The RBR Reading Room: Above the Noise of the Crowd

This might just be the greatest book about Alabama football ever written.

Seriously.

In penning the RBR Reading Room over the past few years I've read a lot of books about Crimson Tide football in general and Coach Paul W. Bryant in particular. After awhile you get used to the tone writers take toward the subject -- restrained, respectful and pretty much avoiding anything that might smack of controversy. There's a interesting anecdote now and then, sure, but for the most part you are given the impression everyone gets to bed by 8 p.m. after a warm glass of milk.

Well, when longtime Alabama football radio announcer John Forney sat down to write his biography, he said to hell with that. His 1986 book, Above the Noise of the Crowd, is an irreverent, rambunctious and absolutely hysterical account of the salad days at Alabama under Bear Bryant. And thank heavens for it.

Forney began working as a color analyst for Crimson Tide football games with the Alabama Radio Network in 1953 and was still there five years later when Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa. With the resurgence of the team's fortunes, Forney's voice became inescapably associated with the Crimson Tide and its success. Forney switched to the play-by-play man for the game broadcasts in 1964, a position he held until 1982 (more about that in a minute) and from 1961 to 1966 he was the host of the Bryant's weekly television show.

The longtime broadcaster's unique position with the Alabama program meant he had access to the team and the coach that was privileged but not intimate. He saw the inner workings of the program, and in fact his job was to describe all that to the public, but Forney wasn't privy to private counsels where decisions were made. When it came time to write his book that unique point-of-view gave him a freedom that the man simply picked up and ran with.

First off, Forney was witness to some of the greatest moments of Alabama football history (as well as some of the most painful). His accounts of contests such as Bryant's first game as the Tide's coach, the 1971 USC game and the 1979 Sugar Bowl aren't the usual tired retellings -- they are exciting accounts by a man who spent decades honing his storytelling craft on the air.

In Above the Noise of the Crowd, Forney tells the tale of the gridiron and then he points that same skill at everything that went on beyond the confines of the football field.

If you want to know about the wild and wooly hijinks that went on back in the day, well then you certainly came to the right place. Above the Noise of the Crowd is no Alabama football hagiography, it has far more in common with Jim Dent's delightful tales of the game during the same era with a little of Hunter S. Thompson's account of the Kentucky Derby thrown in for good measure. Almost every single page has some outlandish story or anecdote about what you knew went on but had sort of given up hope about ever hearing about.

I can promise you this is the only book about Alabama football ever written with tips on how to handle a bookie crackdown and you better believe there's some drankin' going on. Forney recounts smuggling bottles of scotch into the broadcast booth for "after the game" and the challenges of climbing up to that particular perch while battling the effects of a hangover.

Basically, this is the kind of book where an anecdote starts off with the casual scene setter: "I was in a suburban liquor store when I bumped into..." and ends up involving Joe Namath.

There are also some fascinating football-related revelations strewn throughout as well. The official that screwed up the call that denied Alabama the win against Texas in the 1960 Bluebonnet Bowl was the same one that made the controversial call in the 1965 Orange Bowl that resulted in a Longhorn victory (no word if he was the line judge in the 1973 Cotton Bowl). So let's not hear any more whining about Colt McCoy's tender shoulder from anyone who willingly clads themselves in burnt orange.

Of course Bryant looms over the narrative but in a slightly distanced way due to Forney's particular relationship with the coach and the program. Yet the author has such a sharp eye for detail and nuance these handful of anecdotes cut a clearer picture of the complex coach's personalty than many much longer epistles on the subject.

For example Forney recounts a party where one former Texas A&M player and survivor of The Junction shocked the broadcaster by saying he hated his former coach. Then the ex-player followed up the declaration with this comment:

I'll say this. If [Bryant] walked in that door over there and yelled out 'All Aggie exes up to the top of this building and jump off!'... Well, John David Crow might beat me up there but he'd be the only son-of-a-bitch that would.

And the story of Ralph Huneycutt recounted in Above the Noise of the Crowd may be the greatest Bear Bryant recruiting tale ever committed to posterity in print.

As the book nears its end it does take a more somber tone. Forney details his own health problems as he describes Bryant's physical exhaustion as the aging coach struggled to follow up the 1979 championship. The victories still occur but they prompt more contemplation than revelry.

Above the Noise of the Crowd concludes on the saddest of notes, Bryant's passing and Forney's dismissal as the team's radio announcer by the legendary coach's successor, Ray Perkins. That act was hugely controversial and led to considerable embarrassment on the part of UA athletics (although Forney would return for one season, 1988, before retiring for good).

Forney is quick to note at the start of Above the Noise of the Crowd that he boded no ill-will to the Alabama program and even wished Perkins well. Yet the manner of his departure certainly freed him to pen his biography without restraints and tell the entertaining tale with all its possibly embarrassing revelations intact.

In fact, about the only thing more entertaining than reading this book is imagining the reaction in the UA athletic department the day it was released.

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