Paul William "Bear" Bryant (September 11, 1913 – January 26, 1983) was an American college football player and coach. He was best known as the longtime head coach of the University of Alabama football team. During his 25-year tenure as Alabama's head coach, he amassed six national championships and thirteen conference championships. Upon his retirement in 1982, he held the record for most wins as head coach in collegiate football history with 323 wins. The Paul W. Bryant Museum, Paul W. Bryant Hall, Paul W. Bryant Drive, and Bryant–Denny Stadium are all named in his honor at the University of Alabama. He was also known for his trademark black and white houndstooth hat, deep voice, casually leaning up against the goal post during pre-game warmups, and holding his rolled-up game plan while on the sidelines. Before arriving at Alabama, Bryant was head football coach at the University of Maryland, the University of Kentucky, and Texas A&M University.
Paul Bryant was the 11th of 12 children who were born to Wilson Monroe and Ida Kilgore Bryant in Moro Bottom, Cleveland County, Arkansas.:6 His nickname stemmed from his having agreed to wrestle a captive bear during a carnival promotion when he was 13 years old. His mother wanted him to be a minister, but Bryant told her "Coaching is a lot like preaching". When the Fellowship of Christian Athletes attempted to start a chapter at the University of Alabama during the 1960s, Bryant initially opposed it because he feared that devoutly religious players would lose their aggressiveness, but eventually changed his mind and actively donated money to the FCA, apparently inspired by three elite-level linebackers at Baylor University who went on to become Baptist preachers.
He attended Fordyce High School, where 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m) tall Bryant, who as an adult would eventually stand 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m), began playing on the school's football team as an eighth grader. During his senior season, the team, with Bryant playing offensive line and defensive end, won the 1930 Arkansas state football championship.
College playing career
Bryant accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Alabama in 1931. Since he elected to leave high school before completing his diploma, Bryant had to enroll in a Tuscaloosa high school to finish his education during the fall semester while he practiced with the college team. Bryant played end for the Crimson Tide and was a participant on the school's 1934 national championship team. Bryant was the self-described "other end" during his playing years with the team, playing opposite the big star, Don Hutson, who later became a star in the National Football League and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Bryant himself was second team All-Southeastern Conference in 1934, and was third team all conference in both 1933 and 1935. Bryant played with a partially broken leg in a 1935 game against Tennessee. Bryant pledged the Sigma Nu social fraternity, and as a senior, he married Mary Harmon, something he kept secret since Alabama did not allow active players to be married.
Assistant and North Carolina Pre-Flight
After graduating in 1936, Bryant took a coaching job at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, but he left that position when offered an assistant coaching position under Frank Thomas at the University of Alabama. Over the next four years, the team compiled a 29–5–3 record. In 1940 he left Alabama to become an assistant at Vanderbilt University under Henry Russell Sanders. During their 1940 season, Bryant served as head coach of the Commodores for their 7–7 tie against Kentucky as Coach Sanders was recovering from an appendectomy. After the 1941 season, Bryant was offered the head coaching job at the University of Arkansas. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bryant joined the United States Navy. In 1942 he served as an assistant coach with the Georgia Pre-Flight Skycrackers.
Bryant then served off North Africa, seeing no combat action. However, his ship, the converted liner USAT Uruguay, was rammed by an oil tanker near Bermuda and ordered to be abandoned. Bryant disobeyed the order, saving the lives of his men. Allen Barra claims that two hundred others died in the collision.:90
He was later granted an honorable discharge to train recruits and coach the North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight football team. One of the players he coached for the Navy was the future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham. While in the Navy, Bryant attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander.:94
University of Maryland
In 1945, 32-year-old Bryant met Washington Redskins owner George Marshall at a cocktail party hosted by the Chicago Tribune, and said he had turned down offers for assistant coaching positions at Alabama and Georgia Tech. Bryant told Marshall that he was intent on becoming a head coach. Marshall put him in contact with Harry Clifton "Curley" Byrd, the president and former football coach of the University of Maryland.
