Bear Bryant’s Living Legacy
By BJ Bennett
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After retiring, Bear Bryant told fans he would "probably croak in a week". He died less than one month later. Three decades and a world later, his legend lives on.
Thirty years ago today, time stopped in the state of Alabama. On January 26th, 1983, the man who injected life into an entire region of the country suddenly died at 69 years of age at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa. Bryant's passing came via a massive heart attack, one day after he cleared a routine medical checkup and four weeks after he announced his retirement following a 21-15 Liberty Bowl victory over Illinois.
News of Bryant's death sent dramatic shockwaves across his home state, with similar tones resonating through the likes of Fordyce, Arkansas, College Park, Maryland, Lexington, Kentucky and College Station, Texas. The loss of Bryant caused an entire nation to stop and reflect as a moment of silence was held in his honor at Super Bowl XVII and President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Bryant the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest recognition a civilian can receive.
Bryant's legacy is one that transcends generations. A 12-time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, Bryant won six national championships, 15 conference titles and compiled a staggeringly successful overall record of 323-85-17. He was named the head coach of Sports Illustrated's College Football Team of the Century. Fittingly enough, the National Coach of the Year award is named in his memory. Bryant was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1996. In Tuscaloosa today, a museum, an academic center, a street and a stadium bare, for lack of a better word, his name.
Born Paul to parents Wilson and Ida, Bryant gained his fierce nickname, not from on-field triumphs, rather from agreeing to wrestle a captive bear during a theater promotion as a young teen. After winning a state championship in high school, Bryant went on to play collegiately at the University of Alabama, winning the 1934 national championship under head coach Frank Thomas. Though he earned second-team All-SEC honors, Bryant was overshadowed as a player by future NFL Hall of Famer Don Hutson. The Brooklyn Dodgers actually selected Bryant in the fourth round of the 1936 NFL Draft, though he never played professionally and opted directly for coaching instead.
Bryant coached football from 1936-1982, save a 1943 World War II stint with the Navy in North Africa. Though he saw no combat action, Bryant's reported decision to disobey abandonment orders when the SS Uruguay was rammed by another ship led the saving of multiple lives. Upon returning from deployment, Bryant didn't wait long to accept his first college coaching job. In 1945, he took over as the head football coach at Maryland. From there, Kentucky and Texas A&M, Bryant would then coach the Crimson Tide to a quarter-century run of dominance the likes of which college football had never before seen.
From his early life up through the beginning of his career, a palpable passion for the game was fortified and developed. A certain style, an iron-clad brand of football evolved from player to coach. Bryant is still, three decades after his death, known for his unrelenting demands and unflappable toughness. While expectations may have driven his teams to the top, Bryant's poise under pressure helped Alabama feel at home where many felt on edge.
“Coach Bryant was successful because he got everyone involved, and we had a lot of respect for him. He had a lot of details and he always stayed cool," explained 1979 Crimson Tide captain Don McNeal, a member of the Alabama All-Centennial Team, on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "He didn’t want anyone to get flustered. He always had the right adjustments. He was cool in the clutch."
In 25 seasons at Alabama, Bryant did not have a single season at or below .500. Over a dozen times, though, did his Crimson Tide win at least ten games. During a stretch from 1971-1981, Alabama went an unfathomable 116-15-1. Bryant won football games like no coach before him. His impact on those he led, however, stands as his most lasting impression.
"I was truly blessed to play at Alabama for Coach Bryant. He was very special," 2011 College Football Hall of Fame inductee Marty Lyons told Kevin Thomas on ESPN Radio Coastal Georgia. "As a player, you didn't understand his teachings while you were playing for him. But years after the fact you realize that everything he was teaching on the playing field you would need in the game of life. In 1975 when I got there, he said there are four things we want you to accomplish. Number one, I want you to be proud of your family. Number two, always be proud of your religion. Number three, get an education. Number four, if we have time, let's try to win some football games."
For many who played under Bryant, complete comprehension of his efforts often came later in life. Bryant's winning ways spoke loud and clear. He was forthright and direct in helping his players establish personal goals as well. A number of athletes who worked so hard playing for Bryant would maintain strong bonds with him to the very end, some of his more storied students included.
"Being 18, 19, 20, 21 years old, I don't know that I really appreciated how important it was to have Coach Bryant in my life," acknowledged 1969 Super Bowl MVP Joe Namath on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "We became close over the years, and he was close to all of his players who stayed there. What a leader, what a wonderful man. He touched so many lives in a positive manner. I just thank God that I was able to meet him and be a part of his team and the legion of folks who were able to touch his shoulders and shake his hand."
For thousands of players, at absolutely critical times in their lives, Bryant provided much-needed guidance and discipline. With four years of football came the responsibility of helping teenage boys become men, a sentiment sometimes overlooked in today's athletic culture. Bryant valued and respected the time he was given and, in many instances, worked in conjunction with families from all over the country to help foster an environment conducive to on and off field success.
"He called my mother and my dad and he welcomed every parent. He cared about the youngsters, the players that he had under his supervision. He was a strong father figure, a strong leader and he wanted us to be the best we could be. Not just as football players but as people," Namath added.
The emotions of the Yellowhammer State are annually stirred this time of year. Cards and flowers are still laid roadside, many will stroll through campus, paying homage to the man some thought would never be moved from college football's, or the state of Alabama's, most powerful perch. As the most gridiron-crazed part of the country shares memories of Bryant this weekend, they will remember more than just a football coach.
"To only lose six games in four years and realize that Coach Bryant was actually teaching the core values of life, that if you implement family, religion and education in anything you do, you are going to be successful...I always tell people, he was a great coach, but he was an unbelievable teacher," Lyons, who started the Marty Lyons Foundation and was named the 1984 Walter Payton Man of the Year, concluded. "Besides my father and my older brothers, who were instrumental being my role models, Coach Bryant probably had the most influence on my life."
Stepping away from coaching after an 8-4 season in 1982, noting that his school deserved better leadership, Bryant told fans he would "probably croak in a week". With his life's work complete, Bryant died less than one month after those comments were made. Three decades and a world later, his legend continues. Though he could regularly be found casually leaning up against an endzone goalpost, Bryant's unquestioned direction was always forward. The beauty of his ultimate destination is that the endzone was rarely it. In Bryant's eyes progress wasn't measured by the number of yards gained, rather the impact of the number of years lived instead.