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.