The suggestion seemed logical enough at the time. As the premier theatrical voice in the state, shouldn’t the Alabama Shakespeare Festival produce a play about the life of the state’s most famous figure – Alabama football Coach Paul W. Bryant?
The task of writing the play fell on the shoulders of the company’s Chief Operating Officer Mike Vigilant who now confesses "I really had no idea what I was getting into." A California native and Michigan State alum who moved to Alabama four years ago was familiar with Crimson Tide football and Coach Bryant’s legacy but the sheer scale of the project took months of research to achieve.
It seems to have paid off. His play about the life of legendary coach, Bear Country, was a unqualified hit its initial run in Montgomery last January. The Birmingham production opens tonight at Virginia Samford Theatre in Caldwell Park and is slated to run through Aug. 20.
Vigilant took some time this week to talk with RBR and discuss how he handled the challenge of writing a stage depiction of Coach Bryant’s life and Alabama football.
How much did you know about Alabama football when you started?
I grew up in California and was a huge Oakland raider fan. Kenny Stabler was my favorite quarterback and George Blanda was still an important player at that time. Both had strong ties with Coach Bryant and of course the nemesis of the Raiders back then was the New York Jet’s and their quarterback Joe Namath.
Other than that, my awareness was knowing that when Alabama played somebody they usually won. And if you followed football back then you knew them as this powerhouse.
What surprised you most about Alabama football as an outsider?
I lived everywhere but the south until I came here four years ago. California, New York and then in Michigan for a good part of my adulthood. The perspective about football is dramatically different in Alabama than anywhere else. The first two questions I got asked by people when I moved here was "Who are you for; Alabama or Auburn" and "What church do you go to?" You don’t get asked questions like that in California, or Michigan or New York.
How did that perspective affect your approach to the project?
When I was growing up there were two things I knew about Alabama, one was football and the other was George Wallace and all the turmoil that went along with the civil rights struggle in the state. You’d see the water cannons and the marches in Selma and all those images people from outside the state had of what Alabama was. But the other part of Alabama was this football team and Coach Bryant. Being televised Alabama football and its great legacy served as a counterpoint to all that. Whatever coach Bryant did, he and his teams were a shining light on the state. It was something that was very positive about the state that anyone ouside the state could see and recognize about Alabama. I wanted the play to express that.
What struck you most about the perception toward football in Alabama?
Coming from Bo Schembechler country and Woody Hayes country I am familiar with these larger-than-life coaches. And I wouldn’t want to dilute their importance to the people in those places but there was a difference between them and in Alabama. In Michigan, for example, there is a variety of sports to divide your attention, college football, basketball, hockey. Whereas here everything is focused into college and high school football. There is no dilution of the emotion toward your team.
And I do think there is a major element of southern pride involved as well. Football is something that belongs to the south and has been a way at getting back at the north. One of my favorite things to learn about was that 1926 rose bowl game versus Alabama and Washington. It was almost like a battle in the civil war that took place in the twentieth century and it was handled that way by the media.
What was it like undertaking a play on the life of Coach Bryant?
There was a challenge to me of how I was going to put this great man’s life into a two hour framework. It was kind of benign arrogance. I wanted to do the right thing and I felt I could do it but I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I got into it.
How were you able to handle the challenge?
I think the stars lined up for me when the (Alabama Shakespeare Festival) Chairman of the Board Young Boozer (III) was the son of Young Boozer, Jr. who was Coach Bryant’s teammate and roommate at Alabama. An he kind of took me figuratively by the hand and said "Mike, this is what you are getting into and I’ll work with you." And we had other board members who had close ties with Coach Bryant and they worked with me to introduce me to folks.
What did you learn about Coach Bryant from your research?
When I did interview the players there was this constant look in their eye. There was a conviction on the part of each one that "[Coach Bryant] made me who I am today." Many of these people are in their 60s and 70s and they still say "I think about this man every day of my life." And my response was that I think about my father every day of my life and he passed away five years ago but I don’t think about my little league coach or my high school baseball coach every day. I think about them, yes, but not in that way. They had an influence on me but they didn’t transform my life.
The lives of his players were transformed by being on a team of Coach Bryant’s and playing for Alabama. That’s what I wanted this play to be about. So that folks would be able to come into a theater and have a sense of what it would be like to spend time with Coach Bryant. There is a need to put aside preconceptions about Coach Bryant. There is a lot more than this hound’s-tooth hat, there’s way more than the statistics. He was a very complex man.
How did you find a way to tell the story of Coach Bryant’s life using the constraints of a play?
Coach Bryant had a saying that the difference between winning and losing a game is just five to seven plays. So I wanted to take that many events from Coach Bryant’s life and determine how those made his a winning life. The 1926 Rose Bowl game, his wrestling the bear, being recruited by Hank Crisp, the lawsuit against the Saturday Evening Post and other events that were major events in his life that transformed how it turned out for him.
Trying to describe anyone’s life in two hours you have got to talk slices and take an approach that makes it understandable.
The setting of the story is that it’s his last day and he doesn’t want to leave. That’s the struggle he has to go through in the play until he gets to the end where he comes to understand the difference between losing and loss.
