Tuesday, September 29, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Paul Bryant vs. Ralph Jordan, 1958-75

Perhaps no coach in SEC history became so intensely identified with his alma mater through a career of long and loyal service than Ralph “Shug” Jordan. The Selma native lettered at Auburn (or Alabama Polytechnic Institute as it was known until 1960) in football, basketball and baseball. As a senior in 1932 Jordan was named the school’s most outstanding athlete. That was no mean feat on an API football team that went undefeated at 9-0-1 to claim a share of the last Southern Conference title before the inception of the SEC in 1933.

Jordan loved Auburn. With the exception of wartime tours of duty in Europe and the Pacific and a few years in exile as an assistant coach at UGa, he literally spent his entire adult life on 'the plains'. A year after graduating he returned to API as head basketball coach and assistant football coach. He served through the Depression without great distinction in either sport. API football and basketball both hovered slightly above .500 during the 1930s. Jordan was a soft spoken coach, never the kind of coach to make great waves or draw attention. But there was no doubting his determination. Nor his courage, given his wartime service record. Jordan participated in the invasions of Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Okinawa. He was wounded seriously enough in the Normandy campaign to require lengthy recuperation and transfer to the Pacific. His service earned him both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Toward the end of his life as he struggled through a losing battle with aggressive and painful cancer Bear Bryant commented to a reporter:

“[Ralph Jordan] has more courage in his little finger than I’ve got in my entire body.”

Understandably after such selfless wartime service Jordan wanted to return to the place and work that he loved. He resumed his work as API basketball coach for one season, but he found the appeal of football growing and decided to take an assistant position with the professional Miami Seahawks. After one year Jordan moved to Athens as an assistant to Wallace Butts. His time at Georgia coincided with Earl Brown’s disastrous tenure as head football coach in Auburn. After Brown posted an 0-10 record in 1950 there was only one choice for API. The school's most loyal son received the call.

Jordan didn’t right the ship overnight, but in his quiet, committed way he began coaching with simplicity, clarity and humanity. Shug kept his play-book very simple, running only variations of roughly ten plays but insisting that they be run well every time. He also refused to exact too high a price from his players in practice. He once told a reporter:

“We don’t eat ourselves alive in practice… It’s unthinkable for us to lose a Saturday game in a Tuesday scrimmage.”

After a three decade hiatus following a dispute regarding gate receipts from the 1907API-Alabama game the state’s leading football schools resumed their annual series in 1948. Since the 1907 fixture the Crimson Tide had become a national power, winning national titles under two coaches and claiming multiple Rose Bowl crowns. The Plainsmen, on the other hand, remained a regional power at best and were clear second in the state. Men of Alabama’s less favored institution chaffed under the feeling of second-class status. Athletics offered a way to regain some pride, but from 1948 to 1953 Bama won five of six. Jordan’s first two seasons were tough going. He followed a 5-5 record his first year with a disappointing 2-8 campaign. But through a combination of confidence, charm and some dubious recruiting practices that quickly landed API with six-years of NCAA probation Jordan began to convince the state’s better athletes to play for him. As API’s stock rose the Crimson Tide fell. From 1954 to 1958 Shug took five straight over the state’s flagship university, restoring API pride and giving the Plainsmen their longest winning streak in the rivalry until recent times.

The API 1957 national championship team

Jordan’s career was not one long string of championships. Many might not even consider his coaching success to be outstanding. Shug coached Auburn football for twenty-five seasons from 1951 to 1975, compiling a record of 175-83-7. 1957 provided his only conference and national titles. But Jordan's teams finished second in the conference seven times. After his first four seasons as coach Auburn finished below third in the conference only ten times in twenty one seasons. That doesn’t sound too impressive at first. Nor does a 5-7 bowl record without a single victory in any of the four major New Year’s Day games. But finishing in the top third of SEC play in almost two of every three seasons over several decades is very difficult. Ask a coach who has tried. Very, very few have done better.

