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Chasing the Bear
How Bear Bryant and Nick Saban Made Alabama the Greatest College Football Program of All Time
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Bear Bryant and Nick Saban never met, but they have more in common than either of them realize. Both grew up in small towns — Bryant in Moro Bottom, Arkansas, a dot on the map, and Saban from Monongah, West Virginia, population five hundred. As a child, Saban pumped gas at his father’s service station, washing and waxing cars and doing anything he could to help the business. Bryant’s father suffered from multiple physical ailments, which forced Bryant to work to keep the family farm going. Both men knew the value of hard work from the time they were young boys, and both understood that there were no shortcuts to success. But both dreamed of escaping their hometowns, and both used football as the means to do so.
Separated by two generations, Bear Bryant and Nick Saban are mythic figures linked by a school, a town, and a barroom debate centering on one question: Which is the greatest college coach of all time?
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Bryant and Saban: On the Same Team at Last
Past and Present
The grandson rode in the car behind the long white hearse on that cold January day in 1983. Looking out the window as a twenty-year-old, he saw thousands of fans on Interstate 20/59 stop their cars and pickup trucks and 18-wheelers to watch the funeral procession of three hundred vehicles roll by, their headlights aglow in the gray winter afternoon. At overpasses the grandson spotted businessmen with their fedoras placed over their hearts and farmers in overalls with tears rolling down their cheeks. There were hundreds and hundreds of children, too, wearing Crimson Tide jackets and gazing in wonder at the spectacle.
All along the fifty-five-mile route from Tuscaloosa's First United Methodist Church to Birmingham, where the graveside service would be held at Elmwood Cemetery, he witnessed thousands of mourners standing at the side of the road, their faces frozen, just there to watch, to feel, to witness history and the South's longest farewell. That was when it really hit Marc Bryant Tyson: His grandfather, Paul "Bear" Bryant, who had died two days earlier at the age of sixty-nine, might have been the most revered figure in the history of Alabama.
"The love I saw that day of the funeral for my grandfather shocked me," Tyson said. "It was like the entire state had lost a member of their own family. It took my breath away. I had no idea. I mean, no idea."
The grandson is fifty-six years old now, and he has a son of his own: Paul William Bryant Tyson. Marc began taking Paul to Alabama games when his boy was four years old in 2004. Sitting in their seats in the front row of the south end zone at Bryant-Denny Stadium, surround by fans in black-and-white houndstooth hats, the father and son would see the image of the Bear appear on the video boards, and then his gravelly, pack-a-day voice would rumble down from grandstands over the PA system, like God shouting from the heavens in a Southern drawl: I ain't never been nothin' but a winner, causing the crowd to erupt in a kind of rapture.
Through the years Marc kept bringing his son to games, pausing at the bronzed statue of Bear Bryant outside of the stadium and sharing stories about Paul's great-grandfather. Tales about how Marc and Papa—Marc's name for Bryant—used to fish together in ponds around Tuscaloosa, with Bear using a cane pole, a red-and-white bobber, and crickets for bait, trying to catch blue gill bream that weighed a half pound—his favorite food, even more than steak. How Bryant used to let him climb the thirty-three steps to the top of his iron tower during practice and watch the Tide players with him, the Bear with a bullhorn in hand, eyeing his players in combat. How Marc stood on the sideline during games and would greet his granddaddy after the final whistle on the field, where Bryant would put his arm around his grandson and together the two would walk through the growing afternoon shadows toward the dressing room.
How at nights after games Marc would tune the radio in Bryant's den to a game that featured another Southeastern Conference team, the crackling play-by-play filling up the room as Bryant ate dinner on a rickety card table tray. And how Bryant had attended Marc's first high school football game, which he played in Brookstown, Georgia, when he was in the eleventh grade. Not wanting to make his grandson nervous, Bryant had planned to sneak into the game, sit in a corner of the grandstands, and act like he was reading a newspaper, holding it open just beneath his eyes. He was discovered by admiring fans, but when Marc saw his grandfather it filled him with the one thing that Bryant always instilled in his players: confidence.
Young Paul was hypnotized by all these stories about the man he never met. He soon grew fascinated by another Alabama coach, one whose coaching career overlapped his great-grandfather's by ten years, but a coach that Bear Bryant never faced on the field: Nick Saban. In November 2009—Saban's third season in Tuscaloosa—Marc and Paul were in their Row 1 seats inside Bryant-Denny Stadium at the beginning of the fourth quarter against Louisiana State University. Trailing the Tigers 15–13, an older Crimson Tide fan recognized nine-year-old Paul and bent over and kissed him on the forehead for good luck. A moment later, Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones caught a pass and blazed down the sideline to give the Tide a lead they would never surrender. The affectionate fan rejoiced.
