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November 20, 2013
Paul Bryant Jr.: A legacy of his own
Paul W. Bryant Jr. did not fly down to Miami to close the deal when the University of Alabama hired Nick Saban as its head football coach.
He did not put Mal Moore, the late UA athletics director, on a plane with instructions to come back with Saban or not come back at all.
Bryant is not the secret mastermind running the Crimson Tide athletic department, pulling strings and making moves behind the scenes.
"That's baloney," Bryant said.
The 68-year-old son of the late "Bear" Bryant, who coached Alabama to six national championships, Paul W. Bryant Jr. never played a down of football beyond the youth level and never coached, but could be the most powerful man in UA athletics by virtue of his name alone. He has donated tens of millions of dollars to the school and has been a member of the UA board of trustees since 2000, serving as president pro tempore since 2011. He has been the chairman of the Crimson Tide Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising organization for UA athletics, since its inception in 2005.
While his father is still a legendary figure and was arguably the most recognizable face in the state during his coaching tenure from the late 1950s through the early 1980s, the son keeps a low profile and is intensely private. Paul W. Bryant Jr. sat down recently for a rare interview, giving insight into his involvement with UA athletics - both real and rumored - as well as a revealing glimpse into his personality, his background and the school's growth during his time on the board of trustees.
As for wielding active influence over the Alabama football program and athletics department, Bryant said much of what people have heard is myth.
"All these coaching hires and stuff I'm supposed to have made, didn't none of that happen," he said.
His father's son
Bryant's eyes are hazel, more green than his father's steely blue, but you can't help but notice the resemblance to the famous coach in his facial structure, his eyebrows and the long, flat ears. Close your eyes when he talks and you can almost hear the late coach's gravelly, growling voice.
"Bear" Bryant was a standout football player at Alabama before he became a coach. His only son grew up to also be tall and wiry, although not quite as broad and filled-out.
Paul Jr., too, wanted to be a football player, and played until he was about 12 years old. "I thought I was really good," he said with a laugh.
That ended in 1958, when the Bryant family moved from College Station, Texas, where the father was coach at Texas A&M, to Tuscaloosa. The younger Bryant contracted hepatitis, either from a polio vaccination - "that was back when they gave polio shots to everybody with the same needle," he said - or from a dentist who was later discovered to have had the infection.
That ended Bryant's football career. He missed nearly a whole year of school and was out sick for much of the next year.
He still harbored early ambitions of following his father into coaching.
"The whole time when I was coming up and I'd hang out at football practice and went to meetings ... I'd be sitting there drawing up a play," he said. "I think it would have been tough to try to coach. You've got to play to coach. "There's not many coaches that are really successful that try to do what their father did. I'm like every one of y'all, I'd like to be able to say I played football and been on the teams with my friends that did, but I haven't gone through all the practices and stuff that they did.
"Yeah, I'd liked to have coached, but I'd liked to have done it without going through all that."
Bryant found an outlet for his athletic ability on the basketball court at Tuscaloosa High School. Tom Tarleton, another late coaching legend, found a role for young Bryant despite the limitations that stemmed from his medical condition. "My senior year in high school we had a really good basketball team," Bryant said. "I was the last one to get in the game, if I did. (Tarleton) kind of managed it where I didn't give out, which I'd give out - in practice he wouldn't say, 'Bryant, you've give out, get out,' he would kind of substitute around so I didn't ever get embarrassed about it. "I was on a team with a 61-game winning streak. I had a good time. They were good teams and I had a lot of good friends."
Bryant was around football while he was in high school and attending UA. In fact, he spent time as a recruiter.
"One summer that was my job," he said. "I had a state car and did that at the University of Alabama. We got just about all the (top players) in state. I went to a few out of state, but most of our players were in-state back then unless you had some in, some really good connection with an out-of-state player.
"I met some people like (current South Carolina coach Steve) Spurrier back then, we recruited him and we didn't get him."
