On Sept. 10, 1971, the Alabama Crimson Tide showed up at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and shocked the fifth-ranked University of Southern Cal Trojans with a newly unveiled wishbone offense that led to a 17-10 upset victory before nearly 68,000 in attendance.
Alabama's next scheduled opponent was the Southern Miss Southerners in Tuscaloosa at the then-Denny Stadium.
A young 17-year-old Rick Cleveland, then writing for the Hattiesburg American, was sent to Tuscaloosa to cover Alabama head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's press conference.
Cleveland recounted the scenario during an interview with Tupelo sports talker Matt Wyatt, which aired on Wyatt's Friday broadcast.
"I just bought myself — I had earned enough money to buy a brand-new Ford Pinto, which has to be still the worst automobile in automobile history. I got just the other side of Meridian and had a flat tire, back left tire. I'll never forget it. It's 100 degrees, asphalt. One of the lugnuts wouldn't come loose. It took me a while to change the tire. I've sweated through my clothes, got grease all over me, and I am 30 minutes late getting to 'Bear' Bryant's press conference. It's over when I get there."
Despite being late, Cleveland said, with an assist from long-time Alabama sports information director Charley Thornton, he was able to get one-on-one time with Coach Bryant.
"I go in the office, and there's like trophies everywhere," he said. "His desk is as big as an endzone. He's got his socks feet propped up on the desk. He's got a box of ribs, and he's eating his lunch."
What happened to Cleveland after might have happened to any young reporter sitting across from Bryant in his prime.
"Matt, I opened my mouth to ask him a question and nothing came out," he said. "I choked."
Cleveland said Bryant's reaction was to say, "Aw shit, son," which he said "instantly brought him back."
After the 30-minute interview, Bryant took the young Cleveland to practice and allowed him to watch practice from the coach's tower with him.
Eventually, Cleveland said he told Bryant he had to return to Hattiesburg. He said Bryant directed him to go to a tire store to fix his car before returning.
"I went there, and the guy said, 'This tire is just not going to work. I can't fix this tire. I'm going to get you a new one.' I said, 'How much is it going to be?' He said, 'If Coach Bryant sent you, it ain't going to be anything.'"
That encounter left a lasting impression on Cleveland.
"Anytime anybody now asks me who my favorite coach is — this is 40 years after he is dead — my answer is 'Bear' Bryant.'"
Jeff Poor is the editor in chief of 1819 News and host of "The Jeff Poor Show," heard Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-noon on Mobile's FM Talk 106.5. To connect or comment, email jeff.poor@1819News.com or follow him on Twitter @jeff_poor.
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