FUMBLE: Bear Bryant, WaRy Butts, and the Great College Football Scandal by James Kirby

FUMBLE: Bear Bryant, WaRy Butts, and the Great College Football Scandal

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A brilliant reconstruction of a 1962 college football scandal from a uniquely qualified and uncommonly able commentator. Officially, the complicated story began when an Atlanta insurance salesman accidently intercepted a pre-season phone call from Wally Butts (in his first year as Georgia's athletic director after being forced out as head coach of the university's football team) to Paul (""Bear"") Bryant (revered coach of Alabama's Crimson Tide, the reigning college champions). The inadvertent eavesdropper (George Burnett) overheard Butts provide Bryant with inside information that sounded as though it could be useful in the Tide's game against the Bulldogs. Burnett scribbled some notes, but he did nothing with them until weeks after Alabama had overwhelmed Georgia 35-0. Eventually, Burnett did confide his suspicions to members of the Georgia Univ. community, triggering a series of quasi-official investigations. In March of 1963, The Saturday Evening Post published a poorly researched exposÉ alleging a fix. Butts quickly sued for libel as did Bryant, who was already party to an action against the Post, which he claimed had defamed him in an article about unnecessary roughness in college football. Kirby (law/Tennessee) was the Southeast Conference's official observer at the Butts/Post trial, conducted under deadline pressure (owing to the judge's resolve to conclude proceedings before the 1983 season's kickoff). He followed the case, which yielded Butts compensatory as well as punitive damages (but not exoneration or vindication, in the author's opinion) to its 5-4 Supreme Court decision. Kirby also tracks the concurrent Bryant actions, which were settled out of court. Kirby dismisses the Butts trial as ""a comedy of errors,"" in large measure because the ill-prepared Post attorneys mounted an incredibly feeble defense. Indeed, he leaves little doubt Butts should not have prevailed. Among other things, the author points to such unexplored issues as the hard-drinking plaintiff's links to gamblers, the importance of point spreads in sports wagering, and the reality of secrecy in college football. There are few heroes here. in many respects, the Post article (reprinted in an appendix) was a shoddy piece of goods, and there is good reason to believe some of the principals, including Butts and Bryant (both of whom are dead), engaged in cover-ups or perjured themselves. It's at least curious, for example, that neither the author nor anyone else has ever been able to obtain a copy of the game film. Nor did the press, a largely complaisant witness to the college football wars, provide more than a superficial record of events. Kirby, of course, has the benefit of hindsight and offers mainly circumstantial evidence. Even so, his is a hauntingly persuasive case for a reappraisal if not reform of big-time college sport.

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 1986
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich