On the day of his funeral, the state came to a complete stop. Three churches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, were filled to capacity for the service. Thousands of cars and trucks pulled off to the side of I-20/59 as the funeral procession moved to its final destination: Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery.
An estimated 250,000 Alabama residents lined the sides of the road or watched from overpasses on the 55-mile route from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham — approximately 12 percent of Alabama’s total state population at the time.
Was it a former president they were honoring? A movie or rock star? Actually, it was someone far more important.
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant led the Crimson Tide football team (out of the University of Alabama) to six national championships, and six of his Alabama teams were ranked number one nationally — and being number one in anything in the country is a big deal when you’re from a state as small as Alabama when it comes to population, media power, and money.
“He wasn’t just a coach,” former USC coach John McKay said of Paul “Bear” Bryant, who was born on Sept. 11, 1913. “He was the coach.”
In an episode of “Law and Order,” late actor and Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson appropriately opined, “If not for Osama bin Laden, September 11 would only be remembered as Bear Bryant’s birthday.”
“If not for Osama bin Laden, September 11 would only be remembered as Bear Bryant’s birthday.”
“His nickname was ‘Bear,'” said Joe Namath, who played at Alabama for Bryant, on ESPN’s Classics’ SportsCentury series. “Now imagine a guy that can carry the nickname Bear.”
Carry it, he did. The craggy-faced coach roamed the sidelines of Alabama in his houndstooth hat for 25 years, but his legacy wasn’t just about wins. His real legacy was the impact he had on the thousands of athletes he coached, turning them from boys into men — and a whole bunch of them into future leaders.
He developed great stars, including such quarterbacks as Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Babe Parilli, Steve Sloan, and Richard Todd. Plus, more than 40 of his former players became head college coaches, including Jerry Claiborne, Howard Schnellenberger, Jackie Sherrill, Pat Dye, and Steve Sloan.
Bryant was also instrumental in recruiting black athletes to Alabama. His first black player was Wilbur Jackson, a running back, in 1971. In Bryant’s final season in 1982, 54 of the 128 players at Alabama were black.
Bryant had tried to recruit black players to Alabama earlier in his career, but the roadblocks he faced were insurmountable. He actually credited a black player from an opposing team with helping to break the color barrier at Alabama.
“To tell you the truth, Sam Cunningham did more for integration at Alabama than anybody else,” Bryant once told a reporter. “He was a black running back for Southern Cal. He came down here in 1970 and ran all over my skinny little white boys. Scored three touchdowns.”
Bryant was born on, as he liked to describe his place of birth, ”a little piece of bottom land on the Moro Creek, about seven miles fourth of Fordyce.” He was the 11th of 12 children, three of whom died as infants. He remembered having an inferiority complex when he was young and often told people he wasn’t very smart in school, and was lazy to boot.
“The guy with the bear had flown the coop. All I got out of the whole thing was a nickname.”
His family was poor. Bryant’s father, Monroe, was a farmer while his mother, Ida Mae, tended to the family. Monroe became ill when Paul was a toddler, forcing his wife to run the farm. Work and chores were a fact of life for all the children.
Bryant was big, eventually growing to 6 feet 4 inches. He later recalled acquiring his nickname as a teenager in high school when he accepted a dare to wrestle a bear.
”It was outside the Lyric Theater,” he said. ”There was a poster out front with a picture of a bear, and a guy was offering a dollar a minute to anyone who would wrestle the bear. The guy who was supposed to wrestle the bear didn’t show up, so they egged me on. They let me and my friends into the picture show free, and I wrestled this scrawny bear to the floor. I went around later to get my money, but the guy with the bear had flown the coop. All I got out of the whole thing was a nickname.”
As a tackle on the Fordyce High School football team, Bryant lived up to his nickname and walked away with all-state honors by the time he graduated and a scholarship to play at his state’s flagship school — the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide won 23 games and lost only three when he was a starter. His team won a national championship in 1934 and defeated Stanford in the 1935 Rose Bowl.
Luckily, for college football fans everywhere, Bryant didn’t have the talent to play in the NFL. He turned to coaching, starting first as an assistant at Alabama and then as an assistant at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
After Pearl Harbor, Bryant joined the Navy. Following his discharge in 1945, though, he went right back to doing the only thing he knew how to do: coaching young men in battle.
