In the summer of 1961 Joe Namath arrived at the University of Alabama wearing a skin-tight, one-piece, brown-checked suit, a straw fedora, and faux Ray Ban sunglasses. Legendary Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant hadn’t yet met his future star, so he invited the young quarterback up to his tower overlooking the practice field. It was a gesture so unprecedented that we’re still talking about it 62 years later.
The scene forms the beginning of Randy Roberts’ and Ed Krzemienski’s new book Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath & Dixie’s Last Quarter. The authors joined Karen Given on Only A Game.
Highlights from Karen’s Conversation with Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski
KG: Joe Namath wasn’t even expected at Alabama that summer. He planned to be walking on to a practice field in Maryland instead. What happened?
EK: At this time, it was a time when colleges were raising their academic standards, and all of the colleges, frankly, that Joe had been offered scholarships to – Maryland, Notre Dame and several others that he signed letters of intent to – pulled back their offers. And as a result, Bear Bryant in the Southeastern Conference didn’t have these stipulations on his team, and he had heard about Namath and was always enamored with players from Western Pennsylvania.
Bryant, in this moment invites him up into the tower to let the team – and the coaches, frankly – know that this guy has his blessings. But behind him, the practice field, you could have heard a pin drop. Everybody thinking to themselves, “Oh my God, this guy got invited up into the tower.” Even the coaches didn’t go up. If you heard the tower chain rattling you ran for your life, and this guy’s walking up there with a toothpick in his mouth like nothing’s going on.
KG: Ed, when Namath was young his older brother taught him how to throw from the ear and a local sports reporter made sure the newspapers focused on Namath’s on-the-field performance and not his tendency to get into trouble. With the whole town looking after Namath’s development as an athlete was anyone making sure he did his homework or got to school on time?EK: Periodically his head football coach at Beaver Falls High School, Larry Bruno, would grab his keys, rush out to his car, drive over to the Namath house, run inside, and Mrs. Namath would gleefully tell Larry Bruno that “Oh, Joey’s asleep. He had a late night.” And Bruno, frantically, would tell her, “Mrs. Namath, if he’s not in school today he can’t play in the game tonight.”
KG: What’s really striking to me about Namath’s college career is how little of it there was. Of his three years sharing the varsity quarterback position, one year was very good, the next was shortened by a suspension and the last was limited by a knee injury. How did Namath get enough notice to be picked second in the AFL draft and 12th in the NFL draft?
RR: This is the first game played in living color. I don’t know if you can remember the peacock [on NBC]. I can. But [it was] played in living color on prime time. The Orange Bowl in 1964, 5.5 million people watched the game. In 1965, 25 million people watched it on prime time. Joe had hurt his knee, tweaked it again on Friday before the game. It didn’t look like he was going to play. The game starts. Everything goes OK for about a quarter, 0-0. Then suddenly Texas gets two long touchdowns.
I talked to one of the assistant coaches for Texas, Pat Culpepper. And Pat said he was talking to his defensive players, he wasn’t looking at the field and all of a sudden he heard a roar. And there was Bryant with one of those big hands of his on Joe’s shoulder walking him onto the field out to the hash mark to go into the game. And [Namath] goes out, and he just passes the ball. Texas can’t do anything. They rush eight; they rush seven; they try all different schemes; they can’t stop Namath. I mean, if you talk about your Judy Garland, star-is-born moment that’s what we have on the field of the Orange Bowl that particular night.
I was a little apprehensive when I first picked up Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath & Dixie’s Last Quarter. I’ve never experienced the enthusiasm that surrounds Alabama football, and Joe Namath retired from the NFL long before I watched my first game.
I shouldn’t have been worried. It’s true, many of Rising Tide’s 398 pages detail Namath’s four years at Alabama and his relationship with legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. But those pages are full of details I never would have expected. Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski transport the reader to Namath’s hometown of Beaver Falls, Penn. and use the smells and sounds of the steel-making region to illustrate why Namath was so intent on getting out. The book similarly examines Bryant’s return to Alabama and why he couldn’t resist coming when “Mama called.”
But the biggest surprises in Rising Tide were the revelations that went far beyond football. Namath’s time at Alabama came during the tumultuous 1960s, when the university was integrated with the support of the National Guard. The book looks into Bryant and Namath’s limited roles in that historical moment and attempts to explain why the two men didn’t do more.
At the end of the book, after Namath had played his last down for Alabama and drove off in his New York Jets-green Lincoln Continental convertible, I found myself flipping the pages, eager to know what happened next.