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Bryant
Alexander Wolff
September 09, 2010
BEFORE HE BECAME AN IMMORTAL IN ALABAMA, PAUL (BEAR) BRYANT ARRIVED IN COLLEGE STATION AND WITH AN IRON HAND BROKE DOWN AND REMADE AGGIES FOOTBALL, CREATING A SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE CHAMPION AS WELL AS THE MODEL OF THE SUCCESSFUL COLLEGE FOOTBALL COACH
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September 09, 2010

Bryant

BEFORE HE BECAME AN IMMORTAL IN ALABAMA, PAUL (BEAR) BRYANT ARRIVED IN COLLEGE STATION AND WITH AN IRON HAND BROKE DOWN AND REMADE AGGIES FOOTBALL, CREATING A SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE CHAMPION AS WELL AS THE MODEL OF THE SUCCESSFUL COLLEGE FOOTBALL COACH

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One of the sources of Bryant's charisma was the easy candor with which he owned up to violations of NCAA rules. Though Bryant avoided personal involvement in the purchase of talent, he told boosters to pay the prevailing rate. 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. Indeed, 15 years ago any of the 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 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.

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. "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. But then by the 1970s Bryant's legend was so imposing that he could loosen the reins of discipline with little risk. His players put out not because he drove them but because they couldn't imagine letting him down.

Even when Bryant bent, however, players knew there was something steely at his core. In 1963 he suspended Joe Namath for two crucial games at the end of the season after Namath broke training. Bryant cried when he did it, but he did it. Of course, Alabama went on to win the Sugar Bowl and a national title without Namath. Glory and honor—in those days a coach-king could have both even when he stood by his principles. Coaches make concessions today because flexibility is likely to yield the right results: the victories without which they're goners. There's only one problem with copping a flexible attitude: The very act of saying, directly or by implication, "Well, yeah, go ahead, wear your earrings" tends to cut a coach down to size. And that may be why today's icon wannabes can barely budge a blocking sled staturewise.

The institutional giant today is Eddie Robinson, who has lorded over Grambling football for a half century. But he operates at a Division I-AA school, and, sad to say, many whites are reluctant to accept as their icon a man who's black and has devoted his life to coaching blacks. LaVell Edwards of BYU has a winning program, but he has had to spend so much time getting the pollsters to take his teams seriously that no one has gotten around to appraising him. Tom Osborne has Nebraska all to himself, but until he can consistently win big games, no one much cares. John Robinson and John Walsh are back in the Pac-10, but each is in his 60s, having given his best years to the NFL. Robinson returns to a USC campus where expectations have been scaled down since John McKay's day. And Walsh has still never been to a Rose Bowl.

Even as we mention him as a possible icon-in-waiting, Walsh embodies many of the reasons the species is no more. After two seasons at Stanford in the late '70s, he was lured away by the pros. While many of the coaching fixtures who came before him, men like Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, succeeded by relentlessly applying the conventional wisdom, Walsh is renowned as an innovator. And while the giants of the sidelines always seemed to exist apart from the campus pointy-heads, Walsh has been asked to lecture in Stanford's departments of education, psychology and business. Without self-consciousness Walsh will characterize his team's play as "sublime" or explain his return to Palo Alto by saying, "This is my bliss."

Small wonder, then, that while Bryant supervised practice from atop his tower, Walsh makes sure he's out on the field. "Today's coach is more facilitating than dictatorial," Walsh says. "There's more science to being a coach now. Consequently, 'making a boy into a man' nowadays may mean not just making him tough and strong but also helping him to learn communications skills, to deal with others under stress and to learn a game plan and apply it in a few days. There was a time when you could say, 'We will be tougher than them and hit harder and want it more.' If you have a mismatch, that works. But if you have two teams evenly matched—and parity has brought a lot more of that about—that won't work."

The headlines reporting Walsh's return to Stanford a season ago seemed to grope for something large, icon-large. Genius was the appellation he had picked up in the pros, but that was a secular one; a headline in TIME magazine heralded THE SECOND COMING. Walsh has studied the power of myth. Joseph Campbell's lectures on the subject riveted him. So Walsh and his staff, afraid that their players might be too starstruck to do the communicating that the Walsh way demands, tried to humanize the new coach. His management style would not isolate a leader atop a pedestal—or a tower. "It can drain from people to pay homage rather than play football," says Walsh. By encouraging his players to call him Bill, he allows them to play football. So if Walsh, in the few years he has left, were to receive the mantle of icon, he would cast it off as if it were a yoke.

THAT LEAVES ONLY ONE figure to flirt with Bryant's stature. Joe Paterno began his career at Penn State with no particular distinction. He played weak opponents, safeguarding a winning tradition established by the three coaches who preceded him, including the legendary Rip Engle. Then Paterno upgraded the Nittany Lions' schedule and won a couple of national titles, beating a superb Georgia team in the 1983 Sugar Bowl and upsetting Miami in the Fiesta Bowl four years later. All the while he spoke out for academic standards and ignored the blandishments of the NFL. Now that Penn State has joined the Big Ten, Paterno is facing, at 66, competitive challenges on another order of magnitude. If he meets them, he'll surely merit reconsideration. But until then Paterno's workaday lifestyle, that common touch of walking home from a game with the outgoing crowd, even those clunky glasses, all tend to make him seem smaller than life. When someone asks whatever happened to John Wayne, you have to do better than point out Henry Fonda.

Funny: One of Paterno's players, a fullback named J.T. Morris, recently called him "a dictator" when the coach refused to release him from his scholarship. Reaching Bryant's status is going to take a lot more repression than that. But it's a start.

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