Twenty-five years ago, before my first meeting with Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, someone warned me, “He’s got a look that, if it doesn’t actually make you feel like shit, will at least make you stop and think about it.” I wondered what it would have been like to play for Bear Bryant. Steve Wright, the only man to play for both Vince Lombardi and Bryant, once told me that playing for Bryant was “like having John Wayne for your grandfather.” (What, I wondered, was Lombardi like? “Like George C. Scott in ‘Patton,’ Wright replied.)
Such memories are prompted by a viewing of ESPN’s excellent “The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team” (airing Dec. 14), adapted from Jim Dent’s book about Bryant’s 1954 preseason training camp at Texas A&M, where 76 of 111 football players wilted and quit under his astonishingly brutal regimen. Tom Berenger doesn’t look like Bear Bryant. Bear looked like a cross between John Wayne and George C. Scott in “Patton” and no actor looks like that, which is probably why they never got a decent movie made about Bear. (Some character actor in a houndstooth-check hat did a funny turn as Bryant in “Forrest Gump,” and in 1983 a sleazy independent movie company cranked out something called “The Bear” with — swear to God — Gary Busey in the title role. I have never talked to anyone outside the state of Alabama who has even heard of this film, let alone seen it.)
If Berenger doesn’t actually look like Bryant, he does a more than passable impersonation of a man in his 40s from a hard-scrabble Depression upbringing to whom winning football games was literally a matter of survival. Berenger’s Bryant is a work in progress, a man in transition trying to accommodate himself to the realities of life and football in the Eisenhower boom era. There’s a wonderful scene where Bryant is apologizing to the father of a player whom he has taken off the team. He isn’t apologizing for dehydrating the kid in 114-degree heat and nearly killing him, but for not being able to lay down the sword and break his own rule of not allowing boys to play who miss practice. “I’m sorry, sir,” he tells the boy’s father, “but football is a war.” The man turns to Bryant, exposing an empty sleeve from an arm left on a Japanese-held island. “Coach,” he replies, “I know a little bit about war. Football is a sport.” Berenger’s Bryant looks as if he’s been jolted; it’s the beginning of wisdom. By the end of the film, he looks like a man who finally understands that football is an unsatisfactory metaphor for life.
It was that understanding that began to attract people other than football fans to Bryant over the last 10 years of his life. It was also a time that, perhaps not coincidentally, coincided with the complete integration of the Alabama football team. To his critics in the activist years of the late sixties — and I recall making a nasty joke or two at his expense myself in my high school paper — he was a one-dimensional sub-fascist tyrant who placed winning above the physical well-being of his players. It never occurred to us to ask why many of his players — particularly the rebellious types like Joe Namath, whom we rooted for — stuck it out with Bryant. We also never considered that perhaps they thought they were learning something from the man. Or that we might.
In the seventies, the quotation marks were gradually dropped from “Bear.” He seemed transformed by the media from a modern manifestation of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest into a kind of folk hero — a crusty, gruff, wise old philosopher-warrior like Andrew Jackson tempered by Will Rogers. The first image was a product of the elitism that sees bigotry only in white Southerners. The second was the result of intellectual good old boys manufacturing a cracker-barrel Spinoza full of homey witticisms that the real Bryant would be as likely to spout as he would be to annotate “Pale Fire.” May Frank Deford stew in the lowest circle of Dante’s hell for all eternity for the snide condescending crap he wrote about Bear Bryant.
Both images of Bryant were patently false. What became obvious about Bryant when you lived with him every day was how precisely he didn’t fit anybody’s stereotype of what a football coach was supposed to be. He did have a big heart, he did have a soul, he was never petty to his players or opponents in public. He always blamed himself when Alabama lost — to the point where even the most hero-worshipping of sportswriters guffawed when they heard the litany of his own inadequacies. (Of course, through most of Bryant’s years at Alabama, we didn’t have to listen to it too often.)
He was lax in integrating the Alabama football team, a weakness for which he could have been better remembered than for any of his six national championships. (But then, even Notre Dame had just one black football player, Alan Page, as late as 1965.) When Bryant did integrate, he did it to the point of putting a black player, Walter Lewis, at the sacred position of quarterback and of fully embracing his black players in public. (He went out of his way to praise Dwight Stephenson, later to achieve Hall of Fame status with the Miami Dolphins, as “the greatest lineman he had ever coached.” Of course he said that about every new generation of players: Walter Lewis was better than Jeff Rutledge, who was better than Ken Stabler, who was better than Joe Namath.)
In 1974, while doing color commentary for a nationally televised game, he said that former Birmingham high school star Sam “The Bam” Cunningham had “done more to integrate the state of Alabama than Martin Luther King” when Cunningham scored five TDs against the Crimson Tide while playing for Southern Cal. He was greeted by cynical responses from a national press that found it convenient to forget how much their own attitudes had been changed by Jackie Robinson a little more than two decades earlier.
What I’ve been groping for is something I could have never admitted 25 years ago, or even when Bear died in 1983. I miss him for reasons I can’t quite pin down, though they may have to do with the fact that he was a winner. Did I mention that he was the greatest football coach who ever lived? They also have to do with the fact that the world was, in some indefinable way, a much more interesting place with him in it. His detractors labeled him crude and vulgar, which he was, if one takes “crude” to mean unrefined and “vulgar” to mean common. He was never able to master the slick TV techniques of a Bud Wilkinson or Jimmy Johnson, and he never learned the art of franchising his folksiness like the insufferable Lou Holtz. (But then, he never made an ass of himself on TV like Woody Hayes or Bobby Knight.)
His candor was disarming. When asked why he never coached for Notre Dame, Bryant drawled, “They approached me, but I think they found out I couldn’t read or write good enough.” It didn’t occur to most interviewers that he wasn’t trying to be witty. There was nothing but straight honesty in his voice when he said, “When we have a good team at Alabama, I know it’s because we have boys who come from good mamas and papas.”
Nearly every pro or college coach I’ve known since Bear Bryant has seemed somehow inauthentic compared to him. I wouldn’t want anyone to have to live through the Depression or segregation or any other of the conditions that produced the man, but somehow I can’t help feeling that all those boys from good mamas and papas will be missing something by not having the chance to play for Bear Bryant. For better or worse, kids in Alabama will just have to grow up not knowing what it’s like to have John Wayne for a grandfather.