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December 20, 2012

Embracing Bryant's legacy

TUSCALOOSA | The shadow of Paul W. "Bear" Bryant has loomed over the University of Alabama program since Bryant retired after the 1982 season as college football's all-time coaching wins leader.

Some who followed chafed under that shadow. Some were overwhelmed by it. Others seemed to crumble under it.

Perhaps because Gene Stallings played under Bryant at Texas A&M and coached under him at Alabama as an assistant, Stallings was able to embrace that shadow and to thrive under it.

That, ultimately, is his legacy as head football coach of the Crimson Tide. He was big enough to cast his own shadow, a shadow enhanced by the 1992 national championship and his average of 10 wins per season at UA (although some of those victories were later stripped by NCAA sanctions).

Stallings was third in Alabama's head coaching line of succession. Ray Perkins came from the National Football League and returned there after four seasons, and made a point of taking down Bryant's iconic coaching tower at UA's football practice fields. He was followed by Bill Curry, who had no ties to Bryant or Alabama and came from Georgia Tech, an old rival of Bryant's. Curry lasted three seasons before bolting for Kentucky.

Along came Stallings, who never disowned Bryant's legacy in any way.

"I think what helped me personally was I wasn't necessarily intimidated by the fact that I was following after Coach Bryant," Stallings said. "I told more Coach Bryant stories than anybody. I wasn't competing with him. I never looked to see if he won so many games by such-and-such a time.

"I knew how high that bar was."

Ask Stallings about his legacy at Alabama, and he'll tell you that "the thing that pleased me as much as anything is seeing the player graduate," but he'll also tell you about winning, particularly a streak of 31 games without a loss in a span that included the 1992 national title run.

"That's quite an accomplishment for the players," he said. "In this day and time that's sort of hard to do."

Having coached at Alabama as an assistant, he also had an appreciation of what UA fans valued most.

"If you're going to coach at Alabama and you're going to be somewhat accepted, you need to beat Auburn more than they beat you and you need to beat Tennessee more than they beat you," Stallings said.

Alabama went 5-2 against Auburn and 4-2-1 against Tennessee under Stallings. What he will be most remembered for, however, is 1992's undefeated season.

"That's obvious," said Cecil "Hootie" Ingram, the former Alabama athletic director who hired Stallings. "He won a national championship, and I guess that tells a pretty good story."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.

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