t know, that’s coach speak for playing a game, in this case football.
There never was anything common about “Bear” Bryant, then in his fourth year as coach and athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Alabama. To that point, however, he still hadn’t gained legendary status unless you consider his wrestling a bear at a traveling circus sideshow as a 13-year-old, thus the nickname. Or, perhaps, his infamous preseason beat-down camp in Junction, Tex., driving away all but the 38 survivors of the 10 days in oppressive heat prior to his first year at Texas A&M. (The exact number of attendees is debated but fewer than 100 seems the consensus.)
Alabama was Bryant’s fourth and final stop in charge of a major program — Maryland (one year), Kentucky (8) and A&M (4). He would coach 38 years, 25 of them in Tuscaloosa where he would win six national championships, and finish with an overall record of 323-85-17. At the time of our brief meeting — we asked if he had a moment, and the Bear said ‘Sure, why not?’ — Alabama was 7-0 and ranked No. 2 en route to 11-0 and his first No. 1 coronation.
With his eighth victory a forgone conclusion and waiting some six hours away, Bryant was all cordial and nice to an out-of-town reporter. The conversation dealt mainly with Alabama — duh! — and its clean-living Mr. Wholesome Himself, quarterback Pat Trammell, a Heisman Trophy hopeful. Bryant didn’t think we would see much of Trammell that day.
Welcome to our continuing stroll down memory lane, Volume XXX: “Kick a Field Goal? Hell, No!”
The 1961 University of Richmond football team, all 37 of them plus Coach Ed Merrick and assistants Hal Hunter, Carl Wise and Dick Humbert, trainer Leonard McNeal, assorted hangers-on and a couple of tag-along newspaper types — all of whom had reason to wonder about a safe landing — flew to Tuscaloosa on a charter that was used during WWII by the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) and could only be described as old and rickety. It moaned and groaned en route. There was a communal sigh of relief as we rolled to a stop at the terminal.
A sense of humor helped as the traveling party deplaned and was met by “a welcoming committee,” recalled center/linebacker Don “Red” Christman. “One of them asked where was the rest of the team, and Merrick said they’d be on the next plane.”
The next question was: “What color uniforms did you bring?”
“We packed our red jerseys. And Bryant says, ‘We wear red in Tuscaloosa all the time.’ And Merrick says, ‘That’s all we brought,’” Christman said. “And Bryant says, ‘I’ll give you guys our white jerseys … and you can keep them.’” Teams didn’t have the player’s name stitched across the back, only the number, in those days. It was a workable solution for everyone but, just in case the Spiders didn’t like the idea, Wise had a word of advice: “Do it … We don’t want to [hack] them off.”
Not that it would have mattered much, if at all. A big, BIG underdog — the betting line escapes — Richmond accepted a pretty good guaranteed payday, said to be in then-rich neighborhood of about $50,000, for a bad, BAD beating, the worst in school history. The final was 66-0. It was 21-0 three minutes into the second quarter when Bryant pulled Trammell and the rest of the first unit.
By halftime it was 34-0, and the reserves continued to pour it on against a team that employed several two-way players like Christman. In addition, the Spiders’ best offensive performer, running back Earl Stoudt, who also was a regular in the secondary, got on the field for one snap — a 50-yard field goal attempt that fell short. The 5-9 senior, who was later named Southern Conference player of the year, suffered an injured left knee the week before in an 11-0 win over VPI (now Virginia Tech).
So Stoudt, 82 and retired after 33 years working as a juvenile probation officer in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa., spent most of the delightfully warm Alabama afternoon those many moons ago as an observer. One thing he couldn’t miss: “Their third team was nastier than their first or second teams,” Stoudt said recently. “When you’re trying to win a position, you want to do your best. They were hungry.”
Before a smallish crowd of 24,000 at Denny Stadium, the Crimson Tide dominated statistically, as you would suspect of a powerhouse that allowed a season’s total of 25 points and finished with six shutouts. Alabama had 28 first downs (to UR’s eight) and 616 yards of total offense behind a line that included All-American Billy Neighbors. Bryant used three quarterbacks, and all threw for at least one touchdown. Trammell completed 5 of 7 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 6 points and connected on a 2-point conversion pass. And, waiting in the wings — because freshmen were ineligible — was QB Joe Willie Namath.
