Like many stories set in the state of Alabama, this one starts with the Bear.
Eleven years ago, when Bill Curry took the field for the first time as the coach of Georgia Tech, he began searching for his opponent, Bear Bryant of Alabama. He looked under the goalpost, because that's where the Bear, in his houndstooth cap, could usually be found, but Curry couldn't find Bryant, so he rejoined his team, which was warming up on the field. Then he heard a rumble and felt the same kind of dark vibration that the peaceful end of the food chain feels when a predator is afoot in the jungle, and he saw the Bear and his state troopers and his whole damned entourage advancing on him from across the field. "Boy, can't you even shake a fella's hand?" Bryant said, and then grabbed Curry by the waistband of his beltless slacks and lifted.
A year later, another coach took the field against Bryant for the first time and heard the same rumble, the same thunder, and felt the same shadow darkening the ground. This time, though, when the Bear tried to put his paw around the coach's neck, the young coach wouldn't let him, and God knows he loved the Bear.
"Coach Bryant, before you start hugging me, you ought to know that my boys are fixing to get after y'all's ass," said Pat Dye, coach of the Auburn Tigers.
"You ain't trying to scare me now, are you, Pat?" asked the Bear.
"No sir, because I know you don't get scared. I'm just telling you what we're fixing to do."
Well, Dye didn't win that day, as Curry hadn't the year before, but 10 years later Bryant is dead, Curry is at Kentucky—after coaching Alabama for three years and finding it impossible to beat the old Bear's ghost—and Dye is still in the state of Alabama, with a record that inspires some Alabamians to wonder if he isn't the real and true successor to Bryant, even though he's down there at Auburn.
Which goes to show that when you challenge a legend in Alabama, you have to be ready to scare him, to breathe down his neck and whisper threats and maybe adopt some of his low methods, or that legend is going to grab you by the throat and squeeze.
The old man won't let go. His hand is striped with veins and mottled with liver spots and his skin is as translucent as parchment, but his long fingers won't release the arm of his coach, Pat Dye. It's so hot in the armory of Alexander City, Ala., that women are fanning themselves with paper plates and steam condenses on the eyeglasses of the myopic. Dye's face is slick and his jacket is off and sweat stains cross his armpits like huge smiles, but as he sits in a chair and shakes their hands and kisses their babies, the 400 or so souls who have traveled from three counties to see Dye aren't apologizing for this cinder-block steam box. In fact, as they wait in line to offer him their fealty, they are telling one another that Dye likes to sweat, that he would rather be in Alex City than at some country club in Birmingham, because that's just the kind of man he is. The line grows longer, full of stout men in navy blue and burnt orange, of women with tiger paws on their faces, of little boys in Bo Jackson jerseys and little girls dressed like Auburn cheerleaders, and then the old man grabs hold of Dye and the line stops, because he wants to share something with the coach, something that, to Dye, is both an ally and an enemy. The old man wants to share history.
He has come to Alexander City on this oozy evening to give a gift of his past to Dye, a reproduction of a page from the Augusta Chronicle, dated Aug. 1, 1879. In the middle of the page there is a list of the charter subscribers, and after pointing out the name of his grandfather, the man stoops over and asks, in a small warble of a voice, if any of Dye's ancestors appear there. Now, it must be understood that although Dye grew up on a farm near Augusta, he has spoken about his upbringing in a way that implies that his forebears could barely be expected to read a newspaper, much less subscribe to one. But he runs his finger over the list, then looks up at the old man and some of the people waiting on line, and does something strange. He teaches. He gives a lesson, the way those folks he has so little tolerance for, the professors, do. The people who have made the pilgrimage to Alexander City have come to hear him explain why his team faded so badly last season, to see how he has recovered from major surgery, to bow their heads with the preacher and thank the Lord for giving them their coach back, to whoop and holler and eat barbecue and sweat with a man who likes to. But now Dye starts talking about the history of Augusta, and instead of falling apart in confusion, the line of boosters simply bends around him, listening to his lecture in absolute silence. The boosters nod their heads upon his every word, spellbound, as though Dye had become not a football coach but a caretaker of their common history.