Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Celebrating Bear Bryant's 100th birthday
By ESPN.com staff
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A little more than half an hour before kickoff of every Alabama home game, the leathery visage of the legendary coach of the Crimson Tide, the late Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, appears on the video boards at either end of Bryant-Denny Stadium and begins to speak. And before all of those games when the university has played the video, no one has ever heard what Bryant says. The minute the 101,000 fans see him, they begin roaring.
"Well, the older people are," said Paul W. Bryant Jr., "and the younger ones don't know quite what the rest of them are talking about."
Time silences our heroes, robs us of them and then steals the witnesses who can tell the hero's story, and the day comes when all we have left are statues and houndstooth beach balls. Stories can be handed down, books can be written, movies produced. But the emotions that connect player to coach, or fan to hero, are not easily handed down from one generation to the next. Legends may not be kept in a cedar chest in the attic.
The flesh-and-blood Bear, the all-too-human man who inspired the fealty and worship of thousands, who coaxed and bullied and demanded that his players and his assistants meet a standard they didn't know they could meet, is disappearing. He has been dead for three decades, and as those who stood witness to him die, we are losing Bryant again.
Forgive the personal nature of this story. For those of us who grew up in Alabama in a time when our state was viewed as a cauldron of hatred, Bryant told the rest of the nation that we could produce success and character. He inspired a level of loyalty unlike any coach before or since in any state in any sport.
I can tell you where I was the day he died, and not just because it was my 23rd birthday. I know where I was because that was the first time a death ever made me cry. The notion that he is just a football coach to the 80 million millennials estimated to live in the United States makes me want to cry again.
Gene Stallings played for Bryant, coached for him, coached against him, and eventually became the first coach after Bryant to lead Alabama to a national championship.
"One of the reasons of his great success over an extended period of time was, we all wanted to please Coach Bryant," Stallings said. "The players wanted to please him. The assistant coaches wanted to please him. The alumni wanted to please him. The administration wanted to please him. The president of the university -- Coach Bryant just had that little something about him that people wanted to please. We'll do anything just to hear Coach Bryant say, 'You did a good job.' He didn't say it too often. But we wanted him to say it.
"You know, there was a little fear factor, and I don't think there's anything wrong with fear factor….whether or not you were doing your job well enough to please Coach Bryant."
Stallings is 78 years old. Bryant's players are just as likely to be grandfathers as fathers. His youngest players, the freshmen on that 1982 team, are getting solicitations from AARP.
"Some of my teammates and I were talking about this two or three weeks ago," said Ronny Robertson, who played for Bryant in the mid-1970s and is the senior associate athletic director for development at his alma mater. "When we were at Alabama and playing for Coach Bryant, there was this guy at Notre Dame that coached a long time ago named Knute Rockne, and he was a real good football coach. That's about the way I think the kids today look at Coach Bryant."
Bryant died suddenly, four weeks after he coached the final game of his 25-year career at his alma mater. Bryant was 69 years old, according to the calendar, and much older than that according to a body worn down by stress and illness, by late hours and lifestyle.
Today, on what would have been Bryant's 100th birthday, the university will hold a ceremony at the Paul W. Bryant Museum on campus. Alabama also commissioned a documentary, "Mama Called," and a book, "Inside the Vault: The Paul W. Bryant Collection," that will make their debuts today, too. Bryant's centennial falls during the week in which No. 6 Texas A&M, where Bryant coached for four seasons, will play host to his alma mater, the No. 1 Crimson Tide. On Friday night in College Station, players he coached at both schools will gather to celebrate his memory.
To read more of Ivan Maisel's legacy of Bear Bryant, click here.