THE COACH PAUL "BEAR" BRYANT STORY
He got that nickname for wrestling a bear on stage at a theater in Fordyce, Ark., for a lousy five bucks. But that was far better than the 50 cents he would have made picking cotton that day. Young Paul Bryant was poor, you see, dirt poor, as were most of the good people in southern Arkansas at the time. This man we would someday call "Bear" with only the highest of reverence was born in the boonies in a place around Kingsland called Morro Bottoms on Sept. 11, 1913.
Growing up during these times was hard -- boys became men when they still should have been playing like boys. And lads like Bear Bryant quickly found themselves behind a plow every morning before school and then back behind it again as the sun passed well off into the Texas horizon. But there was a way out of this world for him and no, it was not wrestling animals. It was football. He loved the game and the challenges it presented.
"My attitude has always been if it's worth playing, it's worth paying the price to win," Bryant would say years later in life.
That philosophy steered his teenage years when played on the Morro High School team. He was big and strong, but more importantly he had that spirit, the kind of drive that picks you up off the field and puts you back on the line when you're too tired to walk. He played with the same intensity throughout the game, even when he was hurt. Third quarter, fourth quarter. Didn't matter. He played full-speed every second he was on the field.
HE BECAME AN ALL-STATER and graduated from high school as the Depression was raging on.
Bryant's football skills led the University of Alabama to latch onto this big, strong plowboy from Arkansas. The school was looking to sustain the glory of the mid-1920s when it had won the national championship in back-to-back seasons under the legendary Wallace Wade. And the coaches there thought this kid could help them do just that, so they handed him a scholarship and off he went to Tuscaloosa.
Yes, he was good, but his years at Bama were also the years of the Notre Dame, Michigan and USC football machines. So there were no national titles. But the Tide was still one tough team to beat and good enough to capture the first two SEC crowns in 1933-34. His playing days ceased when they took away the pigskin and handed him a sheepskin. He was just 23 but the Alabama coaching staff knew this kid was something special. There was only one thing to do -- they hired him as an assistant.
"IF YOU BELIEVE IN YOURSELF and have pride and never quit, you'll be a winner," he said. "The price of victory is high but so are the rewards."
The years passed, World War II came and when the shooting had stopped, Alabama was back on top of the SEC. After serving four years in the Navy, it was also time for Bear to get back to work and to forge a career in the sport he so dearly loved. Maryland offered him the Terps head coaching job in 1945, and he gladly took it. It was a short-lived stop, however, because the following year, Kentucky knocked on his door and he jumped at the chance to move back to the South. The Wildcats had heard about this tough, young coach who took his football as serious as most people take religion. It was war, you see. And wars were meant to be won. His stay in Lexington, Ky., lasted seven years, and his reputation for being brilliant at refining offenses and defenses was starting to form.
He took the Wildcats to the top of the SEC in 1951 with a 5-1 conference record and capped it with a 13-7 victory over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. The following year, he added a Cotton Bowl win, 20-17, over TCU. Seven years, four bowls. A darn good record for a young and learning coach. THE YEAR 1954 was a moving time once again, however, and so he packed up and headed off to Texas when the Aggies offered him a job. He had the master formula for success, and now he wanted to test it out at another school.
"Our game plan is first year, a .500 season. Second year, a conference championship. Third year, undefeated. Fourth, a national championship. And by the fifth year, we'll be on probation, of course," he once joked. But he wasn't totally kidding. Two years after he started at Texas A&M, his team won the Southwest Conference. Yes, he saddled his players with some of the toughest practices and yes, many good players didn't make it far with this man -- heck, even the great Joe Namath got on his bad side every once in a while. But he knew how to win at this game and when the next school came calling in 1958, history was made.
That school was Alabama, his alma matter. He told the good folks of Texas that he would like to stay around with them but "mama's calling" and he had to go. He was just 44 years old and that very year, he performed what is known in Dixie as the "Turnaround." Alabama wasn't just on the road back to the glory of the 1920s, it was on a road that would lead to college football history. The Bear's temper had become just as legendary as his coaching abilities. He would tell you like it is, whether you liked it or not. He was a devout man. Church and God were right up there with country and football. But he didn't think God would do a whit to help anyone who refused to help themselves.
WHEN IT CAME TO COACHING he wasn't a great innovator. He never really had the desires to copy Knute Rockne's style. But he was a great tinkerer. He knew how to use the single-wing, the pro-set, and the Notre Dame box. And he refined them, as well as the Wishbone, to perfection. And by doing so, he led the Tide to six national titles and more wins than any other Division I coach in history. When he retired in 1982, he said the decision had come because he wasn't pleased with himself any more.
"This is my school, my alma mater. I love it and I love my players. But in my opinion they deserved better coaching than they have been getting from me this year," he said.
And with that, the man under that houndstooth hat retired. He died less than a year later, on Jan. 26, 1983, and a state -- along with a nation, for that matter -- mourned.
Still do to this day. He was a Bear of a man to forget.