|ESPN.com: Alabama Crimson Tide||[Print without images]|
|Paul "Bear" Bryant and Billy Varner.|
Bear 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.
"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.