Allen Barra, author of a new Bear Bryant bio, on the coach's greatness, his mystique, "The Junction Boys" and his moral failure -- and success -- on integration.
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To anyone who grew up in Alabama in the 1960s and ’70s, as Allen Barra did, Paul “Bear” Bryant was an unimaginably huge figure. In the introduction to “The Last Coach,” his new biography of Bryant, Barra writes about how difficult it was to explain to relatives in New Jersey what a football weekend in Birmingham meant.
And yet, “Many of us had never been able to decide if we actually liked Bear Bryant,” Barra, 52, writes. “I suppose it had something to do, at least for many of us, with all those photographs of George Wallace, his arm around the only man in the Deep South more famous than himself.”
Barra says the thing that surprised him most in researching “The Last Coach” was that Bryant held the segregationist governor in utter contempt, and spent the entire decade of the ’60s making what Barra calls “genuine but ineffectual efforts to integrate the Alabama team,” something that was finally accomplished in 1971.
And once John Mitchell, the first black Alabama player, made the tackle on the opening kickoff of the opening game that year, integration moved swiftly, and not just on the field but on Bryant’s coaching staff. Ozzie Newsome, the great tight end who played for Bryant, once said, “Martin Luther King Jr. preached equality. Coach Bryant practiced it.”
Barra’s literally been carrying Bryant around for his entire adult life.
“I must have been planning in the back of my mind to write this book a long time ago,” he said by phone from his New Jersey home, “because I’ve carted through Chicago, then to Brooklyn in 1981, boxes of papers, autographed books. Much of the material I used I had saved, old Birmingham news clippings, Tuscaloosa papers, interviews, magazine stories. I had all this crap with me.”
Full disclosure: Barra is a former Salon sports columnist, and I have been both his co-columnist and his editor. He still writes for Salon, and while we aren’t exactly drinking buddies — we’ve never even met in person — we do offer each other advice, encouragement and criticism from time to time.
So consider all that when I say that I enjoyed “The Last Coach,” even though I went into it without any particular interest in Bryant. Barra is a thorough researcher and a lively writer, and as he did a decade ago with “Inventing Wyatt Earp,” he makes fresh the life story of a well-chronicled figure.
It’s neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job. Barra makes the case for Bryant’s greatness while acknowledging his shortcomings. Publisher’s Weekly gave “The Last Coach” a starred review.
Bryant went from Moro Bottom, Ark., a mere plot of land with a few families on it, to nearby Fordyce, and then, thanks to football, on to the University of Alabama, where he was “the other end” on the 1934 Rose Bowl team that featured the great Don Hutson. His nickname, by the way, comes from his wrestling a bear at a theater for money. The promoter ran off without paying him.
After assistant coaching stints at Alabama and Vanderbilt and a wartime job coaching a military team, he began his head coaching career in 1945 at Maryland, moving to Kentucky after one year. In 1954 he went to Texas A&M, and then to his alma mater, where he coached from 1958 to 1982, winning six national championships, cementing his legend and becoming, at the time of his retirement, the winningest coach in college football history.
Not only did he win at all four schools, he turned all four programs from losers to winners in his first year and, as Barra notes, he was almost certainly the greatest coach in the history of three of them, Maryland being the exception.
Bryant died in 1983, less than a month after his last game. In a story told movingly by Barra, about one in 12 people who lived in Alabama at the time turned out to watch his funeral procession.
“If you’re from Alabama and lived through the Bear Bryant era,” Barra begins his book, “you know where you were on the day he died.”
Barra says he’s planning to write a bio of Yogi Berra next. We spoke by phone last week.
What is it about Bryant that made him this huge figure? You make the argument in the book that he was the greatest college football coach, but any sport you look at has a “greatest coach,” or winningest coach, and most of them don’t have his mystique.
There’s a number of things. One of them is, he was the greatest coach. What’s astonishing to me about Bryant that you can’t say about the other great coaches you might compare him to: Bryant turned four programs radically around.
He’s clearly the greatest football coach, I think, in the era of unlimited substitution. I don’t know that his record before that is great enough to say that he was the best in that previous era, but he’s the only coach that qualifies as great in both periods of football history.
And his career is split right down the middle, exactly down the middle, 1963, when they stopped using all those substitution limitations. He’s the only coach who was great in both times.
As I point out, there’s a number of uncanny parallels with Vince Lombardi, and a lot of it stems from the fact that they both had direct ties to the great modern football coach, the man who revolutionized the game and the program that changed football, Knute Rockne and Notre Dame. [Each man had a mentor who played for Rockne.]
