The last ride of Bear and Billy

Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant's former driver, Billy Varner, now struggles to remember the man behind the myth. He's not alone.

Updated: May 24, 2012, 6:19 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

T

USCALOOSA, Ala. -- Something important is being lost. Each rising sun takes a little more from the couple who live in the small brick home southwest of downtown. Billy Varner has been married to Susie for 57 years, and as her life was once spent waiting on him to get home from a job that didn't know hours or days off, now it's spent managing his dementia. Each day brings its own reality. On the worst, Billy, who is 76, doesn't recognize Susie. He'll dress in the middle of the night and try to leave, his pajamas rolled up in his hand. Regularly, he refuses to believe that his old boss isn't at home waiting for a ride. Billy was Bear Bryant's driver, bodyguard and valet, one of the few remaining people who knew him as a human being. As Billy's memory fades, that knowledge disappears with it, widening the gulf between truth and imagination.

Billy tells Susie that he talks to the coach. Sometimes Bryant visits.

"Coach Bryant isn't dead," he'll say. "Don't tell me he's dead."

"Billy," Susie tells him, "yes, he is."


B

ear Bryant surrounded himself with people he could trust, and he trusted nobody more than Billy Varner, a tough, barrel-chested African-American. Billy was always just around, in the office, on the road, on the sidelines. Over the years, various accounts have given him different titles, but essentially, he was a fixer. He took care of business, and he kept everything to himself, even after Bryant died.

[+] EnlargeBear Bryant
Courtesy Paul W. Bryant MuseumPaul "Bear" Bryant and Billy Varner.

"We knew he'd been offered a lot of money to write a book or help make a movie," says Linda Knowles, Bryant's longtime secretary, "and he would have none of that. And no one knew Coach Bryant better than Billy. Even Mrs. Bryant didn't know him as well as Billy did. He was with him almost 24 hours a day."

Billy picked him up in the morning. He dropped him off at night. Sometimes they talked. Sometimes they didn't. Often, Coach read the paper aloud. Once, when a state trooper clocked Varner speeding, Bryant stuck his houndstooth hat in the back window. The patrolman understood and backed off. Billy saw him weak and insecure. He drove him to Birmingham one year before Christmas because Bryant got a letter from a sick girl and he wanted to surprise her. He saw him cry. When Paul took his grandson fishing, Billy came along.

Varner never felt comfortable enough to strike up conversations with Bryant, but he could poke at the Legend of The Bear. Driving through Mississippi one night, they stopped at a catfish house. Bryant bought seafood dinners for everyone there, and Billy cracked later, "It was like you were handing out loaves and fishes." At the end, when Bryant was sicker than anyone knew, Billy heard the private coughs.

The roots of this bond, like many things with Bryant, are full of mystery, myth and misinformation. Earlier this month, a retired Alabama assistant coach sat at his kitchen table and gauged how much he could reveal.

"What do you know about the story where Coach Bryant and Billy met?" Jack Rutledge asked carefully.

Rutledge played for Bryant's first team and was an assistant on his last, and when he realized that he would be sharing new information, he clammed up.

"Well, we don't hardly know the details," he said finally. "It was so quiet."

The official records show Varner started working for the university police in February 1976, but he'd been around for a decade or more by then, floating in the shadows. "There's not much really you can talk about Billy," Rutledge said. "His life is as concealed as Coach Bryant's life."


T

he 1982 Liberty Bowl was to be the last game of Bryant's career, and when the college football media arrived in Memphis, Tenn., Billy became, for a brief moment, a reflected celebrity. They hoped that through him they might better understand the coach. A few days before the game, as a television crew interviewed him, Bryant walked by and cracked, "Don't rush yourself, Billy, I'll bring the car around."

They'd known each other for more than 20 years by then. They watched the moon landing together, hung out with Bob Hope together. They reached the end together, sitting in a 14th-floor suite of the Memphis Holiday Inn. Bryant grew reflective. He looked out the window at the river and the bridge to Arkansas, which led eventually to the place where his journey began: a four-room house without electricity or running water. He poured a drink and chatted with guests. As always, Varner stood in the background. After an hour and a half, Bryant, looking tired and old, walked into his bedroom. He said he had to rest. Billy was worried, and maybe that's why he offered a rare piece of insight to a local reporter. "I just don't know what's going to happen to him," Varner said. "He won't make it without coaching."

After the game, on Dec. 30, Varner drove Bryant back to Tuscaloosa. They made small talk in the car, nothing about the life's work that had just ended. Twenty-eight days later, on a Tuesday night, Billy's phone rang. Coach was at Jimmy Hinton's house and didn't feel well. Varner drove over, helped get Bryant to the hospital.

The next morning, on Jan. 26, Varner ran errands, taking Bryant's daughter to the hospital and dropping off a to-do list at the office for Knowles. Billy told her not to worry about Coach. He'd eaten some sausage, and it upset his stomach is all. In his hospital room, Bryant was joking with the nurses.

