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Bear Bryant 'simply the best there ever was'
By Mike Puma
Special to ESPN.com


"His nickname was Bear. Now imagine a guy that can carry the nickname Bear," says Joe Namath on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Bear Bryant
Bryant's first, and only, priority was winning.
After breaking the record for career victories by a college football head coach, Paul (Bear) Bryant called himself a tired old man who never got tired of football. When Bryant finally retired, he didn't receive an opportunity to enjoy life away from the game, if that were possible for him. He died 28 days after coaching his last game.

While Bryant's 323 major-college victories have been eclipsed by Penn State's Joe Paterno and Florida State's Bobby Bowden, Bryant left a legacy that encompassed more than 37 winning seasons overall and five Associated Press national championships at Alabama. No college coach in the second half of the 20th century commanded a bigger presence. Bryant became an icon, a symbol of strength and moral righteousness as much as success.

"Even his peers in the coaching business felt in awe of him," Paterno said. "He had such charisma. He was just a giant figure."

Bryant's record in 38 years at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama was 323-85-17 (.780). He took 29 teams to bowl games and led 15 to conference championships. In the 1960s and 1970s, no school won more games than Alabama (193-32-5).

"He was simply the best there ever was," former Nebraska coach Bob Devaney said.

Distinguished by the houndstooth hat he wore on the sidelines, Bryant molded teams in his image, focusing on aggressive defense and execution on special teams. As a player at Alabama, Bryant demonstrated his toughness by playing against Tennessee with a broken leg.

Bryant's first training camp as Texas A&M coach did much to write his legacy as a disciplinarian: Bryant took his "Junction Boys" to a small Texas town and ran a boot camp in which more than two-thirds of his players quit.

"I don't want ordinary people," Bryant said. "I want people who are willing to sacrifice and do without a lot of those things ordinary students get to do. That's what it takes to win."

He was born Sept. 11, 1913 in the community of Moro Bottom, outside Fordyce, Ark. Paul was the 11th of 12 children, three of whom died as infants. His family was poor. Bryant's father, Monroe, was a farmer and his mother, Ida Mae, tended to the family. Monroe became ill when Paul was a toddler, forcing his wife to run the farm. Chores were plentiful for all the children.

Bear Bryant
Paul "Bear" Bryant coached Texas A&M to a 25-14-2 record from 1954-57.
By 13, Paul already stood 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. He earned the nickname that would stick with him for life by accepting a challenge to wrestle a bear at a carnival for $1. Although Bryant had his ear bitten, the carnival never paid him.

Bryant's football career began as an eighth-grader playing for Fordyce High School. He had never seen a game when he played in his first, as an offensive end and defensive lineman. Considered a fierce hitter, Bryant earned All-State honors as a senior and led Fordyce to a state championship.

Despite failing to graduate with his class, Bryant accepted an athletic scholarship to Alabama. Upon arriving in Tuscaloosa in 1931, he enrolled in high school for the fall semester to earn his degree while practicing with the Crimson Tide.

Considered the other end to future Hall of Fame receiver Don Hutson, Bryant helped Alabama go 23-3-2 from 1933 to 1935. He was a second-team All-SEC selection in 1934 and a third-team pick in 1935.

In June 1935, Bryant secretly married Mary Harmon. Their first of two children, Mae Martin, was born nine months later. Paul Jr. was born in 1944.

After graduating in 1936, Bryant was an assistant coach with Alabama for four years and Vanderbilt for two. Just when it appeared as if he might become Arkansas' head coach, the U.S. entered World War II. Bryant served in the Navy, on the U.S.S. Uruguay, before becoming the head coach of a preflight training school football team in North Carolina. When the war ended, Bryant was named head coach at Maryland.

The Terrapins went 6-2-1 in 1945, but Bryant resigned after the season because he deemed the school's president as meddlesome. Hired by Kentucky, Bryant immediately revived a dormant program, leading the Wildcats to a 7-3 mark in 1946.

In eight seasons, Bryant's Wildcats went 60-23-5 and earned four bowl berths. The highlight was an SEC championship in 1950 and a 13-7 upset of No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

After the 1953 season, Bryant signed a 12-year contract extension at Kentucky, with hopes of making football the school's primary sport. Within weeks, however, he realized popular basketball coach Adolph Rupp was also ready to receive an extension. Bryant had earlier been told by the school's president that Rupp would be fired for rules violations. Feeling as if he had been duped, Bryant quit.

Bear Bryant
Bryant took Alabama to bowl games in his final 24 seasons.
That led him to Texas A&M, where he was given the job of athletic director as well as coach. Bryant's six-year contract was for $25,000 per season plus it called for him to receive an unprecedented one percent of the gate.

Bryant wasted no time trying to reshape the Aggies. His first preseason camp (many referred to it as boot camp) was held in Junction, Tex., in the 100-degree heat. Bryant started camp with 111 players, but all except 35 quit within 10 days. Among Bryant's tests of toughness was banning water breaks for his players.

The Aggies went 1-9 in 1954, the only losing season of Bryant's career. Two years later, though, they went 9-0-1 and won the Southwest Conference championship. However, Texas A&M didn't get invited to the Cotton Bowl because of a two-year bowl ban imposed by the NCAA the previous year for widespread rules violations, including players receiving money.

After leading the Aggies to an 8-3 record in 1957, Bryant was asked to return to his alma mater. Bryant said it was if he had "heard mama calling" and signed a 10-year contract to become Alabama's head coach and athletic director.

Bryant revived a floundering program, leading the Crimson Tide to a 5-4-1 record his first season, one more victory than the school had in the three previous years combined. Alabama went 7-2-2 and a No. 10 ranking in 1959, starting a string of 24 straight postseason appearances under Bryant.

In the 1960s, Alabama ruled college football, winning national championships in 1961, 1964 and 1965. But even Bryant's top players weren't exempt from the coach's wrath. Joe Namath was suspended for the final two games of the 1963 season for violating Bryant's no-alcohol policy and Ken Stabler was booted from the team in 1967 for cutting class and partying. Both eventually got second chances.

After the 1969 season, Bryant mulled a $1.7-million offer for five seasons to coach the Miami Dolphins. The money tempted Bryant, but he remained, saying he was secure financially and would never leave Alabama just for financial reasons.

For years, Bryant defended charges of racism by saying the social climate didn't allow him to go after black players. In 1970, Bryant recruited Wilbur Jackson as Alabama's first African-American scholarship player. The following season, junior-college transfer John Mitchell became the first black to play for Alabama. By 1973, one-third of the team's starters were African-American.

The Crimson Tide were 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in 1973 before losing 24-23 to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

A heavy drinker, Bryant secretly checked himself into alcohol rehab in the spring of 1978. He stayed a month and later resumed drinking.

Alabama's final national championships under Bryant came in the 1978 and 1979 seasons when it went 23-1.

In November 1981, a 28-17 win over Auburn was Bryant's 315th career victory, enabling him to pass Amos Alonzo Stagg's all-time record. (Later, Pop Warner was recognized with 319 victories.) Following an 8-4 season in 1982, Bryant retired. On Jan. 26, 1983, he died from heart failure. Bear Bryant was 69.

"He wasn't just a coach," former USC coach John McKay said. "He was the coach."





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