The ultimate college football coach was a large, lumbering man with such a deep, rumbling voice that his nickname, Bear, fit him as snugly as the hounds-tooth hats he always wore pulled low over his eyes. In 38 years as head coach at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama, Paul Bryant won 323 games, still the major-college record, and took 29 teams to bowl games. At Alabama, where he coached from 1958 until his retirement after the 1982 season, he developed six national champions. His achievements are all the more impressive when you consider the formidable quality, by Bryant's own assessment, of every opposing team he played; Bryant didn't invent poor-mouthing, but he elevated it to such an art that listeners would wink and smile at his dire pregame evaluations.
The bigger Bryant became, the more he acted embarrassed by his stature—which, of course, endeared him even more to his legion of worshipers throughout Dixie. Southerners like humility in a man, and Bryant dished it out in such huge servings that his detractors often had trouble swallowing it. After wins, he would mumble praise for his opponents, his players and his staff. After losses, he would growl about the poor coaching job he had done. Asked once how he got his players to play so hard for him, Bryant snorted, "They aren't playing for me. They're playing for themselves, their sweethearts, the university. Playing for me? Shoot."
In his later years Bryant admitted that as a driven young coach, he would have done almost anything to win. He built his Kentucky teams in the late '40s and early '50s partly by paying players to come in from Ohio and Pennsylvania. At Texas A&M, which he took from 1-9 in 1954 to the Cotton Bowl three years later, he was punished by the NCAA for recruiting violations. The young Bryant was so demanding of his players that by today's standards, he would be regarded as abusive. "I don't know how small small is," says former LSU coach Charlie McClendon, who played for Bryant at Kentucky, "but he could make you feel that way."
Beneath his veneer of humility, Bryant had an ego that needed constant feeding. After the 1953 season he left Kentucky, which he had taken to the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls, for Texas A&M because he was envious of the power and popularity of Wildcat basketball coach Adolph Rupp. Bryant had to be the cynosure. In football-mad Alabama he found the perfect home, becoming such a huge figure there that his envelopes bore only Bryant as the return address.
His stated reason for returning to Alabama, where he had played end on the Crimson Tide's unbeaten 1935 Rose Bowl team, was pure Bryant: "Mama called." After coaching 'Bama to national titles in 1961, '64 and '65 with small, quick teams, he went into a relative slump in the late '60s. But just when some Alabama supporters were beginning to grouse that the game had passed him by, Bryant began recruiting black athletes. He also dumped his passing game in favor of the power-oriented wishbone offense. The result was national titles in '73, 78, and 79.
On Nov. 28, 1981, Bryant earned his 315th win, surpassing Amos Alonzo Stagg as the winningest coach in college history. Asked about the record, Bryant said, typically, " 'Bout all I did was stick with it." His 323rd and final victory was a 21-15 win over Illinois on Dec. 29, 1982, in the Liberty Bowl. Lour weeks later, on Jan. 26, 1983, Bryant died of a heart attack at age 69.
To this day he is the enduring symbol of his profession, a coach who could make his players crave his love and respect so desperately that they gave everything they had every Saturday. Although he recruited a long list of All-Americas, his teams were salted liberally with scrappy over-achievers who had something inside them that Bryant was able to tap. He always said if you gave him players who came from "good mamas and papas," he would take care of the rest.
Once you spilled your guts for the Bear, he never forgot you. On Oct. 3, 1980, after Alabama defeated Kentucky 45-0 to give Bryant his 300th victory, a reporter saw that the coach was wearing only one ring, a large one with a diamond in the center. The scribe asked which of Bryant's championship teams had given him the ring, and the wrinkles in his face arranged themselves in a soft smile. "It's a Texas A&M ring," he said. "I'm proud of the kids who gave it to me. Only won one game and lost nine." That was his only losing team in 38 years.