‘Brother’ Bill OliverPublished 5:43pm Friday, April 1, 2011
Legendary coach with four national championship rings chose Lake Martin area to settle down
Bill Oliver came to the University of Alabama at just the right time.
The Crimson Tide had already captured five national championships when he stepped foot in Tuscaloosa as a player in 1958, but the program was enduring one of its worst stretches in history in the years leading up to the arrival of Oliver’s freshman class, which consisted of 107 student-athletes.
Alabama was 4-24-2 the previous three seasons before hiring Paul Bryant to take over in 1958.
“When we went there as freshmen, it was at rock bottom,” said Oliver, who now makes his home on Lake Martin. “Coach Bryant just said, ‘If you’ll do the things we ask you to do and you work, before you leave here, you’ll be national champions.’”
Four years later, only eight players who came to the Capstone with Oliver, who played defensive back, were still members of the football team, but Bryant delivered on his words. Alabama breezed through the 10-game regular season undefeated in 1961, allowing only 22 points, and was named AP national champions. The Tide capped the year with a 10-3 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
“Naturally for the fans and the players … it was just incredible,” Oliver said. “The pep rallies just got bigger and bigger and bigger as the year went along. I’d never seen anything like it. It’s a credit to Coach Bryant on how he sold us on certain things.
“That first one was something else.”
Oliver soon began helping coach tough, nasty defenses, which is what he’s known for today. In 1966, he landed a defensive backs coaching job on Shug Jordan’s staff at Auburn and he stayed on the Plains until 1971, when he joined Bryant at Alabama at the same position.
He was a coach on three national championship teams while working under Bryant, as Alabama won it all 1973, 1978 and 1979. It was a different feel for Oliver from the sidelines, however.
“As a coach, it’s a business and our job is to try to win every ballgame,” Oliver said. “The older you get, the more it hurts to lose. When you’re young, you’re resilient, but when you get older, it hurts you way down deep. It’s gut-wrenching.”
Oliver said the 24-23 loss to Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl was the most painful defeat in his career. The Fighting Irish kicked a field goal with 4:26 left in the game to go on top by one point after Alabama had taken the lead but missed an extra point earlier in the fourth quarter. A long third-down conversion late by Notre Dame allowed Ara Parseghian’s team to run out the clock.
“I’ve never hurt so bad in my life,” Oliver said.
Oliver left Alabama after the ‘79 title to become head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he compiled a 29-14-1 record. After serving as defensive coordinator with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL and then working at Clemson for four seasons, Oliver returned to Alabama, where he would help coach another national championship club in 1992.
The Crimson Tide boasted the nation’s top-scoring defense (9.2 points per game) that season and blasted the heavily favored and top-ranked Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl to capture the crown. While Oliver said other defenses he coached were stellar, the ’92 one was perhaps the most special.
“I was there nine seasons in the 70s, and every year we had a great defense,” Oliver said. “We were (96-12) during my years, and that’s pretty good.
“I would say the ’79 defense and ’92 defense, even though there is a gap in time, they’re comparable result-wise. Both of them were fantastic. Certainly in ’92, we were doing things more sophisticated and very complicated. For college kids to adapt and do what we asked with what I call a library of football – and the library was thick – they had to have great concentration and not make many mistakes.
“Put all that together with their abilities, and they’re in a class by themselves.”
Oliver said the defensive scheme for the 34-13 win over Miami was one of the most complex he’d ever helped put together. The confusion from multiple formations and substitutions Alabama used was instrumental in forcing Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta to throw three interceptions and complete just 43 percent of his passes that night, Oliver said.
Oliver would stay at Alabama until the 1995 season. He said he was told that he would be the next head coach, but that did not happen. The circumstances around that situation led to him leaving the university.
“Things were supposed to work out to where I would succeed somebody,” Oliver said. “Some things were not on the up-and-up. Some things happened with probation, I lost a lot of respect for some people and that’s the reason I left. I didn’t know where I was going.
“There were two things. I was asked to stay when I had a couple of head coaching job offers because of what might be down the line. The next thing was the (Antonio) Langham deal, and the way he was treated.”
Where he ended up was a shock to many, as Oliver returned to Auburn for the second time in his career. The move did not sit well with some Alabama people at the university, or Tide fans.
“I knew it would be T-total hell,” Oliver said. “I even had people I thought were really true friends to make some pretty harsh statements, but I’ve always had pretty thick skin.
“I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything about it. I wish I’d said more as to why, but you can’t explain to people who absolutely refuse to listen because they’re so pro-something, whether it be pro-Alabama or pro-Auburn or pro-whatever.”
Oliver was defensive coordinator for the Tigers under Terry Bowden until he left and Oliver became interim head coach for the final five games of the 1998 season. Tommy Tuberville got the job after the year was over, and Oliver hasn’t coached since.
Oliver has lived on Lake Martin since 1996. He said he looked at several places before buying his house, but he said after doing some research, he quickly knew Lake Martin was the place he wanted to live. Oliver enjoys being on the water and used to fish a good bit, but now spends a lot of his time golfing at Willow Point Golf & Country Club.