Editor’s note: This previously published story is being highlighted as part of ESPN’s 2019 coverage of the 150th anniversary of college football.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A little more than half an hour before kickoff of every Alabama home game, the leathery visage of the legendary coach of the Crimson Tide, the late Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, appears on the video boards at either end of Bryant-Denny Stadium and begins to speak. And before all of those games when the university has played the video, no one has ever heard what Bryant says. The minute the 101,000 fans see him, they begin roaring.
“Well, the older people are,” said Paul W. Bryant Jr., “and the younger ones don’t know quite what the rest of them are talking about.”
Time silences our heroes, robs us of them and then steals the witnesses who can tell the hero’s story, and the day comes when all we have left are statues and houndstooth beach balls. Stories can be handed down, books can be written, movies produced. But the emotions that connect player to coach, or fan to hero, are not easily handed down from one generation to the next. Legends may not be kept in a cedar chest in the attic.
The flesh-and-blood Bear, the all-too-human man who inspired the fealty and worship of thousands, who coaxed and bullied and demanded that his players and his assistants meet a standard they didn’t know they could meet, is disappearing. He has been dead for three decades, and as those who stood witness to him die, we are losing Bryant again.
Forgive the personal nature of this story. For those of us who grew up in Alabama in a time when our state was viewed as a cauldron of hatred, Bryant told the rest of the nation that we could produce success and character. He inspired a level of loyalty unlike any coach before or since in any state in any sport.
I can tell you where I was the day he died, and not just because it was my 23rd birthday. I know where I was because that was the first time a death ever made me cry. The notion that he is just a football coach to the 80 million millennials estimated to live in the United States makes me want to cry again.
Gene Stallings played for Bryant, coached for him, coached against him, and eventually became the first coach after Bryant to lead Alabama to a national championship.
“One of the reasons of his great success over an extended period of time was, we all wanted to please Coach Bryant,” Stallings said. “The players wanted to please him. The assistant coaches wanted to please him. The alumni wanted to please him. The administration wanted to please him. The president of the university — Coach Bryant just had that little something about him that people wanted to please. We’ll do anything just to hear Coach Bryant say, ‘You did a good job.’ He didn’t say it too often. But we wanted him to say it.
“You know, there was a little fear factor, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fear factor….whether or not you were doing your job well enough to please Coach Bryant.”
Stallings is 78 years old. Bryant’s players are just as likely to be grandfathers as fathers. His youngest players, the freshmen on that 1982 team, are getting solicitations from AARP.
“Some of my teammates and I were talking about this two or three weeks ago,” said Ronny Robertson, who played for Bryant in the mid-1970s and is the senior associate athletic director for development at his alma mater. “When we were at Alabama and playing for Coach Bryant, there was this guy at Notre Dame that coached a long time ago named Knute Rockne, and he was a real good football coach. That’s about the way I think the kids today look at Coach Bryant.”
Bryant died suddenly, four weeks after he coached the final game of his 25-year career at his alma mater. Bryant was 69 years old, according to the calendar, and much older than that according to a body worn down by stress and illness, by late hours and lifestyle.
Today, on what would have been Bryant’s 100th birthday, the university will hold a ceremony at the Paul W. Bryant Museum on campus. Alabama also commissioned a documentary, “Mama Called,” and a book, “Inside the Vault: The Paul W. Bryant Collection,” that will make their debuts today, too. Bryant’s centennial falls during the week in which No. 6 Texas A&M, where Bryant coached for four seasons, will play host to his alma mater, the No. 1 Crimson Tide. On Friday night in College Station, players he coached at both schools will gather to celebrate his memory.
“Why did they all call them Bear’s Boys?” asked Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who was a student coach under Bryant at Alabama. “Why were all his players so passionate about coming back? Why did so many of them say, ‘He helped me through life?’ Those are real qualities that you don’t create.”
As luck would have it, Bryant will be celebrated at a game that has been the talk of college football for months, the rematch between Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel and the defending national champion Crimson Tide. Bryant always did have a way of making sure the spotlight shone on him. The Bear had a big enough ego to believe that John Wayne should play him in a movie, and a big enough personality to be correct in his casting. (Bryant instead has been played by Gary Busey — the less said the better — and Tom Berenger.)
“Why did they all call them Bear’s Boys? Why were all his players so passionate about coming back? Why did so many of them say, ‘He helped me through life?’ Those are real qualities that you don’t create.
–Former Bryant assistant coach David Cutcliffe
Bryant is a presence on the Alabama campus in the ways that an iconic figure is remembered. The stadium where he won games for those 25 seasons carries his name. So does a main campus street, dormitory, conference center and, of course, the museum, which displays and stores the artifacts and history of his career (admission today is free). Paul W. Bryant High School is nearby.
