They called him “Bear.”
Think about that for a moment, and the kind of words it invokes.
Powerful, gruff, intimidating, and yet with a gentle side. Paul W. Bryant was all of those things, and much, much more, and perfectly nicknamed after actually wrestling a bear at a carnival for $1 at the age of 13 (he didn’t get the money and the animal bit his ear).
Today, the name is synonymous with college football, and Bryant is widely regarded as the game’s greatest coach. He compiled an amazing record of 323-85-17, led teams to 29 bowl appearances, 15 conference championships and won six national championships (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979). In the 1960s and 1970s, no school won more games than the Crimson Tide (193-32-5), and the national coach of the year award is named in his honor.
Even though Bryant died January 26, 1983 at the age of 69, hardly a day goes by that most Crimson Tide fans don’t mention his name at least once, and half of Tuscaloosa is seemingly named in his honor.
Bryant was born September 11, 1913, the 11th of 12 children, three of whom died as infants. His father was an Arkansas farmer, but after he became ill when Paul was a child, his mother, Ida Mae, took over, with the kids helping out.
After helping the Fordyce High School Redbugs to a state championship, Bryant left home for the University of Alabama, where during his first fall took high school classes to finish up his degree. In June 1935, Bryant secretly wed Mary Harmon because it was against team rules for players to marry. Their first of two children, Mae Martin, was born nine months later. Paul Jr., who would become a prominent businessman, was born in 1944.
After turning down a chance to play in the National Football League, Bryant went straight into coaching, and was an assistant at Alabama for four years, and at Vanderbilt for two, before serving in the Navy. Upon leaving the military he was named the head coach at Maryland, but resigned after one season. Instead, he took over Kentucky and guided the Wildcats to their only Southeastern Conference championship in 1950. In eight seasons, his teams went 60-23-5 and played in four bowl games, including the 1951 Sugar Bowl where Kentucky ended Oklahoma’s 31-game winning streak.
After the 1953 season, Bryant signed a 12-year contract extension with the promise from Kentucky officials that football would be the athletic department’s top priority, or at least on par with basketball. When it became clear that wouldn’t be the case, he quit. Texas A&M signed him to a six-year deal to be coach and athletic director for $25,000 a season and an unprecedented one percent of the gate receipts, one day before Southern California made a lucrative offer that almost certainly would have snared Bryant.
That first training camp with the Aggies, Bryant took his players 250 miles west to a barren army base in Junction and put them through the mental and physical equivalent of a meat grinder. More than two-thirds of the players quit, with those who endured dubbed the “Junction Boys,” but it also defined the coach’s legacy as a hard-nosed disciplinarian.
Bryant’s Aggies were closing in the 1957 national championship when he was lured away by Alabama and made his famous statement: “Mama called, and when Mama calls, then you just have to come running.” He agreed to a 10-year contract with an annual salary of $17,000 and a house.
“I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.”
Three years later, Bryant won his first national championship, and the rest is history.
Paul W. "Bear" Bryant (1913-1983)
Some of this post originated from "100 Things Crimson tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die," published by Triumph Books