The death of Bama football coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant marked the end of an era. But in Alabama, it felt like the end of the world.
I remember the day the Bear died. The world seemed to stop for a moment. There were no words, just a somber feeling and the color black… And red, too. Lots of red… Crimson, actually.
I’m not talking about just any old bear. I’m talking about the Bear — Coach Bear Bryant, whose name was (and still is) synonymous with Alabama, with football and with winning. He was a local hero, a national treasure, a living legend… and then suddenly he was gone.
Alabama football head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1980 (AP Photo / Joe Holloway Jr.)
Let me clarify that though I was born and raised in Alabama, I have no special interest in football, nor do I have allegiance to any particular team. I grew up in a house divided, a family of Eagles and Elephants, Tigers and Rolling Tides. Where I grew up, it was always Alabama vs. Auburn, Crimson vs. Orange and Blue. No sense leaning to one side and incurring the wrath of the other — better to stay in the middle and annoy everyone equally.
I won’t say that the Bear’s death brought everyone together. I’m sure there were plenty of Auburn fans reveling in the demise of Alabama football, if not the death of the man himself. But there were few times in my youth when my home state was as thoroughly and completely dejected as when Paul William Bryant died Jan. 26, 1983.
Bryant remains an icon — for his houndstooth hat, stoic demeanor and winning ways — and many still consider him the greatest coach in the history of the game. During his quarter of a century as head coach at Alabama, he led the Crimson Tide to six national championships and 13 SEC championships. When he retired at the end of the 1982 season, just weeks before he died of a heart attack at age 69, he was the all-time winningest coach in college football history.
In the 30 years since his death, only two NCAA Division I coaches (Eddie Robinson and Bobby Bowden) have managed to top Bryant’s winning record. Meanwhile, Alabama football has had ups and downs. Recently, they’ve regained some of the glory of days gone by, with Nick Saban leading the team to the national championship three of the past four years.
But there has been no one like Bear Bryant. When it comes to college football, he is still the crimson standard.
Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant in 1972 (AP Photo / Joe Holloway Jr.)