Over the next few years Paul rarely missed attending Alabama games, traveling to see his Tide play in season openers, conference games, SEC title games, and national championship games. He met Nick Saban at various functions where the coach was speaking, and the two talked a few more times in Saban's office on the second floor of the Mal Moore Athletic Facility, a redbrick structure on Paul W. Bryant Drive. The sight of the five-eight, 180-pound Saban always held the boy's eyes, and the coach's words left him thunderstruck after every interaction. Paul imagined that was how his great-grandfather made his fans feel.
By the time he was a junior in high school in 2017, the great-grandson of the Bear had grown into a six-four, 210-pound quarterback at Hewitt-Trussville High outside of Birmingham. In December 2017 Saban invited Paul to Tuscaloosa for a practice. Standing on the sideline as his Crimson Tide players warmed up, Saban told Paul, "Every coach I have talked to on our staff wants you to play for Alabama. This isn't because of your great-grandfather. This is because of you and the player we believe you can become." Paul, who grew up with a bust of his great-grandfather in his bedroom, couldn't suppress his smile. Saban shook his hand and said, "Now you think about it. I've got to get back to practice." And off Saban jogged.
On April 5, 2018, Marc and his son drove on Interstate 20/59 from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa—the same ribbon of road the Bear's funeral procession had traversed in the opposite direction thirty-five years earlier. Father and son then walked into Saban's office. "We need you, Paul," said Saban, seated close to a coffee table that had four national championship rings sitting on it, their diamonds sparkling in the soft office light. "We want you to be a leader of this recruiting class." Then, the great-grandson of the Bear made it official: He turned down scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Michigan, and LSU, and committed to Alabama.
In December 2018, Paul enrolled for classes and immediately began practicing with the Crimson Tide, who were preparing for the College Football Playoff. Saban was on his personal quest to win his record seventh national title—one more than the Bear. On the practice field, just a few blocks from Bryant-Denny Stadium, the great-grandson started flinging the football around as Saban intently watched.
On Paul's first night on campus, Marc helped his son move into Paul W. Bryant Hall. As they unpacked suitcases in the dorm named after Paul's great-grandfather—four decades earlier, Marc had eaten meals with Papa in the brick colonial building known as "the Bryant Hilton"—father and son marveled at how the past was meeting the present. Together, their dreams stirred. For the first time, a Bryant and Nick Saban were on the same team.
The DNA of the Bear was back at Bama.
He drove his white Cadillac through the winter afternoon, passing farmhouses and shacks in the Alabama countryside, winding through flatland cotton fields and woods of southern pines. It was January 30, 1958. Two days earlier Paul "Bear" Bryant had loaded his life and his family—wife, Mary Harmon; son, Paul Jr.; and their dachshund, Doc—into the car and rolled out of College Station, Texas, and headed 650 miles east for their new home: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Bryant had been successful in his four years as the head coach of Texas A&M, transforming a team that went 1-9 his first season to one that compiled a 17-3-1 record during his final two years. Now he was about to return to the birthplace of his college football career.
For several months, Crimson Tide fans had sent Bryant hundreds of letters and telegrams, pleading for him to return to Tuscaloosa, where the Tide program under coach J. B. "Ears" Whitworth had fallen into an abyss. Starting in 1955, Whitworth began his tenure with fourteen straight losses. He benched future Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr for most of his senior season in '55 and by the end of the '57 campaign—the low tide of Alabama football—Whitworth had an overall record of 4-24-2, prompting the school to let him go. In some of the missives to Bryant, grade school and high school boys promised to play for him if he would come home to Alabama, where Bryant had been an end on the Tide team from 1933 to 1935.
Bryant initially resisted the overtures, believing he was on the path to winning a national championship in College Station. The first training camp he held as A&M's coach was in the small Hill County town of Junction, where the school had a 411-acre adjunct campus. Bryant felt his boys needed to be "toughed up," so he put them through a brutal ten-day regime. Practices began before dawn, and the days wouldn't end until meetings concluded at 11 p.m. Junction was in the grip of a drought and a heat wave—each day the temperature topped more than one hundred degrees under the fireball sun—and Bryant was a ruthless dictator, working his players on the parched Texas turf to the point of near collapse, rarely allowing water breaks. Each morning fewer and fewer players showed up for the start of practice, but this was Bryant's hope: He wanted only the strongest and roughest guys to remain on the roster, his brand of Darwinian football. The survivors of this camp became known throughout the region as "the Junction Boys."