Also, he was a college football coach, and to me college football has roots and history and tradition that pro football can only hope to emulate. College football is old-fashioned and feudal in that sense, because it’s regional. And I think a lot of Bryant’s power and mystique came from the fact that he was the archetypal college football coach. He just looked and played and acted the part better than anyone else who was out there.
Here’s another big thing: The relationship between Bryant and Joe Namath. It’s the most famous coach-quarterback relationship in football history. And Bryant knew the power of Namath. He might still be, along with Joe Montana, the most famous football player ever. And that gave Bryant a window, as it were, with the Eastern press, and that’s where the mystique could grow even bigger.
Bryant was the first TV icon. Roone Arledge built the whole concept around what he was going to do with ABC Sports around college football, and he built college football around Bear Bryant. So there’s no single reason for all of this. You have to take it all together.
As I was carrying around the galley of this book while I read it, two different people saw it and said something like, “So was he really as much of an SOB as in ‘The Junction Boys’?”
I’ll say this: Jim [Dent]‘s book is very good, and he hit upon a very interesting subject. I don’t want to say that he exaggerated it. I’ll say again it’s a situation where Bryant kind of exemplified everything else that was going on in college football. He wasn’t doing anything radically different than what other coaches were doing.
What drew so much attention to the Junction Boys was, they were doing it out in Texas, which is a little harsher than most places, and they’d had a terrible drought, but Number 2, it was the way he gutted that entire football program, which took a huge amount of courage.
He goes down there and he determines that he’s going to gut the entire program. [He says] I don’t care if it’s like two dozen players, we’re going to come back with the guys who want to play and start all over. It’s the only losing season of Bryant’s career. That’s one of the things that gives it mystique. That’s why it makes it all stand out.
As far as the harshness of it, the guys I talked to, Jack Pardee and the others, all said, “Hell, it wasn’t that much tougher than what we went through in high school. It was Texas.”
The reason we focus on the Junction Boys incident, that one week out there, is because it sort of opens a little window on what college football was. I think Woody Allen once said about old Jews, he said, “They’re just like everyone else, just more so.” That’s what Bryant was as a football coach. He was just like all the other coaches, just a little more so.
What about the race thing, he –
That was the most interesting part of it.
I think so too. He comes off a little better in the book than I would have thought he was going to.
I have to say, I grew up in what I would call a more liberal atmosphere. Mountain Brook is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, and the contrast between Mountain Brook and the surrounding areas of poverty once you get inside of Birmingham back then was sharply defined.
And there were a lot of people who were not big Bryant fans. I grew up, I was very, very skeptical. It made a lot of us feel very uneasy to open a newspaper or catch the TV highlights and see George Wallace with his arm around Bryant. And yet, looking back on it, I see some of the articles that my father saved. A very important one was Look magazine, I think it was ’65, where Bryant was saying back then, “Negro players in the SEC are coming.”
Why was he saying that? As Wayne Flynt, the Auburn historian, said to me, Wallace didn’t stand in the doorway at Auburn. He stood in the doorway at Alabama. The University of Alabama was his university, it was the symbolic university, and he was going to block integration.
Bryant pushed and probed about as much as — no, I’m not going to say that he couldn’t have done more. I’m not going to say that he couldn’t have taken a moral stand. But he did attempt to do things.
In ’59, he has several different bowl bids, and he’s anxious to win his first bowl game at Alabama. He takes them to frozen Philadelphia to play in the Liberty Bowl against Penn State. Why did he do that? I know why he did it. He did it because he would be playing an integrated team, and that was going to be his first push, to see where he could go with that. And he told his players to be polite. He wanted Alabama to have a good image. I think his feeling was that at that point, within a couple of years they would integrate the football team.
Fair enough, but by ’65, he already has enormous stature. What would he have risked by taking a moral stand?
What he would have risked was, personally, I don’t think that much. And I do think it’s a failure of nerve on his part.
But I do think there were attempts made and there were probes being made. In ’63, he’s already talking about running for political office. Now, what could he possibly have been talking about? He wasn’t talking about running for president. He certainly isn’t talking about running for state senator. He’s not talking about running for U.S. senator, he’s not going to go live in Washington.
That’s his subtle way of letting George Wallace know that he wants a change, and that he wanted to run for governor of Alabama. I don’t know how serious he was about it, but two years later in Look magazine, he’s still talking about it.
The correspondence that goes between [Attorney General Robert] Kennedy’s men and the university shows that president Frank Rose was really scared that Wallace was going to clamp down hard on the University of Alabama. Would that have affected the football program? Yes. Does that seem like a small consideration? Yeah, it probably does.
