The history of college football is preserved not only in words and numbers, but in images and notable symbols. One of the most enduring images is Bear Bryant, houndstooth hat
on his head, leaning against a goalpost prior to an Alabama game. The first time I saw Bear Bryant in person was in 1957 when the Bear had just arrived to rebuild a decimated Alabama football program. My dad said to me, as we sat at Venderbilt Stadium in Nashville on a Saturday evening, "Son, see that men there" as he pointed at the Bear on the sideline, "Someday he will make this team truly great again."
My dad added that he had grown up in the some Arkansas county and was born the same year as Bryant and thus he knew him before he became a legend. An impression was made on me as a boy that I will never forget. My dad proved to be prophetic this evening. By 1961 Bear Bryant won his first of six Alabama national titles. (He should have one or two more but the polls messed it up, especially in 1966, the year before I got to Tuscaloosa.)
To people who love this sport, like me, this all symbolizes what college football—and especially southern college football—is all about.
"Coach Bryant’s mark on college football is as great as anyone’s," said John Majors, coach at Tennessee in 1977-92 whose Vols faced Bryant’s teams six times. "He was a great builder and an outstanding leader who believed in the fundamentals of the game. He commanded great respect."
Today is the 25th anniversary of Bryant’s death.
He died on January 26, 1983, at age 72, one day after he entered Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, complaining of chest pains. He died 28 days after coaching his last game—a memorable Crimson Tide victory over Illinois in the 1982 Liberty Bowl that I still prise on a VHS tape in my collection.
His legacy of extraordinary success is quite staggering. He won six national championships and 13 Southeastern Conference titles at Alabama, where his record in 25 seasons was 232-46-9. He marked the SEC like no other coach and made it the best football conference in America by forcing all the other teams to play up to his standards.
Besides a short stint as an assistent coach at Vanderbilt Bryant was a head coach at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M. His 38-year record was 323-85-17. At the time of his retirement, he held the record for the most coaching victories, now surpassed by both Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.
But his impact went far beyond all those wins and losses. Although other SEC schools broke the color barrier first, Bryant was a key figure in integration of the conference.
In 1970, Bryant recruited Wilbur Jackson as Alabama’s first African-American scholarship player. The following season, John Mitchell, a junior-college transfer, became the first African-American to play for Alabama. By 1973, one-third of his team’s starters were black. Some say he did more for civil rights in Alabama than anyone who ever lived in that eara. That may or may not be the case but he did make a real difference. I was there when it happened and I cana tell you that southern love for football followed his example and the game was never the same. You could feel the changes as hey came to the campus in the late 60s and early 70s.
Bryant’s coaching system was rooted in the game’s fundamentals but he was not afraid to change with the times. After his 1969 and ’70 Alabama teams went 6-5 and 6-5-1 (I was there for the seasons of 1967 and 1968, which were not great years for
Bear Bryant either), he installed the wishbone offense, a move now seen as legendary. His teams then won three national championships in the ’70s, after alums were calling him old and asking him to retire!
As for the signature houndstooth hat, it’s difficult to nail down exactly when and why Bryant started wearing it. Some football historians say it became standard game-day attire for Bryant after his Crimson Tide won the 1965 national championship.
One story holds that it was a gift from Bryant’s Alabama classmate Mel Allen, the longtime broadcaster for the New York Yankees.
As a Nashville Tennessean sports writer put it in today’s edition (from which I borrowed liberally some of my information used above): "Whatever the case, the hat didn’t make the man. The man made the hat."
As an Alabama fan a day like this brings back a lot of memories of great times in the past. It also makes fans like me long for new glory on the gridiron. Hopefully Nick Saban
will bring something of the glory back to this program that hasn’t been the same for twenty-five years. There was one national championship, in 1991 under Gene Stallings a Bear Bryant disciple, but that is it.
I believe Nick Saban is the closest coach that Bama has had to the Bear Bryant way of recruiting and teaching football to college athletes. All controversy aside, especially about how he left the Miami Dolphins, I believe he has the right stuff to make Alabama once again proud of its tradition in this new era. As a Bama fan I sure hope so.