Today's ''immortal'' is tomorrow's trivia question. In the hyperbolic world of American college football, that's pretty much how it goes. Consider, for example, Coach Harold Gravely, the protagonist of John Ed Bradley's tragicomic second novel, The Best There Ever Was. Some 30-odd years ago, just before a Sugar Bowl game that would determine the national championship, Gravely made the most memorable locker room speech of his life an unquotable scatological exhortation involving a tenpenny nail. Stirred by his oratory, the team swept to victory, enshrining themselves forevermore as the ''Tenpenny Eleven,'' and converting their young coach into a statewide culture hero on the order of Elvis or Jimmy Swaggart. We're talking Louisiana here, after all, where folks take their football real seriously.
But all that has become ancient history by the time Bradley's novel opens and in the Southeastern Conference nobody's history gets ancient faster than a coach with a losing record. After several poor seasons capped by a 2-9 campaign, insulting banners hang from frat house windows. Letters and mailgrams pour in to the board of trustees demanding Gravely's departure. Anonymous callers phone threats and insults.
When things are looking grimmest, fate hands Gravely a curious chance to go out in style. Discovering that he has been stricken with lung cancer, Harold responds with ''unintelligible joy.'' Although the disease is in its early stages and the prognosis is good, Gravely will not accept treatment. ''How would they feel about themselves,'' he fantasizes, ''when they learned the boss hardhead wouldn't be around for much more of their ugly business?'' Rather than resign, Gravely holds a press conference. He will leave them weeping. He will turn his final season into a movie of the week.
Out of this darkly comic premise, former Washington Post sportswriter and LSU football player John Ed Bradley has crafted a novel filled with screwball characters, improbable incidents, and down-home dialogue. The trustees won't fire Harold. Instead, they'll build him a statue. All the ''Old Man'' needs to do is strike a suitably heroic pose and invent an appropriate 30-word inscription. The famous tenpenny line, warns board chairman Champs LaRoux, ''sends the wrong message to young people. . . It kind of makes little, innocent children think of all those wonderful athletes using the bathroom and of you instructing them to put things up the wrong place.'' Trouble is, outside a locker room the preposterous, yet oddly endearing old fraud hardly knows how to act. Harold's stock of wisdom is pathetically (though hilariously) inadequate to the task.
If anything, Bradley's novel has too much wit and imaginative energy for its own good. Teeming with vivid minor characters and filled with digressions that obscure the plot for pages at a time, The Best There Ever Was is far from being a perfectly constructed comic novel. Yet raunchy, ribald, and unaccountably sad, it will not soon be forgotten. B+