Knowles began canceling the next two weeks of Coach's schedule. Varner went home to rest, and that's where he was when the phone rang again. He rushed back to the hospital, and when he saw the look on the team trainer's face, he knew. Bear Bryant had died, and as the news went out on the radio -- the man's voice cracked when he said, "Ladies and gentlemen … " -- Varner stood in the hallway of the Druid City Hospital with nowhere to go.

The local paper interviewed him, and Billy cried. "He could eat pheasant under glass with the president," he said, "or he could eat cheese and crackers with the boys out by the caddie shack, and he'd enjoy it all just the same. That's the man I'll always remember."

He took a month off, trying to figure out how Coach Bryant would tell him to deal with his grief. When he came back, he was a regular campus policeman. They put him on night traffic, and that first winter, he caught pneumonia. He worked security at games, no longer inside the circle. In 1996, 14 years after Bryant died, he retired from the University of Alabama Police Department. He never talked about the private things he'd seen. The director of the Bryant Museum approached him about writing a book. Varner told even him no.


S

usie Varner answers the door. Billy is asleep.

The living room takes up the front of the house, with a television at one end and, on the wall, a poem about footsteps in the sand, which ends with God telling a follower: "The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you."

It's lunchtime. The lights are low, and the house sits in cool darkness. Susie is short, 77, with gray hair and a walker she pushes around. Her voice sounds exactly like that of comedienne Wanda Sykes, and Susie, in real life and in the pictures around the house, wears a little smirk, as if she knows something you don't know.

"Billy had a stroke in 1996," she says, "right after he retired. Sometimes his mind is clear as a crystal. Sometimes it cloud up and rain."

She sits down and tells the story her husband can no longer tell. They married right out of high school. She was 19. He was 18. Four years later, Billy was bartending at the Tuscaloosa Country Club. That's where he met Alabama's new football coach, and when Varner took the same job at the Indian Hills Country Club, where Bryant lived off the third fairway, they became close. Most afternoons, Bryant would slip into the bar and play cards with friends. When the bar was empty, the two men talked. That led to jobs, bartending at parties and running errands, and by the late 1960s, around the same time the coach traded his brown fedora for a hat with black-and-white checks, Billy began working for Bryant full time. You want a window into Bear Bryant's power in the state of Alabama? He got his bartender a badge and a gun.

[+] EnlargeBear Bryant
Courtesy of Frank MorganBryant and Varner leave Denny Stadium after a game, around 1980.

Neither man spent much time with his family. Susie would come home -- she worked with mental patients in a local hospital -- and see Billy's traveling bag gone. Later that night, she'd get the inevitable call.

She'd always ask: "When y'all coming back?"

He'd always answer: "I don't know."

The coach visited this house once. They were traveling, and Billy said he needed to get home for supper. Bryant asked whether there might be enough for him. Billy found a phone and called ahead, telling Susie to make her good cornbread. She shot back: "I thought all my cornbread was good!" They sat in the kitchen down the hall and ate and laughed. She liked Bryant, thought he had a good heart, even if he did almost always call her Sally. After one trip, when the men went to a horse track, Billy came home with an envelope from Coach. Bryant got the name right; "Susie" was scrawled on the outside. Inside she found $500 and a note. Buy what you want, he told her, not what you need.

"I always did want me the old-timey ice cream freezer," she says. "I went and bought me one of those. I didn't use it but one time. But I got it. We made ice cream, one time. Sure did."

These are the stories she can tell. About how Billy left her alone a lot of the time, how he gave up his life like Bryant did and how Billy never got to enjoy his retirement, either. She laughs some, with only a little bitterness, about what was gained, what was spent and what remains. All he has to show for two decades of service are his memories, and even those often hang just out of reach. Susie can tell you what she saw, but that's it. "He never told me anything personal about Coach Bryant," she says. "Nothing."

As she talks, there's a noise down the hall, a rattle of movement and the thump-thump of a cane on the floor. The sound gets louder.

"That's him," she says, standing so he can sit.

"Come here, hon," she says softly.

Billy shuffles into the room wearing gray pajamas and black slippers. A diamond of belly shows through the puckered front of his shirt. His voice is deep and trails off when he's unsure.

"Too many football games," he says. "I ended up playing football."

"You didn't play football," she says.

Billy sits up, his voice and cane rising at the indignity.

"What do you mean, I didn't play football?"

"You didn't play no football," she says. "Uh, uh. No, no. That's a no-no."

Billy deflates, his voice and his body sinking back down into the chair.

"She knows," he says.

She picks back up the conversation about Bryant, and Billy sits across the narrow room, listening. She answers for him when he seems lost.

"You was at the hospital when he died," she says. "Do you remember?"

