Friends: The two main streets through the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa are University Boulevard and Paul W. Bryant Drive. Bryant was Alabama's football coach from 1958 to his death of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 69. He won six national championships and is considered by many to be the greatest college football coach of all time. His 323 victories in 38 seasons as a head coach at four universities were the most ever until 80-year old Joe Paterno of Penn State recently surpassed him.
A few blocks east of the 93,000-seat Bryant-Denny football stadium is the Paul W. Bryant Museum, opened in 1988. It is one of the most popular attractions in the state. Though it primarily focuses on the career of Bryant complete with a recreation of his office, it is also a tribute to Alabama football. The school has won 12 national championships, more than any other college. Its 40 bowl appearances are more than any other school. Only Michigan and Notre Dame have a higher winning percentage.
Alabama first fielded a team in 1892. The team's first national championship came in 1925 culminating with a 20-19 win over Washington in the Rose Bowl. All of the South took pride in Alabama's success. A newspaper headline screamed, "Alabama splatters myth of Western Football Supremacy." Three years before Alabama suffered a woeful loss in a bowl game. One reporter wrote that Alabama didn't have much of a football team, but that it had "A Million Dollar Band." The band has adopted that as its nickname ever since. Waydell sent out a couple of "Million Dollar Band" post cards.
Alabama last won a national championship in 1992 under Gene Stallings. He is one of four coaches to lead Alabama to a national championship. Each is immortalized with a statue along a walkway approaching the football stadium. Each game day the football team walks past them all on their way into the stadium to their locker room through a vast plaza thronged with fans lining a walk of honor. Present coach Nick Saban hopes to join their ranks this year. He has already won one national championship at LSU several years ago before he left the college ranks to coach the Miami Dolphins. His team is presently undefeated and ranked second in the nation.
The 60-year old woman who oversees an historic, antebellum mansion on the fringe of the campus that we stopped at, said she thinks Saban is so great he could surpass Bryant's record of six national championships even though he has yet to win his first here at Alabama. The state is full of such believers. Saban was recently the cover story of "Forbes" magazine. There were stacks on sale at the museum. Every head coach in Alabama's history is profiled in the museum, even those in the recent past with barely .500 records. The coaches receive much more prominence than any of the players. Frank Howard, one of Bryant's predecessors, who also won a couple of national championships, was the Gipper's roommate at Notre Dame.
So many great quarterbacks have played at Alabama it is known as Quarterback U. Among the greatest are Bart Starr, Ken Stabler and Joe Namath. Oddly, none of them won the Heisman Trophy. The only Heisman trophy winner Bryant coached was John David Crowe at Texas A. & M. in 1957, the year before Bryant came to Alabama. He also coached at Maryland and Kentucky.
No mention was made of the first African-American to play for Alabama. When I asked the receptionist if she knew who it might have been, she said, "Someone just asked me that last week. I'll have to go get our curator to find out." She returned with a 40-year old husky guy wearing an Alabama polo shirt. Wilbur Jackson was the first to play in 1971. The first black athlete to compete for any Alabama team was a basketball player in 1969. He is presently the coach of Alabama's woman's basketball team.
The curator, like so many people we've met in the state, are ecstatic about the return to greatest of Alabama football after a prolonged dry spell. They've lost the last six games to their interstate rival Auburn. "That's a sore point," the curator said. He also mentioned that Alabama hasn't won a game in November the past two years. This Saturday's game should break that streak, but he wasn't being too cocky about it. It is homecoming weekend. The day we were on campus was election day for homecoming queen. All the sororities had large signs out front promoting their candidate. Pairs of young woman stood around the quad holding bed-sheets with a candidate's name. Cars everywhere had candidate's names written in white paint on their windows. A crew was stacking wooden pallets about 30-feet high for Friday night's bonfire in the center of a huge quad. Most of the school's 25,000 students will be there along with the football team and the band and a free musical act. In the past they've had Willie Nelson and "Alabama." Alabama may be as football-mad as Indiana is basketball-mad. For a state with a population of only four-and-a-half million people it has had an extraordinary history of athletic success and producing exceptional athletes. Five of the top fifteen athletes on ESPN's list of the 100 greatest athletes of the century are from Alabama and none of them are football players--Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Willie Mays and Carl Lewis.
