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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, August 30, 1993
When THEY QUIT, MOST OF THEM DID SO AT NIGHT SO they could make the long walk to the bus stop under cover of darkness. Paul (Bear) Bryant would sometimes watch from a place in the shadows, taking a drag on a Chesterfield, maybe allowing himself a trace of a smile. Quitting made the most sense. Reason, after all, didn't allow for getting up at five o'clock each morning and spending days in the searing Texas sun. Or for retiring to a cot in a Quonset hut, thinking the day's horror was done, only to be rousted and ordered to leave yet more of themselves on the field under the stars. But reason was not what Bear Bryant was looking for in the 117 young men he brought to Junction, Texas, in 1954, before his first season as coach at Texas A&M. In the Bryant hagiography that training camp in the Texas Hill Country is recalled as "the march to the desert." Its purpose was, in Bryant's words, "to find out right off who the players were and who the quitters were." He found out. Camp was supposed to last two weeks. Fearing he wouldn't have enough bodies to start the season, Bryant called camp off after 10 days. Twenty-seven players remained. At one point during that truncated fortnight a man from the Houston Post showed up, having been dispatched to Junction by an editor who had heard tell of dissension on the team. "Now, son, are you gonna quote me on this?" Bryant asked. "Yessir," said the man from the Post. "Well, you call your boss and tell him I said if there isn't any dissension now, there's damn sure going to be some in a hurry, and I'm going to cause it."
IN JUNCTION, WHEN BRYANT KICKED an all-conference center off the team for walking off the field in the middle of practice, five other centers went to the coach to plead their teammate's case. Before they could say a word, Bryant shook their hands. "Good morning, gentlemen, and goodbye, goodbye, bless your hearts, goodbye," he said. Then he dismissed them from the team. Would such an approach fly today? Like a dodo bird, it would. But the public clearly seems to miss 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.
So why are there no more Bear Bryants, a man who, as it was said, "can take his'n and beat your'n, and take your'n and beat his'n"? To answer the question one must start with Bryant himself. If you had to distill someone larger than life into a few 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.
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?" Stutz, enthusiastic and obliging, looked up at Bryant. "No, sir," he said. "I can do better." "Russell," Bryant said, "I want you to get your butt off this field and be out of the dorm by five o'clock."
Of all the factors that made Bryant what he was, longevity was among the most important. Bryant lasted long enough to coach the sons of those who had played for him. In 1993 the youngest head coach in Division I-A, freshly appointed Jeff Horton of the University of Nevada, is 36; even if he were to coach to the normal retirement age of 65 and average 10 wins a season, he would still fall short of Bryant's 323 victories.
BRYANT, LIKE THE OTHER COACHES AND PLAYERS of the 1950s—he was at Texas A&M from '54 through '57—had lived through the Depression and the shortages of the war years. Scholarships could be canceled on the spot, and players were as afraid as Bryant was of going "back to the wagon." "Most of us were country boys," says Charley Pell, who was a member of Bryant's second recruiting class after he went from A&M to Alabama. "If we didn't have that scholarship, it was back to laying blocks or digging ditches or working at the supermarket. Yeah, I was afraid of doing that." Just as today's kids grow up differently, so too did their parents. Bryant loved to talk about the importance of his players having "good mamas and papas." Moms and dads nowadays aren't necessarily bad; they simply come from an era in which an authority figure didn't get a free pass. Thus they have modern relationships with their sons, who in turn expect relationships with their coaches to be more nuanced than "my way or the highway."
Bemoan the passing of the despotic head coach if you must, but more and more schools are concluding that well-intentioned abuse is a contradiction in terms. When it was revealed in 1992 that Colorado State coach Earle Bruce had cuffed around a few of his players, the school couldn't show him the door fast enough. Bryant boasted about kicking his players—to see, he said, which ones would kick back. But in those years a coach who tried to turn practice into a Bruce Lee film wouldn't have merited an inch of newspaper copy. The men and women in the press box today 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: "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 here.' "