I couldn't blame the writer or the headline writer (they are not the same, ordinarily) in the story in this week's paper about the death of Billy Varner. He was portrayed as legendary Alabama Coach Paul Bryant's "driver."
Although driving was an important part of his duties, Billy was anxious to aid in any way “Coach Bryant” – the only way Billy ever referred to him. “Coach” would have been too familiar.
The story of how the coach came to have Billy as his companion has been told, but can be told again. They first met when Billy was a young bartender at Tuscaloosa Country Club. When Indian Hills Country Club was built, and Bryant had his home on the edge of the golf course, Billy moved to Indian Hills. One day Bryant asked Billy if he had any insurance, any retirement, etc. The answer, of course, was that he did not.
Bryant suggested that Billy join the University police department and be assigned to the athletics department. That wasn’t a “snap your fingers” proposition, not even for Coach Bryant.
Billy told me that he had not finished high school, so the first thing he had to do was get into a class that prepared him to take the GED, which he did. After he passed the GED, he entered the University’s police academy. It is not an easy path to graduation.
Varner said that when the dean asked him if it might be possible to have Coach Bryant speak at the graduation ceremony, “I was pretty sure that meant I was going to graduate.” And Bryant did deliver the commencement address.
Billy said the first gun he ever held in his hand was the one he received as a policeman.
Bryant enjoyed Las Vegas and went there in the off-season from time-to-time, always with Billy accompanying him. Billy said the first time he went to Las Vegas he was tapped on the shoulder by a casino employee.
Billy said, “He asked me if I was with ‘The Man,’ which is what they called Coach Bryant. I said I was. He asked me if I was packing, and I said I was. He told me they would handle security for Coach Bryant and for me to go up to my room and put my gun away.”
Varner enjoyed being in Las Vegas with Coach Bryant. Bryant always warned Billy to not gamble, that he couldn’t afford to lose money in the casinos. But Billy enjoyed a small wager.
On one trip Billy said that Coach Bryant had gone to bed early, as he usually did. He said the coach always had a suite with a living area at the end of the hall and bedrooms on either side. After the coach was asleep, Billy decided to go to the casino, where he “won enough money to buy Suzie a dress.”
Billy’s plan was to sneak back to his room so that Coach Bryant didn’t know he had been out gambling. But when he got back, he found the deadbolt locked. “Coach Bryant was always nervous about unlocked doors and would get up in the night and check them,” Billy said.
So Billy went back downstairs and went to a cafe for an early breakfast. At about 5 a.m. he knew that Coach Bryant would be ready to get up, so Billy got a large glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee and went back upstairs. He knocked on Coach Bryant’s door and was let in, delivering Coach Bryant's morning coffee and juice. Billy's secret of his gambling adventure safe.
Billy and his wife, Suzie, honored us by attending our daughter Julia’s wedding, which was at North River Yacht Club. Judge John England of Tuscaloosa married Julia and her husband, Michael Allsup, and Judge England was very late arriving. Meanwhile, Billy was amused at the number of people who addressed him as Judge England, not realizing that the judge was not the only African-American man in attendance at the affair.
After Billy retired, he continued to be around former coaches and athletes at A-Club functions until his health deteriorated to the point he could no longer attend.
Alabama Athletics Director Mal Moore, who was offensive coordinator under Bryant when Billy came on board in the 1970s, said, "Billy was a faithful man to this University, to this Athletics Department and to Coach Bryant in particular. He worked behind the scenes quietly and was there for coach at any time. He made a very special contribution to our football program through his work with Coach Bryant. It was nice to see how close he and Coach Bryant became in Coach's final years. I have fond memories of seeing them leave the office at the end of each day. Billy had a very good personality. He was very engaging, he was friendly, he was fun to be with and he could tell a story. He enjoyed laughter and had a gift for remembering every person he met along the way. He represented this University and particularly this Athletics Department in a special way.”