The Tide defense, led by All-American linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, limited UR to minus-7 yards rushing and 106 passing. Alabama never punted. Linky Pratt, from Chesapeake, was the Spiders’ first star, averaging 42.5 yards for seven punts.
“I didn’t think they hit as hard as Tech, but they were so quick it was unbelievable,” said Christman, a hard-hitter himself. “The next year at the [then-Boston] Patriots camp Neighbors came up to me: ‘What happened? We saw film of the VPI game. We thought we’d win 35-7, maybe 28-14.’ I said, ‘Billy, I don’t have an answer for you.’”
Sometimes moving uptown can have adverse effects on an athlete’s performance. The Spiders were 4-4 coming into the game, having won at West Virginia and lost close games to VMI (8-6) and Florida State (13-7). They also dropped a pair of 24-6 finals at Army and The Citadel, the eventual conference champion.
“I was 25 years old, so it didn’t bother me playing (at Alabama). I wasn’t intimidated … but I’m sure some were,” Christman said. “I remember making a tackle, and [the ball carrier] said, ‘Good hit, boy.’ … I was four or five years older than he was.”
While there were many more low lights than high for the undermanned Spiders, the game wasn’t without at least one good — OK, humorous — moment, too. “We took the kickoff and ran it down to their 30 yard line,” Christman said. “It was first and 10. They hadn’t been scored on in a long time, and [offensive coordinator] Wise said, ‘Kick a field goal.’ And Merrick said, ‘Hell, no, we’re going to score a touchdown.’ I think we wound up fourth and 30.” Well, it sounds funny now.
It was no laughing matter, however, when the Tide’s Darwin Holt knocked out 6-4 UR lineman Fred Mancuso. It was by any definition a cheap shot which, as it turned out, was a warm up for a similar but far more devastating hit by Holt the following week against Georgia Tech. “Alabama had this little linebacker [Holt]. He was so small that he had to stand on the bench to watch the offense,” Christman said. “We punted, and everyone was relaxed, hovering around the ball, when this guy ran into Mancuso so hard he did a flip. He jolted him pretty good, but at least he didn’t break his jaw.”
Holt saved that, and more, for the Tide’s showdown with then-SEC-rival Tech. Once again it came after a punt, only this time an Alabama player signaled for a fair catch while everyone else stood around and watched. The Yellow Jackets’ best running back, Chick Graning, never saw Holt coming. Bryant had been quoted as saying the diminutive linebacker was “so tough we don’t let him scrimmage. He’s liable to hurt somebody.”
Sure enough, Holt blindsided Graning with an elbow and forearm, resulting in fractures of the right sinus bone and right eye socket, a broken nose and blood in his respiratory system plus the loss of five upper teeth — the rest were either chipped or broken — and a concussion. There was some question whether the whistle had blown before the 5-7, 176 pounder laid waste to Graning. A junior, he never played for the Ramblin’ Wreck again. No penalty was called. Bobby Dodd, Tech’s iconic coach, demanded Alabama suspend Holt — who also was accused of biting a Tech player earlier in the game. The school refused.
Bryant insisted the blow was not premeditated, adding he would never condone something like that. Of course not. Later Holt reportedly told the coach he didn’t know why he did it but that it was unintentional. They did issue an apology to Graning, how sincere must be left to the imagination. Dodd immediately canceled the series that began in 1922, effective when the latest contract ran out three years later. It wasn’t renewed until 1979.
In the aftermath of Holt’s hit, The Saturday Evening Post ran a story by long-time Atlanta sports editor Furman Bisher that accused Bryant of encouraging brutality against Tech. Bryant sued. Six months later the Post ran an article “The Story of College Football Fix” in which Bryant and University of Georgia counterpart Wally Butts were charged with conspiring to predetermine the outcome of the teams’ 1962 meeting, in Alabama’s favor. An Atlanta businessman said he overheard a telephone conversation between the two, and Bama fans immediately accused the man, said to be a Tech alumnus, of having a vendetta against Bryant. (Final: Crimson Tide, 35-0)
This time Butts joined Bryant in suing the Post’s parent company, Curtis Publishing. Butts was awarded $3 million-plus and eventually settled for $460,000. Bryant got a total of $300,000 for both of his libel suits combined.
