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Furman Bisher, That Bear Bryant Story, And Alabama's Long Memory

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher might have been the first writer I regularly read. You'd have a hard time finding a Southern sports writer not paying tribute to his work this morning, even if only for its sheer volume, after he passed away at age 93 over the weekend. He wrote for 70 years, covering everything from college football to international sports to the Masters -- always the Masters -- and left a warm impression on just about everybody he met, including me.

Still, it's important to remember on the occasion of his passing why Alabama fans aren't quite ready to praise him without condition.

In 1962, the Saturday Evening Post ran a story by Frank Graham, Jr. about Tide coach Bear Bryant and Georgia coach Wally Butts conspiring to fix a game in Alabama's favor. Bisher's name was attached to the project. Bryant and Butts sued, and the Post was slammed by judges all the way to the Supreme Court.

Bisher didn't write the story, but he did contribute investigative work in addition to being named in a suit by Bryant over an article alleging Alabama players were taught to master "brutality."

Bryant claimed a major emotional toll from the story and its aftermath, and not just from the piece itself. At one point his house was torn apart by someone who was clearly looking for evidence of cheating, not stuff to steal. (No, Furman Bisher probably never broke into Bear Bryant's house.)

Bisher was no fan of Bryant's, especially since an Alabama player named Darwin Holt smashed the face of Georgia Tech return man Chick Granning despite a fair catch signal, ending the Tech player's career. Bryant never suspended Holt, which upset his friend Bobby Dodd for years, supposedly helping convince Dodd to leave the SEC. The Atlanta media, by far the South's most powerful, sided with Dodd all the way. To this day, you can find Alabama fans who'll blame Bisher for any evidence of anti-Bama bias in Atlanta.

The Post, one of America's oldest periodicals, was destroyed by the Bryant crusade, but Bisher went on to join Lewis Grizzard, Larry Munson and Ernie Johnson among the region's most beloved sports voices. Bryant's legacy completely recovered, but that's the reason why Alabamans (and many UGA fans, while we're at it) will pour out a measure less goodwill for Bisher than other Southerners will.