After meeting with Byrd the next day, Bryant received the job as head coach of the Maryland Terrapins. In his only season at Maryland, Bryant led the team to a 6–2–1 record. However, Bryant and Byrd came into conflict. In the most prominent incident, while Bryant was on vacation, Byrd reinstated a player who had been suspended by Bryant for a violation of team rules. After the 1945 season, Bryant left Maryland to take over as head coach at the University of Kentucky.
University of Kentucky
Bryant coached at Kentucky for eight seasons. Under Bryant, Kentucky made its first bowl appearance (1947) and won its first Southeastern Conference title (1950). The 1950 Kentucky team concluded its season with a victory over Bud Wilkinson's #1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl. Bryant also led Kentucky to appearances in the Great Lakes Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Cotton Bowl Classic. Kentucky's final AP poll rankings under Bryant included #11 in 1949, #7 in 1950, #15 in 1951, #20 in 1952, and #16 in 1953. The 1950 season was Kentucky's highest rank until it finished #6 in the final 1977 AP poll.
Years after leaving Lexington, Bryant had very good relations with Wildcat basketball coach Adolph Rupp. For instance, in 1969, when Bryant was looking to revive Alabama's basketball program, his first move was to call Rupp to see if any of his former players or coaches were available. Rupp recommended C. M. Newton, a former backup player at Kentucky in the late 1940s. Newton went on to lead the Tide to three straight SEC titles.
Texas A&M University
The Aggies suffered through a grueling 1-9 initial season which began with the infamous training camp in Junction, Texas. The "survivors" were given the name "Junction Boys". Two years later, Bryant led the team to the Southwest Conference championship with a 34–21 victory over the University of Texas at Austin. The following year, 1957, Bryant's star back John David Crow won the Heisman Trophy (the only Bryant player to ever earn that award), and the Aggies were in title contention until they lost to the #20 Rice Owls in Houston, amid rumors that Alabama would be going after Bryant.
Again, as at Kentucky, Bryant attempted to integrate the Texas A&M squad. "We'll be the last football team in the Southwest Conference to integrate," he was told by a Texas A&M official. "Well," Bryant replied, "then that's where we're going to finish in football."
At the close of the 1957 season, having compiled an overall 25–14–2 record at Texas A&M, Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa to take the head coaching position, succeeding J.B. "Ears" Whitworth, as well as the athletic director job at Alabama.
University of Alabama
Bryant took over the Alabama football team in 1958. When asked why he came to Alabama, he replied "Momma called. And when Momma calls, you just have to come runnin'." After winning a combined four games in the three years prior to Bryant's arrival, the Tide went 5–4–1 in Bryant's first season. The next year, in 1959, Alabama beat Auburn and appeared in a bowl game, the first time either had happened in the last six years. In 1961, under his leadership, with quarterback Pat Trammell and football greats Lee Roy Jordan and Billy Neighbors, Alabama went 11–0 and defeated Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl to claim the national championship.
The next three years (1962–64) featured Joe Namath at quarterback and were among Bryant's finest. The 1962 season ended with a victory in the Orange Bowl over Bud Wilkinson's University of Oklahoma Sooners. The following year ended with a victory in the 1964 Sugar Bowl over Ole Miss, the first game between the two Southeastern Conference neighbors in almost twenty years, and only the second time in thirty years. In 1964, the Tide won another national championship, but lost to the University of Texas in the 1965 Orange Bowl, in the first nationally televised college game in color. The Crimson Tide would repeat as champions in 1965 after defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Coming off back-to-back national championship seasons, Bryant's Alabama team went undefeated in 1966, and defeated a strong Nebraska team 34–7 in the Sugar Bowl. However, Alabama finished third in the nation behind co-national champions Michigan State and Notre Dame, who had previously played to a 10–10 tie in a late regular season game.
The 1967 team was billed as another national championship contender with star quarterback Kenny Stabler returning, but the team stumbled out of the gate and tied Florida State 37–37 at Legion Field. The season never took off from there, with the Bryant-led Alabama team finishing 8–2–1, losing in the Cotton Bowl Classic to Texas A&M, coached by former Bryant player and assistant coach Gene Stallings. In 1968, Bryant again could not match his previous successes, as the team went 8–3, losing to the University of Missouri 35–10 in the Gator Bowl. The 1969 and 1970 teams finished 6–5 and 6–5–1 respectively.