The good news for Richmond was that McNeal, the UR Hall of Fame trainer, didn’t have to work overtime. (In fact, his greatest medical triumph on the trip was working successfully on an ailing back suffered by one of the sports writing nerds shortly after arrival.) Even Mancuso was OK.
“We came out of it healthy,” Christman said. As for the game itself, “I wasn’t happy about it. If they hadn’t been (highly ranked), I would have felt really bad.” In a poll several years later, the ‘61 Crimson Tide was voted “best college team, all time.” (Considering strength of schedule, that might have been an overreach but then who cares, really?)
The UR traveling party had to bus to Birmingham for the flight home because the runway in Tuscaloosa wasn’t long enough for takeoff by the big, ancient MATS plane fully loaded. They climbed aboard, buckled up … and one of the engines wouldn’t start. How long it took to get it fixed and get us airborne is a question that even the memory man can’t answer. Suffice to say, everyone was relieved to get back in one piece to Richmond.
Twelve days later, with time off for Stoudt’s stretched knee ligaments to heal, the Spiders ripped archrival William & May 36-18 here. Looking back one more time on their misadventure in the deep South, Christman, 84, said, “It was sort of embarrassing … but it was what it was.”
Post-scripts, post-mortems, whatever … A tough old bird, even today, Christman was drafted in the 24th round (of 34) of the 1962 American Football League draft. Among his fellow rookies in the Patriots’ camp were Neighbors, their sixth-round selection, and a linebacker from Notre Dame and future Hall of Famer who went in the 13th round (102 overall), Nick Buoniconti. For Christman, it became a matter of what might have been.
“I was there for probably a week … and doing well, I thought … when I started feeling like hell,” Christman recalled. “They put me in the infirmary, and I heard the doctor tell my wife ‘We think your husband has TB [tuberculosis] and viral pneumonia,’ which was quite a shock … really frightening, actually.”
He was taken to a hospital in Boston then moved back and forth between there and Richmond until he recovered “and they could cut me.” Veteran quarterback Babe Parilli told him to sue the team for his contract of $9,000 “but I said the heck with it. I got my $1,500 bonus, which was good money then, and decided ‘It’s history … it’s over.’”
Whether or not the diagnosis of TB was accurate will always remain a question, but this Christman does know: “I’ve never had a recurrence.” He remained in Richmond, raised a family, played semipro football here in the 60s and made a good living in the moving and later meat-distribution business.
Stoudt, whose height (5-9 ½) had been a turnoff for bigger schools during the recruiting process, wasn’t drafted by either the NFL or AFL despite running for 704 yards (9th best in the country) as a senior when he led the Southern Conference in seven offensive categories including scoring and touchdowns. For his career at UR, like Christman recruited out of Fork Union Military Academy, Stoudt accumulated 2,647 yards — including 873 as a receiver — and 20 touchdowns.
He signed with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats but had to fulfill an ROTC commitment that grew from six months to two years “because of the Cuban missile crisis.” So much for pro football. “It just didn’t work out,” Stoudt said.
In the AFL draft, Trammell went three places ahead of Christman. The Dallas Texans took a chance, knowing the QB who finished fifth in the Heisman voting planned to attend medical school, which he did. Trammell died Dec. 10, 1968, from complications of testicular cancer. He was 28. Unable to overcome an addiction to tobacco and alcohol, Bryant passed at age 69 in 1983, a week after his last game at Alabama.
From Gainesville, Tex., Holt is 81, living in Vestavia Hills, Ala., and still considered a victim, not the villain, by Alabama faithful. “(In 1961, he) was the target of vicious and unfair accusations of dirty play … Atlanta sportswriters with their own agenda fueled the controversy,” wrote one fan a few years ago, closing with “getting to know Holt was a blessing.” Tell that to … oh, never mind. Football IS a religion in Alabama, after all.
For his part, Holt, who followed Bryant from Texas A&M to Alabama, continues to insist he did nothing wrong. “I have no regrets,” he was quoted as saying.
Until next time ...
Jerry Lindquist can be reached
by email at email@example.com.