Bryant adored those players who stuck with him. But on December 3, 1957, he called a press conference at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston. Sitting in front of a microphone and dozens of newspapermen who puffed on Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes, Bryant explained that the decision to return to Alabama was the hardest one he ever made. "The only reason I'm going back," he said, "is because my school called me." He later explained in his hallmark folksy style, "Momma called. And when Momma calls, you just have to come runnin'."
* * *
Now the miles on his Caddy odometer rolled over and over as Bryant and his family entered the city limits of Tuscaloosa on a January afternoon in 1958. From behind the wheel, the coach spotted a billboard and told his wife to look up. They saw: "Welcome Home Bear and Mary Harmon."
Bryant glanced at his wife, an Alabama native who was shining with happiness. "All my life," she said, "all my life, I've wanted to come back here to live."
Bryant was forty-four years old, stood six foot four with wide shoulders, had an equally wide smile, and was still country strong—he could grab a defensive player by the jersey in practice and toss him aside without much effort, as if he were nothing more than a water boy. He spoke in a rumble and his laugh could fill up a room. He had a hair-trigger temper and fined anyone who cursed on the practice field $5—a pot to which he often contributed himself after an R-rated word flew from his lips.
Bryant had met Mary Harmon Black at the University of Alabama in 1934, when Bryant was on the football team and president of the on-campus A-club, an organization for athletes. Bryant had helped the Tide win a national championship that season, earning second-team all-SEC honors as an end. He played his senior year, 1935, with a partially broken leg. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice told a friend that Bryant would have been an All-American if he hadn't gotten hurt.
The summer before his last year in college, Bryant and Mary Harmon drove south to the small town of Ozark, Alabama. A campus beauty queen who came from a wealthy Birmingham family, Harmon fell hard for the handsome and charismatic Bryant. The pair tied the knot in Ozark, though they kept it a secret because Bryant feared that his coach, Frank Thomas—who didn't like his players to wed—would take away his scholarship if he found out.
Bryant and his wife had visited Tuscaloosa in late December 1957. They checked into the Hotel Stafford, the grandest accommodation in town, where local families often enjoyed multicourse Sunday lunches. On New Year's Eve the Bryants attended a dinner dance at the Tuscaloosa Country Club, where Bryant shook every hand that was thrust at him, patted backs and worked the room, sharing anecdotes from his playing days and telling everyone how happy he was to be back—and how much work needed to be done.
Now having moved to Tuscaloosa and living in the Stafford in late January 1958—the Bryants stayed there for several months while house hunting—Bryant was back in his Caddy and driving through the predawn darkness. He arrived at his office at 5:30 a.m., slid behind his desk, and sat in his chair. Alone in the building, alone in the quiet, alone with his thoughts, he was overcome with a familiar feeling that always seized him when he contemplated his football team:
He worried like hell.
* * *
Before Bryant was introduced as head coach in Tuscaloosa, he slipped into Friedman Hall, a two-story dormitory where the football players lived. Bryant wanted to look over his about-to-be players without their knowing he was even on campus. "Coach Bryant walks in and sees players smoking cigarettes and cigars, and there are liquor bottles and beer bottles all over the place," said Bill Oliver, one of Bryant's first recruits at Alabama, who also coached with Bryant from 1971 to 1979. "He had a passkey, which unlocked the doors to both floors. He looked in the rooms and saw how out of shape the players were. He said to everyone, 'Y'all have a nice day.' No one recognized him."
Bryant had a detailed five-year plan to build Alabama into a national title winner, one that involved aggressive recruiting, player conditioning, style of play, and even the type and extent of media attention he wanted to cultivate. At his introductory press conference a reporter from the Birmingham News stated, "Coach, the alumni are expecting your team to go undefeated next season."
"The hell you say," Bryant quickly groused. "I'm an alumni, and I don't expect us to go undefeated."
Bryant knew that the task ahead of him was daunting. In Alabama's final game of the '57 season, Auburn had drilled the Tide 40–0 as the Tigers marched to the Associated Press national title. That loss to Auburn featured a microcosm of all the ills that infected the Alabama program: a lack of talented players, undisciplined play, poor coaching, and a who-really-gives-a-damn attitude that was evident in the actions and on the faces of the players, the coaches, and even the training staff. Whitworth's contract expired at midnight after the Auburn game, and he asked that it not be renewed. He knew he had failed at Alabama. With moist eyes, he told reporters in the locker room that he was going to do some hunting and fishing in Oklahoma. "Then I'm going to sit down," he said, "and do some serious thinking about my future."
Less than two weeks later, Bryant held his first meeting with his players on December 9, 1957. Though he still had one more game to coach for Texas A&M, he wanted to issue a warning of the storm that was about to blow into Tuscaloosa. He pinned a note on the bulletin board in Friedman Hall that announced there would be a team meeting at 1:20 p.m. in the basement of the hall in a room that was filled with high school–style wooden desks.
Bryant entered through the basement door and stomped to the front of the room. Hands on hips, in silence, Bryant looked at his players. His square-jaw glare cast an oh-my-God pall over the faces of the players: This was the man who had inspected their dorm days earlier. They froze, execution chamber silent. Bryant thrust his hands in his pockets and rattled his loose change and keys—always a signal that he was about to say something of importance. They felt the heat of Bryant's mere presence, of his natural-born intensity, a characteristic that thousands would witness over the next quarter century in Tuscaloosa and around the country.
"Men, y'all don't know who I am and I don't know who you are," he said. "We are going to have spring practice in a little bit. Some of you after spring practice is over I'll know. Some of you I won't know. And if I don't know you, that means you don't matter anyway. I don't want to hear anything about past coaches. The whole problem is right here in this room. And for those who can stay, we will fix it. Yes, we will fix it."
A few minutes later, four late-arriving players pushed open the door to the meeting room. Bryant immediately shifted his eyes in their direction and stopped speaking. A momentary silence was broken by a loud and forceful "Get out! Get out!" Bryant then looked at an assistant and told him to lock the doors. "There will be no interruptions," he said.
During his talk, Bryant didn't focus only on football. He laid out how he wanted his players to behave, from how they should write letters to their mammas and papas on a regular basis to the respect they should show their elders to how important it was to never act like they were better than anyone else simply because they played football. "If you're not committed to winning ball games, to make your grades, go ahead and get your stuff and move out of the dorm, because it's going to show," Bryant said. "You can have all the God-given ability in the world, but if you don't hustle, you won't play. We're going to start somebody in your place."
The meeting lasted twenty-three minutes. Bryant then left to fly back to College Station to coach his final game at Texas A&M, a matchup in the Gator Bowl against Tennessee. The Aggie alumni were furious that Bryant—who had seven years remaining on his contract with A&M—was abandoning their school, and his players were listless, suffering a 3–0 loss to the Volunteers. Two days later, Bryant and his family were on their way to Tuscaloosa; the Texas oil fields disappeared in the rearview mirror.
* * *
Bryant met with each player in his office. "Everyone was scared for our one-on-one meetings," said Marlin "Scooter" Dyess, a running back and defensive back on the team. "The first one to go over and see Coach Bryant was a big lineman. Coach asked, 'Are you in a fraternity?' He said, 'Yes, sir.' Coach then asked, 'You have a car?' It turned out he did. Then Coach asked, 'Do you have a girlfriend?' The lineman said, 'Yes sir.' Then Coach Bryant replied, 'Son, I don't think you're going to have time to play football.' Of course, the lineman relayed all of this information to us, and so we all knew not to tell Coach Bryant if we were in a frat or had a car or had a girlfriend."
In these meetings Bryant also asked each young man about his brothers and sisters, about his parents, about his dreams for the future. He quizzed them on what they wanted to do with their lives once football was over, and he wanted to know what their motivations were—who were they playing for and why football meant so much to them. He wanted to know what made each player tick.
On January 10 he called another team meeting. "We are going to do two things," Bryant said. "We are going to learn to play football, and we are going to get up and go to class like our mammas and papas expect us to. And we are going to win. Ten years from now, you are going to be married with a family, your wife might be sick, your kids might be sick, you might be sick, but you will get your butt up and go to work. That's what I'm going to do for you. I'm going to teach you how to do things you don't feel like doing."
Bryant hired a staff of nine assistants, chosen largely for their skill in recruiting and ability to sweet-talk parents and players into believing that Alabama was the only school for them. He redid the football offices, hired a "nice-looking brunette" to receive callers in the reception area, and put up a sign that read: "Winning Isn't Everything, But It Beats Anything That Comes in Second." He installed nine air-conditioning units in the renovated football headquarters, which now featured modern furniture, fluorescent lighting, and new floors of inlaid tile.
Within days of Bryant announcing he was returning to Tuscaloosa, several top in-state recruits committed to Alabama, including a trio of All-City players from Montgomery—Jimmy Sharpe, Cliff Russell, and Carl Hopson. Bryant also hit the recruiting trail, driving around the South in search of players. In the homes of prospects, Bryant would take off his brown fedora, shake hands with mammas and papas, and then sometimes offer to make coffee. A smile—equal parts welcoming and disarming—continually radiated from his face. He would describe how he would take care of the parents' child once he was in Tuscaloosa, how he'd look after him and make sure he was attending to his studies. He also promised to infuse their child's life with discipline and resolve. No boys in America, he vowed, would be tougher than his players.
Bryant was a charmer in these living rooms. Leaning on his own experience of growing up poor in rural Arkansas, he could talk about crops with farming families and working on cars with fathers who got their fingers dirty for a living. He wouldn't turn down a mason jar if it was offered—he didn't mind a nip of moonshine—and he could discuss what it was like to make it through hard times. He could connect to all types of families, emphasizing the common traits he shared with them. His ability to empathize and engage endeared him on every in-home recruiting visit.
Bryant quickly developed one of the most thorough recruiting operations in college football. First, the staff compared notes on a prospective recruit, discussing minute details such as whether the player had flexibility in his ankles and knees and how he reacted when he was beaten on a play. If Bryant believed the prospect possessed enough talent to play at Alabama, he and his staff would then dig into his background, talking to his parents, his high school teachers, his guidance counselors, his mentors, his friends, even his neighbors. Bryant believed that he could mold a high school athlete with great character into an elite player, because that player would listen to his coaches and endure the pain of his practices. To Bryant, character—and proper temperament—mattered as much as raw talent.
In his first months on the job Bryant met with high school coaches across Alabama, trying to win over each one and convince them that a new day had dawned in Tuscaloosa. Bryant viewed his relationship with state high school coaches as vital as anything else in his role as Alabama's head coach: If he got the high school coaches on his side, Bryant believed that they in turn would convince their star players to attend Alabama.
"When I sat in Coach Bryant's office on my recruiting visit he was very direct in saying, 'We're going to get Alabama back where we belong. We've won Rose Bowls and national championships. And through hard work, that's the level we're going to get back to,'" recalled Bill Battle, a native of Birmingham who played end at Alabama from 1960 to 1962. "Coach Bryant also said he needed the best high school players in the state to come to Alabama. He believed that there was enough talent in the state to accomplish all the goals he had."
Upon Bryant's arrival, football became a year-round activity for the players—a first for the team in Tuscaloosa. Before spring practice began in March, he implemented a tortuous off-season conditioning program. In a gym on the top floor of Little Hall—named after William Gray Little, who introduced football to Alabama in 1892—players would work in small groups, moving between running stations, wrestling drills, and exercise routines. These off-season workouts were rare in college football at the time, and Bryant's winter program was more strenuous than most teams' spring practices. Players hit blocking sleds that were pushed against a wall, hitting them until their shoulders ached and they had trouble lifting their arms. And they did what was called a grass drill—dropping to the floor and rising as quickly as possible, over and over. Bryant lined the stuffy gym with trash cans that reeked with vomit after every training session.
For the players, though, the real struggle began with Bryant's first spring practice in Tuscaloosa. It was every bit as intense as his infamous Junction practice in Texas: From dawn until well past dark, the players were either on the field, in meetings, or studying film until they collapsed into their beds at 11 p.m. The Southern heat wasn't as scorching as it had been in Junction, but the players were rarely allowed water breaks and were given salt tablets to prevent cramps. But the tablets only deepened their thirst, and the desperate-for-water players were driven to sucking on sweat-soaked towels, hoping to find any kind of relief. After practice, players would stand under the shower heads with their mouths agape and eyes closed, as if they'd finally found a water hole in the desert.
About two dozen players quit the Alabama football team that spring. Some thought Bryant had lost his mind and was intent on inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. Players were expected to hop up as soon as they hit the ground in a drill or a scrimmage. One time a player was slow to rise, causing Bryant to yell, "Nobody makes money on their ass except a prostitute!"
Some players simply couldn't endure the misery of these practices. But Bryant had his reasons for putting his boys through nearly two weeks of waking hell: He wanted to rid the program of players who didn't have the deep-seated desire to play for the Tide. The coach preferred players to quit in the spring rather than during a game, and he needed to find out who had the toughness, grit, and fortitude to deserve an Alabama football uniform in the fall.
Bryant said that he had inherited a fat, bloated, lazy, uncommitted team when he arrived in Tuscaloosa—football sins that needed to be washed away that spring. And washing away he was.
* * *
- On Sale
- Sep 15, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing