Looking back on the Career of the Bear; 31 years later
On Jan. 26, 1983, the college football world bid farewell to a head coaching legend. Paul William “Bear” Bryant passed away at the age of 69. The man who received his nickname by wrestling a bear at a carnival grew up to become one of the most successful head coaches in collegiate football history. In 38 seasons, Bryant compiled an overall record of 323 wins, 85 losses, and 17 ties. He also coached in 29 bowl games while winning six national championships. The Bear accomplished all of this with only one losing season.
Bryant received his first head coaching job at the University of Maryland in 1945 at the age of 32. The Bear took over a one win squad and led them to a record of 6-2-1. After one season at Maryland, Bryant bolted for Kentucky in 1946. Under his direction, Kentucky improved their record from 2-8 to 7-3. One year later, the Wildcats made their first postseason appearance and defeated Villanova in the Great Lakes Bowl. Kentucky won its first Southeastern Conference Championship three years later and they beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to cap off an 11-1 season.
In his eight seasons at Kentucky, the Bear compiled a mark of 60-23-6. However, he headed southwest following the 1953 season. The next stop on Bryant’s head coaching trail was College Station, TX, where he became the head coach at Texas A&M University. Despite changing the program’s football culture, the Aggies went 1-9 in his first season. However, Texas A&M improved to 7-2-1 in 1955 and in 1956, the Aggies won the Southwest Conference with a 9-0-1 mark.
After four seasons in College Station, Bryant returned to his alma mater, the University of Alabama. Prior to his arrival in 1958, the football program fell on hard times as they only won a combined total of four games in the last three seasons. Bryant led the Tide to a 5-4-1 record in his first season and almost immediately, the fortunes of the program were heading in the right direction.
During the 25 years that he spent in Tuscaloosa, Alabama won 13 Southeastern Conference Championships as well as all six of the Bear’s National Titles. Bryant’s final championship came in 1979. That season, the Tide rolled through a regular season which ended with a 25-18 victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Alabama then went on to defeat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl by a score of 24-9 to cap off a 12-0 record.
Following the 1982 season, Bryant made the unexpected decision to retire after nearly four decades on the sideline. Alabama rolled to a 7-1 start and they dealt the eventual National Champion Penn State Nittany Lions their only loss in the process. However, the Tide lost three of its final four games, but the season ended on a positive note with a 21-15 win over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29. The Bear’s final game also marked the final victory of his career.
In the aftermath, he responded by saying, “This is my school, my alma mater, I love it and I love my players. But in my opinion, they deserved better coaching than they have been getting from me this year.” When asked what he planned on doing in retirement, the Bear replied with five simple words, “Probably croak in a week.” Four weeks later, he died of a massive heart attack.
When football fans, especially Alabama fans, look back on the life and career of Paul William Bryant, they will remember his success on the field as well as the way he coached the game. Nobody will ever forget the Bear’s trademark characteristics, which included his houndstooth hat, deep southern accent, and his ritual of leaning against a goal post during pregame warm-ups. Above all else, he was a man who cared about the success of his players when it came to achieving their goals both on and off the field. Bryant was a very successful person who will always be remembered for everything that he accomplished.