Jordan was voted coach of the year by the national coaches association, the AP and the SEC. Even though NCAA regulations prohibited API from accepting their Sugar Bowl bid, it was a great year. But Auburn fans don’t remember Shug for one great season, or even for a considerable number of very respectable seasons. They remember him as a consistent, committed, unassuming, unerringly loyal servant of their school. Shug Jordan was, more than anything, an Auburn man. His legacy would be remembered with more reverence by people outside of eastern Alabama had Jordan not suffered the misfortune of spending much of his coaching tenure across the state from a man whose legend became utterly insurmountable.

Paul Bryant was simply a football man. Growing up dirt poor in Fordye, Arkansas life didn’t offer many opportunities. Bryant earned his life-long nickname by agreeing to wrestle a bear at a travelling carnival. He was promised a dollar for every minute he stayed in the ring but never saw a cent because the bear’s muzzle came off and Bryant wisely ran away. Bryant was no coward. When Frank Thomas offered him a scholarship to play football for Alabama he grabbed the first real opportunity life had given him with both hands. The Bear played hurt on numerous occasions, including the entirety of a famous game against Mississippi State on a broken leg. He went to be the most demanding coach in the business, but no one could call him a hypocrite. Bryant gave 100% as a Bama player, despite not possessing the most talent. He played opposite Don Hutson on the 1934 Rose Bowl winning team and was jokingly known as “the other end”. Hutson, not Bryant, went on to set countless NFL receiving records. Bryant later said of his own coaching career that he was an ordinary coach of great players but a great coach of average players. He boasted that he could make his players think they were all-Americans. That boast wasn’t arrogance, it was fact.

Alabama has never had a Heisman Trophy winner. Through a quarter-century of unrivaled success in Tuscaloosa the Bear never produced a single player that critics viewed as individually peerless. Bryant excelled by producing not a handful of great players but hundreds of players like himself. He made men play above their ability, consistently give full effort, and perform as a team far beyond individual capability. Bryant’s records speak for themselves. After graduation he worked as an assistant to Thomas. He never wanted to do anything but coach. Bryant committed his entire life and legacy to the game and the men football can produce. When the U.S. entered WWII he went to the Iowa pre-flight program and coached with various future greats including Woody Hayes to help physically prepare pilots for war. Bryant coached the University of Kentucky from 1946 to 1953, going 60-23-5. More than half a century later Bryant still holds the best winning percentage of any Kentucky coach. The Wildcats have yet to repeat his 1950 SEC and Sugar Bowl championships.

The Bear’s practices were demanding; probably unnecessarily so. After taking over a lifeless Texas A&M program in 1954 he famously drove his entire football squad into rural west Texas and held brutal workouts for two weeks. Half his team quit and the Bear posted the only losing year of his career with a 1-9 record. A lot of commentators look at that camp as a sacrificial separation of men from boys that founded the nucleus of an A&M program that lost only four games over the next three seasons. It seems more likely that Junction was the disaster it appeared. For the only time in his career the Bear lost most of his team, literally and metaphorically. Bryant was a great coach for the same reason Alexander was a great general. His players believed in him and would do anything for him. At Junction, the Bear learned how far was too far. He remained a grueling, exacting, gruff and demanding mean cuss of a coach, but he never pushed a team so far again.

In 1955 Jennings Whitworth’s Tide went an unacceptable 0-10. The next two seasons were little better at a combined 4-14-2. A university accustomed to Rose Bowls and national acclaim did not like losing football games to the state’s agricultural school. The Bear took over in 1958. His first Crimson Tide team finished 5-4-1. That was the only time in twenty-five seasons that Bryant did not take Alabama to a Bowl. In a quarter-century, without ever incurring any penalty for any kind of NCAA violation, Bryant went 232-46-9. He went to 24 bowls with a record of 11-10-2, winning seven Sugar Bowls, two Orange Bowls and a Cotton Bowl. His teams earned six national championships and ten SEC titles. In an incredible eleven year stretch from 1971 to 1981 the Bear’s teams won nine SEC titles and finished second the other two years. After finishing sixth and fourth in the SEC his first two seasons Bryant never came in lower than third in the SEC standings - twenty-three consecutive seasons in the top third of the SEC! His coaching record is not only peerless, it will never be matched. No one will ever come close.

