Alabama Football Legend Paul Bryant’s Death Was 34 Years Ago


Alabama Football Lost its Greatest Legend 34 Years Ago: Paul Bryant Died on January 26, 1983.

Today’s heroes mostly have a shelf life of days, some only hours. I guess if you measure by tweets perhaps it is often only minutes. Today Alabama Football honors a lasting hero.

Very few American heroes transcend average popular passions and powerfully impact lives decades and generations after they have gone. Paul Bryant was such a man.

He touched and shaped lives that never got any closer to him than a television screen. In building some of the greatest college football teams the game has ever known, he also taught life lessons.

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Lessons for his coaches, his players, his fans and even followers who rooted for his rivals.

There are so many Bryant stories it would take far too long to tell just the best ones. When George Blanda first saw him as his Kentucky coach, he said, “I looked at him and thought, this must be what God looks like.” Blanda was not kidding. Alabama fans joked they were sure Bryant could walk on water, well mostly joked, we believed too.

For those of us who lived through the Bryant era, I think Howell Raines, former Executive Editor of the New York Times described the feeling best. Raines wrote, And believe me, to have been in the city of Tuscaloosa in October when you were young and full of Early Times and had a shining Alabama girl by your side–to have had all that and then to have seen those red shirts pour onto the field, and, then, coming behind them, with that inexorable big cat walk of his, the man himself, The Bear–that was very good indeed.”

Raines nailed it with “that inexorable big cat walk” image. People with powerful charisma are sometimes measured by how they “command” a room. Paul Bryant could command an 80,000 seat stadium, and do it while just leaning against a goalpost.

In 1979, the novelist Richard Price wrote a story on Bryant for Playboy magazine. Price was an odd choice for the assignment. He knew very little about the south and was not interested in football. During an interview, Bryant became impatient trying to answer Price’s questions about motivation. Bryant decided to tell Price a joke instead. Price could not decipher much of Bryant’s low-throated rumbles and he did not get the joke. When it was over, Price did not laugh.

Days later Price reflected upon his awareness that in that joke-ending moment “I feel I’d understand something then about why this man is successful. There is something about him—about me in that moment when I blew being an appreciative audience—that goes past embarrassment. I feel like I let him down.”

The brash, hard-to-impress New Yorker found Bryant’s secret to motivation. No one was immune to Bryant’s powerful but “subdued dignity.” Quoting Price again, “whatever it is that he lays on his boys, I got a tiny ray of it myself. The man could literally crush you by letting you know you were a disappointment to him.”

Here is a little excerpt of Bryant motivating his first incoming class at Alabama.

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Estimates of fans that congregated on Bryant’s funeral processional route from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham are difficult to comprehend.  Some reports state the numbers were close to a million. There was no precise count, but no doubt the roadside mourners numbered at least a few hundred thousand. See for yourself:

Much more could be written. I don’t know where to stop. I know my words do not do Paul Bryant justice. I have spent most of my life with a foundational belief I gained from Bryant’s words in a 1967 ABC documentary. Those words were, “If you got class, it will be alright … if you don’t, it don’t really matter anyway.”

RIP Coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant.