MAXWELL: Discovering a legendary football coach

3/21/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



I am not a hero worshiper. And as a Floridian, I never liked University of Alabama football.

But coming here to the campus called the Capstone and visiting the Paul W. Bryant Museum made even this die-hard Florida fan feel something special for Crimson Tide coach “Bear” Bryant.

Although the museum celebrates Alabama football from its inception in 1892 to the present, it is, in fact, the apotheosis of Coach Bryant. A few years before he died in 1982, Bryant, an Alabama alumnus, came up with the idea for the museum, one that would memorialize all of his teams, including those from Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M.

In short, the exploits and character of the man who resurrected the Crimson Tide’s winning ways, beginning in 1958, would anchor the displays and audio feeds. As visitors walk into the museum, they enter the Hall of Honor, where the name of each young man who played for Bryant, from 1945 to 1982, is pictured and listed. A bronze bust of Bryant is in the center of the hall. It looks so much like Bryant that you can feel his presence. Prize-winning photographs of famous games, outstanding players (Pat Trammell, Johnny Musso, Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, Steve Sloan) and poses of Bryant hang on the walls.

When I was there, several visitors studied the photographs with tears in their eyes. Other people, three older men and their wives, stood in front of Bryant’s unadorned office furniture, his crimson game jacket and famed hounds-tooth hat. As Bryant’s whiskey-laced voice growled through a speaker, the men quietly cried.

I could not believe my eyes until I realized, again, where I was: Tuscaloosa, Ala., the place that gave Southern men back their collective pride, a restoration that began in 1925. That year, the Crimson Tide played the heavily favored University of Washington. This was Alabama’s first trip to a bowl.

Here is how a book about Alabama football and the museum describes that game: “The Huskies took a 12-0 lead, but a seven-minute, 20-point comeback in the third quarter earned the University of Alabama and all of Southern football the respect and admiration of the nation _ and its first national championship.”

The Tide continued to win bowl games against teams from the Northeast and the West. The sweetest victories came, of course, against the likes of Boston College and Southern Cal in the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl, respectively. In the world of college football, the eyes of the nation looked to Tuscaloosa, which personified the South’s gridiron prowess.

Some social historians argue that football was, and is, the way that Southerners compensated, at least in their own minds, for the failure of the Confederacy. To this day, they love beating up on Yankees and other outsiders. When they cannot whip outsiders, they pound one another, especially in the Southeastern Conference. A walk through the Paul W. Bryant Museum gives ample evidence that the notion is more than myth.

When he left Texas A&M in 1957 and returned to his alma mater to become head coach, Bryant said, in the simple style that became his signature: “The reason, the only reason, I’m going back is because my school called me.”

During his 25 years at the Tide’s helm, Bryant had a record of 232-46-9, 13 SEC Championships and six national titles. In 1961, 1971 and 1973, he was voted national coach of the year and SEC Coach of the Year nine times by the Associated Press and 10 times by United Press International. His teams played 24 consecutive bowl games, compiling a record of 13-10-1.

My favorite photo is that of Bryant gazing solemnly down from his famous practice tower. It was taken in 1982, during his final season, the last year of his life. He died of a heart attack at age 69 _ 37 days after he retired. He never saw his museum, which more than 300 people visit each day.

” “Bear’ Bryant is larger than life in Alabama,” I said to a worker while leaving the building.

“We don’t call him “Bear,’ ” she said. “We call him Coach Bryant. No wise journalist ever called him “Bear’ to his face.”

As a teenager in Arkansas, Bryant went to a carnival, where he wrestled a muzzled bear for money. The muzzle slipped off during the struggle, and the bear bit Bryant, who leaped from the stage and landed among spectators and chairs on the ground. Henceforth, young Paul was “Bear.”

He never had a losing season at Alabama. Every Crimson Tide coach following Paul “Bear” Bryant carried, or will carry, the burden of his legacy.