The Death of Bear Bryant, 40 Years later

Of all the mythic figures in Alabama’s history, Paul W. “Bear” Bryant would top any list. His 323 total victories and six national championships put him among the greatest coaches in college football history. But put into a historical context, Bryant’s importance in the state makes more sense. He came to Alabama to take over as head coach the same fall that the segregationist John Patterson was elected governor, as the Civil Rights movement was just getting started. Bryant’s winning ways were a stark contrast to the mounting losses for the state’s politicians. And he died shortly after a George Wallace who had apologized for being a segregationist was elected governor for the last time. That mythic status is about more than football.

Bryant’s first season as Alabama’s head football coach was in 1958, after he had served as an assistant coach in earlier years. His task was reviving a team that had won four games in three seasons. And the new coach did it. He turned the Crimson Tide around, going 5–4–1 in his first season. Then, after getting settled, the university’s football team had a record of 60–4–1 from 1961 to 1966, with national and conference championships. Bear Bryant totally transformed Alabama football from having four wins in three seasons to having four losses in six seasons. These were the same years as the Freedom Rides, the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, the Sixteenth Street Church bombing, and the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

By the time Generation X came along, the 1970s virtually belonged to Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide. From 1971 to 1979, there were fewer than a dozen losses, which resulted in the team being at or near the top of the rankings every year. More national championships were added to the already impressive list. This was also the era when football teams were integrated, and Alabama signed its first black player in December 1969. For those white Alabamians who believed that “the mixing of the races” would mean the end of Western civilization, the Tide of the 1970s showed them they were wrong. The stream of victories in the 1960s had created Bryant’s mythic status, and the continuation in the 1970s cemented it.  

In the early 1980s, Alabama was still a strong team, but Bryant’s health was waning. He coached them to two-loss seasons in 1980 and ’81, then retired after a four-loss season in 1982. His overall record at Alabama was 232–46–9, which constitutes a win percentage of 81%. Put another way, from 1958 until 1982, Alabama’s football team won four of every five games they played. Whole generations of people associated with Alabama football got used to winning.

In a twist that would not be believable if it were manufactured, Coach Bryant died soon after his last football game. After beating the University of Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, Bryant was asked by a reporter what he would do in retirement. He replied, “Probably croak in a week.” That game was on December 29, 1982, and he died almost a month later on January 26, 1983. Sadly, it was not unexpected. His health had actually been failing for several years. 

Forty years after his death, a common belief is that Bear Bryant is held up as a hero in Alabama for his commanding presence over the game of college football. I tend to think there’s more to it than that. At a time when Alabamians desperately needed something to cheer for and be proud of, his teams put the state in the national spotlight for something other than the ugliness of racial tension and violence. From the end of the 1950s through the early 1980s, Bryant was a hard-drinking, stone-faced winner in a houndstooth hat. He was a living legend whose nickname alluded to a story about wrestling a bear and whose toughness incites memories of the Junction Boys. Bryant’s worst seasons still boasted more wins than losses, and in a state that suffers lots of losses, that fact alone is impressive. So impressive that his funeral train – the route taken by the hearse carrying his casket, where people could stand by and pay their respects – is purported to have been one of the longest in US history.

I was eight years old when Bear Bryant died— forty years ago today. Though I’ve been a “Dye-hard” Auburn fan for a long time, I remember that nearly everybody considered themselves Alabama fans in the 1970s and ’80s. We understood Bear Bryant to be not just a winner but our winner. People had framed pictures of him on their walls, and his historic 315th win was commemorated on everything from cheap plastic cups to limited-edition works of art. His long reign over college football – that most American of sports – occurred simultaneous to the bitter and violent struggle for Civil Rights, to the fall of Jim Crow, and to the coming and going of George Wallace. Since his death in 1983, the Alabama faithful have adopted houndstooth as a fabric of choice, and Bryant has a statue and even his own museum on campus. That kind of devotion can’t be incited by simply excelling in a sport. It has to come from being the right man doing the right things at the right time. Which Bear Bryant was.


 

Generation X Deep South

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera 35: the Iron Bowl (and other rivalries)

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera is a sometimes substantial but not making any promises glimpse at some information and news related to Generation X in the Deep South.