Losing a football game is different than losing shipmates in war such as he witnessed in World War II. Its different than Pat Trammel dying of cancer at 28. It’s different than when your parents die and at the end of the play loss is finally be able to walk away from who you are and what you do even with the knowledge that, as soon as you do, that’s the end of your life.
During his life, Coach Bryant was the subject of many controversies. How did you address those aspects of his legacy?
In writing the play I decided I want to take the approach of asking what does someone want to be remembered for? What is Coach Bryant really remembered for? It’s being remembered for being a winner and the lessons he learned. So it’s about Coach Bryant and his memories and him telling his stories from his life from the very end. He is at a point where he gets to the fundamentals of life. He had become more religious and made peace with God.
I think by taking him at the very end of his life I was able to avoid the controversy of his manner. At the end of his life he saw things very differently than when he was younger. He changed and admitted he didn’t do everything the right way and apologized for many of the things he did to his players and the people around him. We look at the best of what this man was, but he’s going to tell you a bit about the part that wasn’t.He had a stronger understanding of his failings. He admitted he could have been a better father. He devoted too much time to football.
He probably helped his own demise because he just wouldn’t quit. He put everything he had into being number one. That incredible amount of stress took a huge toll on him. At the end of the libel trial he said that it took ten years off his life. And you read his biography and he describes the pressure and how it affected him. He would get up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat. These are another aspect of the man that we all can identify with to some degree as well.
Coach Bryant was also famous for his sense of humor and quick wit. Is that included as well?
There is a lot of humor in the play. He was a funny guy and, hopefully, that balances out a lot of the weighty aspects of his life we are dealing with as well. There’s a lot to chuckle about along the way. There was a lot of self-effacing humor that was part of his style and it was fun to be able to get it into the play.
Would anyone outside of Alabama want to see this performance?
I believe so. If you love football there should be something about this play that will appeal to you. I like the fact I was able to pen a successful play that has football as its base. But if you don’t have to know a lot about football or Alabama football specifically to get something out of the play. Coach Bryant is a fascinating subject but in terms of subject matter it’s a southern story but it has a universal appeal as well.
How would Coach Bryant’s story apply in a general sense to people’s lives?
I think, with Coach Bryant’s story there are a lot of common denominators with other great men and other good men who aren’t as well recognized for what they have done. In many ways the best of Coach Bryant is the best of what I believe in – that you should love your mom and your dad, that your family is first, that your team is more important than you as an individual, to do everything with integrity and be a man of your word.
It was striking how many of his former players that were successful after football. And they all credited Coach Bryant with being successful. They are good family men, they are good businessmen, they conduct their lives is a fair way. Many of us in our lives do phenomenal things. Just no one ever writes about us.
Given the intimate knowledge of Alabama football by the fans, was there pressure to make sure all technical details in the play were correct?
I’ve been told we are dead on in terms of depicting the details. And that’s a relief. We knew we would be nitpicked. We knew people would be examining it closely and that’s alright with me. We wanted to be sure it was right. And ASF is a premier regional theater in the country. And holding our productions to that standards is a key part of what we want to do here. We knew we had to have these details right. Tom Summerville, who used to be on the ASF board, played for Bryant in the mid-1960s including on the National Championship team. He insisted that we have things like the stances correct. And Young Boozer was also acting as a technical adviser too. So when we needed to know how something was done we could ask and get the answer.
How did you go about doing the research for these aspects of the production?
We talked to a number of the players at the start … What was the practice like? What was the game like? What was the relationship with him like? We wanted to be as authentic as we could on a stage. I did not want the experience to be ruined because there was no believability at all. You have to look like you know what you are doing.
Our costume designer (Elizabeth Novak) went to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and everyone there was incredibly helpful in keeping us authentic as possible. And we went out to the (Paul W.) Bryant Museum and they were a tremendous help. Whenever I had a question I’d send them an email and they answer right back.
What about in terms of Coach Bryant himself?
There is some creative license necessary in anything we have to do. And certainly in writing the play I had to make some decisions. I had all these wonderful sayings I could weave into the narrative but I was putting a lot of words in Coach Bryant’s mouth. And so, periodically, I would go back and check with Young Boozer and other players, we had these little "focus groups" and ask them "Would Coach Bryant really have said these things?" "Would he have said it this way?"
What is your reaction to the response to the play?
I am so relieved that people like and responded to it the way they have. It’s very meaningful to me that folks have responded the way they have to the play and our depiction of Coach Bryant’s life. We don’t take for granted that it will happen in Birmingham and we don’t take for granted we’ll have the same amount of sales there either. Ticket sales are a tough challenge in a recession but we are hopeful it will do as well [in Birmingham] as it did [in Montgomery].
How is the Birmingham production different from the Montgomery production?
There haven’t been any major changes to the play itself but there are a few things altered because of the venue. We had to change the blocking – not the same kind of blocking in football – that’s the movement on the stage. We are changing from three-quarters, where the stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience, to a proscenium where we are using a more traditional stage. So the action has to move differently to work on the new stage.
What most surprised you about the response?
It turns out Coach Bryant brings a lot of men in the theater and that doesn’t happen a lot. And this might be the only show to ever have tailgaters. I walked out one night and there were all these people were sitting in the captain’s chairs having drinks with barbecue and everything. I thought it was the most marvelous thing. We are actually near a nice park with this show so we are hoping that might happen again.