When No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M face off on Saturday in College Station, it will be just the sixth time these two schools have met.
Despite this historical unfamiliarity, both teams are bound together by a common thread that goes beyond their mere status as Southeastern Conference brethren.
It stands to reason that both programs would not be in the position they are now if not for the work of one man — Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, who was born 100 years ago this week.
His first team at A&M, the 1954 squad, went 1-9 after surviving a grueling training camp at Junction, Texas. Two years later, the legendary “Junction Boys” would go undefeated and capture their first Southwest Conference championship in 15 seasons. When John David Crow won the Aggies’ first Heisman Trophy in 1957, it was in large part because Bryant vouched on his behalf.
“If he doesn’t win it, then they ought to quit giving it,” Bryant told the press.
In 1958, Bryant was tabbed by his alma mater to be its head coach and athletic director: “Momma called. And when Momma calls, you just have to come runnin’,” he said of his return to Alabama.
His tenure at Alabama was remarkable. He coached the Tide for 25 years, winning six national titles (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, and 1979) and thirteen SEC championships. He was the three-time national Coach of the Year. When he finished, he had won more games than any other Division I coach, compiling a lifetime record of 323-85-17.
The Bear passed away in January of 1983, just a few weeks after retiring from football.
What would he think of these two teams getting ready to play on Saturday? He’d probably get a kick out of Johnny Manziel’s free-wheeling style — after all, he coached one Joe Namath — though it’s doubtful he’d tolerate any of his off-the-field antics. The power-running and physical approach of the Crimson Tide on both sides of the ball would be right up his alley.
Most of all, he’d be proud of what his two teams had become — national powers playing the sport at the highest of levels.
If there’s anyone left who represents the spirit of Bryant and his connection to these two schools, it’s Crow, who coached under Bryant at Alabama after starring for the Aggies on Bryant’s last team there. When Alabama and A&M storm onto Kyle Field on Saturday, he’ll be there to watch his Heisman heir try to pull off another upset. But he won’t be devastated if the Tide wins.
“I tell everybody that A&M is my true love and that I want us to win everything that we do, but Alabama is a close second because of the ties I had with Coach Bryant, and with my son playing over there,” Crow told the College Station Eagle.
If this year’s game is as exciting as last year’s 29-24 upset by A&M in Tuscaloosa, it may signal the beginning of a rather interesting and unique rivalry.
The Bear would no doubt approve.