Scott Homan once witnessed the unthinkable.
A cultural icon — a living legend — had been reduced to a mere mortal in a moment’s time.
Paul “Bear” Bryant, the college football coaching standard in The South, was preparing for the final game of an illustrious career at the University of Alabama. Tough, cunning and as no-nonsense as they came, Bryant unveiled a rare public sentimental side.
Homan and the Crimson Tide saw it up close.
“After our last practice, our last team meeting, it was quite emotional for the team, especially for the seniors,” said Homan, a lifelong Elkhart resident and 1983 Alabama graduate.
“The three previous years, he’d address the seniors after the last practice before the bowl game,” Homan said. “He’d say something like do it for your momma, your daddy, your coaches, your high school coaches, Alabama fans ... a speech like that.”
But on Dec. 29, 1982 — a Liberty Bowl game in Memphis, Tenn., against Illinois — it was different.
It was Bryant’s last game and last speech to the Crimson Tide.
There was a suffocating grip over the locker room, according to Homan, a hulking senior defensive tackle for ’Bama.
“The seniors were all together. He looked at us and said, ‘This is our last game. I wanna tell you I appreciate ...,” Bryant said quietly, his voice trailing away.
Bryant then lowered his head, his bottom lip quivering.
“You never saw that emotion,” Homan said. “Then he said, ‘Aw, roll the damn tape.’ The hair was standing up on my arms. It was so emotional.”
An uneventful 21-15 victory over the Illini ended an unconventional 8-4 season for the Crimson Tide.
‘Bama was just 3-3 in the Southeastern Conference, ending an unprecedented run where Bryant’s teams won nine of 11 SEC championships. After he stepped down, ‘Bama didn’t win another SEC crown until 1989.
The numbers were stunning as was Bryant’s surprising death from a heart attack on Jan. 26, 1983, just 29 days after his retirement.
Homan was in Birmingham attending a one-day camp with the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL.
“We were stunned,” Homan said. “I was with a few friends on the team. There was no warning, nothing leading up to that. I knew his health had been failing a bit.”
Bryant once told Sports Illustrated that he’d “croak in a week” if he ever quit coaching.
The football prophet of Tuscaloosa had spun his own self-fulfilling prophecy.
Homan, who retired from the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department in 2005 and is now a sales representative for Sabre, a division of Forest River, said thousands of fans lined the 60 miles of highway between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham for an old-fashioned, two-fisted funeral and burial procession.
Alabama football fans, even fans from bitter rival Auburn, paid homage to Bryant, who won 323 games, then a record, and 232 of them behind the “Roll Tide” battle cry.
“The procession was about five miles long,” Homan said.
When the young Elkhart Central Blue Blazer senior first heard the name Bear Bryant, he didn’t think much of it. But after five seasons under his sprawling wing, Homan came to know what Bryant was all about.
“I didn’t know much about Alabama football and I didn’t know much about Coach Bryant,” Homan said when he selected the Crimson Tide for college.
That would change quickly.
When Homan first got to Tuscaloosa, at a practice he was told by an assistant that Coach Bryant wanted to see the young player. Bryant was perched in his famous tower which overlooked the practice field.
A chiseled, daunting figure, Bryant was genuine in his approach with the impressionable Homan.
“I looked up in the tower and there he was. I walked up the tower and we talked about a half-hour,” said Homan. “As a 17-year-old, I didn’t have an understanding of, but it didn’t take long to understand it.”
Bryant’s down-to-earth charm, Homan said, stood taller and stronger than his rigid coaching presence.
“He asked about me, he asked about my family. We talked very little about football,” he said. “He made me feel welcome.”
Tough on the outside, gentle on the inside — it was a life blend which Homan said he’s never forgotten.