Because of the hepatitis, Bryant got turned down when he tried to enter officer training programs for the military and when he was drafted into service. He completed his finance degree at UA in 1966 and became a businessman. But he never strayed far from UA athletics.
An evolving program
When his father arrived as head coach at Alabama, his first priority was improving the housing facility for his players. "There was pressure to raise money and get people behind the (program) and get scholarship money," Bryant said.
"The first thing they did was air condition Friedman Hall: the football dorm wasn't air conditioned. He went out and raised money for that.
"The head coach had to do all that kind of stuff, and plus (there was) the expectation of winning."
"Bear" Bryant also started the first donor program, tying season tickets to donations toward scholarships.
"Well, actually Papa had that," Bryant Jr. said, "something called the scholarship group. You have $1,000 (donated), you got to buy four tickets in a good section and come to a dinner, things like that."
Over the decades, Alabama football became big business. In the late 1980s, when Steve Sloan was athletics director, he instituted the Tide Pride program, which required all season ticket holders to donate to the scholarship fund to keep their seats. It didn't go over very well.
"You'd pay more for better spots," Bryant Jr. said. "(The fan base) probably didn't accept that for a year or so. They got mad at (Sloan). They had to pay for what they weren't used to paying for.
"Tide Pride under our present budget is a big number, and on all these stadium expansions that's part of the reason factored in is the demand for tickets. Demand is so great people will pay a premium, make a contribution, to get the priority to buy those seats. That's a key ingredient to this, and Steve Sloan started that."
A Mal Moore man
While UA went through a string of football coaches who succeeded his father, Bryant continued relationships with those who had been close to the program during "Bear" Bryant's coaching tenure. Bryant Jr. cherished none of those friendships more than the one that evolved with Moore. They met when Moore was a player and became closer during Moore's long term as an assistant coach.
Moore stayed at UA until "Bear" Bryant retired, then coached at Notre Dame and with the St. Louis and Phoenix Cardinals of the National Football League before returning in 1990 to coach at Alabama again under Gene Stallings. "We stayed in touch while he was gone and when he came back we renewed the friendship and were really close," Bryant said.
Their influence over UA intertwined when Moore was named athletics director in 1999 and Bryant joined the board of trustees the following year.
Moore guided Alabama through some of its darkest football days, starting with the firing of Mike DuBose as head coach and the NCAA probation that followed for transgressions under DuBose's watch. Then came Dennis Franchione's two-year stint before Franchione abruptly left for Texas A&M. That was followed by a debacle that saw Mike Price hired and then fired before ever coaching a game after a scandal that developed when he went to a strip bar while in Pensacola, Fla., for a charity golf tournament and ended up with a woman in his hotel room. That led to Mike Shula's ill-fated four years as head coach before Saban was hired to bring the program back to life.
Bryant has strong feelings about that chain of events, and about Moore. His eyes welling with moisture, he pauses with his head bowed to gain his composure before talking about it.
"I do this when I talk about Alabama," he said. "I have a hard time talking about anything, but Mal was really, really close."
Bryant points out that Moore had served as a longtime offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, positions where he was commonly second-guessed. That trend continued when Moore was athletics director.
"Franchione did a good job here, but Franchione left. Everybody got mad at Mal because Franchione left," Bryant said. "Then we had a blip in there on a coach (Price) that didn't turn out, and everybody got mad with Mal."
In fact, Price wasn't Moore's first choice, Bryant said, and neither was Shula after Price was fired. Bryant didn't mention names, but Moore tried to land former UA player Mike Riley, now coach at Oregon State, and settled on Price after Riley turned the position down, and Moore recommended another former Alabama player, Richard Williamson, but the administration went with Shula.
Bryant believes the myth that he has played kingmaker in choosing UA football coaches arose from a misunderstanding during these coaching searches. He loaned use of his plane for Moore to visit coaches and those flights were tracked and reported upon by news outlets, including TideSports.com.
"I haven't been involved in any of the coaching hires," he said. "The university has used my plane a lot through the years. As far as being involved in athletics stuff, I think most of that stuff has to do with the plane." Once those coaches were hired, Bryant got on board.
