Stars Don't Just Fall on Alabama—Bear Bryant Recruits Them to Keep His Crimson Tide Rolling
10/01/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
On a cool late summer morning, as the University of Alabama football team drove itself through calisthenics, coach Paul "Bear" Bryant shuffled onto the Astroturf practice field. His leathery face turned to the ground, he moved slowly through the young, straining bodies. Reaching midfield, he paused and blew a muted note on a whistle. All action stopped. The players circled him quietly, those in front kneeling to give their teammates in back a better view. To a man, the players gazed up at Bryant as if they were seeing what longtime NFL quarterback George Blanda claimed he saw in his first encounter with Bryant—the face of God.
Ever since Notre Dame's Knute Rockne, college football has had its share of deified coaches. Perhaps none has had the impact of Bryant. To the people of Alabama he is a legend, a force for redemption. Football has never been just a game in the South or even a way of life; it has always been a way to get even. No one has practiced vengeance better than Bryant. This will be his 22nd season as 'Bama's head coach and, as a result, exults one proud alumnus, "We have a whole generation that's grown up with no earthly idea what a losing season feels like."
At first glance Bryant, 66, hardly has the look of the sanctified. His tall (6'3") muscular frame is stooped now, and he moves with the crabbed walk of the old. In conversation he seems distant, sunk deep into some private well of memory. His mumbled conversations with strangers often seem embarrassingly banal—humble ruminations on how lucky he has been, how he has never really been a good coach, how "the mamas and the papas" do it all. But then he will look up, and his eyes, hard and intelligent, mock his remarks.
Bryant's record as a coach is staggering. He has had only one losing season in 34 years. His teams have won five national championships, including last year's, and have been invited to bowl games every season since 1959. His career record of 285 wins, 77 losses and 16 ties places him third on the list of all-time winners. Only Amos Alonzo Stagg (314 wins in 57 years) and Glenn "Pop" Warner (313 wins in 44 years) have done better. Bryant could pass them both by 1982.
To his credit, Bryant is vaguely uncomfortable about the idolatry. "It's embarrassing," he says in his molasses-thick grumble. Yet monuments to his accomplishments are all about him. When Bryant arrived at Alabama in 1958, the athletic department's budget was $700,000. It is now close to $5 million. Football revenues have paid for the school's practice fields, tennis courts, swimming pool, track complex and athletic dormitory, as well as its 15,000-seat indoor coliseum. The football stadium, christened Bryant-Denny (George Denny was once president of the university) by a special act of the Alabama legislature, has been expanded in the past two decades from 28,000 to 56,000 seats. Not all the football profits have gone to athletics. In the early '60s, when the state refused to increase faculty salaries, Bryant donated $300,000 in bowl funds to that cause.
At the same time Bryant has steadfastly turned down raises for himself, asking that they be given to his assistants instead. For years Bryant was the lowest-paid head coach in the South, a situation that has only recently been remedied. He will not reveal his salary—"All I can say is it used to be more than I'm worth, and now it's a lot more than I'm worth"—but it is estimated at a modest $45,000 a year. His outside interests, however, include one-third ownership of Alabama's largest meat-packing plant. "I was lucky to have some good friends who put me on to a few investments," he says with dazzling understatement. Those "few investments" have made him nearly a millionaire.
Leaning back in his plush red-carpeted office on the top floor of the University's Memorial Coliseum, Bryant lights up an unfiltered Chesterfield. Smoking is one of the few vices he still allows himself. He all but quit drinking two years ago amid rumors it was affecting his work. "I never had what you call a drinking problem," he insists. "I used to go out and, well, like everybody, get with a group and drink something. But I haven't done that for two seasons, and I won't this year. Now when a game's over I go home and have milk and bread with my wife."
Bryant married Mary Harmon Black when they were undergraduates at Alabama, and he still speaks of her with fawning affection. They have two children—Mae Martin Tyson, 43, a housewife in Montgomery, and Paul Jr., 35, a businessman in Tuscaloosa—as well as five grandchildren on whom Bryant dotes. Friends admit, though, that the coach has not always had time for his family. ("Those Bryants are the handsomest couple in Alabama," a faculty wife once commented. "Isn't it too bad you never see them together?") "I don't think Coach Bryant has ever denied neglecting his family early in his career," says Charley Thornton, Alabama's assistant athletic director for public relations. "He let Mary Harmon raise the kids. But Coach Bryant is the sort of man that if he spends 10 minutes with you, it means more than somebody else spending 10 hours."
Then, and now, football is Bryant's passion. During summer practice he wakes up at 5 a.m., arrives at the office by 5:30 and doesn't leave until 8 or 9 p.m. "He used to work 22 hours a day," says a friend. "Now he only works 19." When the season begins, his regimen is only slightly less demanding and leaves precious little time for social life. "But he's always been a loner," says Thornton. "I've never known him to have but a few close friends."