He had success at the University of Maryland, but soon found himself in the center of a controversy: He suspended a player for breaking training rules, and the school’s president overruled him. Bryant promptly quit, and took over the head coaching job at the University of Kentucky.
It would be an iron law of his for the rest of his coaching career: No athlete, not even the stars, were above the rules. And the coach, not the other adults or kids, should always be in charge.
Bryant stayed eight seasons at Kentucky, and his record was an impressive 60 wins and 23 losses. However, conflicts with another successful coach in Lexington — college-basketball legend Adolph Rupp — caused him to leave.
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”The trouble,” Bryant said, ”was that we were too much alike. He wanted basketball to be number one, and I wanted football number one. In an environment like that, one or the other has to go.”
It was Bryant’s first training camp at Texas A&M that ensured his legacy as a taskmaster and disciplinarian. He wasted no time trying to reshape the Aggie’s program. His first preseason camp was held in Junction, Texas, in 100-degree heat.
Bryant started with 111 players, and only 35 were left 10 days later. The Aggies went 1-9 his first year in 1954, the only losing season of Bryant’s career. Two years later, they went 9-0-1 and won the Southwest Conference championship.
But Texas A&M didn’t get invited to the Cotton Bowl because of a two-year bowl ban imposed by the NCAA the previous year for rules violations.
Finally, after bouncing around the south for more than a dozen years, Bryant got the call he’d always wanted — and returned home to his alma mater.
”It was like when you were out in the field, and you heard your mama calling you to dinner,” he said, explaining his joy at returning to Alabama. ”Mama called.”
Alabama had won only four football games in three years prior to Bryant’s arrival — as dismal a record as they’d ever seen. Things were about to change. In Bryant’s first season in 1958, the Crimson Tide won five games and lost four. By 1961, he received his first number-one ranking nationally, going undefeated and beating Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
How did he do it? What was the key to his success? It was his fierce discipline and work habits, and the mental toughness he instilled in his players. And his remarkable motivational skills.
How did he do it? What was the key to his success? It was his fierce discipline and work habits, and the mental toughness he instilled in his players.
What Bryant was, even more than a coach, was a teacher. He was a man who wasn’t afraid to teach his boys lessons about life that would stick with them long after their playing years were behind them.
One of the lessons was this: Winning isn’t as important as following the rules — and Bryant was not afraid to enforce the rules, which were strict, even if it meant benching his most famous players.
He benched future Hall of Famer Joe Namath for a minor rules infraction, and even kept him on the sidelines during the Sugar Bowl game. He also disciplined NFL Hall of Famers John Hannah and Ken Stabler. He benched Ray Perkins, too, the man who succeeded him as head coach at Alabama.
“I was very capable of throwing away what turns out to be a fairly good career because of not conforming to Coach Bryant’s rules,” Kenny Stabler told ESPN. “I was injured my junior year and was not practicing and was basically bored, and broke some training rules, and Coach Bryant suspended me.”
He continued, “Then came the toughest thing I ever had to do, which was go in and sit down with Coach Bryant. I walked into his office and he looked like he weighed 400 pounds. He looked like a gorilla sitting back there, smoking his Chesterfields and growling at me in that low voice of his, and he said ‘Stabler, you don’t deserve to be on this team.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m coming back anyway.’ And he said, ‘We’ll see about that.’ He put me in my place and didn’t start me right away because he was going to show me. And I’m glad he did.”
There are many other stories just like it.
Bob Baumhower, a five-time NFL Pro Bowl player, told fellow players a story about how Coach Bryant altered the course of his life. He had lost his coveted starting position on the team because he’d blown off summer training. He was mad at Coach Bryant, and even entertained the thought of quitting the team.
“I got a phone call that afternoon that Coach Bryant wanted to see me in his office,” Baumhower recalled. “He wanted my dad to go with me, so me, my dad and myself went up there. He was very gracious to my dad, and then he looked at me and said. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I really didn’t know what to say, but he basically put me on my heels. And I said, ‘Well, I heard you wanted to talk to me.’ And he said, ‘I don’t like talkin’ to quitters but since you’re here, come on and sit your butt down.'”
Baumhower continued, “But what happened in that meeting — he changed my life. Because before I came to the University of Alabama, I didn’t care about being the best, I didn’t care about being part of a team, there was no commitment from me to be the best I could be for my teammates. And what Coach Bryant did in that meeting was he went down that list of 22 starters and what they had done to make themselves better from spring to fall, and pretty much told me that’s why I didn’t deserve to be a starter.”