But was Bryant being pressured by his own university president not to say too much too soon? Yes. Yes, he was. So, is that a moral failure on Bryant’s part? Yes, I would have to say it is.
But you have to qualify that. Number 1 was where Bryant came from. To him, the University of Alabama really was his life. I mean that. When he’s 12 years old, listening to his first football game, without knowing even what football is, and hearing Johnny Mack Brown in the Rose Bowl. That was his way out. He was so grateful.
Bryant was a university man. He was really reluctant to do anything that would compromise or hurt the university, and I think as the decade went on he was getting increasingly frustrated, not just with the black recruits he was losing, but the white ones as well.
So by 1969, he’s worn down. He’s ready to go to the National Football League. He agrees, he tells [Miami Dolphins owner Joe] Robbie that he’s going to go. Then he just changes his mind. No, we’re going to stick here, we’re going to change it around.
And so Bryant turns around a fifth college program — his own. After two years of mediocrity, he determines he’s going to integrate, tells his staff to get out there, that’s that.
I would say this: The slowness of moving the integration of the football team, I think, is more than mitigated by the swiftness and the thoroughness with which he integrated the team and the coaching staff. Bang, John Mitchell and Sylvester Croom, within a couple of years of their playing careers being over, become assistant coaches. Wham. Nobody else had black assistant coaches hardly anywhere, and suddenly Bryant has thoroughly integrated that team.
You talked about being skeptical of Bryant growing up. When did your view of him change?
I always had a grudging, grudging, grudging admiration for him, and I realized how many times over the years I was quoting him and how many times I referred to him.
I guess I had to get perspective from Bryant to see how much he meant. To me, he represented what was best about the college game. A time when, for all the publicity about Joe Namath and John Hannah and Dwight Stephenson and all the great players that came out of Alabama, right up until the end, most guys that were coming to play football at Alabama were still college football players who were going there for an education and for a way to pull themselves out of the life that they’d been in.
Up until the end with Bryant, the majority of players were still the first person in their family ever to attend college. So there was still that connection with what college football and the University of Alabama had been to him. After which, I think college football has taken on a mercenary air.
What would he have thought of the increased talk in the last few years of paying players and being more honest about the professionalism in the college game?
I don’t think Bryant would have been totally averse.
Well, obviously, since he paid his players in the early days.
That’s it, you bring up an interesting point. Hank Crisp and other coaches back then would just peel the money out and hand it to the players. Those guys had nothing. So Bryant could understand that. He could understand taking George Blanda [who played for Bryant at Kentucky] out and buying him a new pair of shoes, which you couldn’t do today. Blanda even talked about that in his book, how he was embarrassed, he couldn’t show up anywhere in decent clothes. It brought him out of his shell.
I don’t think Bryant would have, if he had been coaching in the modern era — I mean, Bryant wasn’t a hypocrite about it back then. He told his players, “You’re special.”
I don’t know how I feel about this personally, I haven’t resolved my feelings about it. But he said, You should be living in a separate dorm. You should be getting preferential treatment. But you owe something to the students, to the state you represent and to the university. You have to pay it back with your behavior and your loyalty to the team and everything else.
He was very open about that. They’re athletes first. He said that. But he regarded football and what it taught you as being something that was legitimate to go to college to learn. It wasn’t aimed at funneling players into the NFL.
If Bryant were still around today do you think the increasing professionalism in college football, the way it’s become a de facto minor league, would have been more likely to drive him to the NFL?
I think there would have been more of a temptation, although the pressures that initially drove him to the National Football League were not money or fame. There was a challenge. He said nobody had ever won at both levels before, college and pro, and he wanted to do that.
But the factors that were keeping him in college football, the things he liked about college football, have lessened now.
I’ll say this, it would have been one more temptation on the other side of the ledger, but what originally attracted him to pro football in the first place was not money, it was not prestige or fame, it was the pressure of not being able to integrate the football team sooner, and the subsequent mediocrity of the Alabama football team. Disgust, frustration.
And in the end, he said it quite clearly, he said, “What I loved about the game were the things people thought were corny.” The cheerleaders, the autumn afternoons, the idea that you could wear your university’s colors, the fight songs. He says, “If that’s corny, then call me corny.” He said it in exactly those words.
I think you’re right, that’s true, but I think in the end what he loved about college football probably would have prevailed. Because to imagine Bear Bryant any other way is to not really imagine Bear Bryant. He was a product of those particular times. I mean, to him, paradise was the University of Alabama.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
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