SI Vault
 
The Great Bear Hunt
Alexander Wolff
August 30, 1993
Fans still long for the larger-than-life college football coach, the gridiron god epitomized by Bear Bryant, but the truth is that his like will never be seen again
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 30, 1993

The Great Bear Hunt

Fans still long for the larger-than-life college football coach, the gridiron god epitomized by Bear Bryant, but the truth is that his like will never be seen again

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Would such an approach fly today? Like a dodo bird, it would. But the public clearly misses the larger-than-life football coach, imperiously stalking the sideline, eyes drawn into a permanent squint, the kind of coach to whom you sent your boy so he could come back a man. People seem to long for some impossible combination of Schwarzkopf, Schweitzer and Schwarzenegger, someone who really deserves that state trooper escort onto the field, a man who, as it was said of Bryant, "can take his'n and beat your'n, and take your'n and beat his'n." Yet these days it's easier to find natural-fiber clothing at a CFA golf scramble.

"For us, discipline implies disciple," Hayes once wrote. "The player will first believe in the coach as a person before he will fully accept the teachings of that coach." Contrast that credo with LSU coach Mike Archer's breezy acceptance of a player's explanation of why he was clocked going 123 mph on a Louisiana highway several years ago. "I was just trying to get some bad gas out of my engine," the player said.

McKay listened to Knute Rockne speeches so he could quote the gnarled Norseman to his players. Former Houston coach John Jenkins, it came to light last winter, spliced footage of bare-breasted women into practice film. (You know, "Win one for the Stripper," and all that.)

Wilkinson narrowly lost a race for a U.S. Senate seat from Oklahoma in 1964. Congress, tawdry body though it may be, won't likely welcome to its halls another Sooner ex-coach, Barry Switzer, who in 1989 dismissed episodes of rape, cocaine dealing and gunfire in his football dorm as "isolated incidents."

Of course Archer, Jenkins and Switzer are no longer head coaches. But the point stands: Rather than make men of his players, coach after coach nowadays seems content to concede that boys will be boys.

So why are there no more Bear Bryants? And no fair answering the way former Alabama and current Penn State president Joab Thomas does: "Because he's dead." It's not fair even if Thomas's may be the best explanation, because to answer the question one must start with Bryant himself.

If you had to distill someone larger than life into a few vulgar paragraphs, you would have to mention Bryant's hardscrabble upbringing in Moro Bottom, Ark., as one of 12 kids of a sickly father and a mother whom young Paul accompanied on her rounds selling produce from a wagon. You would also need to account for the young man's nickname, which he picked up when he wrestled a bear for cash, and make mention of his early days as a brawler and a hobo. Football allowed him to attend Alabama, where he met the socially prominent campus beauty queen, Mary Harmon Black, who became his wife. He did his part in North Africa during the Good War. He even had a Hollywood screen test. (Paterno might get a callback for the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, but that's about it.) Up at 4:30 a.m., like the strictest Calvinist, Bryant nonetheless loved games of chance and his evening scotch and Coke. "This must be what God looks like," said George Blanda, who played for Bryant at Kentucky, when he first saw the man's face.

As a coach Bryant would blow into town and, saviorlike, set things right. He did it at Maryland, at Kentucky, at Texas A&M, at Alabama. In one season the Terps went from 1-7-1 to 6-2-1 and the Wildcats from 2-8 to 7-3. The Aggies' Great 27, survivors of the march to the desert, lost nine of 10 games that first season, but two years later they went unbeaten and won a Southwest Conference title. When Alabama, 4-24-2 the three seasons before Bryant took over, found itself in the Sugar Bowl within four years, it was just another case of Bryant raising the dead.

A fear of failure chased Bryant as much as a will to win drove him. He would do anything to avoid going, as he put it, "back to the wagon." And he never wasted time with self-deprecation or false modesty. He had craved attention since childhood, when he once threw a cat through an open church window during services. As a player at Alabama he had been "the other end," opposite Hall of Famer Don Hutson; at Kentucky he had been "the other coach," eclipsed by basketball deity Adolph Rupp. At 'Bama, for 25 seasons, he was the man. Rivals liked to tell a tale of Bryant, out in a motorboat, fishing with a guide, getting his line ensnared on a log. The guide suggested they putter over and untangle the lure. "Don't bother," Bryant said. "I'll walk."

That story is apocryphal. Others aren't. One of Bryant's early Alabama teams had an earnest young player of limited ability named Russell Stutz. Teammates called him Bulldog for the low growling sounds he liked to make. One day Stutz muddled through a drill, making a lot of noise but a mess of his assigned paces. Bryant went over to him and in a voice so calm that it struck Bulldog's teammates as eerie, asked, "Stutz, did you give 100 percent on that last play?"

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6