In 1966, former tobacco lobbyist and politician Joe Robbie linked up with comedian Danny Thomas to raise the $7.5 million expansion fee for a professional football franchise. Robbie planted his team in Miami called them the Dolphins.
From 1966-’69, George Wilson, the former head coach of the Detroit Lions, skippered the Dolphins. But Wilson only found mediocrity, winning 15 games over 4 seasons.
By the winter of ’69, owner Robbie was poaching the circuit for a new head coach, and soon turned his attention to the head coach in Tuscaloosa.
Bear Bryant, fifty-six and fatigued, was coming off an uncharacteristic 6-4 campaign in the fall of 1969 (6-5 after the bowl game), his worst showing in over a decade. Alabama, the powerhouse that won three national championships earlier in the decade, had lost its last two bowl games. Perhaps it was time for Bryant to make a change, and the Miami offer—and Miami itself—sounded intriguing.
Joe Robbie and Paul Bryant talked over the phone on at least twenty occasions and met personally in both Birmingham and Miami. Because the purpose of their meeting was business and not to play tiddlywinks, eventually a contract for Bryant to coach the Dolphins was drawn up at a hotel in Birmingham. Said Bryant, “by the time we got all the goodies lined up I actually agreed to go.”
Bryant began moving in the direction of Miami, and Robbie, impressed with Bryant’s gusto, thought he had a new head coach.
Bryant took Robbie’s contract offer and, with the help of his lawyer, Winston McCall, added a few more goodies to the basket—“making the total value so good I’d have had to make about $1.7 million over a five-year period to equal it,” Bryant said. (Per the deal, Bryant’s wife, Mary Harmon, would have a $10,000 travel stipend to shuttle back and forth between Miami and Tuscaloosa.)
During Christmas, the Bryants flew to Miami and were shown the frills of Shangri-La for—get this—three weeks. The mere names of the accommodations evoked paradise: the Palm Bay Club, Ocean Reef. Bryant and Mary Harmon were wined and dined, all right. “My head was turned,” Bryant admitted.
Later on the trip, Bryant solicited the services of an old pal, Joe Namath, who met with Bryant at his temporary oceanside home. In a closed-door meeting, Bryant intimated to Broadway Joe that he was interesting in taking the Dolphins’ job and wanted to know more about the Fins’ personnel.
Namath confirmed to Bryant that the best young quarterback in the league was Bob Griese, and the best running back was Larry Csonka. Luckily, both players were in Miami. “Shoot, coach, you could win here left-handed,” Namath said confidently.
Another meeting with one of Bryant’s former assistants, Howard Schnellenberger, confirmed Namath’s suggestions.
After talking with Schnellenberger, Bryant told Joe Robbie he would take the job. But there was one caveat: he needed to tell “his people” about the move.
His people, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and 34-year-old University President, Dr. David Matthews, met with Bryant that winter. Bryant told them, “it was time for a change, and it would be good for everybody.” Ten years were left on Bryant’s contract, and he indicated he wanted to be released.
“Deep down,” Bryant said, “I thought they might be glad to get rid of me. We’d lost a bunch of games.”
Then Red Blount, CEO of a successful construction company and Postmaster General under President Richard Nixon said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, go on, if you can get us a good ‘un.”
Bryant was confused. “What are you talking about, a good ‘un?”
Matthews chimed in for clarification. “Well, he has to be under forty-six,” he said, speaking of Alabama’s new head coach. As Matthews began rattling off qualifications, he eventually said what everyone else in the room was thinking: “somebody as good as you.”
In Bryant’s mind, only three coaches potentially qualified: USC’s John McKay, LSU’s Charlie McClendon, and Texas’s Darrell Royal.
McKay had once indicated to Bryant that he might be interested in the job, so when Bryant met with McKay at the Senior Bowl in Mobile the next day, his intent was to gauge McKay’s genuine interest in coming to Alabama.
When McKay balked, Bryant said, “This can’t wait, John. This has to be settled in the next hour.”
The next morning, Dr. Matthews’s phone rang at 6 a.m. It was Bryant.
“Is it too early for you to have a cup of coffee?” Bryant gently asked.
Matthews laughed. “I been up an hour myself.”
Bryant met Matthews in his office. “You know, you’re the smartest young man I ever saw,” Bryant said. “Darned if you’re not right. I can’t get anybody as good as me.” HA
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*Photo courtesy of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame