Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Bear Centennial

"If we had been more vigilant, September 11 would still be known as Bear Bryant's birthday."

Actor Fred Thompson

If Bear Bryant still lived, today would be his 100th birthday.

But, as I observed in January, he's been dead for 30 years.

In Alabama, they've been working on plans for the centennial birthday celebration for more than a year. It hasn't been an easy task. The director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum lamented last year that the problem was deciding what could be omitted.

Bryant's life story really was like that. Every moment seems to be so significant that to leave out anything is to somehow diminish the life.

Frankly, it reminds me of the disclaimer at the start of the movie "Gandhi""No man's life can be encompassed in one telling."

And so it is with the Bear Bryant story.

(Last night, on the eve of Bryant's 100th birthday, I saw a post from the Huntsville (Ala.) Times about Bryant's last letter. "Bryant would frequently reply to fan mail," writes Melissa Brown, "even in January 1983, the month he passed away."

(Apparently, many of those fans believe they received the last letter Bryant wrote.)

It was just as hard, I suppose, to decide what the most appropriate salute should be.

About the only thing that would be truly appropriate on this occasion would be if Alabama or Texas A&M, the schools where Bryant left his mark as a coach, could play a game today. But this is Wednesday, and college football teams rarely play games in the middle of the week.

However, college football teams do play on Saturdays, and Alabama and Texas A&M will be playing each other in College Station this Saturday.

That is so perfect that it almost certainly was planned. Considering the stature Bryant has in this game, it might well have been planned even if the two schools were not competing in the same conference.

Let me say right now that I have seen no evidence that it was planned — but Alabama and Texas A&M are conference rivals now (they weren't in the Bear's day), and the modern Southeastern Conference is so big now that it has two divisions. Members of a division always play each other — they alternate their games against teams in the other division, but they always play the teams in their own division.

Alabama and Texas A&M are in the same division. Last year, they played in Alabama, and A&M handed Alabama its only loss of the year (en route to its second consecutive national title). The Aggies' quarterback also became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

There's enough intrigue surrounding that game to entice even the Bear — and that would have taken some doing in his lifetime. He must have faced off against just about every major football coach in the country at one time or another.

I know for a fact he faced Joe Paterno at least once because I was there. My family and I went to New Orleans to see the Sugar Bowl one year, and Alabama was playing Penn State.

In a quarter of a century as the head coach at Alabama, Bryant faced and defeated Bob Devaney, Ara Parseghian, Bud Wilkinson, John McKay, Lou Holtz, Woody Hayes, Tom Osborne, Barry Switzer. He never faced Bo Schembechler, and he never managed to beat Darrell Royal in four tries.

And Bryant once faced Frank Broyles, the longtime head coach at my alma mater, the University of Arkansas. Bryant won, and I've always been struck by an irony. After the 1941 season, during which Bryant was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, he was offered the head coaching job at Arkansas.

I guess a little historical background is needed here. Fred Thomsen had been Arkansas' coach since 1929, and he had done some good things for the Razorbacks. He won the Hogs' first Southwest Conference title in 1933 — when Bryant was playing end for Alabama — but the title was forfeited when it turned out he had used an ineligible athlete.

Thomsen also popularized the forward pass at Arkansas. He even had different quarterbacks, depending on conditions — one for wet weather and another for dry weather. He had good years and bad years through 1937, and if he had left after that season, his name probably would be revered today on the Arkansas campus and, indeed, throughout the state.

But the Hogs went 13–25–2 from 1938–41, and there were rumblings among the fans (according to a book on the Razorbacks that was co–written by one of my former Arkansas Gazette colleagues) that the program needed a "name" coach to revive it.

Thomsen had enlisted in the service after Pearl Harbor, and it came as a surprise to his wife that the Board of Trustees, authorized by the state legislature, arranged to cut him a check — and, in the process, cut the school's ties with him — while he was serving his country abroad.

At the same time, apparently, the school was pursuing Bryant (who was born in Arkansas) to lead the team, but Bryant had enlisted in the Navy. So Arkansas endured some misfires at the head coaching position before finally getting a long–termer in Broyles in 1958, the same year Bryant went to Alabama.

Arkansas fans can only wonder what might have been if the war had not interfered. Broyles had some great years at Arkansas — he even shared a national title with Bryant once — but his career was not even close to Bryant's. In all honesty, no one's was.

When Bryant died 30 years ago, the people of Alabama lined the highway overpasses in respectful silence to watch the funeral procession go by.

I can think of no other figure from Alabama who commanded that kind of respect — not firebrand politicians, not Supreme Court justices, no one.

The Bear was one of a kind.

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