"Now whoever's the coach, we all pull for them real hard," Bryant said. "That was the way to do it then and it will be the way to do it whenever we have another coach. Whoever's the coach may not be the one that everybody picks, but you've got to get behind whoever it is."
And while Moore was taking the heat for those coaching failures and for the three losing seasons in a span of seven years, he had one ally.
"That's probably the only thing I've done while I've been on the board that really meant anything," Bryant said. "I backed him at the right time, when he didn't have anybody behind him."
Moore and Bryant backed Shula, but after three straight losses closed out the 2006 regular season, it was time to make a change.
"We needed," Bryant said, "a championship coach."
Building a foundation
That coach, of course, was Saban, but before being ready for such a hire there was much work to be done. Upon joining the board of trustees in April of 2000, Bryant found things at UA were not as they seemed.
"I knew the athletic department finances were not in the shape everybody used to think they were," Bryant said.
UA had maintained a budget, but athletics, housing and the student book store had their own budgets, apart from the overall operating budget. When the main budget fell short, funds were taken from athletics and housing, leaving depleted reserves.
"It wasn't that the money had been misspent or anything," Bryant said. "The money had just gradually been used to fill the hole in the main campus budget. There wasn't anything sinister about it, that was just the way they did it.
"As a result of that, any money that had been put back for deferred (student housing) maintenance or to replenish the dorms and housing wasn't there. It had been spent ... and our dorms were really run down.
"The athletic department was in bad shape financially. The facilities in athletics were in some cases run down. The football program in particular was sort of down."
A move to improve athletics facilities and finances with a $100 million capital campaign was announced in 2002, although the idea predated Moore's promotion to head the athletics department. Bob Bockrath, Moore's predecessor, had hired a fund-raising consultant to see about initiating such a campaign.
Bockrath was the wrong man at the wrong time for the project, and made the mistake of not tying the initiative to football.
"The feedback was that they couldn't do it because the people, alumni and fans, were disenchanted with the administration and that athletic director," Bryant said.
The Crimson Tradition campaign, the first major fundraising effort for athletics facilities in UA history, came on the heels of one expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium and sparked a second expansion that brought seating capacity to more than 101,000, with the addition of luxury boxes.
Kirk McNair, who worked for "Bear" Bryant as a sports information director and now publishes Bama Magazine, believes Moore looked to Bryant Jr.for advice.
"I think when Mal became director of athletics, Mal called on him a lot and leaned on him a lot," McNair said. "There were areas of being an athletics director where Mal didn't have a lot of expertise, like finance and things like that. I'm sure Mal didn't know anything about how to do a bond issue, like a lot of people don't."
When Moore started the fundraising effort, he was also thinking ahead, to a time when the cloud of NCAA sanctions would lift from the program.
"He tied it to football," Bryant said, "where the other proposal had been let's raise money for all these other sports. The way we ended up doing it was we raised money for all the other sports as well as football because most of the gifts were (made by people) thinking they were supporting football, probably. That's where the interest was.
"At the time we started that ... the NCAA had just put the University of Alabama on probation. Mal said instead of sitting around waiting for this to be over with and then try to bring it back up, let's work and be ready for when we come out of it and be in position to compete.
"That resonated. People got on board."
One of those people was Bryant. He had made a $10 million contribution toward expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium in the early 1990s, but structured that gift so it could be used for other purposes if ticket revenues from the new upper deck covered the debt service. Since those revenues reached that level, the money was used to fund non-athletic scholarships, construction of a building to house the UA special collections library, restoration of the Gorgas House, endowing a history lecture program and other non-athletic purposes.
Bryant donated another $10 million for the Crimson Tradition fund. A portion of that was used to expand the north end zone of the stadium, with the rest going to fund the renovation of Foster Auditorium, for non-athletic scholarships and to a relief fund for UA employees affected by the 2011 tornado that ravaged Tuscaloosa, among other things.
