Lessons in Life from Paul "Bear" Bryant
We Can Learn Lessons About Life from "Bear" Bryant, One of America's Most Successful Coaches
In the South, football is akin to religion. Moreover, if you follow Alabama football, your religious fervor probably links closely with either Auburn or Alabama. If you are an Auburn fan, chances are, you respect and admire the memory of one of America’s best-known coaches, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant was head coach at the University of Alabama for 25 years from 1958 until 1982. The memory of Paul “Bear” Bryant is still fresh in the minds and hearts of football fans everywhere, especially those over forty-five or so who recall his deep gravelly voice and his trademark houndstooth hats. The media has often referred to the “Bear” as the “winningest coach in history,” but the qualities that endeared him to his players and fans reached far beyond mere numbers on a scoreboard or his prowess in creating new versions of the Wishbone. In fact, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s unique qualities have made the man behind the numbers and given strength to the “Bear Bryant” legend.
As a kid in Moro Bottom, Arkansas, Bryant learned some tough lessons early in life, lessons that prepared him to set high standards for himself and his players. He was one of twelve kids of a sickly father and a mother who made rounds selling produce from a wagon. Young Bryant often followed his mother on weekends as she sold her produce. Years later, Bryant recalled what he disliked about the weekend selling sessions, “What I hated about it was coming face-to-face with the people we met along the way. I had an inferiority complex. I didn't feel like I was as good as those people. I thought they looked down on me.” Bryant loved his mother, but he never wanted to go back to the wagon.
Byant’s generation was the one that experienced the Great Depression and World War II, a unique generation described in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, and Bryant did a stint in World War II. These tough experiences, as well as his own distinctive character, shaped Bear Bryant into a man unafraid to set high standards for his players.
Bryant held each player to a high standard, and he didn’t hesitate to kick a player off the team if he felt he didn’t measure up, a philosophy that brought him criticism at times. In his first season as head coach at Texas A & M, Bryant took 117 young men into the Texas desert, and 10 days later, only 27 players remained when the team returned to campus. However, two years later, the losing streak of the Aggies changed, and they won the Southwest Championship. In another year, Bryant left Texas to become head coach at Alabama, where he stayed until he retired 25 years later.
In all his coaching positions, Bryant came into town, took over a losing team, and set things right. With every coaching position, he moved in and “set things right,” at Maryland, at Kentucky, at Texas A & M, and later at Alabama. Alabama had won only 4 games in the previous three years before Bryant became head coach, but under Bryant, the Alabama team turned around, and within four years, they made it to the Sugar Bowl. In all these coaching situations, fans began to think of him as raising the dead and even joked about his ability to walk on water.
The Bear Bryant Show of the 1970s reveals more of the man behind the “Bear” Bryant success story. I’ll never forget Sunday afternoons in the 1970s. I was not an avid football fan. In fact, I plain disliked the game! My initial devotion to the weekly 4:00 “Bear Bryant Show,” which started in 1958 and ran for 25 years, most likely stemmed from a desire to please my husband. He lived and breathed football. I didn’t understand the game, and he had just about given up explaining its intricacies to me. But as weeks passed, I grew to admire the show’s star. I even found myself anticipating hearing that gravelly voice, “Have an ice cold Coco-cola and some Golden Flake Potato Chips, folks.”
One of Bryant’s strongest assets was his ability to get the best from his players. He did this quite effectively with his public comments about his players. Now, we all know good families don’t air their dirty laundry in public. Coach Bryant was no exception. Whether the Alabama boys won or lost, Bryant held them in high esteem before the television audience. I remember one particular Sunday afternoon after a rare loss, Bryant’s guttural voice drawled, “Oh, it was just poor coaching, that’s all, just poor coaching.” My husband laughed, “You can bet that’s not what he said to those guys in the locker room after the game.”
Bryant revealed his philosophy of giving public credit and praise to his players more than once. He always kept any harsh words private---in public, he accepted responsibility for the team’s loss. The following statement reveals insight into Bryant’s personal philosophy that brought out the best in his players. He said, "If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes real good, you did it. That's all it takes to get people to win football games." Just as Bryant took blame in public for losses, he commended his players when they won. In the 1978 Alabama-Nebraska game, Alabama beat Nebraska 20-3. That Sunday afternoon, as Bryant drank his “ice-cold” Coco-Cola, he commended his team for its hard work. Rather than take credit for the Alabama win, Bryant praised his players, their determination to practice in the hot, dry weather, their enthusiasm as they prepared for the season. He especially noted their perseverance in returning to Tuscaloosa to practice in the middle of a hot, dry August—without complaints.
I met Bear Bryant once in 1974. His autobiography, The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant, had just come out in hardback. Loveman’s Department Store in Birmingham had arranged for Bryant to autograph copies of the book one morning in November. I arrived at Loveman’s two hours early to find that a line had already formed with over one hundred fans ahead of me.
It never occurred to me to leave. Paul "Bear" Bryant was worth the wait----even for an Auburn fan!