Bear Bryant

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Paul "Bear" Bryant

Paul William "Bear" Bryant, Sr (born September 11, 1913 in Moro Bottom, Arkansas; died January 26, 1983 in Tuscaloosa) was the longtime head football coach for the University of Alabama football team, he led the Tide to three undefeated seasons, six national championships, 14 Southeastern Conference titles, and 24 bowl games. He eclipsed Amos Alonzo Stagg's record as the all-time most successful coach in NCAA Division I college football, with his 315th win in 1981 and retired after the 1982 season with a lifetime record of 323-85-17.

Early life

Bryant (12) with Don Hutson (37) in 1934.

Bryant was the 11th of 12 children born to William Monroe and Ida Kilgore Bryant of Cleveland County, Arkansas. They lived on a farm near Moro Creek, in an area informally called "Moro Bottom", near Kingsland. He and his siblings grew up working the farm largely by themselves, as his father suffered from various disabilities. In 1927, after the family moved to Fordyce, the 13-year-old Bryant wrestled a bear during a theater promotion, earning him the lifelong nickname. He began playing football as an eighth-grader when the coach of Fordyce High School asked him to join the team. He played on the offensive and defensive lines for the Red Bugs' 1930 Arkansas state football championship.

In 1931 Bryant accepted a scholarship offer from assistant Hank Crisp to play football for the University of Alabama. He completed his high school diploma in Tuscaloosa while practicing with the Tide. As a defensive end he played opposite fellow Arkansan Don Hutson on the 1934 team that won a National Championship and defeated Stanford in the 1935 Rose Bowl. During the 1935 season he took the field against Tennessee with a fractured bone in his leg. His playing record in college was 23-3-2. He was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 4th round of the 1936 National Football League draft, but never played professional football. Instead he opted for a career as a coach. He married Mary Harmon Black of Troy on June 2, 1935.

Coaching career

Assistant & North Carolina Pre-Flight

After graduating in 1936, Bryant took a coaching job at Union College (now Union University) in Jackson, Tennessee, but left that position when offered an assistant coaching position back at Alabama. Over the next four years, the team compiled a 29-5-3 record. In 1940 he left to become an assistant at Vanderbilt University under Henry Russell Sanders. Bryant left Vanderbilt as it became clear his destiny was a head coach, not assistant. The next winter he was to have become the head coach at the University of Arkansas were it not for the attack on Pearl Harbor. As he was driving to Arkansas to accept the job, Bryant listened to radio coverage of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Instead of continuing to Arkansas, Bryant turned his car around and enlisted in the United States Navy. He served in North Africa, seeing no action, before being granted an honorable discharge to train recruits and coach the football team at North Carolina Pre-Flight. While in the Navy, he attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

University of Maryland

In 1945 Bryant accepted the job as head coach at the University of Maryland. He coached the Terrapins for only one season (6-2-1), during which he was in constant competition for ultimate control of the football program with former Terrapin coach and then University President, Harry C. Byrd. In the most widely publicised example of the power struggle between the two, Bryant suspended a player for violating team rules only to discover that Byrd had the player reinstated while Bryant was away on vacation. The power struggle culminated with Bryant confronting Byrd in a closed door meeting that lasted hours. During the meeting, word leaked that Bryant was leaving among the students. A reported 3,000 students organized demonstrations for several days in an attempt to convince Bryant to stay. A reluctant Bryant addressed the crowd, telling them that he was leaving and the university administration needed their support, not blame. Bryant left Maryland to take over the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky.

University of Kentucky

Bryant coached at the University of Kentucky for eight seasons which included Kentucky's first bowl appearance (1947) and their first (and only) Southeastern Conference title (1950). The 1950 Kentucky team is considered to be the national champions by at least one ranking system, the Sagarin ratings; that team defeated Bud Wilkinso]'s #1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl but the AP polls then came out before the bowl games. Bryant led Kentucky to appearances in the Great Lakes Bowl, Orange Bowl , Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl. Kentucky's final AP poll rankings under Bryant included #11 in 1949, #7 in 1950 (before defeating #1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl), #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.

Bryant left Kentucky after the end of the 1953 season.

Texas A&M University

In 1954 Bryant, in need of a job, accepted the head coaching job at Texas A&M University.

The Aggies suffered through a grueling 1-9 initial season which began with the famous training camp in Junction, Texas. The “survivors” were given the name “Junction Boys”. But only two years later, possibly a result of the Junction experience, 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.

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 at Alabama.

University of Alabama

Bear Bryant in 1966

Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa as head coach in 1958. The turnaround at Alabama was almost immediate. After winning a combined four games the previous three years, 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 previous six years. It was two years later, however, in 1961, that Alabama regained dominance and Bryant first ascended to the throne of college football. The 1961 team went 11-0 and defeated Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl to claim the national championship; the defense allowed a mere 25 points all season, compiling six shutouts, five of them coming consecutively. No defense since has fared better on paper than the 1961 Crimson Tide defense led by Lee Roy Jordan.

Bryant signed a new 10-year contract, worth $18,000 per year, in January 1962. The next three seasons, during which he started Joe Namath at quarterback, were among the Tide'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 1963 Sugar Bowl. In 1964, the Tide won another national championship but lost to the University of Texas in the Orange Bowl in the first nationally-televised college game in color. The Crimson Tide would repeat as champions in 1965. Coming off of back-to-back national championship seasons, Bryant's Alabama team went undefeated in 1966 and defeated a strong Nebraska team 39-28 in the Orange Bowl. Despite this, Alabama finished third in the nation behind Michigan State and Notre Dame, both of which had one tie (against each other), and neither of which chose to play in a bowl game that season.

1967, however, would mark the beginning of a downturn for Bryant and the Tide. 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 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. It was in 1969 and 1970, however, that Bryant reached the trough of his coaching career, going 6-5 and 6-5-1 respectively.

In 1971, Bryant re-invented himself, Alabama, and the game when he installed the wishbone offense. The offense had been invented by Emory Bellard, and Darrell Royal had won national championships with it at Texas in 1969 and 1970. Bryant saw the wishbone first hand in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl against Oklahoma, and on the plane ride home he became fascinated with the new formation. That summer, he arranged for visits with friend and colleague Darrell Royal, who showed Bryant the ins and outs of the wishbone. He kept the new offense secret until he finally unveiled it against USC in the first game of the 1971 season, as the Tide defeated the stunned Trojans 17-10. The tide went on to share championships with USC and Notre Dame and finally won a championship outright in 1979.

He coached at Alabama for 25 years, winning six national titles (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979). In the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Bryant received one and a half votes for presidential candidate. His win over in-state rival Auburn University, coached by former Bryant assistant Pat Dye in November 1981 was Bryant's 315th, earning him the record for victories over Amos Alonzo Stagg. When Bryant retired after the 1982 season, his record at Alabama totaled 232-46-9.

In his career Bryant participated in a total of 31 post-season bowl games including 24 consecutively at Alabama. He had 15 bowl wins, including eight Sugar Bowls, was a 10-time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year and a four-time National Coach of the Year; an award subsequently named the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award in his honor. Even today his legacy casts a long shadow over every subsequent head coach at Alabama. A great testament to Bryant, as a person, is the trust fund he created which enables the children of every player he coached to attend college for free.


Bryant announced his retirement as head football coach at Alabama effective with the end of the 1982 season. His last game was a 21-15 victory in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee over the University of Illinois. When asked in a post-game interview what he intended to do while retired, Bryant sarcastically replied that he would "probably croak in a week."

He had intended to stay on with the University as athletic director, but died on January 26, 1983 after checking into a hospital in Tuscaloosa with chest pains. His death came less than a month after his last game as a coach. Three churches were needed to hold the multitudes that gathered for the funeral service on January 28, 1983.

The State of Alabama came to a standstill as the five-mile procession slowly rolled down Tenth Street in Tuscaloosa, past the stadium that for 25 years had been filled with fans cheering him on, past Memorial Coliseum where his office was located. The funeral cortege was viewed by over 100,000 mourners as it made its way down I-59 to Birmingham. Bryant was laid to rest in Elmwood Cemetery.


Bear Bryant monument at Legion Field

A crimson line is painted on the road in Elmwood Cemetery from the entrance of the cemetery that leads directly to his gravesite. To this day, fans still travel to his grave to pay their respects or leave flowers and other Alabama-related material. In February 1983 President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium (which was named for him in 1975, more than seven years before his death), as well as a high school and Paul W. Bryant Drive, a major street that runs through the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, are named for him. There is also a museum dedicated to him on Alabama's campus. A national "College Football Coach of the Year" award is named for him and he was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1996.

After his death in 1983, the Associated Press named its college football national championship trophy after Bryant. At Legion Field, the site of countless Bryant triumphs, there stands a statue in his honor. Prior to the start of the 2006 season, Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium received a number of upgrades including statues of Bryant and the three other Crimson Tide coaches to take Alabama to national championships (Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, and Gene Stallings).

Bryant is fondly remembered, even revered, in Alabama for his reputation as a tough, dedicated leader with an indisputable record of success who cared deeply about his football players long after they hung up their cleats. His trademark houndstooth hat is an instantly-recognizable icon.

Bryant's lasting legacy was evident when former Alabama quarterback Joe Namath was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. During Namath's acceptance speech, the former New York Jets icon broke down when mentioning Bryant.

Gary Busey portrayed Bryant in a 1984 biographical film, "The Bear". Sonny Shroyer, best known as Enos from The Dukes of Hazzard, appears briefly as Bryant in Forrest Gump. Tom Berenger played Bryant in the 2003 movie The Junction Boys depicting Bryant's first season as head coach at Texas A&M.

Bryant's son, Paul W. Bryant, Jr founded a bank called Bryant Bank, based in Birmingham.

See also

Preceded by:
Ears Whitworth
Alabama Crimson Tide Head Football Coach
1958 - 1982
Succeeded by:
Ray Perkins


  • Kabase, George (January 1962) "'Bama signs Bear to 10-year contract." Birmingham News
  • "Remembering Bear" (1983) Birmingham News staff.
  • Stoddard, Tom (2000) Turnaround: The Untold Story of Bear Bryant's First Year as Head Coach at Alabama. Montgomery: Black Belt Press
  • Williams, Sylvia B. (2002) Paul Bryant, Football Legend. Seacoast Publishing
  • Barra, Allan (2005) The Last Coach. W. W. Norton
  • Briley, John David (2006) Career in Crisis. Mercer University Press
  • Bryant, Paul W. & John Underwood (2007) Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama's Coach Bryant. Boston: Little Brown
  • Gaddy, Ken (August 17, 2010) "Paul William "Bear" Bryant" Encyclopedia of Alabama
  • "Bear Bryant" (September 9, 2010) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia - accessed September 11, 2010

External links