The Bryant museum had stacks of programs left over from the last home game free for the taking. It provided appropriate reading material in the tent that night. Our campsite was down a logging road in a clearing just beyond an enclosed deer hunter's blind on stilts with slots for rifles on three sides. It was full of spider webs, indicating it hadn't been used in a while, sparing us the concern of being someone's target. An hour earlier as we snacked in a meadow along the road, a pick-up pulled up alongside us. The driver asked, "Didn't I just see you folks back at Fosters?" Its not the first time someone has told us they'd seen us miles or even days before. We told him we planned to camp down the road and wondered if it was hunting season yet. He said, "Its hunting season all year here, but you don't have to worry about being bothered."
In the morning when we left out campsite I left the football program in the hunting blind. Waydell commented, "Too bad we don't have any porno to leave too." I had been telling her I often find discarded porno along the road and that I like to redistribute it leaving it in unlikely places. We've only seen one porn magazine so far, as we were approaching Cairo, and didn't stop for it. It could well have been jettisoned by someone who had attended a symposium on pornography at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale the night before. It was a debate between porn star Ron Jeremy and anti-porn crusader Craig Gross, founder of XXX Church.It attracted such a huge crowd that the police had to be called in to control gate-crashers. The two previous biggest draws at SIU were Maya Angelou in 2007 and a forum on marijuana a few years earlier.
The visitor center in the first town we came to in Mississippi (Columbus) was the former home of Tennessee Williams. He's just one of several authors on a poster that called Mississippi
"The State of Authors." Faulkner of course is another, along with Richard Wright and Eudora Welty and a few others. Two of the rooms in the visitor center were devoted to Williams' career. There was a photo of Williams as a young man with a friend, each holding a bike with a bedroll and clothes lashed to the rear rack. They were headed on a bike trip to Mexico. Columbus is also the birth place of Memorial Day. Following the Civil War locals honored both Union and Confederate graves in the local cemetery, leading to the establishment of Memorial Day.
Out of Columbus we suffered the worst 25 miles of our trip, riding the shoulder of a two-lane divided highway to Starkville, home of Mississippi State University, with the non-stop din of trucks and cars flying past us at 70 miles per hour. The traffic provided a bit of a tail wind, so I put my head down and pedaled hard trying to get this stretch over with as fast as possible. We stopped after three miles in the shade of an underpass to shed a layer of clothes. Waydell commented, "This isn't fun at all." When we finally turned off nearly an hour-and-a-half later, Waydell came up alongside me and said, "Can we take a break here. I feel like I've been riding for my life trying to keep up the last twenty miles." I had given a periodic look back to make sure she was still on my wheel or nearby and she had been. For all the 700 miles we have come I have ridden at my usual pace and she was there. But these were unusual circumstances. She said she felt like the racers in the Tour de France suffering with all their might to keep up. And she did with another exceptional effort. When we stopped at Starkville at 3:30 we had come 71 miles.
There were four Triple-A approved hotels in this college town. The next town with a hotel, Asherton, was 25 miles away and it was not in our Triple-A book. We were in no rush to be anywhere. We could stay here if we wished. Waydell said, "Let's take a break and then decide." Thirty minutes later after a lemonade and some nuts she voted to push on. We arrived in Asherton at dark, four miles short of her second century in three days, and were relieved to discover the Asherton Inn was still in business and had a vacancy. When we checked in the Indian proprietor asked if we wanted the weekly rate, as did the bulk of his clientele. We asked if he had no-smoking rooms. He did not. Our room was saturated with tobacco, but it didn't reek as badly as the one in Florence. We figured we could endure it. We were just happy to have a warm place, as the night before the temperature fell below freezing. There have been record low temperatures all over the South the past two days. We didn't even object that the heater didn't work in the room or that the TV only received eight stations, all cable, denying Waydell a network show she likes, "Pushing Daisies." When we awoke in the morning the temperature in our room was 60, quite balmy compared to our tent the morning before.
Mississippi is the sixth and final state we will pass through on this trip. It brings to twelve the number of states that Waydell has bicycled in, as many states as Alabama has won national championships in football. Her twelve includes Alaska--a short day ride in Skagway when she was on a cruise up the Inside Passage. She'll add number 13 this January, maybe keeping up with Alabama's football team, when she takes a real vacation in Hawaii and bikes down a volcano.
We are closing in on the Natchez Trace Parkway, the nation's longest national park. Over dinner at a nearby diner, the proprietor recommended we enter at the small town of French Camp. He said he used to ride the road all the time on his Huffy, but not any longer. He too enthusiastically assured us we were in for a wonderful ride on The Trace.