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Paul William “Bear” Bryant is one of America’s all-time most successful college football coaches. At the time of his death, he had won more games than any other coach, including the legendary Amos Alonzo Staggs and Pop Warner. Arkansas-born Bryant remains an icon not only for athletic accomplishments but for personal strength, determination, and the will to win.
Paul William Bryant was born on September 11, 1913, near Kingsland (Cleveland County) in south central Arkansas, to William Monroe Bryant, a farmer, and Dora Ida Kilgore Bryant, a homemaker. Bryant was the eighth surviving child (three died at birth) of a total of nine. He had four brothers and four sisters and was the youngest boy, with one sister born four years after him. Their home was a three-square-mile area called Moro Bottom (sometimes referred to as Moro Bottoms), an unincorporated place where seven families lived.
Due to his father’s ill health and the family’s poverty, Bryant often stayed with his grandfather, W. L. Kilgore, in nearby Fordyce (Dallas County), where he discovered football, playing for the Fordyce High School Redbugs. In 1927, he entered a contest at the Fordyce Theatre promising a dollar to anyone who could wrestle a bear. The teenage Bryant was never paid but acquired the nickname “Bear.”
His 1930 Fordyce team had a perfect season and claimed an Arkansas high school football state championship. An assistant coach from Alabama came to Fordyce in 1931 to scout two other players (who decided to go to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville) and ended up signing Bryant to an athletic scholarship for the University of Alabama.
As an Alabama player, Bryant helped his team win the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship during the SEC’s inaugural season in 1933, playing right offensive end. During a 1935 game against Tennessee, Bryant led Alabama to a 25–0 victory despite playing with a broken bone in his leg. That same year, he married campus beauty queen Mary Harmon Black, with whom he had two children, Mae Martin and Paul Jr. Before graduating from the University of Alabama in 1936, Bryant played in the Rose Bowl and helped his team claim the national title.
In 1941, after coaching at Union College (now Union University in Jackson, Tennessee) and Vanderbilt University, Bryant was on his way to Arkansas, where he was being considered to be head coach of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, when he heard that World War II had begun. He promptly enlisted in the Navy rather than join the Razorbacks. After his military service, he coached football at universities including Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, where his legend grew in a game when his Aggies trailed 12–0 in the final two minutes yet still managed to win. Bryant had told his team there was still time for them to win if they believed they could, and they went on to score twenty unanswered points, winning the game.
In 1958, Bryant began his twenty-five year tenure as head coach of the University of Alabama. Under Bryant, the Alabama Crimson Tide won national titles in 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, and 1979. Bryant won this last championship with a perfect season, including his defeat of Lou Holtz’s Arkansas Razorbacks in the Sugar Bowl. He announced his retirement in 1982, with the Crimson Tide winning his last bowl game, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, on December 29. His record at Alabama was 232–46–9, with his team playing in twenty-four consecutive post-season bowl games. Bryant was Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year ten times, a three-time National Coach of the Year, and he received one and a half votes for the Democratic presidential nomination at the 1968 Chicago, Illinois, convention. His overall coaching record was 325–85–17.
Less than one month after winning the 1982 Liberty Bowl, sixty-nine-year-old Paul “Bear” Bryant died of a heart attack on January 26, 1983. Following a funeral procession which ran for three miles, he was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama. A month after his death, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by Ronald Reagan. At the time of his death, he was the all-time most successful coach in American college football history.
For additional information:Barra, Allen. The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
Briley, John David. Career in Crisis: Paul “Bear” Bryant and the 1971 Season of Change. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006.
Dunnavant, Keith. Coach: The Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Herskowitz, Mickey. The Legend of Bear Bryant. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.
Puma, Mike. “Bear Bryant ‘Simply the Best There Ever Was.” ESPN Classic. http://espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/Bryant_Bear.html (accessed June 11, 2014).
Roberts, Randy, and Ed Krzemienski. Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s Last Quarter. New York: Twelve, 2013.
Nancy HendricksArkansas State University
Last Updated 11/12/2014
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