Generation X grew up with some of the best college football rivalry games ever played. We watched them on big bulky TVs that might have petered out when the rabbit-ear antenna wasn’t positioned just right. Some of us saw them only in black and white, or listened to them on the radio with our granddads. A few lucky ducks actually got to go to the game. No matter whether the rival was in-state or just nearby, there was no way to anyone would miss out. And that’s especially true of the Iron Bowl in Alabama.

The Iron Bowl is well-known nationally as one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports, and GenXers experienced some of the best of those games. One of the most famous Iron Bowls is known simply by the phrase “Punt, Bama, Punt!” In 1972, #9 Auburn played #2 Alabama and won the game by a point (17-16) in a comeback that was made possible by blocking two punts.

Other memorable games were the 1982 “Bo over to the top” game and the first game ever played in Jordan Hare, in 1989. Among Bama fans’ best memories would be the 1985 game that was won by a Van Tiffen field goal.

Of course, the 1970s were still the heyday of Alabama’s Bear Bryant, who retired in 1983, and the early 1980s had Bo Jackson – considered by some to be the greatest athlete of all time – playing for the Tigers.

From 1970 to 1999, the Crimson Tide won 19 of the 30 games, and that included a winning streak that lasted from 1973 to 1981. Auburn has it own shorter four-game winning streak in the late 1980s. All but five of the games were played at Legion Field in Birmingham, and then an era ended: the last Iron Bowl at Legion Field was in 1998. Auburn hosted in 1999, and Bama began hosting their turn at Bryant-Denny in 2000.

Other rivalry games in the Deep South:

The Egg Bowl: Ole Miss vs Mississippi State

The South’s Oldest Rivalry: Auburn vs. Georgia

Alabama vs. Tennessee

Alabama vs. LSU

South Carolina vs. Georgia

Georgia vs. Georgia Tech

 

 


level:deepsouth is an online anthology about growing up Generation X in the Deep South during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The anthology is open to submissions of creative nonfiction (essays, memoirs, and reviews), fiction, poetry, and images (photos and flyers), as well as to contributions for the lists.

Generation X Deep South

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera 34

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera is a sometimes substantial but not making any promises glimpse at some information and news related to Generation X in the Deep South.


I-630 cuts through Little Rock, 1969 – 1985

excerpt: “The first mile of I-630 that bisected Little Rock was completed in 1969, but construction was halted soon after. From the start, the project faced legal challenges and backlash from the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) for its impact on the Black communities and businesses the road was displacing and isolating. Despite an attempted freeway revolt, the community failed to halt construction permanently, and the 8-mile expressway was completed and opened to the public in 1985.”

The death penalty in Florida, October 1972

After the Furman v Georgia Supreme Court ruling in June 1972, Florida became the first state in the US to pass a law that reinstitute the death penalty on the state level. This, of course, was not on the radar of most GenXers, the oldest of whom were seven at the time, but because other Southern states quickly followed suit, it meant that we grew up in the age of the death penalty. Today, all eleven Southern states have it. Alabama is the only state in the nation where a judge can override a jury and impose a death sentence when the jury recommended life without parole.

University Mall opens in Tuscaloosa, August 1980

The largest shopping mall in west Alabama opened on the site of the Northington Naval Hospital, which was demolished a few years earlier. The reason that it was possible for the mall to be built where it was, according to Wikipedia, is: “These [hospital] ruins were finally destroyed during the filming of the climactic scene of the 1978 Burt Reynolds film Hooper.” 

A “White Christmas” in Savannah, Georgia, 1989

an excerpt, from Savannah Magazine: “On Christmas Day, Savannah was still blanketed in white precipitation. It was the first White Christmas in recorded Savannah history. There hasn’t been another since.”

The Knoxville newspaper Fourteen Days, 1991

Though few details about this newspaper can be found, the Library of Congress’s records say that it was a biweekly published by “M. Freeman.” A termination date is unknown in all pertinent records.


level:deepsouth is an online anthology about growing up Generation X in the Deep South during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The anthology is open to submissions of creative nonfiction (essays, memoirs, and reviews), fiction, poetry, and images (photos and flyers), as well as to contributions for the lists.