For the final few years of his life it became so much about the incredible numbers of Coach Paul Bryant, but it was about so much more than that. His legend began when he was a 13-year-old schoolboy who wrestled a bear, earning a nickname that fit him so well that even if he had not ventured into town – Fordyce, Ark. – from the Morrow Bottom community, and taken up the challenge at the Lyric Theatre, he might still have been called “Bear.”
Bryant’s ticket to fame and fortune was being recruited to play football for The University of Alabama. Although he was “the other end” to the famed Don Hutson on the field, Bryant was an excellent player on teams (1933-35) on teams that went 23-3, including a 10-0 record and Rose Bowl victory in the 1934 season.
It was, of course, as a coach – “Super Coach” as a cover story in Time Magazine proclaimed – that he made his greatest mark. And it was as coach at his alma mater for a quarter of a century that his name was indelibly scripted in college football history.
He had a one-year fling as a head coach at Maryland, before he quit rather than let the college president interfere in his job. He went to Kentucky, and his eight-year run there was best ever for the Wildcats. It may be he left because Kentucky was not big enough for both Bryant and basketball coach Adolph Rupp. He left the Bluegrass State for Texas A&M, where his brutal pre-season football camp at Junction, Texas, laid the groundwork for unprecedented football success by the Aggies. And it added to the Bryant legend.
The late Billy Neighbors, who was a Crimson Tide star and member of Bryant’s first recruiting class, said years later that he didn’t think the coach knew who Neighbors was when Neighbors signed. “And I didn’t know anything about him, either,” Neighbors said, “except that he had tried to kill his players at Texas A&M.”
Bryant had done very well in his 13 years as a head coach. So well that new Alabama President Dr. Frank Rose went after Bryant to rescue Crimson Tide football, which had won only four games in three years.
The effort was successful beyond expectations. In the 25-year Bryant era, 1958-82, Bama would win 13 Southeastern Conference championships and six national titles. His teams had a record of 232-46-9 (a winning percentage of ,824). The Crimson Tide won more games than any other team in the nation in both the 1960s and 1970s. Coupled with his earlier success, Bryant retired with more wins than anyone in major college football history, a record of 323-85-17 (73.2 per cent).
He produced a boatload of all-star players, but said his teams won because of the men “who were not All-America, but thought they were.”
He claimed that he surrounded himself “with people who are smarter than I am.” That was not true. Paul Bryant was off-the-scale intelligent. Moreover, I know it’s not true because he hired me. Technically, at least. Charley Thornton hired me as his assistant in the sports information office in 1970, and I worked in that office until leaving to start ’BAMA Magazine in 1979. When Wimp Sanderson was named head basketball coach in 1980, Sanderson walked down the hall and into Bryant’s office to thank Bryant, who also served as athletics director. Bryant said, “I didn’t hire you. Sam Bailey (the associate athletics director who administered sports other than football) hired you.” Bryant then added, “But I damn sure could have prevented it.” So Coach Bryant didn’t hire me...
I cannot measure how much working for Coach Bryant meant to me. Although he had a reputation as someone who intimidated everyone, it was not a matter of him imposing such intimidation. And, in fact, those who worked for him were not intimidated; they were anxious to please him. No one wanted to disappoint him because everyone knew how much he gave.
I had covered Coach Bryant for a couple of years before I went to work at The University and, of course, continued to cover him through his final years. When he announced his retirement, I sent him a note asking him to reconsider. He replied with a note thanking me, but saying the decision was final.
Years after his death, Coach Bryant’s doctor, Bill de Shazo, said the coach was aware of his health condition.
On December 29, 1982, the Bryant Era came to an end with a 21-15 victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. Four weeks later Al Browning, who worked with us at ’BAMA, came into my office and indicated he needed to speak to me. I was on the telephone with my all-time greatest recruiting source, Ronnie Lee. Al, who also helped Coach Bryant with special projects, had just gotten off the phone with Linda Knowles, Coach Bryant’s secretary at the time he retired.
“Coach is gone,” Al said.
I was shocked. It wasn’t possible. He was in the hospital recovering from what we had been led to believe was a “mild” heart attack. It was only a matter of a short time, we were sure, before he would be out and about. He wanted an office outside of The University, and we had hoped to lure him into an office next door to ours.
It wasn’t to be. Coach Bryant was only 69 years old. This year, September 11, will mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.
As has been chronicled, football men from around the country came to Tuscaloosa to pay respects. And it was if we didn’t know what to do. I still remember a handful of Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl representatives who ended up at our house, all talking about Coach Bryant’s remarkable career and their relationships with him.
Three downtown churches were utilized for his funeral, the services broadcast into two of them. The funeral procession to Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery was miles long. Cars and trucks pulled to the side of the road in respect. The overpasses were crowded with mourners, some holding signs saying “We’ll Miss You.”
We still miss Coach Paul Bryant. And 30 years later he is not forgotten.