RISING TIDE: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s Last Quarter. By Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski. Twelve. 448 pages. $28.
A pair of icons surrounded by social upheaval is a natural and overdue tale. But while college football has had few transcendent personalities share a campus, this book is effectively different for another reason. The authors do such a colorfully thorough and yet unusually objective job of fly-on-the-wall storytelling about Joe Namath’s shenanigans and Bear Bryant’s burdens, it’s a coin-flip: You might like these characters more than you did before, you might like them less.
The Big Man on Campus snapshot, circa 1964, is “rascal” Joe Willie Namath taking a break from University of Alabama football duty and sexual conquests to speak with Atlanta sports columnist Furman Bisher.
Suspended late in the 1963 season for drinking, Namath was casually smoking a cigarette as he answered questions.
“Nearly all Alabama players wear that death-row haircut,” Bisher wrote. “Namath wears his black hair in a natural cut, and gives you the impression of being a real swinging fellow.”
The gruff, masterful Bryant enjoyed saintly status before Namath arrived in Tuscaloosa as the cocky star quarterback recruit, an unlikely import from the steel mill village of Beaver Falls, Pa. Bryant would go on to guide Alabama through great changes, winning national championships with integrated teams.
Namath is most famous for his dashing “Broadway Joe” role, flamboyantly leading the New York Jets to a gigantic Super Bowl III upset of the Baltimore Colts in 1969.
But here the focus is Namath’s hardscrabble upbringing and his time with Bryant’s all-white Crimson Tide from 1961-64. The dramatic backdrop is hard to top, well beyond culture contrasts and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Namath watched from under the shade of a tree as Gov. George Wallace infamously stood in the way of the federalized Alabama National Guard to symbolically block Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling at Foster Auditorium.
Though Namath grew up playing for integrated teams in Pennsylvania, he didn’t involve himself in Dixie social issues. Well, except that Namath and team manager “Hoot Owl” Hicks “made a tidy profit” buying sandwiches and Coca-Colas off-campus and selling them to National Guardsmen at “wildly inflated prices.”
Randy Roberts, a history professor at Purdue, and Ed Krzemienski, a history professor at Ball State who grew up in Beaver Falls with family ties to Namath’s high school exploits, capture the context of the times without apologizing or lecturing.
As Bryant and Namath lead the Crimson Tide to wins on the field, including the 1964 national title, the authors continually keep track of the elephant in the room. Sportswriters and other journalists from outside the South tie Bryant’s all-white teams to Wallace, Bull Connor and the Klu Klux Klan in an effort to demonstrate that “the Crimson Tide football team reflected the sins of the state of Alabama.”
The authors also come through with surprises: The Crimson White, Alabama’s student newspaper, tilts left on integration matters, and Hoot Owl Hicks and Mike Bite are supporting actors almost as colorful as the two mythic figures.
Hicks, a good ol’ boy from just outside Tuscaloosa, becomes Namath’s best party pal. Bite is also a former Alabama team manager. As a young attorney of Lebanese descent, he parlayed his “B-film Hollywood lawyer” looks and naive negotiation tactics into snubbing the establishment St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL and landing Namath an unprecedented $400,000 deal with the fledgling New York Jets of the American Football League.
It starts simply. Bryant finds out Namath, one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country, cannot qualify academically at Maryland and is suddenly available. He dispatches assistant coach Howard Schnellenberger to Beaver Falls with raw instruction: “Go git ’um an’ bring ’um hea’.”
Namath shows up at Alabama wearing fake Ray-Bans, chewing on a tooth pick, a pack of Kools in his shirt pocket.
From then on, it’s a glorious and messy mesh of North and South, black and white, and icons.
Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is The Post and Courier’s sports columnist and College Sports Editor.