After these disappointing efforts, many began to wonder if the 57-year-old Bryant was washed up. He himself began feeling the same way and considered either retiring from coaching or leaving college football for the NFL.
For years, Bryant was accused of racism for refusing to recruit black players, but he merely said that the prevailing social climate did not let him do this. He finally was able to convince the administration to allow him to do so after scheduling the Tide's 1970 season opener against a strong University of Southern California team led by black fullback Sam Cunningham. Cunningham rushed for 150 yards and three touchdowns in a 42–21 victory against the overmatched Tide. After that season, Bryant was able to recruit Wilbur Jackson as Alabama's first black scholarship player, and junior-college transfer John Mitchell became the first black man to play for Alabama. By 1973, one-third of the team's starters were black.
In 1971, Bryant began engineering a comeback to prove that he still had it. This included abandoning Alabama's old power offense for the newly fashionable wishbone formation. (Darrell Royal, the University of Texas at Austin football coach who invented the wishbone, taught Bryant its basics, but Bryant developed successful variations of the wishbone that even Royal had never used.) The change helped make the remainder of the decade a successful one for the Crimson Tide. That season, Alabama went undefeated and earned a #2 ranking, but lost to #1 Nebraska, 38–6 in the Orange Bowl. The team would go on to split national championships in 1973 (Notre Dame defeated Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, which led the UPI to stop giving national championships until after all the games for the season had been played - including bowl games) and 1978 (despite losing a regular season matchup against co-national champion USC) and win it outright in 1979.
Bryant coached at Alabama for 25 years, winning six national titles (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, and 1979) and thirteen SEC championships. Bryant's win over in-state rival Auburn University, coached by former Bryant assistant Pat Dye on November 28, 1981 was Bryant's 315th as a head coach, which was the most of any head coach at that time. His all-time record as a coach was 323-85-17.
Retirement and death
Bryant was a heavy smoker and drinker, and his health began to decline in the late 1970s. He collapsed of a cardiac episode in 1977 and decided to enter alcohol rehab, but after a few months of sobriety resumed drinking. Bryant experienced a mild stroke in 1980 that weakened the left side of his body and another cardiac episode in 1981 and was taking a battery of medications in his final years.
Shortly before his death, Bryant met with evangelist Robert Schuller on a plane flight and the two talked extensively about religion, which apparently had a considerable impression on the coach, who felt considerable guilt over his mistreatment of the Junction Boys and hiding his smoking and drinking habits from his mother.
After a 6th-place finish in the 1982 season, Bryant, who had turned 69 that September, decided to retire, stating, "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." His last regular season game was a 23–22 loss to Auburn and his last postseason game was a 21–15 victory in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee, over the University of Illinois. After the game, Bryant was asked what he planned to do now that he was retired. He replied "Probably croak in a week." His reply proved prophetic.
Four weeks after making that comment, and just one day after passing a routine medical checkup, on January 25, 1983, Bryant checked into Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa after experiencing chest pain. A day later, when being prepared for an electrocardiogram, he died after suffering a massive heart attack. His personal physician, Dr. William Hill, said that he was amazed that Bryant had been able to coach Alabama to two national championships in the last five years of his life with the state of his health. First news of Bryant's death came from Bert Bank (WTBC Radio Tuscaloosa) and on the NBC Radio Network (anchored by Stan Martyn and reported by Stewart Stogel). On his hand at the time of his death was the only piece of jewelry he ever wore, a gold ring inscribed "Junction Boys". He is interred at Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery. A month after his death, Bryant was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Ronald Reagan. A moment of silence was held prior to Super Bowl XVII, played four days after Bryant's passing.
