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 37

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.

“A Special Place: The Pine Bluff Story” from Arkansas Educational TV, 1986

Home movie of Valdosta, Georgia, 1988

“21 Year Old Edwin McCain Talks about His Future,” 1991

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.

South Carolina, ca. 1980

During the time that Generation X was growing up, South Carolina had 3.121 million people living there, a little over 750,000 of them between ages 5 and 14 in 1980, and about 600,000 of those young people were born in-state. The South Carolina of Generation X’s youth was not-diverse. In the state, 2.15 million people (69%) were white, 789,000 (25%) were black, and 33,400 (1%) were Hispanic, and 13,400 were Asians / Pacific Islanders. Only 46,000 people in South Carolina were “foreign born.” About one-third of the state’s immigrants were Europeans, though over 10,400 people had moved to Southern Carolina from Asia, more than 4,000 from Central or South America, and nearly 1,300 from Africa. A look at the 1980 census’s sections on languages shows that very few people spoke other languages, but about 15,000 GenXers between the ages of 5 and 17 spoke a language other than English at home.

Looking at the Housing report for the 1980 census can give a sense of how people were living. The report shows that there were 1.12 million housing units in the state: 620,000 in areas categorized as “urban,” 500,000 as “rural,” and 17,800 were farms. About three-quarters of these homes had running water from a publicly used water system, half of them were on public sewer systems, and two-thirds had air conditioning. When comparing rural and urban areas, the differences were what we’d think they’d be: fewer people in rural areas had water from a system, and only about 20% had air-conditioning. But when having air-conditioning is broken down by race, it shows 85% of Asians, 80% of white people, 60% of Native Americans and Hispanic/Latinos, and only 40% of black people. 

Table 205 in the 1980 census shows some statistics about marriage. Though the oldest GenXers would have been fifteen in 1980, the data on marriage goes no younger than that. In that year, there were 293 married fifteen-year-old boys, 233 married sixteen-year-old boys, and 613 married seventeen-year-old boys. For the girls, 641 were married at fifteen, 1,114 at sixteen, and 2,363 at seventeen. This means that, in South Carolina at that time, there were nearly a thousand people who were married but not yet old enough to drive a car.

At the schools, almost no GenXers had yet finished high school in 1980, but there were actually seven fifteen-year-olds in their first year of college. That same year, there were 22 eleven-year-olds, 178 twelve-year-olds, and 1,169 thirteen-year-olds enrolled in high school alongside the nearly 200,000 students who were fourteen to eighteen. About 97–99% of white children were enrolled in school, where about 94–97% of black children were. Though about 94,000 children between the age of three and seventeen were no enrolled in school, the vast majority (610,000) attended public school, while about 80,000 attend a private or church-affiliated school.

South Carolina’s Generation X grew up in culture that continued to re-elect Strom Thurmond to the US Senate, while boosting Hootie & the Blowfish into the pop charts. It wasn’t until 1990 that the South Carolina Gamecocks joined the Southeastern Conference or that Rep. Jim Clyburn was elected to Congress, making him the first African-American to represent the state in Congress since 1893. Both of those were ten years away in 1980. 

Now-famous GenXers from South Carolina include Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the Barack Obama “HOPE” poster, as well as singer-songwriter Edwin McCain, the late actor Chadwick Bozeman, governor-then-ambassador Nikki Haley, and a bunch of NFL football players.