Year in, year out with whatever players he had, Bryant found a way to win. He once called over to the Auburn football office at 6 a.m during Iron Bowl week. Someone answered the phone and told him that no coaches were in their offices yet. The Bear asked:

“Don’t they care about football over at Auburn?”

That was the effort he demanded. That was the effort he gave himself. When he saw his all-American quarterback Joe Namath slacking off in practice and heard other players complaining, he instructed an assistant to give Namath a dirty old jersey. Bryant told his quarterback in front of the entire team that he had to work harder than the other players to earn a clean jersey back. That was the summer of 1966. The Tide went unbeaten that year, won a national title and Namath went on to the New York Jets where he did quite well.

Everything Paul Bryant did at Alabama he did well, but especially beating Auburn. Over a quarter century the Bear went 19-6 against the Tigers. The record prior to Jordan’s retirement is slightly more favorable to Auburn at 13-5. But out competing Bryant on a consistent basis was simply impossible. Even the best coaches failed to keep pace. But every so often Shug’s patience, tenacity, and humble resolve would produce teams that caught their perennially more favored in-state nemesis off guard. Sometimes, as if in response to shows of hubris of Homeric proportions, the gods themselves intervened on Auburn’s behalf.

Such was the case with Auburn’s most legendary Iron Bowl triumph. Heading into the Birmingham showdown on December 2nd 1972 the second ranked Crimson Tide were 10-0 and already had the SEC title wrapped up. Bama had not lost a regular season game in two years, since Auburn’s last Iron Bowl triumph in 1969. The line on the game was Bama by 16. Auburn men had every right to take exception to such an insult. The Tigers were 9-1 with only a lopsided loss to LSU blemishing another manifestly respectable season for Shug’s boys.

Despite Auburn’s determination to upstage their rival the Tiger offense accomplished nothing all day. Superior execution and athletes appeared to have made the difference, as they so often had before, with Bama leading 16-3 deep into the fourth quarter. With 5:30 left in the game Auburn forced a punt on the Alabama forty yard line. As Greg Gantt wound up for his kick Auburn committed about everyone but their return man to the rush. The Bama line collapsed almost instantly and linebacker Bill Newton spread his huge body in front of Gantt with abandon. The ball bounced back with enough force to carry it to the Bama 25, where defensive back David Langer reeled it in without apparent effort and strode into the end zone. Langer’s move from Auburn’s line into rushing the punter and on through Bama’s goal-line took place in one fluid motion. Auburn celebrated, but at 16-10 the victory appeared a moral one.

The gods had other ideas. After receiving the ensuing kickoff the Alabama offense once again reached only their own forty-yard line before stalling. By that point only 1:30 remained. The chances of Auburn achieving offensively in a minute and a half what they had failed to manage in the preceding fifty-eight were negligible. With nothing to lose Jordan signaled for his team to send everything at the kick again. Incredibly Auburn repeated the penetration of an Alabama line that seemed to evaporate under the pressure as it hadn’t done in two entire seasons. Once again Newton reached the ball first, swatting it as it left Gantt’s foot. Once again it fell into the path of Langer, and once again the Auburn defensive back sailed without breaking stride for a score. Auburn won 17-16, derailed Alabama’s national title hunt, and earned a Gator Bowl berth for themselves. Without having gained anything worth remembering on offense all day Auburn posted an immortal victory on the strength of two special teams TDs and a missed Bama point-after. The odds were so staggeringly improbable that even the most casual of fans can readily ascribe the legendary “Punt, Bama, punt!” Iron Bowl of 1972 to the football gods. This game was their gift to a long suffering API graduate who spent his life faithfully toiling in the Bear’s expansive shadow.

