He was a giant in the world of college football
In Alabama, Bear Bryant was as good as royalty
Even today, more than two decades after his death, the Alabama Crimson Tide take the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium only after a recording of Bear Bryant's legendary growl blares throughout the stadium.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Bryant, known for his houndstooth hat and guttural rumble, strode the sidelines in Tuscaloosa for 25 years. He collected six national championships and won a then-record 323 games. In Alabama, he was royalty. More than a quarter of a million people witnessed his funeral procession in 1983.
The coach's ineffable appeal was of course intensified by geography. As Marino Casem, famed coach and administrator at black colleges, explained, "In the East, college football is a cultural exercise. On the West Coast, it is a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is cannibalism. But in the South, it is religion."
Which explains why Alabama drugstores sold postcards of Bryant literally walking on water. Allen Barra, a native Alabamian long fascinated by both Bryant and the Crimson Tide, attempts to separate the man and the icon in his moving biography The Last Coach, a comprehensive account emboldened by nuance and extensive research.
Most striking in the current era of million-dollar coaches: Bryant adhered to a policy of always keeping his salary $1 below that of the university president.
Born in Moro Bottom, Ark., Bryant grew up poor and displayed little interest in academics. A teenage stunt wrestling a carnival bear affixed him with a lifelong nickname. On a lark, he took up with the high school football team and later was recruited to play at the University of Alabama, where he garnered respect and attention after playing against Tennessee despite a broken leg.
His college coach, Frank Thomas, suggested a coaching foray after graduation. As an assistant, Bryant displayed a knack for strategy and recruiting. As a head coach, he built a reputation for relentless toughness on the practice field - infamously preventing players from taking water breaks - during stops at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M. When his alma mater offered the job of head football coach, Bryant said his difficult decision to leave Texas A&M boiled down to loyalty: "Mama called."
The clearest argument for Bryant's greatness, made here by Mr. Barra with superb logic, is his spanning of two eras: the period when players played both offense and defense, and the modern era of unlimited substitution.
In Alabama, Bryant ruled the college football landscape at the same time George Wallace occupied the governor's mansion. Bryant was a racial moderate, though critics say he failed to wield his power to speed integration.
Yet African-Americans who played at Alabama in the 1970s offer glowing accounts of Bryant's fairness and character. Bryant negotiated to bring Southern California's integrated team to Birmingham in 1970, resulting in an Alabama thrashing led by African-American runner Sam "Bam" Cunningham. As Bryant later said, "Cunningham did more for integration in Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr."
Said Ozzie Newsome, one of Alabama's early African-American star players: "Martin Luther King Jr. preached equality. Coach Bryant practiced it."
And yet it would be unwise to afford Bryant excessive credit on the race issue. When Wallace threatened to cut university funding if the school allowed integration, Bryant - the state's most iconic figure - had enough political capital to take a stand. He did not.
At the same time, Barra details Bryant's warm view of Robert F. Kennedy, Wallace's most hated foe. Bryant even made a point of being seen with Kennedy in public when the attorney general visited Tuscaloosa.
On the field, greatness carried a steep price, not just for Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and other Alabama players, but for Bryant, too. He was an alcoholic, a workaholic, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and was said to have committed adultery on several occasions.
At the end of his life - Bryant died 28 days after coaching his final game - he questioned whether the glory was worth the sacrifice.
"I've reached a point where thirty minutes after the last game, I start thinking about the next game," Bryant said in 1982. "That's ridiculous."
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.