Then Baumhower, holding back tears, finished the story. It turns out he begged for a chance to come back — and Bryant gave him that second chance, begrudgingly.
“Everything I do today, every success that I have, every win that I have, in my opinion, came from that meeting, and the fact that Coach Bryant cared enough about me, first of all, to talk to me, and, second of all, to turn the light on, so after that meeting I could think like a man instead of a punk boy.”
Bryant led by example, first and foremost. He was a tireless worker who customarily rose at 5 a.m. and did not stop until late in the evening. He often supervised practice sessions from a tower overlooking two fields, one covered with grass, the other with artificial turf.
“It’s not the will to win that matters — everybody has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters,” Bryant loved to tell people. He and his players lived those words.
“It’s not the will to win that matters — everybody has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”
One of his quarterbacks, Steadman Shealy, once said, ”There’s something about him up in that tower that makes you want to run through a wall.”
Bryant was a remarkable motivator, and he did it not through screaming and yelling, or loud speeches, but through quiet speeches like one which Jack Rutledge told at a gathering of Alabama football alumni. Rutledge led Alabama to a national championship as a quarterback and played in the NFL.
“‘Now remember this,’ Coach Bryant whispered to us,” Rutledge recalled. “‘The game is over. You come back in the shower. You walk by the mirror. And only you and the man in the mirror knows you did the best you could. You walk out of the dressing room. You see your girlfriend. You hug your mama. You reach out and touch your daddy’s hand. And only you and the man upstairs knows you did the best you could.'”
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Rutledge recited that Bryant speech as if had happened a month ago, it was so vivid to him — yet it had been nearly 30 years since he’d heard it.
“That’s what he had. We were scared of him,” recalled John Hannah, who played for Bryant and became an NFL Hall of Fame lineman. “We were practicing one day and Coach Bryant fell asleep in the tower, and we just kept doing our prep drills waiting for him to call the end to the practice, and finally the horn fell off his leg and he woke up and told us to take it in. And one of the guys said to me as we were going in, ‘I’m glad he wasn’t dead or we would have never gotten off the field.'”
A roomful of grown men who’d played for Bryant exploded with laughter when Hannah finished the story. That’s how afraid they were of the man. That’s how much they appreciated it.
“You never respect something until you first fear it, and the respect he had was because we feared him, and I believe great leadership has that characteristic,” John Croyle, who played for Bryant in the early 1970s, once said. “Not fear of him being physical or hitting you, but the fear that you never want to disappoint the person you respect.
Croyle added this about the coach he so admired: “There are three kinds of people you are going to meet: people that impress you, people that impact you, and people that inspire you. Coach Bryant obviously was impressive. He had impact. But what he really did was inspire people to be better. And that was his talent. That was his gift. We played teams that had better athletes, but we played so hard because we didn’t want to disappoint the coach.”
Of the many books written about Coach Bryant, one of the best is “Bear Bryant on Leadership” by Pat Williams, co-founder of the Orlando Magic, and a man who’s written over 80 books on the subject of leadership.
There are many insights in the book, but the most surprising one Williams left for last. It was a story by coaching legend Grant Teaff.
“In early January of 1983, Coach Bryant attended our national coaches convention at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles,” Teaff recalled. “After the awards luncheon, I was sitting alone at a table and looking over my notes for an afternoon presentation. Bryant came over and sat down next to me with an intense look on his face, and he said, ‘Grant, I went to tell you something. I want to tell you what I’d do differently if I could do it all over again.’ And I thought, ‘Install the Wishbone sooner? Run another type of defense, treat his coaches and players differently?’ And then he said to me, ‘Grant, I would let everybody know that I am a Christian. I am one, and I didn’t tell them.’ Three weeks later, Coach Bryant died. I will never forget my last visit with him.”
Bryant was married to his college sweetheart, Mary Harmon Black, who had been a campus beauty queen when he played football at Alabama. They had two children, Paul William Jr. and May Martin Tyson, and four grandchildren.
Bryant died of a heart attack only 37 days after retiring as head coach at his beloved alma mater, but his legacy lives on — and not just in the stadium that bears his name in Tuscaloosa, or the statue of him that stands in front of that stadium.
He lives on in the hearts of all the young men he coached who are now grown men. He changed their lives because he challenged them to be the best players they could be. To be the best men they could be.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.