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September 11, 2013

Bryant's 100th Birthday: The legend lives on


"I think 'Bear' Bryant is probably the greatest coach in college football in terms of what he accomplished, what his legacy is. There's no way that we have done anything close to what he has done in terms of his consistency over time, how he changed what he did to impact the times. They threw the ball and won. They ran the wishbone and won. He changed tremendously to do what he needed to do to be successful." - Nick Saban

Paul W. "Bear" Bryant hasn't coached a game in more than 30 years. His record hasn't changed. But the world has changed.

At the centennial of the birth of the man who is clearly college football's Coach of the Century - the coach who did more over an extended period of time than any other - his reputation as a program-builder and mentor remains sterling.

Other men have coached more games, and a few, as a function of longevity along with coaching prowess, have won more games. But none has become an icon in the sport to the extent that Bryant has. What other coach who was in his prime a half-century ago is remembered in the same way? Certainly, there were great coaches - John McKay at Southern California, Darrell Royal at Texas, Bob Devaney at Nebraska, Woody Hayes at Ohio State. The other, perhaps in some ways the most comparable, is Penn State's Joe Paterno, whose legacy is now cloudy, at best.

But which of those faces would be instantly recognized if it came on the screen during an ESPN telecast? Who else could be a lynchpin for the lyrics in a Drive-By Truckers song, or an unnamed but unmistakable character in the "Forrest Gump" movie? In the 2013 Miss America pageant this month, one contestant (Miss Alabama, of course) will be wearing a houndstooth gown, an homage to the trademark hat of the football coach who won his last national championship 15 years before any of today's beauty queens were born.

"I definitely think Bryant is still relevant today," said Paul Finebaum, the ESPN radio talk show host who recently moved onto the national stage after many years of local success in Birmingham. "In Alabama, you still heard him mentioned every day because there was still a generation of fans that grew up with 'Bear' Bryant. But within college football, he is still prominent. I think for the next 25 years, maybe longer, people will be comparing whatever coach is currently dominant at the time - Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban or whoever - and asking, 'Is he as good as Bryant?'"

The line between a celebrity and an icon can be difficult to distinguish. Time has to tell the tale. Each era produces its own. The 1960s and 1970s, when Bryant rose to prominence, produced many celebrities and a few athletic icons - Muhammad Ali, Mickey Mantle, "Pistol" Pete Maravich. In coaching, there were three who seem to have transcended that era to remain relevant today: Vince Lombardi, John Wooden and Bryant.

"He is still part of the conversation," says Rece Davis, a University of Alabama alumnus who is now one of the main anchors of ESPN's college football coverage. "When people find out that you are from Alabama, you hear about it. The difference now, I think, is that it doesn't have the same bitterness, the same jealousy, that you used to hear sometimes. I think Bryant got so much attention, won so many games, that, if you were talking to someone from another school, there was some resentment. I don't sense that as much now. People still joke about the houndstooth hat, things like that, but it's friendlier now. He is just a part of the culture."

Humble beginnings

You head east from Fordyce, Ark., on Highway 8, past the high school football stadium, still on the same site where the Fordyce Red Bugs have been playing for nearly 90 years now. You pass the Tri-County Lake, travel a couple of miles through thickly timbered acreage when, on your right, you see a large red sign in a field proclaiming "Paul 'Bear' Bryant Birthplace." No structure remains on the site. The farmhouse where Bryant was born - according to local lore, the same house that once served as a field hospital when a Civil War battle erupted down the road - has been gone for many years. The landscape itself has changed with the passing of a century.

"Since the 1950s, almost all of what used to be farmland in Dallas and Cleveland County has been planted with pine trees," said Paul Bryant Jr, the late coach's son.

There are few of the small farms, from 40 acres up to 200 or so, like the one that Wilson and Ida Bryant owned, left in the area known as Moro Bottom.

"Actually, the closest town to where Papa was born is New Edinburg," Bryant Jr. said. "That was where a lot of his mother's family was from, but after the killing (a lengthy and bloody feud involving the Kilgores, among other families), a lot of them left for Texas.

"His birth certificate actually says Kingsland, and he went to elementary school there. But everyone went to high school in Fordyce, so that was how he was identified."