The Paul W. Bryant Scholarship, set up by its namesake, is available to the children of his former players who enroll at Alabama. Over 40 years, some 800 students have been the beneficiaries, 79 of them in the current semester.
“He laid his fingerprint down here,” Alabama offensive left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. “It’s easy to see.”
A statue of Bryant stands outside the north end of Bryant-Denny Stadium, literally the central figure of the five Crimson Tide coaches honored for taking the football team to a national championship. The 9-foot-tall Bryant stands straight, wears a jacket, vest, tie and his trademark houndstooth fedora, and carries in his right hand the rolled-up manila folder on which he made his game notes. The folders from his 315th victory, the one that broke Amos Alonzo Stagg’s career record, and his 323rd and final victory, are framed and hanging in the office of Paul W. Bryant Museum director, Ken Gaddy.
On the folders are written, in Bryant’s hand, the players available at his position. Even at the end of his career, when he coached the coaches more than he did the players, Bryant insisted on making all substitutions.
“Steve Hale was our young linebacker coach,” recalled Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, the Tide’s running backs coach in 1981-82, Bryant’s last two seasons in Tuscaloosa. “We go over to Georgia Tech to open the season. Coach [defensive coordinator Ken] Donahue was up in the press box. He said, ‘Get Jim Bob Harris in the game.’ So Steve sent him in the game.
“Coach walked down, put his arm around Steve, and said, ‘Son, do you like your job?’ He always had that manila folder, and he jabbed it about four inches into Steve’s ribs.
“‘If you ever send another player across that line, you’ll never have one.'”
Arians was 30 years old for that game, which Alabama won 45-7. He is 60 now, a career as a quarterback-maker on his résumé. His work at the Indianapolis Colts last season, where as interim head coach and offensive coordinator he nurtured rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, earned Arians his first NFL head coaching gig.
For the past 30 years, through 11 jobs in colleges and the NFL, Arians has hung on his office wall the iconic Time magazine cover of the legendary coach who took a chance on him as a young assistant. “Every office I’ve ever had,” Arians said. “Anybody that comes in, they always ask me about it. Every day I walk in my office, I’ve always had him over my shoulder. It’s a constant reminder.”
One other fact about that victory over Georgia Tech: Bryant turned 69 that day. It was his last birthday.
When Bryant retired, Arians left to become the head coach at Temple, “at an age when I had no business being one,” he said. “He always told me, ‘Coach ’em hard and hug ’em later.’ That’s been my motto to this day. I’ve always gotten pissed that I only got to call him for advice one time before he passed away. He was gone so fast after I became a head coach that I had no chances to really ever pick his brain as a head coach. I wouldn’t have been one without him.”
Cutcliffe said what sticks in his mind is Bryant’s reasoning for pushing his coaches and players so hard.
“He used to say, ‘You can’t tell how a mule will pull until you hook it up to a heavy load,'” Cutcliffe said.
It was not a euphemism. Born in rural Arkansas in a family with few resources, Bryant used to ride to town with his mama in a wagon drawn by a mule. That is how long 100 years is. And yet 30 years can elapse in an instant.
“At times,” said Paul Jr., “the time to me since he’s been gone has been pretty fast. It seems like yesterday.”
If you soaked Paul Jr.’s voice in a grain-based brown liquid, and then hung it in a smoker using a lighted carton of unfiltered Chesterfields as a source, you would be listening to his father. Paul Jr. is nearly as old as his father was when he died. He is his Papa’s son in many ways. There is a facial resemblance, and in his tall carriage as well. Paul Jr. is a brilliant man, a shrewd and highly successful businessman. He is a careful tender of his father’s flame.
But Paul Jr. never shared his father’s embrace of a public life. He rarely grants interviews. Perhaps because he shared his father with so many, he keeps their relationship for himself.
They also share a love for the University of Alabama. Paul Jr. serves as the president pro tempore of the university board of trustees. His generosity to the university is well known, if not well publicized.
“He met his wife here,” Paul Jr. said of his father. “He had an association with his teammates all his life. Some of them coached with him. But he stayed in touch with them all his life. In choosing football as a career path, it all came from that.”
Though the name Paul W. Bryant is everywhere, the Tuscaloosa that he knew is nearly gone. His office is now literally a museum piece, the space in which it originally existed long ago remodeled. Indian Hills Country Club, where he spent many an hour, remains. So, too, does the stadium that now carries his name. But he wouldn’t recognize it. Bryant-Denny Stadium holds 101,000 now.
When he arrived at Alabama, Denny Stadium seated 31,000. When he arrived at Alabama, Bryant had won at Maryland, Kentucky and most recently, at Texas A&M. He arrived in College Station in 1954 and had to drag the Aggies’ oxcart out of a ditch. Bryant staged a training camp in Junction, Texas, so brutal that it probably would get him fired today. The survivors of the 10 days of work won one game that season. They won the Southwest Conference two years later.
