On the 37th anniversary of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant’s death, Alabama football fans lucky enough to have lived in the Bryant era can cherish its greatness.
You had to have been there. That is, to really know what it was like in the Alabama football, Bear Bryant era. Living through it as a child and an adult, the impact and the import can still be felt, deeply.
Back when television video feeds depended on cables and phone lines, the film medium was needed for most ‘location shooting.’ As a young film cameraman, I was fortunate to have Paul Bryant filming assignments for public television and a handful of times for ABC Sports.
He was both nothing like and everything like I expected. Imposing and gracious at the same time. Back in the film days, a load of lighting equipment and other film gear was considerable. After filming an interview with Bryant in his office, an ABC producer wanted player interviews at Bryant Hall. We were urged to hurry and catch them together in the dining hall.
It had taken us multiple trips from our van to unload gear for shooting. One trip to the van was then needed. Sports Information Director, Charley Thornton started to help. Then Thornton noticed Bryant had quietly followed us into the hall and was picking up equipment to help us. The ABC producer quickly stated we could handle the task without burdening Bryant. Thornton loaded himself up like a pack mule and we got the gear out in one trip.
I can only guess due to limited personal experience, but I believe coaching legends don’t often pitch in to do menial tasks, unrelated to their jobs. Others who knew Bryant well say they have never known anyone else like him. I think I got a glimpse of why.
Paul Bryant never lost the allegiance to hard work ingrained by his mother while he was an Arkansas youth. He never forgot the poverty of his youth and that football had saved him from it.
Was Bryant the greatest college football coach of all-time? The ESPN panel of experts measuring greatness across 150 years of college football chose Bryant as No. 1. Nick Saban was chosen No. 2. Ivan Maisel, writing for ESPN explained the voting,
Bryant may have earned the edge from our panel because of the longevity of his success. It’s reasonable to believe that the debate over whether Bryant is a better coach than Saban will endure at Alabama for as long as hounds have teeth.
For Alabama football fans, it shouldn’t matter which of the two men is the GOAT. Even if pressed to pick one, I honestly cannot. Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa as head coach when the Tide was down farther than it was when Nick Saban arrived. His teams won the most games in the 1960s and the 1970s decades. He won three National Championships in the era of one-platoon football. After serious slippage in 1969 and 1970, he rebuilt the Tide in the 70s, adopted the wishbone and revolutionized it with downfield passing. Then he won three more National Championships.
No reader needs to be reminded of what Saban has accomplished. Or that Nick has work left to do.
Many people with far more exposure to Bryant than me share their stories on this day every year. This one, by Kirk McNair, is well-deserving of a careful read.
One college football program with the two greatest coaches of all-time. Even having lived through it, I shake my head at the thought. It comes close to being beyond belief.