The Bear

Courtesy of Drakelawfirm1

Courtesy of Drakelawfirm1

Think about the greatest college football coaches of all time. Many names come to mind—Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, John Heisman, Fielding Yost, Eddie Robinson, Robert Neyland, Knute Rockne, Wallace Wade, Bud Wilkinson, Tom Osborne, and Bobby Bowden. Arguably, the best of all coached at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A & M, and Alabama. They called him the Bear and he roamed the sidelines from 1945-1982. Paul W. Bryant compiled a record of 323-85-17, won 14 Southeastern Conference Championships, one Southwest Conference Championship and six national titles.

At the age of 14, Bryant wrestled a muzzled bear at the Fordyce Theater in his hometown of Fordyce, Arkansas. He did so purportedly to impress a girl and to make some money. While he may or may not have impressed the girl or made any money, Bryant received a nickname that stuck with him the rest of his life.

Bryant played football at Alabama from 1932-1935. The 1934 team finished the regular season 10-0, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and was voted national champion by several polls. His coaching career began as an assistant to Alabama coach Frank Thomas from 1936-1939. Before Alabama played California in the 1938 Rose Bowl, Bryant auditioned for some movie moguls in Hollywood. Bryant received a contract offer but turned it down when his wife, Mary Harmon, refused to move to Hollywood. This marked the only time Bryant considered a profession other than football.

Bryant left Tuscaloosa to coach one year under Vanderbilt coach Red Sanders in 1940. Vanderbilt upset Alabama 7-0 that year and Bryant received credit for the victory. Sanders, for reasons unknown, did not renew Bryant’s contract in 1941, but with the help of New York Yankees catcher Bill Dickey, a University of Arkansas athlete, Bryant became a leading candidate for the Arkansas head coaching position. However, after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, Bryant enlisted in the United States Navy for the duration of World War II. While aboard the troop ship USS Uruguay in 1943, Bryant escaped death when his ship was rammed while sailing to North Africa. Over 200 soldiers and sailors died in the tragic episode.

Bryant had earned the title of Lieutenant Commander by the end of the war in 1945 and accepted the head coaching position at Maryland in the same year. He led the Terrapins to a 6-2-1 record with a team composed mainly from the Navy Pre-Flight group he coached in 1944. After a dispute with Maryland president Curly Byrd over the suspension of a player, Bryant took the helm of the Kentucky program. In the Bear’s first season, the Wildcats went from 2-8 to 7-3. His 1950 team went 11-1 (Tennessee, led by coach Robert Neyland, handed Kentucky its only loss. Bryant never beat Neyland in seven tries.); won the school’s only Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship; and defeated Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, ending the Sooners’ 31 game winning streak.

Bryant left Kentucky for Texas A & M in 1953 after he asked for a release from his contract following the Kentucky president’s failure to fire or force the retirement of basketball coach Adolph Rupp, whose program became involved in a scandal that jolted Kentucky athletics (The NCAA and SEC suspended the Kentucky basketball program for the 1952-1953 season after evidence surfaced that some alumni had offered monetary inducements to recruits to play for Kentucky). The Kentucky president implemented new rules for the school’s athletic teams, including restricting the football team to five non-Kentucky recruits per year. Bryant knew he could not consistently win under these restrictions because the state produced a limited number of quality football players every year. He blamed Rupp for the president’s actions and moved on to College Station.  The Bear coached the Aggies from 1954 to 1957. His 1956 team compiled a 9-0-1 record, beat arch rival Texas in Austin for the first time ever, and won the Southwest Conference Championship.

However, Bryant left College Station for Tuscaloosa in 1958 with seven years left on his contract. Alabama had won only four games in the previous three years. When asked why he would leave a good situation at A & M for a poor one at Alabama, the Bear responded, “Mama called.” In 25 years as head coach of the Crimson Tide, Alabama won 232 games against only 46 losses, 13 SEC championships, and six national championships.

The Bear’s coaching philosophy was rather simple: one must pay the price to win—whether it was he, the players, the coaches, the managers, or the university presidents. Bryant pushed those around him hard but no harder than he pushed himself. Bryant’s fellow coaches respected his coaching ability. Jake Gaither, head coach at Florida A & M said, “He could take his’n and beat your’n, and take your’n and beat his’n.”

As Bryant approached the end of his coaching career, people frequently asked him when he would retire. The Bear’s usual response was, “Retire? Hell, I’d probably croak in a week!” Bryant coached his last game on December 29, 1982, a 21-15 Liberty Bowl win over Illinois. Forty-two days later, the Bear passed away from a heart attack at the age of 69.

The Bear left his mark on college football by building winners at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A & M, and Alabama. While many outstanding coaches have graced the sidelines over the years, only one could be called the Bear.

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