The Moment Bear Bryant Met Joe Namath

The legendary Alabama coach knew exactly what the hotshot, 19-year-old freshman from Beaver Falls could become.

The following article is excerpted from Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie’s Last Quarterby Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved. 

HowardSchnellenberger, the receiver coach, had accomplished his mission: He had returned to Tuscaloosa with the finest quarterback in Pennsylvania, maybe the entire country. Judging by Joe Namath’s behavior, the ease with which he permitted the recruiter to carry his bags and the charm he radiated, he surely must be “the goddamn bell cow” that Bear Brant expected.

Schnellenberger escorted his prize to the practice field. Niceties like late registration and dorm assignments could wait. Joe stood by Schnellenberger watching the Alabama players— and except for a few boys from neighboring southern states, all the players were born and raised in Alabama— tear into each other in the late August heat. The eighteen- year- old wore the expression of a connoisseur who was impressed by few things in life.

High above the practice field, his eyes shielded by an Alabama baseball cap, Bryant watched the activity below. Everything about him accentuated his power. “This must be what God looks like,” future Hall of Fame quarterback George Blanda recalled thinking when he first met Bryant at the University of Kentucky. Bart Starr, another future Hall of Famer, had a similar reaction when he heard Bryant speak. “The voice of God,” he thought. Bryant fostered this sense of the divine by decreeing that a tower be built for him at the practice field. Alone, every practice, he ascended the tower, watching the action below with a grim coldness, occasionally barking an order, inspecting his minions as they twitched at the sound of his voice as assuredly as if they were puppets attached to strings tied around his fingers. And if something or someone particularly got his gall, he unlatched the chain, came down from the clouds, and intervened directly. “When you heard the chain at the entrance of the tower rattle,” assistant coach Dude Hennessey recalled, “you did not want to be in his line of sight.”

To the best knowledge of the assistant coaches, no one, not players, coaches, or visiting politicians and dignitaries, had ever been invited up into the tower. On this day, however, something totally unexpected occurred. Bryant took his eyes off the practice field, lifted a bullhorn to his mouth, and summoned Joe up into his sanctuary. It was a command without precedent, a request so shocking that every player and coach on the practice field seemed to be struck dumb. “Je-sus Christ,” Schnellenberger thought, “this was why I was sent to Beaver Falls. This guy isn’t just another great high school quarterback. He must be in a class by himself.”

Watching from below, sweating on the practice field and trying his best to make a good impression, freshman center/linebacker GaylonMcCollough looked toward the tower and wondered who the guy dressed like a mobster with the toothpick in his mouth was. “Who is that character?” he asked one of the graduate assistant coaches. “That’s your new quarterback,” the assistant replied. McCollough laughed. “Right, he’ll last about two days.” 

But there was no denying that Joe was standing where no other player had stood.

Photos by TSN Archives