Today marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of Coach Bryant. (January 26, 1983)
I was coaching in Nashville in 2008 when the Tennessean asked me to contribute to a story they were doing to commemorate the 25 year anniversary. That led to a project that I began in 2010 of publishing some memories of Coach Bryant on Jan 26. Then I wrote a series of posts about my time at Alabama which soon culminated in a Wordpress page that I have kept regularly now for 10 years.
Even the greatest of icons fade into the heritage of the forgotten.
Early in January of each year I have two immediate calendar reminders: my youngest daughter’s birthday on Jan. 25th and my annual post on Coach Bryant on the 26th.
And I struggle with what to write every year. I have used guest writers and read countless articles and books.
This year, I watched the ESPN 100 years of College Football program they did on Coach Bryant and it was actually pretty good and fair. He was a great man, but like all men had his flaws.
I heard the quote “the veneer of civilization” recently and realized that is true of all of us. We clean up pretty well and the stories often hide the things that lie in shadows of sin and shame.
My next stop was an article in the Arkansas historical society about his early development, including a reminder on how he got the name “Bear”
‘For a little school like Fordyce we had terrific football teams my three years there. I played offensive end and defensive tackle, just an ordinary player, but I was in hog’s heaven. I could run pretty fast and I loved to play. I loved to practice. And I was a big kid, so I played regularly.’ Coach Paul Bear Bryant
Here is a little of that well written article:
Football was important in Fordyce, a town where Arkansas’s first football program was started in 1904 when New York native Tom Meddick organized a high school team at the Clary Training School preparatory school. By 1909, Fordyce High School also fielded a team. The original playing field was located behind the high school, but in the mid-1920s it had to be relocated to accommodate a street-widening project. Fordyce Lumber Company donated the land for the new field, but workers clearing the land and preparing the ballfield were tormented by chiggers, leading Willard Clary, a Fordyce resident who covered football games for the Arkansas Gazette, to suggest making the “redbug” the team’s mascot. The name stuck, and Fordyce remains the only U.S. football team with that particular mascot.
Eventually, Dora Bryant bought a boarding house in Fordyce and the family moved there, and it was as an eighth-grader that Paul Bryant was first introduced to football at Redbug Field. As Bryant recounted:
“One day I was walking past the field where the high school team was practicing football. I was in the eighth grade and had never even seen a football. The coach naturally noticed a great big boy like me (Bryant stood 6’1” tall) and he asked if I wanted to play. I said “Yessir, I guess I do. How do you play?” He said, “Well, you see that fellow catching the ball down there?” “Yeah.” “Well, whenever he catches it, you go down there and try to kill him.” … The following Friday I played on the team, and I didn’t know an end zone from an end run.”
Paul Bryant enrolled in Fordyce High School, and in 1927 he earned the nickname by which he would be known for the rest of his life. A man was offering one dollar per minute to anyone who would wrestle his pet bear at Fordyce’s Lyric Theater, and Bryant accepted the challenge.
The future coach grappled with the bruin and, he remembered:
…the bear worked loose and I got him again, and he got loose again, and he started acting pretty ornery. And when I looked up his muzzle was off. I felt this burning on the back of my ear, and when I touched it I got a handful of blood. I was being eaten alive. I jumped off that stage and nearly killed myself hitting the empty front seats with my shins. I still have the marks on my legs where I crashed into those seats.
After the show was over I went around to get my money, but the man with the bear had flown the coop. All I got out of the whole thing was a nickname.
Bryant took to football – a natural outlet for his aggressive tendencies – and was a key player on the Fordyce Redbug team, but was a poor student who would ultimately not graduate with the rest of his class after failing a language class. Despite that, he was a key member of the team under Coach Dave Cowan that had a perfect season in 1930-31 and took the 1931 Arkansas High School State Championship.
A scout for the University of Alabama came to Fordyce to try to recruit two students who ultimately played for the University of Arkansas, but ended up signing Bryant to play for Alabama. He excelled on that team, playing right offensive end and helping Alabama win the inaugural championship for the Southeast Conference in 1933. He would play in the Rose Bowl and help Alabama win the national championship before graduating in 1936.
He also met Mary Harmon Black at Alabama, and they married in 1935. They would have two children, Mae Martin and Paul Jr.
After graduating, Bryant coached at Union College and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and was heading to Arkansas, where he was being considered for head coach, when he learned that World War II had started. Bryant enlisted in the Navy and served through the war, after which he coached at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M. It was at the latter school where Bryant’s Aggies won a legendary victory: the team was losing 12-0 with two minutes left when Bryant told them they would win if they believed they could, and they then scored 20 unanswered points.
But it was at the University of Alabama that Bryant would achieve his greatest fame. He became head coach of the Crimson Tide in 1958 and served in that capacity for 25 years, winning national titles in 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978 and 1979 – the last one being a perfect season culminating in a victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks at the Sugar Bowl. “Bear” Bryant was voted Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year 10 times, and National Coach of the Year four times. He retired in 1982 with a record of 323 wins, 46 losses and 9 ties and 24 consecutive postseason bowl games.
Bryant’s final victory was a win at the 1982 Liberty Bowl, and the 69-year-old coach died of a heart attack less than one month later, on January 26, 1983. He is buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama, and President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly after his death.
On September 7, 2012, Paul W. Bryant, Jr., came to Fordyce to dedicate the high school football field as “Redbug Field and Coach Paul W. ‘Bear’ Bryant Stadium.”
Though he was famous, “Bear” Bryant never forgot his roots and would often return to Fordyce to visit friends and family and the old familiar ground at Redbug Field. Fordyce is the destination for pilgrimages of Alabama fans who come to visit the place where their idol learned to play football, and sometimes to take a little soil from Redbug Field.
Redbug Field remains the playing field for the Fordyce High School football team, whose members are perhaps inspired by thoughts of their most-famous alumnus. While the surrounding bleachers and facilities have been modernized over the years, the field remains the same hard ground that Paul W. “Bear” Bryant played on as a teen-ager, learning the skills that he would bring to world renown.
So here I am, now 40 years since my time with him. Close enough to see his last season as an eye witness but far enough to know that my one year with his team wasn’t enough of a picture to capture the apex of his glory years.
Coach Bryant had an impact on me and so many others. So it is my honor to keep his memory alive as long as the Lord allows.
Bryant, Paul W., and John Underwood. Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974)
Dunavant, Keith. Coach: The Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996)
Hendricks, Nancy. “Bear” Bryant (1913-1983) Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, found athttp://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1604. Accessed May 13, 2014.
Magee, Mary. Red: Beyond Football: The Legacy of Coach Jimmy “Red Parker (Tulsa: Hawk Publishing, 2007).