Bryant's taste for hard work—and the drive that pushes him—can be traced back to his Moro Bottom, Ark. childhood. One of 11 children, the son of a farmer, Bryant learned early the humiliations of poverty. When his mother took him on shopping trips to nearby Fordyce, young Paul, afraid people would laugh at his shabby clothes and country manners, sometimes refused to get out of the family wagon. Football helped free him from that attitude. "I wasn't a good athlete, coming out of that farm country," he says. "About all I knew how to do was plow." But at 13 he was a hard-muscled six-footer. A coach noticed him one afternoon as he was walking by the practice field at Fordyce High School and asked if he'd like to play football. Yes, Paul said, if only somebody would tell him the rules. The next weekend he was a starter.
At the beginning Bryant played over the objections of his parents, religious people who considered the game frivolous, perhaps sinful, entertainment. Neither his mother nor his father ever saw a game Bryant played in or coached. "I don't know if my mother was ever proud I was a coach," Bryant says quietly. "But at least she knew I was earning an honest living." His success at Fordyce, where he was an All-State tackle, earned him a scholarship to the University of Alabama. He was the only child in his family to attend college.
By that time Bryant had already earned the nickname that he would carry the rest of his life. Promised a dollar a minute to wrestle a bear ("I was chopping cotton for 50¢ a day at the time, and I would have wrestled King Kong for a dollar a minute"), he climbed onto the stage of the Lyric Theater in Fordyce. He and the scruffy animal grappled briefly. Then the bear's muzzle slipped off, and Bryant felt a sticky welling of blood behind his ear. He jumped from the stage and never collected any money. But from then on he was known in Fordyce as "Bear." "I used to hate being called that," he says with a sigh. "Until John Underwood wrote that book about me in 1974 and called it Bear I used to refuse to sign autographs that way. I'd tell people, 'That's not my name.' But after the book I thought, what the hell, and started doing it."
While working toward his degree, Bryant was hired as an assistant to Alabama coach Frank Thomas. After a four-year hitch in the Navy during World War II, he accepted an offer to be head coach at the University of Maryland. A year later, after turning a losing season into a winning one, he moved to the University of Kentucky. In eight years there he built the school into a national power, but a clash of egos with famed basketball coach Adolph Rupp forced him to leave. He wanted a place where he could build his own program without interference.
In 1954, Bryant went to Texas A&M and corralled an August training camp in the branding iron heat of West Central Texas. One hundred fifteen players on scholarship reported for camp; only 27 were still on the team when the season began. Rumor had it that Bryant drove the young men inhumanly, raging through the locker room, challenging their dedication and hurling their belongings to the floor.
The stories were exaggerated, but not by much. Bryant didn't care what people thought of him. Despite this, he suffered the worst season of his career, losing every game but one. Next fall it was a different story. His Aggies lost only five games in the next three years and won the Southwest Conference championship in 1956. Today, of all the victory rings awarded him, the only one he wears is from the 25th reunion of that first A&M team. "It was good to see how well they all turned out," he says, "and to see they still liked me."
In 1958, Bryant returned to Alabama. "It was like hearing mother call," he says simply. The Crimson Tide was coming off four straight losing seasons. By 1961 he had led the team to an undefeated season and his first national championship. Except for a brief letdown in 1969 and 1970—when he started, in his words, "big dogging it" and jetting off to California for vacations at Palm Desert—the Tide has been hard to beat.
What continues to make Bryant a winner? "It's his willingness to change," says a longtime Alabama sports reporter. "Bryant is the only supercoach that didn't let time pass him by. He did what nature tells you has to be done—adapt or die." Not only has Bryant altered tactics from season to season, he has learned to take a softer approach with his players. The raging autocrat has been replaced by a kindly if demanding godfather. "I used to try and make people do things," he says. "Now I try to lead them. I've mellowed. But I haven't changed in what I think makes somebody win."
Inevitably, Bryant has begun thinking about the forbidding day when he will no longer be able to coach. "In my lifetime, I may have put too much emphasis on winning," he muses, "because here I am an old man and the only fun I've had is winning, and that's ridiculous. In 30 minutes it's over and I'm looking forward to the next game. Most of the coaches who've retired tell me it's awful hard to find something to do. And the fans, well, they forget you fast. I don't know what I would do if I couldn't coach. Probably croak."
The specter of an Alabama without the Bear is invoked even now by coaches anxious to lure high school stars away from the Tuscaloosa campus. Fighting his image of a man on the way out, Bryant has recruited more vigorously these past two years than at any time since he came to the school. Just before the 1979 season began, he announced he had signed a new five-year contract. With a probable three seasons between him and the record for most wins in a coaching career, nobody really expects Bryant to step down. He tries to avoid discussing the record but was recently cornered at a dinner party. "Well," allowed the Bear with an embarrassed cough, "if there's got to be a winningest coach in history, it might as well be me."