The landscape has changed, but not entirely. Deep in the bottom, the moss still hangs overhead, the descendents of the rabbits and squirrels that Bryant hunted as a young man still run. The largest cypress tree in Arkansas - "They say it takes four men to reach around it," Bryant Jr. notes - grows on Moro Creek.

Something else flows in those waters as well, it seems. Just a few miles from the Bryant land, closer to Kingsland, another monument marks the birthplace of Johnny Cash. In his biography, "Bear," Bryant notes that Dave Cash, the older brother of Johnny Cash's father, once accompanied the Fordyce football team to Little Rock and won "some bales of cotton" by betting on the Red Bugs. So from a nondescript stretch of central Arkansas, no more populous than a New York City block, two instantly recognizable voices, two men who wove their clothing - black or houndstooth - into Americana, were born. Something strong indeed must flow in Moro Creek.

Wrestling the bear

In Fordyce, at the Lyric Theater (now a hardware store on Main Street), drawn by the presence of a pretty girl and the promise of "a dollar a minute" in a time when he earned 50 cents a day chopping cotton, young Paul Bryant once wrestled a bear. He had some success, too, by keeping a firm hold, at least until the bear's manager decided enough was enough and loosened the animal's muzzle, prompting Bryant's retreat. He never collected the money he was due; in the tradition of such sideshow attractions, the charlatan in charge skipped town.

"All I got out of it," Bryant wrote, "was a nickname."

That nickname still lives today. The fate of the most famous wrestling bear in America, remains, sadly, unknown.

Nothing but a winner

If the verdict of that contest was a split decision, most of Bryant's future was spent in winning, as a football player and, more memorably, as a football coach, ultimately rising to 323 wins. But that is hardly a measure of his personality or his impact.

"Coach Bryant had something about him, just a presence, that you didn't ever want to disappoint him," remembers Gene Stallings, who played for Bryant at Texas A&M and coached on his early Alabama staffs. "His players didn't want to let him down. The assistant coaches, the secretaries - everybody wanted to please Coach Bryant."

"Let's be honest," said Alabama All-America lineman John Hannah, speaking in a Bryant Museum symposium. "We were scared to death of him."

"The first time I came to Tuscaloosa, Coach (Howard) Schnellenberger brought me out to the practice field," said Joe Namath, perhaps Bryant's most famous player, on an HBO special. "I heard this voice, and it was Coach Bryant calling me up to his tower. So I went up and talked to him for five minutes, seven minutes, whatever it was, and I only understood one word that he said: 'Stud.' He would point to this player or that player and say, 'He's a stud.' His drawl was so thick and he had that deep voice, that was all I understood.

"But I learned to understand him. I promise you that."

Changing times

Perhaps we are all still learning to understand Paul W. "Bear" Bryant.

"There are a lot of the cultural studies about how Coach Bryant represented something positive in the South, in Alabama, at a time when a lot of the images of the South weren't very positive," ESPN's Davis said. "I think that's true. But times have changed. I think at the time, a lot of people in the Big Ten states, or in the East, had a very negative image of Alabama and the South. I don't think that exists so much any more. Now, the population is shifting. People are moving south, into those states, in record numbers. The SEC is now recognized as the dominant conference, which would never have been the case when Bryant was coaching, not with Big Ten fans or Notre Dame fans.

"Now, when he is recognized as the greatest coach in SEC history, I think that means a little more, and I think that is going to continue to grow, actually."

Still an icon

"I think people recognize what they grow up with," Paul Bryant Jr. said. "You go to the stadium now and they play the video and they'll cheer for the (1992) Sugar Bowl or the BCS games, because that is what they remember. That is just the way things go."

But they will cheer in a stadium that bears "Bear" Bryant's name. They may be wearing a houndstooth hat, or, if they aren't, someone a few seats down will be.

"I think it is a positive thing now," Finebaum said. "I think there was a time when people would use Bryant's name for political reasons in Alabama athletics, but I think with Mal Moore and the success that Nick (Saban) has had, that has sort of faded away and people can take a more reasoned look at that time, Bryant's time."

There may be a small touch of irony in that, even as Bryant's statistical achievement as the winningest coach has been surpassed, his legacy and reputation have grown stronger, the association with and appreciation of a bygone era taking its place. "I don't know about all that," Stallings said. "I just know there was never another one quite like him."

Click here to view the Bear Bryant Centennial special section



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