"No," he says.


S

omething remarkable happens when Billy figures out where the den is located -- at first, he stood in the living room confused while Susie called his name over and over -- and inches down the hall, through the kitchen where Coach sat one time for supper, into a room decorated with photographs of Bear Bryant.

He remembers.

It happens slowly but clearly. His voice becomes higher-pitched, quick but not rushed, with confidence in the direction of the words, without the long pauses to read the maps inside his mind. All his memories are still in there, somewhere, only much of the time he can't translate them into words. Today he can. The pictures seem to anchor him. The walls are covered with certificates and mementos of his service. He's an honorary assistant coach for the 1975 season. He's a 1978 national champion. To his left, surrounded by the small frames, is a large photograph of Bear Bryant at the 1982 Liberty Bowl, sicker than anyone but Billy and a few others knew, bundled tight against the cold. To his right is the famous painting "315" that shows Bryant on the sideline as he breaks the all-time wins record, and down the wall from that is a pencil-and-ink drawing of Bryant as a young man.

"There's Coach Bryant," Billy says.

[+] EnlargeBear Bryant
Courtesy of Frank Morgan Varner and Bryant on Sept. 8, 1979, three days before Bryant's 66th birthday. The photo was taken during ceremonies before the first Alabama-Georgia Tech game since the series ended amid controversy in 1964.

That's what he called him, like it was a Southern debutante's double name. Always, Coach Bryant, just like Mary Wilkes or Sarah Catherine: Coachbryant.

"That looks like him over there," Billy says.

"That's him, too."

He focuses on the shot from the Liberty Bowl. Billy always walked a few feet in front of Bryant, for reasons he's trying to recall.

"That's him up there," he says. "Right there with the hat on, in the middle. I'd travel with him to the games. I remember all of them. We'd go to the stadium. I'd drive him. I'd park the car. He'd get out. We went to the dressing room. I walked in front of him. To shoot him, they had to get me first."

He forms his right hand into a pistol and Susie laughs, but then he starts to get lost again. His voice loses its pitch and clarity, sort of like he's got a mouth full of pea gravel.

"… shoot them … I always thought …"

His eyes get wide, bulging, like they do when he's confused. Gaps open between the words, and sentences turn staccato. He laughs at himself when he recenters. His voice ticks up a few notches.

"Coach Bryant used to be the coach at … Alabama," he says. "I keep trying to call that the Indian Hills football team. It was the university football team."

He looks back at the Liberty Bowl photograph. Today his memories seem to orbit around the idea of protecting Bryant from some unseen enemy.

"He's there in the black," he says. "The white hat. There he is. He's following me. We're going into the stadium. He's following me. I always felt if somebody was after him, they'd come at him from the front. I was a big guy …" -- Billy sits up in his chair, and his face becomes menacing; he bows up his shoulders and arms -- "… and by the time those bullets go through me, he's gone. We had some guys behind us. I always thought about that. Somebody comes up to do something to Coach Bryant, they're gonna have to get me first. They're probably dead themselves because I was a fast gun. He told me one time, if somebody comes up and shoots me, they're gonna shoot you first. I looked at him like, 'What the hell you think I'm here for?'"

He laughs and claps his hands. Four loud slaps. A half-hour or more has passed. His clarity comes and goes. The pictures on the wall hold him. To his right, in the corner of the room, there's the pencil-and-ink drawing, a fresh-faced Bryant, without the deep lines in his face.

This is a portrait of Paul.

"He's young all the time here," Billy says.

The price for memories is regret, and somewhere in the middle of all this, Billy considers how he spent his life. Nobody ever has a plan. A man looks up and he's 76 years old, with memories he can't touch and not much else. Like his boss before him, Billy Varner has come to the place where he must consider what he did with his time.

"There was so much going on," he says. "So little coming out of it. You start thinking about what you could have been doing. You get a job out there you would have made $50 more a month. If I'd changed jobs, I would have been making $50 more a month. Oh, s--- … $50 wasn't worth it. You had more fun on that job. You can reach up and feel it. When things happened, and you were there …"

The pitch of his voice starts to drop again, wavering between the treble of here and the deep bass of gone.


T

he man Billy Varner is remembering has very little in common with the Bryant who is beloved by so many Alabama fans. Bryant's inner circle, those who knew the man, is surrounded by reminders of this. A few weeks ago, as Linda Knowles took the elevator up to the fourth-floor office where she works for the Alabama faculty senate, a car with a houndstooth paint job drove past her building on Paul W. Bryant Drive, past Bryant-Denny Stadium, past the Paul W. Bryant Museum, which is filled with what can only be called relics, then past the Bryant Conference Center. A houndstooth car is just the beginning. The university sells houndstooth beach balls and houndstooth pool floats, which you can enjoy with an adult beverage kept cold by a houndstooth huggie. Croakies to hold sunglasses, cuff links, purses, both the kind with handles and clutches. Even Knowles sheepishly admits she has a houndstooth umbrella. It's a cult.