"You've got to give before you can ask (for) something," Bryant said, "and I was going to have to do the asking, so we made that public."
Bryant and Moore approached donors for contributions to the athletic capital campaign.
"Mal was really good at that and enjoyed doing it," Bryant said. "I went with him a lot to start with and did it ongoing in the right situations where I thought I was helping."
The first project from the capital campaign was the renovation of Bryant Hall, once considered the nation's premier football dormitory, into an academic support center for UA athletes. Bill Battle, a longtime Bryant family friend who had marketed and licensed the image of "Bear" Bryant - and later Moore's successor as UA athletics director - made what Bryant termed a "major, major gift" toward that project, and a portion of Bryant's second $10 million donation also went toward it.
Bryant has made other contributions of undisclosed amounts to UA over the years, funding non-athletic scholarships, the purchase of a radio station, scoreboards for the Alabama baseball and softball teams and to support the Bryant Museum.
Bryant doesn't have much to say about that, and only talked about the two $10 million donations because UA had made them public at the time.
"I don't think anything else is anybody's business," he said.
Facility upgrades from the capital campaign, and improvements that followed, put Alabama in position to later win national championships in football, softball and men's and women's golf, and for other programs to better compete on a national level.
Before the football resurgence, the University of Alabama also began a growth period that started with the hiring of Robert Witt as president in 2003. Bryant, in his role on the board of trustees, was part of the process in luring Witt from the University of Texas at Arlington.
"The trip that I was involved in was when they took our plane and hired Dr. Witt," Bryant said. "I was president of the committee, went to Fort Worth to meet Dr. Witt and it just happened that his then-wife (Anne C. Witt) had graduated from high school with me, her parents were here in town and had both been on the faculty, and her mother was and still is a good friend of mine.
"That was a good coincidence. I don't think it had anything to do with our ability to get him."
Witt began an aggressive growth campaign, building new student housing and increasing enrollment. In the 10 years since Witt, who became chancellor of the UA system last March, became president, Alabama has increased enrollment from 19,600 to 34,800, added more than 300 new faculty (a 22 percent increase) and added more than 600 new staff employees (a 17 percent increase), all while seeing state funding decrease $58 million in the last five years. In the last 10 years, UA has added 5,000 new beds in on-campus housing with the construction of new dormitories funded by bond issues.
According to documents obtained from open-record requests, UA's revenues have grown from almost $600 million in 2007 to more than $782 million in 2012.
Witt's vision fit Bryant's mission.
"We had a period of time before Dr. Witt where we were losing students to other schools, to Auburn in particular," Bryant said. "I'm not talking athletics, I'm just talking about students.
"A lot of my friends' children weren't coming to Alabama, (friends) that had been to Alabama. And the one, I won't call it a charge, but the one suggestion I had for Dr. Witt that I wanted to see, when he was hired, was that my friends would send their children to Alabama, and that the leaders in the state would come from the University of Alabama. "That's what he set out to do with recruiting, first off particularly recruiting in-state - you have to do that first - and then he broadened it."
Football comes first
The key to that growth, in large part, was football.
That's something Bryant had known, obviously, all along. He cites a growth in enrollment in the 1920s and '30s when Alabama was a frequent Rose Bowl participant, putting the school on the radar of out-of-state students, and another steady rise during his father's heyday winning national championships in the 1960s and '70s.
"At the University of Alabama it's really important," Bryant said. "It's really important to the state that we have a successful football program.
"It's difficult to understand if you're not from here, but when football isn't doing well it kind of hurts, the whole state is kind of in a funk. Having football competitive and doing well, and so much more than that is (when) we're maintaining at a championship level every year, it makes it easier on businessmen around the state, I promise you.
"When Alabama football is winning, it's just better. That's just Alabama."
That is why Alabama needed Saban, who had won a national championship at LSU and was in his second year of coaching the Miami Dolphins of the NFL when Moore went calling. With Bryant-Denny Stadium having been expanded and another expansion in the works at the time, creating more revenue from having extra seats to sell, UA was in position to go after a big-time coach like Saban.