Two years later, the 1974 Iron Bowl featured undefeated 1st ranked Alabama and 4th ranked one-loss Auburn. The national as well as SEC championship was on the line. But in the state of Alabama one thing is more important than national fame. Bryant told a reporter succinctly in the run up to the game:

“The state championship of Alabama means everything. This is for bragging rights for the next 365 days.”

Alabama had limped through the season with various injuries, finding ways to win with whoever was available. Starting quarterback Gary Rutledge was lost early. Later his replacement Richard Todd missed three games with a knee injury. Despite the unblemished record and top ranking it had been an ugly season from the Tide, including a late comeback 8-7 win over a Florida State team that had lost sixteen straight. The ’74 Iron Bowl proved no exception. Both teams moved the ball but also made their share of mistakes. Only gritty special teams play kept the Tide unbeaten.

Early in the first quarter a 35 yard strike to tight end Ozzie Newsome took Bama into Auburn territory. The drive continued to the Tigers’ three yard line before Todd lost a fumble. Bama’s next possession started deep in their own half after a clipping penalty on Auburn’s punt. After grinding their way into Auburn territory the Tide seemed to have settled down when Todd hit Willy Selby on a short swing pass that the receiver converted for a 45-yard touchdown. After Bama extended the lead to 10 on their next possession Auburn responded with an impressive long drive, pounding the same basic inside running play with Sedrick McIntyre most of the 71 yards to the end zone. The teams would have finished the half tied at ten except for Alabama end Leroy Cook managing to get his long arms in the way of a seemingly simple 21-yard field goal attempt from Auburn’s Chris Wilson. Alabama extended the lead to 17-7 early in the third quarter behind the gritty running of Calvin Culliver and Randy Billingsley. Auburn responded with a 41-yard touchdown pass from Phil Gargis, only to see the score wiped off because the receiver had stepped out of bounds prior to catching the ball. In the fourth quarter Todd was stuffed in brutal fashion on 4th and goal before Auburn drove 72-yards two possessions later on a touchdown drive that included a twelve yard pass from a fake field goal attempt. After a two-point conversation failed Bama led 17-13. Auburn gained one last possession with a minute remaining but defensive end Mike Dubose sealed the victory by busting up a developing reverse hand-off in the back field. Dubose batted the ball from Gargis’ hand and fell on it gratefully.

As Auburn had in their famous win two years earlier, Alabama rode their luck. In the grand scheme however, the Bear made his own luck. As a freshman Mike Dubose had suffered an excruciating injury when another player accidentally stamped on his crotch in a scrum. Dubose underwent surgery to remove a crushed testicle and doctors told Bryant the boy could not play again. When he heard the news Dubose threatened to transfer to Troy State and continue playing there. Bryant realized that if an athlete that tough wanted to play football so badly, he should play it for Bama. Dubose was the kind of player that gave everything. He gave as much as Bryant demanded. He gave as much as Bryant had given for Frank Thomas.

Players like Dubose, whom Bryant seemed to produce or find by the truck-load, were the reason Alabama won so many titles in that magical quarter century. No one else could keep up. In many senses it is hardly fair to say Bryant had any rivals. His career truly was peerless. And yet, without the constant, unyielding service of Ralph Jordan there is no knowing how much farther behind Auburn might have fallen. Bryant respected and admired Jordan more than anyone. He told viewers on his Sunday morning TV show after the 1973 Iron Bowl:

“Coach Jordan’s a wonderful person and I consider him a close personal friend.”

That was a friendship built on competition that bred mutual respect. Bryant’s commendation of another coach’s career should be high enough praise for any critic.

The Bear not cooperating with a new fangled female sideline reporter.


  1. Simply Astounding... Bravo.

  2. RTR 2009 SEC CHAMPS....#22

    Heading to BCS National Championship for #13

  3. I certainly hope so. Here in Fort Worth we're none too happy that Texas will be the team Bama has to beat for #13/#8. Oh well...