Bear Bryant and Joe Namath made the Tide roll
“Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath & Dixie’s Last Quarter” (Twelve), by Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski
When Bear Bryant ordered University of Alabama freshman Joe Namath to climb up the coach’s tower high atop the practice field in 1961, it signaled a partnership that launched a new era in college football.
It was apparently the first time that Bryant had allowed anyone — player, coach or visiting dignitary — to join him in his private sanctuary. Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski describe the ensuing meeting, in which Namath could barely understand a word the coach spoke, as a clash of cultures: “North and South, young and old, brash and conservative.”
Despite their differences, the hard-nosed coach and his free-spirited quarterback would combine to put the Crimson Tide on a path to becoming not only a successful college team but also a source of pride to people in Alabama and throughout the South.
Their years together fueled the growing popularity of college football and coincided with the unfolding of the civil rights struggle that emerged as the defining news story of the early 1960s. “Rising Tide” weaves the two elements in an informative and entertaining narrative with broad appeal.
Bryant was the son of an Arkansas sharecropper and Namath was determined to avoid his father’s backbreaking work in the steel mills of western Pennsylvania. Together, they became a duo whose success helped propel their sport to the point where it was poised to challenge baseball as the national pastime.
Football and race were the top concerns among white Alabamans during this time, and the two would quickly intersect. While Bryant and Namath were making history on the gridiron, Alabama dominated front-page headlines with the dispatch of federalized National Guardsmen to integrate the university, the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls and civil rights demonstrations that led to the historic march at Selma.
Throughout the turbulence, Bryant and Namath kept their focus on football. Namath had grown up with black schoolmates and never accepted the way blacks were treated in the South, but realized that he wasn’t recruited to Tuscaloosa to crusade for racial justice.
For his part, Bryant recognized that Alabama would have to recruit black players, but that day would not arrive until 10 years after Namath’s arrival on campus. The team’s 1964 Associated Press national championship was the last to be won by an all-white team that never played an integrated game. Today, of course, the Tide roster is fully integrated and the team’s success rivals that of the Bryant-Namath era.
Among the book’s entertaining episodes are Namath’s escapades during his recruiting visits to various campuses. Co-author Krzemienski apparently had access to accounts of those visits because his uncle was Namath’s primary receiver at Beaver Falls High School and accompanied him on the trips.
The book chronicles all of Namath’s games at Alabama and offers a comprehensive account of the ethics scandals that threatened to derail Bryant’s career. The narrative ends with Namath signing a $427,000 contract with the New York Jets, a staggering figure intended to burnish the upstart American Football League. By contrast, Bryant was getting $17,500 a year as Alabama’s coach and athletic director.
This book is sure to appeal to the legions of Alabama fans, as well as others for whom the SEC is a football conference and not a securities regulator. By weaving the events of the civil rights movement into the story, the authors will likely draw in readers whose interests go beyond the sports pages.