Fifty-three years ago, Ron Durby wasn't a retired General Sessions judge celebrating the unveiling of his oil portrait before an overflow crowd at the Hamilton County Courthouse. He was an offensive lineman on the Alabama freshman team about to incur Crimson Tide head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's wrath for losing a freshman game at Tulane.
"We knew it was going to be bad," Durby said on Wednesday, recalling that practice. "There were 58 of us when that practice started. That night, 22 guys left the team. By the time we graduated, there were only 14 of us left from that freshman team."
How rough that post-Tulane practice?
"We had a player, Al Lewis, who had a glass eye," Durby recalled. "It got knocked out. We spent all the time we could looking for that eye because that was the only rest we were going to get that day. We never found it, but if we had, we probably wouldn't have said anything because we needed a breather."
They didn't overstuff Courtroom 6 on Wednesday morning because Durby once played for Bryant. They came because, to borrow a few words from now-General Sessions Judge Clarence Shattuck: "Ron's a man of integrity an honesty, and just so level-headed."
Or maybe it was because a woman who once counseled inmates at the Silverdale correctional facility said the prisoners always viewed Durby as their favorite judge because he was so compassionate.
Maybe, too, it was because he'd traveled such an unconventional path to the bench, coaching high school and college football (including several years as a UTC assistant) before abandoning that life for a singular reason.
Said his longtime friend Larry McGill, another one of Bear's Boys: "Ron wanted to be a coach, but he didn't want to travel. He wanted to be home with Vicka to help raise their family."
But to quickly scan the North Shore One clubhouse during a luncheon honoring Durby was to realize that none of Bear's Boys ever quite escapes the influence of college football's greatest legend. Nor do they seem to mind.
Throughout the room were pictures and paintings of Bryant, along with posters of Durby in his No. 68 Tide jersey, the one he wore in 1964 while blocking for the likes of quarterback Joe Namath on the Crimson Tide's march to a national championship.
There were books and well-worn game programs and lots of photographs of the judge alongside so many Bama greats from that era.
"There's a lot of my sweat and blood that went into that building," said Durby as he discussed the upgrades to Bryant-Denny Stadium. "But I wouldn't swap it for anything in the world."
It was clearly a different world back then. Bryant and his assistants would sometimes send the players to train in a cramped room with low ceilings in the off-season.
"There was padding on the walls and padding on the floors," McGill said. "It was hot and dark with just two little windows that wouldn't open. We just went up there and fought each other. It was all about seeing who was toughest."
But it all came together -- the coaching, the hard work, the determination not to lose -- to build championship programs. And championship people.
"The two biggest things Coach Bryant taught us," said McGill, who played fullback and linebacker for the Tide, "were one, regardless of the circumstances, never give up, and, two, be honest about what you're doing."
Said Durby, "Coach Bryant was such a demanding individual. He taught you such discipline and sticking with something until you got it right. Here I was, a kid who'd one game my senior year of high school in Memphis [Treadwell High], but I won a national championship at Alabama. You just didn't lose at Alabama. That was not an option."
Were he still alive today, Bryant would have turned 100 on Sept. 11. Maybe he could coach today's pampered kids and maybe he couldn't. Maybe he'd choose to tolerate their meddling parents and maybe he wouldn't.
"The old lessons [work, self-discipline, sacrifice, teamwork, fighting to achieve] aren't being taught by many people other than football coaches these days," he said late in his career. "We better teach these lessons or else the country's future population will be made up of a majority of crooks, drug addicts, or people on relief."
Yet he would be also the first person to tell you he didn't want to instill character in his players.
"I want them to have character when they get here," Bryant said. "You have to give the parents credit for that. Their parents, their teachers, their preachers, so many people who've had an influence on that young man's life."
So when another one of Bear's Boys, one of the last of Bear's Boys -- our town's Kurt Schmissrauter -- said of his much older Tidesman, "You always hear so many bad things about athletes these days, but Ron Durby is everything good that can come from athletics," it's perhaps as much a compliment to Durby's parents, teachers, friends and Vicka as the judge himself.
But there is also this, a belief repeated time and again by those touched by the Bear in ways big and small:
Asked if he believed he'd have accomplished all he has through the years without Coach Bryant in his life, Durby instantly replied, "I doubt it."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...