In 1962, Bryant filed a libel suit against The Saturday Evening Post for printing an article by Furman Bisher ("College Football is Going Berserk") that charged him with encouraging his players to engage in brutality in a 1961 game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Six months later, the magazine published "The Story of a College Football Fix" that charged Bryant and Georgia Bulldogs athletic director and ex-coach Wally Butts with conspiring to fix their 1962 game together in Alabama's favor. Butts also on sued Curtis Publishing Co. for libel. The case was decided in Butts' favor in the US District Court of Northern Georgia in August 1963, but Curtis Publishing appealed to the Supreme Court. As a result of Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts 388 U.S. 130 (1967), Curtis was ordered to pay $360,000 in damages to the Butts. The case is considered a landmark case because it expanded the definition of who can be considered a "public figure" in libel cases. Bryant reached a separate out-of-court settlement on both of his cases for $300,000 against Curtis Publishing in January 1964.
Honors and awards
- 12-time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year
- Three-time National Coach of the Year in 1961, 1971, and 1973.:517 The national coach of the year award was subsequently named the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award in his honor.
- In 1975, University of Alabama's Denny Stadium was renamed Bryant-Denny Stadium in his honor. Bryant is thus one of the few men to have coached in a stadium named after him.
- Was named Head Coach of Sports Illustrated's NCAA Football All-Century Team.
- He received 1.5 votes for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination at the extremely contentious 1968 Democratic Convention
- In February 1983, Bryant was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan.
- Bryant was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1996.
- Country singer Roger Hallmark recorded a tribute song in his honor.
- Charles Ghigna wrote a poem that appeared in the Birmingham-Post Herald in 1983 as a tribute to Bryant.
- Super Bowl XVII was dedicated to Bryant. A moment of silence was held in his memory during the pregame ceremonies. Some of his former Alabama players were on the rosters of both teams, including Miami Dolphins nose tackle Bob Baumhower and running back Tony Nathan. Also, at the end of Leslie Easterbrook's performance of the National Anthem, several planes from Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama did the traditional missing-man formation over the Rose Bowl in his memory.
Many of Bryant's former players and assistant coaches went on to become head coaches at the collegiate level and in the National Football League. Danny Ford (Clemson, 1981), Howard Schnellenberger (Miami of Florida, 1983), and Gene Stallings (Alabama, 1992) all won national championships as head coaches for NCAA programs while Joey Jones, Mike Riley, and David Cutcliffe are active head coaches in the NCAA. Charles McClendon, Jerry Claiborne, Sylvester Croom, Jim Owens, Jackie Sherrill, Bill Battle, and Pat Dye were also notable NCAA head coaches. Croom was the SEC's first African-American head coach at Mississippi State from 2004 through 2008. Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was a running backs coach under Bryant in 1981-82.
Ozzie Newsome is active as the general manager of the Baltimore Ravens. He was a Professional Football Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns for 13 seasons (1978–90) and stayed loyal to owner Art Modell after the move to Baltimore. Newsome was the GM of the Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV championship team in 2000, and their Super Bowl XLVII championship team in 2012.
Jack Pardee, one of the Junction Boys, played linebacker in the NFL for 16 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins, was a college head coach at the University of Houston, and was an NFL head coach with Chicago, Washington, and Houston.
Bryant was portrayed by Gary Busey in the 1984 film The Bear, by Sonny Shroyer in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, Tom Berenger in the 2002 film The Junction Boys, and Jon Voight in the 2015 film Woodlawn.
In a 1980 interview with Time Magazine, Bryant admitted that he'd been too hard on the Junction Boys and "If I were one of their players, I probably would have quit too."
Head coaching record
In his 38 seasons as a head coach, Bryant had 37 winning seasons and participated in a total of 29 postseason bowl games, including 24 consecutively at Alabama. He won 15 bowl games, including eight Sugar Bowls. Bryant still holds the records as the youngest college football head coach to win 300 games and compile 30 winning seasons.
|Maryland Terrapins (Southern Conference) (1945)|
|Kentucky Wildcats (Southeastern Conference) (1946–1953)|
|1947||Kentucky||8–3||2–3||T–9th||W Great Lakes|
|Texas A&M Aggies (Southwest Conference) (1954–1957)|
|1957||Texas A&M||8–3||4–2||3rd||L Gator||10||9|
|Alabama Crimson Tide (Southeastern Conference) (1958–1982)|
|National championship Conference title Conference division title|
|#Rankings from final Coaches Poll.|
°Rankings from final AP Poll.