Bryant's son, Paul Bryant Jr., remembers his father's birthday more than the anniversary of his death, but for most Alabama fans, everything changed "the day Bear Bryant died." There's even a song named that. This isn't a celebration. It's a deification. Yes, Bear died, but He is risen. Before every Alabama home game, the big video board plays clips of Bryant talking, sounding like he ate a carton of Chesterfields. Fans stand and cheer. Knowles cries every time. There is, always, a disconnect between the few people who miss Paul and the legion who worship The Bear.

The Bear, the rough-faced legend on the video board, was predestined to be great. Paul, who rode in a mule-drawn cart from Moro Bottom, Ark., and in the back of Billy Varner's crimson Buick LeSabre, struggled, season after season. Paul never forgot the middle-class kids pointing and laughing at his mother. The number of people left alive who knew that Paul is small. It grows smaller all the time. Close friend Jimmy Hinton died a year ago; former assistant and confidant Clem Gryska died last month. The Bear wore houndstooth. Paul started reading a devotional in the final two years of his life that said, in part, "When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever, leaving something in its place I have traded for it."

Knowles has walked through the museum about 10 times. She settles in front of the exhibit of his office, the soft black-and-white couch players hated because they'd sink further and further down, the white telephone, the wide wooden desk. In real life, biographer Allen Barra reports, Bryant had a copy of Philip Roth's masturbation-heavy literary masterpiece "Portnoy's Complaint" on his shelf. That's been scrubbed for posterity.

Knowles and Varner cleaned out the real version of this office after Coach died. Standing before the exhibit, she can hear his voice all around her, literally, from the museum's video displays. His voice might be what affects her most. At home, she keeps the microcassette of the last letter he dictated, the day before he died. She plays it sometimes. As she stands by the office exhibit, the speakers to her left loop audio of Bryant reading that devotional: "What I do today is very important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it."

She stands still, surrounded by the strangers who've come to genuflect, and she thinks, "If they only knew." And yet they don't, and they almost certainly won't. Bryant's family and friends fiercely guard his legacy, but this omerta brings with it an accidental cost. Missing in the houndstooth beach balls and paint jobs is a person. Barra wrote the best biography of Bryant, "The Last Coach," and even in his book, there is a Paul-sized hole at the center of the narrative. We get hints. "I know I've made this journey," he told a reporter just before his final season. "I'm not sure I've enjoyed all of it. You miss a lot of things you shouldn't miss."

When an assistant coach told him in 1970 that Vince Lombardi had died, Bryant spoke of regrets, and it shocked his friend. It was the first and only time he heard Bryant talk like that, and he realized that maybe his boss was a lonely man. There is certainly regret in Bryant's choice of devotional. "I wish I'd read this 30 years ago," he told a friend, "I wouldn't have wasted so much valuable time." He collapsed once from nervous exhaustion, chain-smoked cigarettes, ripped the filters off ones he bummed, passed out on couches, checked into alcohol rehab. There are actions that tell of unseen turmoil and doubt, but Bryant is never revealed.

Barra found himself attacked for describing one bender at the 21 Club in New York City. This urge to protect, probably born from seeing the Saturday Evening Post erroneously accuse the coach of fixing a game, is also erasing something. We know Lombardi from David Maraniss' biography, "When Pride Still Mattered," and he comes across as smaller and therefore larger in the retelling, because his humanity is on every page. He is a man.

Thirty years after his last season, Bryant's humanity lives only in his family and a few aging friends, in former employees such as Knowles, in 72-year-old assistant coach-turned-athletic director Mal Moore, and, perhaps most of all, in Billy Varner. Paul W. Bryant is dying for the second time, and one day, in the not-so-distant future, only The Bear will remain.


H

e's gone.

Billy's voice drops back down, and the words press together, a slurry of confusion and rearranged thoughts, part truth, part fiction. Whatever order was brought on by the photographs disappears.

He pauses. His eyes get wide. He spends a long minute staring at the remote control, trying to figure out how to turn up the volume. Finally, he asks for help. Susie is in and out of the room, doing laundry, listening to gospel music. Bear Bryant looks down from four or five different places.

"I don't ever talk to him now," Billy says.

He says something else, his voice deep, the sentences trailing off. "I don't know whether he died or what" is what it sounds like he says. "I never did hear about him dying."

He smiles and clacks his cane. He puts a finger over his lips and says, "Shhh." On the wall, there's a candid shot of Paul and Billy in what looks like a living room. There's the framed photograph of Bryant on a football field for the final time, with a "Thanks for the Memories" sign in the background. Billy sits in his big brown chair and looks at an oddly familiar man.

"Is that him?" he asks.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.