Saturday, January 26, 2013

There Was No One Like the Bear

"His nickname was Bear. Now imagine a guy that can carry the nickname Bear."

Joe Namath

Until I breathe my last breath, I will remember watching football games on TV with my father when I was growing up.

We didn't have a TV until I was in elementary school, but once we got one, my memory is that we always watched college football on Saturdays and pro football on Sundays — and then, when Monday Night Football came along, I watched those games with my father, too.

(Well, I watched the first halves. When the game reached halftime, I knew it was time for me to go to bed — and I would drift off to sleep listening to the banter from the broadcast booth coming from the TV in our living room.

(On rare occasions, my parents would permit me to stay up and watch a game to the end. I always felt a little more grown up at those times, the same as I did whenever my parents allowed me to stay up to watch Johnny Carson.)

I guess one of the nice things — one of the reassuring truths — of life in those days was the certainty that some things never changed.

Tom Landry was always the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Woody Hayes was always the coach of Ohio State. Joe Paterno was always the coach of Penn State.

In Arkansas, where I grew up, Frank Broyles was always the coach of the Razorbacks. When he announced his retirement in 1976, I was shocked. Who would coach the Hogs? I wondered. Broyles had been the Razorbacks' only coach in my lifetime — and I was in my teens when he stepped down.

I simply could not imagine anyone else walking the sidelines that Broyles had walked all those years.

(Ironically, one of the things I always enjoyed as a student at the University of Arkansas when I attended football games was being able to watch Broyles' hand–picked successor, the hyperactive Lou Holtz, doing precisely that — but in his own Woody Allen–like fashion.)

Bear Bryant was much the same way. He wasn't the only man to coach Alabama's football team, but he was Alabama when I was growing up. I'm sure there were thousands of people in Alabama who grew up in those days who believed — to some extent — that the 'Bama coaching job was created for Bear Bryant — and would cease to exist without him.

He was always easy to spot, even if one was seated a great distance from the field — and I speak from experience on that. Once, I attended a Sugar Bowl in which Alabama participated. My seat was in the nosebleed section, but I could still spot Bear Bryant.

He was an imposing figure, and he always wore his trademark houndstooth hat — sometimes with a matching jacket — to football games. Well, there were exceptions. He didn't wear his hat when Alabama played in a domed stadium. Once, I recall, he was asked about that, and he said his mother raised him to take off his hat when he was inside.

Because of that, I didn't get to see him wearing that hat in person. That Sugar Bowl was played in the Superdome.

There were other Southern coaches who wore hats to games — in the pros, for example, Landry did and so did Bum Phillips. Like the Bear, though, most of them wouldn't wear a hat when a game was being played indoors, either.

But I believe Bryant was the first.

When I was a child in the 1960s, George Wallace was the state's most prominent, most popular (and most notorious) politician. Bear Bryant was probably the only man in Alabama who could have beaten Wallace in a race for anything.

In the long and storied history of college football, there was never anyone like the Bear. He coached Alabama for a quarter of a century and averaged a national title about every four years. When he retired at the end of the 1982 season, he had won more games than any other college football coach.

In the last 30 years, Bryant has been surpassed in total victories by a handful of coaches who had the good fortune of playing more games in a given year and who really only needed to break even to receive a bowl bid.

The team Bryant took over in 1958 had won only eight games in the previous four seasons. Bryant led the Crimson Tide to five wins in his first season alone and then proceeded to take the Tide to bowl games in 24 consecutive seasons (1959–1982) — at a time when bowl bids really meant something.

Bowl bids were more precious in the Bear's day. There must be three or four times as many bowls today as there were then. Today's bar is ridiculously low.

Yet winning was even more routine at Alabama in those days than it is today. Whenever a Bryant–coached Alabama team lost — to anyone — it was big news. Stop the presses news.

Bear Bryant died 30 years ago today. That was big news, too.

But it probably wouldn't have surprised the Bear, had he known of it.

The night of his final game, a 21–15 Liberty Bowl victory over Illinois, he was asked what he would do in retirement. "Probably croak in a week," he replied.

It was actually a month later, but his words were prophetic. He passed a routine physical on Jan. 25, 1983 but died the next day.

His cause of death was given as a heart attack, but it was actually a combination of health issues he had been battling for three years. His doctor said Bryant's battle had been "heroic," TIME magazine reported — but his motives for staying at Alabama weren't entirely altruistic.

About the only reason he stayed was to complete his pursuit of the title of winningest college football coach of all time.

He did reach that pinnacle in 1981, and he stayed on to coach another season, but he felt his performance was sub–par.

"[I]n my opinion, they deserved better coaching than they have been getting from me this year," Bryant said of his players. And he chose to step down.

A month after his last game, he was dead.

I will always remember when I heard that Bryant had died. I was working for a small newspaper in central Arkansas where the custom was for the most junior staffer to cover the police and fire beats, which occasionally meant covering trials in the county courthouse.

I was the most junior staffer in January 1983.

On this day in 1983, I was sitting in a courtroom. I don't recall now what kind of trial was being conducted, but I remember there was some kind of break, and I was sitting in the courtroom with a few other people when the bailiff came in and, with an ashen look on his face, said simply, "Bear Bryant died today."

The news was delivered in the same somber tones that are often reserved for the announcement of the death of a president or a pope.

A few minutes later, the judge came in and told us, in the same somber tones, that the court would adjourn for the remainder of the day. As I walked out of the courthouse, I saw some folks lowering the American flag to half staff.

Ordinarily, the courthouse wouldn't lower the flag unless a former president or governor had died. But they lowered the flag that day in honor of a football coach who coached and died in another state.

I suppose it helped that he was born and raised in Arkansas. Nevertheless, that is the kind of respect Bryant enjoyed.

There was no one like the Bear.

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