Coach: The Life of Paul 'Bear' Bryant
By Keith Dunnavant, Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $24
If there hadn't been a Paul "Bear" Bryant, certainly some fiction writer would have invented him. He was born in tiny Moro Botton, Ark., earned his name from wrestling a bear, and rose from rural poverty to become the winningest major-college football coach (and perhaps the richest) of his era.
Although Bryant's image will be one of four used in a 1997 postage stamp series on legendary football coaches, this seems a curious time to write a book about Bryant, whose passing in 1983 came at the end of a 46-year career. Bryant's anecdotally rich and much-chronicled life may not require an additional retelling, but Keith Dunnavant has done such a masterful job in his debut as an author that "Coach: The Life of Paul 'Bear' Bryant" immediately takes its place in this reviewer's list of best sports books.
Although a native of Alabama, where Bryant is revered for putting the state and the University of Alabama football team on the sports map, Dunnavant is not blinded by Bryant's intimidating, larger-than-life persona.
He sheds light on the man's character, including his weaknesses, while avoiding a common sports-book pitfall - replaying games in boring detail. In Bryant's case there was plenty of opportunity for the latter as his Alabama, University of Kentucky, and Texas A&M teams won 323 games. Alabama won six national championships.
Bryant was at times a controversial figure. His efforts to whip the Texas A&M program into shape one summer with a grueling training camp are considered a low point in the mistreatment of college athletes. Bryant did not see eye-to-eye with Alabama Gov. George Wallace on racial matters, yet he bided his time and successfully made the transition that many of his Southern contemporaries avoided by retiring.
Bryant was also a central figure in an alleged game-fixing scandal that at the time was far more shocking than this season's revelations of betting by members of the Boston College football team.
The story hinged on a telephone conversation between Bryant and University of Georgia athletic director Wally Butts overheard by a third caller. Bryant later won a $300,000 libel settlement and a retraction from the Saturday Evening Post, which had published the story. Bryant said the phone conversation was nothing more than two guys chewing the fat about a favorite topic - football.
*Ross Atkin is a sportswriter for the Monitor.