Paul Bryant had earned legendary status as a college football coach going back a couple of decades before he turned 58 in 1971. That’s right. He was only 58 years old, had coached three Alabama teams to national championships, and with the 17-10 win over USC had an incredible 200 career coaching victories.
He would retire in 1982 and die a month later at only 69 years old. Had he lived, today he would be 100 years old. There was no realistic chance that the hard-working, hard-living Bryant would have lived to be 100, but it seemed somehow unfair that he didn’t enjoy a few years of retirement. That’s what I thought at the time, at least. Later I thought that he had done what he wanted to do his entire life, and that was pretty good.
I have been fortunate to be involved with many great coaches in various sports at The University of Alabama, Today is a marvelous time to be covering Coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide dynasty he has created.
But the Bryant Era will always be number one with me. It was a time when players, coaches, and even the legend himself were approachable. I have a great number of close friends who were coaches and players and other staff members in that wonderful time I worked for Coach Bryant from 1970-79 and from covering him a year before going to Alabama and for the final four years of his career for ’BAMA Magazine.
The bare bones of Paul Bryant’s life have been well chronicled. He was born to a poor farming family on the outskirts of Fordyce, Ark. (Moro Bottom is often cited). He earned two important things in Fordyce. The first was when he wrestled a bear in quest of riches (a dollar a minute) at the Lyric Theatre. He didn’t get paid, but he left the event with a small bite mark from the bear, a gash on his shin where he hit a theater seat jumping off the stage, and a nickname that would be so appropriate to the man who seemed bigger than life (and was much bigger than most men), whose voice seemed to emanate from the basement.
He went by “Bear” until at some point in his coaching career at Kentucky the wife of the president of UK told Mrs. Bryant – Mary Harmon – that it wasn’t dignified. And so he was Paul until late in his career when he and Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood published “Bear.” And then he began to insert the nickname into his autograph in hopes of boosting book sales.
I didn’t hear too many people call him “Bear.” Clemson Coach Frank Howard. Red Drew, who had been Bryant’s end coach at Alabama. Bob Hope. Yes, that Bob Hope. Bryant knew presidents and movie stars, the rich and famous. I once took a message asking him to return John Wayne’s call.
“Bear” was also a part of “The Bear Bryant Show,” the hour-long Sunday playback of Alabama games, watched religiously in those days when televised games were the exception. He also hosted sportswriters and broadcasters each year for golf and fun in a two-day event late each summer, “The Bear Bryant Golf Classic.” It was at this event at his Lake Martin home we watched the first man land on the moon in 1969.
In addition to a nickname, Bryant was introduced to football in Fordyce. He said he played in the first football game he ever saw and he also said he convinced his parents to have cleats put onto the only pair of shoes he owned.
Football was good to him. It earned him a scholarship to The University of Alabama, where he was a very good player, but nothing compared to his famous teammates, Dixie Howell and Don Hutson. Bryant was known as “the other end” to the incomparable Hutson.
But no one ever coached football better than Paul Bryant. He was an assistant at Alabama and then at Vanderbilt and was headed to Arkansas to accept the head coaching job when word came that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Bryant turned the car around and returned to Nashville to enlist in the Navy.
(Him joining the Navy surprised me a bit. The man who Tide fans thought could walk on water really couldn’t swim.)
After World War II, he was head coach at Maryland for a year, then went to Kentucky for eight years and Texas A&M for four. His 25-year run at Alabama produced six national championships, 13 Southeastern Conference championships, 24 consecutive bowl games, and a Tide record of 232-46-9 as part of his all-time head coaching record of 323-85-17. He was SEC Coach of the Year 10 times. The national coach of the year award is named for him.
Following the 1961 national championship season, Bryant’s salary was raised from $50,000 to $60,000 per year. Top coaches today – including Alabama’s – make more than that in a week. Moreover, in all his years on The University payroll as assistant coach, head coach, and athletics director, Bryant was essentially free. He donated more to his alma mater than he was paid.
I am among those who believe Paul Bryant did so well because he so much did not want to have to go back to Moro Bottom and plow fields behind a mule, did not want to have that give-away mud splatter on his face.
I’m sometimes asked to recount a “Bryant story.” Usually I tell about a spring practice day in 1973. The background was that in 1972, Bryant told a reporter he would like to beat Notre Dame, but he would much prefer “to beat that Cow College.” That cow college – Auburn – upset Alabama in 1972 with two blocked punts. On this spring 1973 scrimmage day, I was taking Coach Bryant’s quotes to put out the brief practice report that was carried by a few newspapers. Alabama didn’t have the big daily press following it has today. He took a puff of his Chesterfield and said, “Today we couldn’t have beaten a cow college.” He paused, took another drag of tobacco smoke, and said, “Change that to barber college.”
More revealing, though, was following a game in which Alabama did not beat Notre Dame, the devastating 24-23 loss in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1973 season. Herby Kirby, a sportswriter for the Birmingham Post-Herald covering the game, suffered a stroke in the press box. I went to the hospital with him. The next morning Coach Bryant told me to stay in New Orleans as long as necessary with Herby’s family, My wife, Lynne, and Charlie and Ward Pell and Richard and Annette Shelby, sat vigil at the hospital with Herby’s wife, Vera, and his son, Herby, Jr., until the inevitable death.
I reported back to Coach Bryant the next day. “It’s time like this you realize that football isn’t all that important,” said the man to whom football was so very important.
How popular was Paul Bryant? It was said that his houndstooth hat was better known than the coach at Auburn.
Bryant was associated with Coca-Cola and Golden Flake Potato Chips, the sponsors of his television show, but late in his career he hit an advertising home run for South Central Bell. The commercial was to end with “Have you called your mother today?” He went off script to add, “I sure wish I could call mine.”
I sure wish I could say “Happy Birthday, Coach.”