What was Bryant's role?
"Absolutely none, other than Mal was athletic director and the public was getting antsy, (we) didn't have a coach," Bryant said. "I supported Mal and gave him time to get a coach, and we knew he'd find him."
Bryant knows a lot of coaches from his father's associations and his own group of friends in the football world, but he had never met Saban.
While Moore was in Miami securing a deal with Saban, Bryant was hunting in Arkansas.
"Three or four of the trustees and I were bird hunting that day," Bryant recalled, "and one of them was calling Mal all the time, saying, 'How you doing on that?' We were all curious."
Saban turned Alabama into a national championship contender by his second season and has UA angling toward a third straight national title and a fourth in five years. He has not only revived the football program, his success has fueled UA's rise.
"The success of the Alabama football team under coach Nick Saban's leadership has brought enhanced national visibility to the University of Alabama," Witt said. "That expanded visibility is an asset to the university's recruitment of students from our state and across the country."
A new leader
When Moore fell ill and was hospitalized with pulmonary issues in the spring, Battle was chosen as his replacement. "Mal was sick and saw he couldn't go, couldn't keep going," Bryant said. "With Mal we'd been talking about what we would do ... and Bill was who we all thought was the logical, would be a good choice."
Bryant was the one who made the call that resulted in Battle's hire, about a week before Moore passed away.
"I did call Bill to ask if he would come talk to us," Bryant said. "I kind of caught him by surprise. He wasn't planning on doing it until after he got over here."
That's how Battle recalls it.
"Paul called and told me that Mal had decided to retire and the leadership at Alabama was interested in me taking the job," Battle said. "The process got speeded up when Mal's health took a turn for the worse."
The relationship between Battle and Bryant goes back to Battle's playing days at UA on some of "Bear" Bryant's earliest Crimson Tide teams.
"`He was just a really, really top player," Bryant Jr. said. "After (Battle) we never got an end that would suit Papa, because Papa played end.
"I kept up, had been in contact with him just like most of the players that had been through here that I knew." Having Bryant in a position of power increased Battle's comfort level with taking the job as athletics director.
"I've known Paul since I was at Alabama as a student-athlete," Battle said. "Of course, since he is chairman of the board of trustees, I asked him a lot of questions as I value his knowledge and opinions."
Bryant tries to stay out of football discussions that compare his father's legacy to Saban's.
"That's part of the reason I probably don't get out in the crowd and talk about it," he said, "because many of the people will try and get you to say something, 'Coach Bryant wouldn't have done that,' or something like that.
Occasionally something will come up, not about Coach Saban but in general: somebody will ask me to relate that to my father, and if it's about football I generally tell them to ask the coaches, the guys who have coached and played.
"I'm pretty consistent about that. I don't try to act like I know anything about that."
If Bryant has taken a long-term interest in UA athletics, and football in particular, it is only natural.
"I think part of that is protecting his father's reputation," McNair said. "Alabama football became so big under Coach Bryant. From that standpoint, Paul isn't the kind of person who said, 'Well, Papa's gone' and walked away from it. He wanted to see it maintained."
Bryant believes that Alabama, once again, has a once-in-a-lifetime kind of coach.
"Saban, in my opinion, is really successful because he prepares," Bryant said. "They have the players prepared well so that they're confident in the offense, they have confidence in the play call or confidence in the defensive schemes, and that's what Alabama was when my father was coaching. They were really well-prepared and they were confident. There is a strong similarity and carryover.
"I think Saban's doing a fantastic job. He's a great coach, clearly the top of the profession right now. I'm glad we've got him."
That doesn't mean Bryant doesn't do the same thing the Monday-morning quarterbacks used to do when his father, and his longtime friend Moore, were coaching.
"On a Monday I'll sit around the coffee shop like everybody else and second-guess what they should have done and could have done and what they could have run and all that," he said.
-Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.