From 1990-96, Gene Stallings led Alabama to a 70-16-1 mark, capturing the 1992 national championship and making four trips to the SEC Championship Game. His rank among the leading figures in Crimson Tide history is forever secure, reflected in the bronze statue that towers outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. His road to the College Football Hall of Fame was not easy. After playing end for Paul “Bear“ Bryant at Texas A&M and coaching under him at Alabama, he endured failed head coaching tenures in College Station and with the NFL’s St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals. Between the two, he spent 14 years as an assistant to Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. When he returned to Tuscaloosa as the boss in 1990, skepticism was plentiful. After all, he was a 55-year-old man who was still trying to prove he could find the winning formula. But Stallings’ hiring produced one of Alabama’s most successful eras, lifting him to the pantheon alongside Wade, Thomas, Bryant and (now) Saban.
CR: What do you remember about seeing Coach Bryant for the first time during yell practice at Texas A&M?
Stallings: Remember it well. We didn’t even know who he was. Ray George [had been] the head coach, and they fired him when I was a freshman. They were going to bring in somebody from Kentucky. Course, in this part of the country, all we knew was the Southwest Conference. Then all of the sudden they have a yell practice down at a place called The Grove. And this big ole man got up there and started talking. Took his jacket off. Sort of threw it down on the floor. Sort of a sports coat. And he made an impression on all of us that first day. He said it wasn’t gonna be long before things started changing around Texas A&M football, and he was absolutely right. The mere presence of Coach Bryant, and what he was saying and how he was saying it…the students were extremely excited about him being there. I cannot remember the first meeting that we had but I can remember the first time I saw him.
CR: A defining moment in his career happened at the pre-season camp in 1954 at Junction. What was it like going out on that bus?
Stallings: I don’t think it was as big a deal for him as it was for us, to tell you the truth. He had had some camps at Kentucky that were somewhat similar. The thing that made Junction so bad was the conditions. You know, football is football is football. But now all the sudden it’s in the middle of a drought. It wasn’t much grass. The ground was extremely hard. There were goat heads everywhere, and when you put your hands down, to get in your stance, there were goat heads, big ole sand burs. Going out, we didn’t have a clue where we were going. Coach Bryant had basically said: Get two or three changes of underwear. We’re gonna take a little trip. You’re not gonna be needing anything but a change of underwear and a pillow or something of that nature. We go out and there’s two busses out there and we get on and we didn’t have a clue we we’re going. We get to this place called Junction, actually, the day before everything started. And there was a little river back behind and we sort of having fun playing in that river, thought this wasn’t gonna be too bad. Several of us that night were playing cards. And everything started the next morning. Coach Bryant just happened to come in our cabin and he said: Now I won’t need to tell you this anymore, but I’m gonna tell you now: There’ll be no card playing while we’re here. And he was absolutely right. When we had a little rest time, we wanted that light off and we were trying to get some rest.
CR: You told me once about sleeping on that top bunk in your quonset hut, how the heat simmered.
Stallings: Right. I had an upper bunk. I was a sophomore and it was about a foot and a half from the roof, and the roof was tin. And that sun would come down and hit that roof and it was not cool. I can’t tell you how hot it was, but it wasn’t cool at all.
CR: What do you think Coach Bryant learned from Junction?
Stallings: First of all, I think he thought it was a mistake to go there. He said later on that if he had known the facilities and all were that sparse, he would not… He had never been to Junction prior to his arrival there for practice, so…if you would ask him and he would be candid about it, he would probably say it was a mistake to have gone there. Now there was no way Coach Bryant was trying to reduce the squad down to as small as it was. It was just that he had a plan that he was gonna do; he had worked out what the practice sessions and all was gonna look like, and just so happens that maybe he could have done those same things at Kentucky where people were used to to it, might not have anybody quit. But everything was knew to those of us there, that kind of practice conditions and so forth. So a lot of people just said it wasn’t worth it and they quit.
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