Bryant had the Aggies in contention for the national championship in 1957 before word leaked that Alabama wanted to hire him. As Bryant said so succinctly, “Mama called.”
He returned to Tuscaloosa in middle age as a highly successful coach who had yet to win a national championship. He took over a program that had won four games in three seasons. He promised his first freshmen class that if they stayed and put in the work he gave them, they would be national champions. They did, and, in 1961, they were.
Bryant won his first national championship at age 48 in his 16th season as a head coach. Over the next 18 years, he won five more. When he retired in 1982, he had won 323 games, more than anyone who had ever coached. President Ronald Reagan congratulated him in a video message.
Robertson is standing on the sideline at the Georgia Dome, telling a story about his head coach. Robertson played for Bryant in the mid-1970s. It is not Robertson’s story. He heard it from Mal Moore. The story took place in the 1970s. Moore and Bryant are being driven back to Tuscaloosa from Montgomery by Bryant’s driver, Billy Varner.
“Billy’s getting it pretty good, and all of a sudden Billy hits the brakes and started slowing down,” Robertson said. “Coach Bryant just goes [Robertson drops his voice into a low rumble, like a trucker shifting into a lower gear], ‘Billy, why you slowing down? I want to get back to Tuscaloosa.’
“Billy said, ‘Coach, The Man just pulled up behind me.'”
“The Man” is about to pull over Varner for speeding. Bryant reached down, grabbed his hat, and put it where The Man could see it.
“He said, ‘Speed up, Billy,'” Robertson said. “Billy just hit the gas and they started on back to Tuscaloosa.”
“Mal used to love to tell that one,” he said.
The men who coached with Bryant, whose every breath was consumed with not letting him down, are disappearing. Bobby Marks died in 2009, Dude Hennessey in 2011. Moore, who played for Bryant, coached for Bryant, and then, as the athletic director at Alabama for 14 years, tended the Bryant legend with the loving care of a son, died this past March.
Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said that when former players come to speak to the current team, they are inevitably from Bryant’s era.
“I felt honored to keep his legacy that he started going,” Mosley said, “by winning championships, being consistent, giving effort, basically the same things Coach [Nick] Saban always talks about: effort, unselfishness, pride, commitment, those things that he started way back when. Pretty much whoever comes in, that’s what they talk about.”
Now that Saban has won three BCS titles in six seasons at Alabama, fans and media are comparing him to Bryant. The prudent answer would be to wait until Saban retires. But to anyone alive when Bryant coached, there is no comparison. There is no cult of personality around Saban. He can be personable. He can be riveting. He is, as Bryant would have said, a winner. But his self-discipline doesn’t allow him to let down his guard in public.
“I think the one thing I’ve learned about him that makes me appreciate him more, because it’s something that means a lot to me as a coach, is how many stories his former players tell about lessons that they learned in life,” Saban said. “They talk about the discipline, the toughness, and all those kinds of things that really have helped them persevere [through] a lot of circumstances and situations in their life. So that, to me, is the ultimate compliment to a coach.”
And it’s not just players, either.
“Professors talk about him so greatly,” Kouandjio said. “Sometimes he helped them out.”
And when they are gone?
To the girls on Sorority Row, Bryant, and not the cover of the September issue of Cosmo, is the inspiration for the houndstooth in their closet. Four years ago, the university began licensing houndstooth products. In that time, more than $2 million in merchandise has been sold, with some $277,000 in proceeds going to the Bryant Scholarship, as well as National Merit Scholars.
“He’s still part of the culture,” said Gaddy, the museum director. “Houndstooth is almost the third color now: crimson, white, houndstooth. Some of those students may not know why they’re wearing it. That’s part of our job, to help them understand while it’s still important.”
The Bama Fever store in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover doesn’t sell the thigh-high houndstooth dress by Dior or the high-heeled houndstooth pumps by Blumarine that Nina Dobrev, the actress in “The Vampire Diaries,” wore for Cosmo. However, the store does sell houndstooth backpacks, bathing suits, beach balls, blouses, dog carriers, flags, handbags, license plates, luggage, picnic hampers, rafts, seat cushions, shorts and skirts. And, of course, the fedora for which Bryant became known.
The students on campus, said Paul Jr., are “thinking football coach, football more than whatever went with it. They’re thinking football coach.”
They are not thinking of the leader, or the teacher, or the man who inspired players and coaches for a generation. They are not thinking of the coach who allowed a state to hold its collective head high. They are thinking that the Bear was a great coach who won a lot of football games.
That is the truth. It is not the whole truth.
Houndstooth, when you come down to it, is a clothing pattern.
The fabric of a man is another matter.