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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
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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

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Bryant boasted about kicking his players—to see, he said, which ones would kick back. But 30 years ago a coach who tried to turn practice into a Bruce Lee film wouldn't have merited an inch of newspaper copy. Now the news media have adjusted their attitude, and they're interested in more than just the bullying of players. In 1991, at the climax of Washington's undefeated national championship season, a Seattle TV station aired a report on the poor graduation rate of the players under coach Don James, who quit on Sunday after Washington was placed on probation (page 11). And Paterno's career at Penn State has been sullied by a spate of off-the-field incidents involving Nittany Lions, all duly recorded in the central Pennsylvania press.

Anything goes on radio talk shows, the more contrary and controversial the better. And the men (and women) in the press box are of a new breed. Go ahead and accuse them of splitting infinitives, but whatever you do, don't call them homers. The lengthy NCAA travails of the Southwest Conference in the 1980s were caused not so much by the league's corruption as by the scoop-counterscoop crossfire of a newspaper war in Dallas.

An out-of-town journalist recalls watching Bryant hold a press conference following a practice during the '60s: "He comes walking into this room, sits down, takes out a cigarette and smokes it down to the end. Nobody says a word. They just look at him, waiting. Finally he says, 'Well, we had a pretty good practice today.' Everybody starts scribbling like mad. 'I think Billy Joe Bob Fred Smith is going to be a good left tackle.' And they scribble some more. He keeps doing this. Finally he stamps out his cigarette and says, 'Any more questions?' With that he gets up and walks out. I got up and followed him. 'You call that a press conference?' I asked him. He said, 'That's the way we do things herein Alabama.' "

Which raises another point: Only certain pockets of the country have ever been willing to make a huge fuss over a football coach, and the Deep South may be the last of them. "I guess if there's ever going to be another icon anywhere, it's going to be in the Southeast," says ESPN's Cook. "The biggest person in most of those states isn't the governor. It's the football coach. Things are different in the South. The mothers and fathers still spank their kids down there."

Yet even in the South, fans are particular about whom they'll make into a hero. At Georgia, Vince Dooley won 72% of his games and comported himself like a gentleman. In 1980 he coached the Bulldogs to a perfect season and a national title. So how come, when he considered an offer to go to Auburn late that year, most Dawg partisans were hoping he would up and leave? Because, they figured, if Dooley left, his defensive coordinator, Erk Russell, would get the Georgia job. And unlike Dooley, Russell had all the earmarks of an icon-in-the-making: an ear-catching name, a pate you could see your reflection in and a belief in a throwback brand of football that feeds some primal need in the public. (Indeed, Russell went on to become a vest-pocket legend at Division I-AA Georgia Southern, where he won three national titles in eight years.)

One of the sources of Bryant's charisma was the easy candor with which he owned up to his programs' violations of NCAA rules. Though Bryant avoided personal involvement in the purchase of talent, he told boosters to pay the prevailing rate. Bryant and Auburn coach Shug Jordan had an agreement: If one had a problem with the other's recruiting, he was to pick up the phone and call, not the NCAA, not the media, but the other coach. Anyway, in Bryant's day, says former Arkansas coach and current athletic director Frank Broyles, "you would not get fired for cheating. You were fired for losing."

That has changed. In the 1980s, Auburn's Pat Dye seized the in-state recruiting advantage from the Crimson Tide following Bryant's retirement. But when Auburn defensive back Eric Ramsey secretly recorded conversations that implicated a booster in providing improper benefits to him, Dye was gone. Today even Bryant might not be wooed to Tuscaloosa, considering the rap sheet he picked up at Texas A&M, which was placed on probation for paying money to recruit players in 1954. "Compliance problems," the 'Bama search committee might say as it tossed Bryant's application aside.

Imagine how Bryant and his contemporaries would have reacted to neologisms like compliance problems. Mention a phrase like women's equity to any of them, and he would likely have said, "Sure, I'm all for the pom-pom girls being equally pretty." Indeed, 15 years ago any of the other buzz phrases currently heard in college sports—dead periods, satisfactory progress, Bylaw 5-1-(J)—would have sounded to coaches like Etruscan.

Nowadays a university president simply isn't willing to let a $15 million segment of his institution jeopardize the integrity of the whole $400 million shebang. In Bryant's time—particularly in the Deep South—it was an insult for a football coach not to have the additional honorific of athletic director; today, Oregon's Rich Brooks is the only Division I-A football coach who doubles as AD, and if he failed to do his president's bidding. Brooks would surely be stripped of the title. "I can recall the days when Coach Bryant could address the NCAA convention on an issue and he could swing the vote if it was going to be close," says former Alabama player Pell. "There's not a single individual in college football who can do that today."

But be sure to credit more than just a bygone era for Bryant's stature. Credit Bryant himself. "He was always changing and adapting," says Jackie Sherrill, who played on two of Bryant's national championship teams in the early '60s and now coaches at Mississippi State. "If something wasn't working, he had the innate ability to change it and make it work." Bryant eventually took to encouraging marginal talents rather than summarily running them off. He permitted long hair and allowed his players to get married. Indeed, sometimes Bryant seemed to yearn for a few scapegraces—just a handful of boys who reminded him of himself at their age. "I'll be damned, we've got so many niiiice boys," he once said, "sometimes I wish I'd have to go to jail on Friday nights and bail five or six of 'em out to play on Saturday." But by the 1970s Bryant's legend was so imposing that he could loosen the reins of discipline with little risk. By then Alabama players put out not because he drove them but because they couldn't imagine letting him down.

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