From Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Rich Wingo learns a valuable life lesson
“No one’s ever been kicked off the team and allowed back on except Joe Namath. And you ain’t Joe Namath.”
Student trainer Tim Garl to Rich Wingo, August 1977
On a hot, humid day in August 1977, a day that he says changed his life forever, Alabama linebacker Rich Wingo found out the hard way how it was to be singled out, tested, and eventually proven by head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, all in a matter of hours.
Who knows, had this short but harrowing journey in Wingo’s life turned out differently, would the Tide’s famous Goal Line Stand against Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl – of which he was a vital part – have even happened? Would he have even been around to set an all-time Green Bay Packer record with 151 unassisted tackles during his 1979 rookie season?
Those are unanswerable questions, of course. But for Tide and Packer fans, conjecture and “what ifs” are unnecessary.
“The best thing Coach Bryant did was kick me off the team,” said Wingo, who came to the Tide in 1974 from Elkhart, Ind., only 20 miles from Notre Dame’s campus. “Right before my junior season, someone made the terrible mistake of voting me to be a pre-season All-American, and I began to think I was a pre-season All-American.
“It was a normal practice, and we were in linebacker drills, where Coach Bill Oliver would throw one of us the ball and we’d sprint off the field. I’m sure I wasn’t hustling, although I certainly wasn’t consciously thinking about it.
“After doing that several times, Coach Bryant said, ‘Wingo, get out there and do it again.’ That’s the first time he had ever made me do a drill again. Everybody got completely quiet. So, I got out there by myself, in a linebacker stance.
“Coach Oliver said, ‘Hut,’ he threw me the ball, I sprinted to the sideline, then gave Coach Oliver the ball back. Coach Bryant said, ‘Do it again.’ You could have heard a pin drop.
“I did it again, and Coach said, ‘Get off my field.’ So, I started jogging off the field. After about 20 steps, I looked back and everybody was just staring at me. That’s when I realized I had been kicked off the team.
“I went to the showers and my friend Tim Garl, one of the student trainers, came in and said, ‘Do you realize you’ve just been kicked off the team? No one’s ever been kicked off the team and allowed back on except Joe Namath. And you ain’t Joe Namath.’”
Garl’s blunt assessment was of course referring to when Namath, Alabama’s iconic quarterback and future All-American and NFL legend, was suspended the 1963 season’s final two games for violating the team’s no-alcohol policy. For his indiscretion, Namath had to vacate the athletic dorm and was suspended for four months until the beginning of spring practice.
At least Namath’s suspension had a known ending date. For all Wingo knew, his days as a Crimson Tider were over.
“I got dressed and waited for Coach Bryant after practice,” Wingo continued. “He asked me what I was doing there. I told him that my dad told me before I left home years earlier that no one’s going to fight for Rich Wingo any longer except for Rich Wingo. I said, ‘Coach, I’m here to fight.’
“He let me come into his office and told me to sit down. I had been on that couch too many times – for the wrong reasons – so I sat in a chair right next to his desk. We spoke – well, he spoke – for an hour and five minutes. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. All the time he’s talking, I’m thinking, ‘Am I on the team or off the team? How am I going to tell my parents?’
“So, he’s leaning back in his chair, smoking that Chesterfield, and he says, ‘Rich, I think you’re a good football player. And I think I’m a good coach. They say you’re a pre-season All-American, but that doesn’t mean squat to me. I just don’t know if I want you on my football team.’ He was blunt.
“He explained to me that I was just content with being the starting inside linebacker and that’s the way I’d play. He said he wanted people on his team and those around him to be committed instead of content, people who wanted to get a little better every single day. For the first time, I realized exactly what he was talking about.
“So, he put his hand on the phone and said, ‘Tell me where you want to go. You want to go home, back to Notre Dame? One phone call and you can be there tomorrow. Michigan? Ohio State? Back to the schools that recruited you? One phone call. As a matter of fact, if you want to stay in school here, we’ll pay your way through school. I just don’t know if I want you on my football team.’
“I just sat there, not saying a word. Finally, I said, ‘Coach, this is my family. This is my fourth year. If I can’t play here, I don’t want to play anywhere.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to go home and pray about it and talk to (wife) Mary Harmon about it.’
“Then he said, ‘Be in my office tomorrow at 9 o’clock and I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. It’ll be my decision.’ I got up and left.
“That conversation impacted my life. The concept of being committed and not content is a major part of my testimony today. He wanted people who were totally sold out on the program. He said, ‘Rich, I’ll take people who aren’t the best athletes, but I’ll win with those guys if they’re sold out every day.’ He was telling me that he didn’t think he could win with me. It just crushed me.
“So, I met him at his parking spot the next morning at 6 a.m. He got out of the car and slammed me right off the bat. He said, ‘I thought I told you 9 o’clock.’ I just came right back at him and said, ‘I’ll wait.’ I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.
“He said, ‘Follow me to my office.’ So, I followed him up that steep Coliseum stairwell. It took forever; he wasn’t the fastest walker. We got to his office, he closed the door behind us, and said, ‘Mister, if you want to be on this football team, you be on that field today and we’ll pretend like nothing ever happened. And if you don’t, that’s fine with me. It’s your choice. Now, get out of my office and close the door.’
“I went out to practice that day thinking I’d be way down on the depth chart and would have to work my way back up. Well, I was still the starting inside linebacker, just as he said, like nothing had ever happened. Starting that day, I went from being content to being committed. I learned how to practice and get better every day. He took a chance on me, because he certainly had 10 guys who could take my place.
“All my friends told me that after they saw me jog off the field that day, they had the best practice of their entire career at Alabama, because they didn’t know who was next.”
Wingo’s story of contentment versus commitment doesn’t end there. For several years, curiosity got the best of him, so he just had to eventually pop the question.
“After I graduated and was playing for the Packers, Coach Bryant would always want to see me when I was back in Tuscaloosa,” Wingo said. “Finally, one time, I worked up enough guts to ask him, ‘Coach, why did you kick me off the team?’
“You see, a year or so after I left, one of the assistant coaches told me that Coach had planned to kick me off the team that day, to gut-check me, to see how I would react.
“So, I said, ‘Coach, I want to know if you had it planned, or if I really wasn’t hustling out there that day.’ With a big smile on his face, he said, ‘Oh, Rich, you’re smart enough to figure that out, aren’t you?’
“To this day, I still don’t know the answer.”
Wingo will never know whether Bryant’s test was spur-of-the-moment or planned from the start for a specific purpose. Regardless, he uses the impactful lesson in his daily life, whether it be with his real estate development company, Blackwater Resources LLC, or with his teaching Sunday School at First Baptist Tuscaloosa, or speaking to men’s groups at churches all over Alabama, or – until just a few weeks ago – during his eight years as a state representative in the Alabama Legislature.
Content? Or committed? It’s a life lesson from which we can all benefit.
(Note: A variation of this story first appeared in the book, “Bear Bryant on Leadership,” by Pat Williams and Tommy Ford, published in 2010 by Advantage Media.)
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