Why Bear Bryant is college football’s Elvis

ESPN announcer & Alabama alum Rece Davis recalls how heartbroken he was after Notre Dame defeated his Crimson Tide in the 1973 Sugar Bowl. (0:59)

It was a lovely morning in March 1978 on the University of Alabama campus. That perfect hour of post-spring sunrise pop, when the azaleas awaken with the students, petals of color unfurling as the youngsters rolled out of their dorms and marched to class. Amid it all, Reggie Jackson, the New York Yankee who just five months earlier had hit three home runs in one World Series game, was in Tuscaloosa to participate in an exhibition against the Crimson Tide’s baseball team on his way from spring training back to the Bronx. “The straw that stirs the drink” was at the height of his fame. He could no longer go anywhere in public without being mobbed. He starred in TV commercials. He was on magazine covers. He was about to launch his own candy bar.

As Reg-gie(!) took a tour of the Alabama campus, a pack of students stopped dead in their tracks. They pointed. They giggled. Had it been present day, they would have filled the memories of their smartphones with a hundred photos, but in this simpler time, they merely broke out into a spontaneous round of applause. Reggie Jackson raised his hand and tipped his cap. As he did, he realized that — wait… oh, damn… they weren’t looking at him. They couldn’t have cared less that the freshly minted Mr. October was there in March. A sympathetic hand rested onto Jackson’s pinstriped shoulder. “They aren’t cheering for you,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner told his star player. “That’s for our tour guide.”

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As Bear Bryant smiled and waved back at the Alabama students, The Boss continued: “Just so you know, if we were in New York right now, this same thing would have happened.”

Paul William Bryant died 36 years ago, or more accurately, 36 college football seasons ago. Yet somehow, here in 2019, during this 150th anniversary celebration of the sport, it feels as though the game’s greatest larger-than-life figure is still alive, walking the streets of Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, New York, Las Vegas and Fordyce, Arkansas.

As we approach Sept. 11, which would have been Bryant’s 106th birthday, eBay has 2,135 Bear Bryant items listed for sale, everything from a cast-iron doorstop of his face to a ceramic bust framed on a wooden outline of the state of Alabama to an autographed poem titled “The Legend of the Bear.”

But when the Bear heard mama calling
A sad and lonesome cry
He said I must go home to Dixie
And teach football till I die!

Amazon features more than 400 results for shoppers, including a library’s worth of out-of-print Bear Bryant books, a rare DVD of the 1984 decidedly non-cinematic-classic “The Bear,” starring Gary Busey (don’t bother, it’s awful) and countless “Bear Bryant style” houndstooth fedoras. Ah, the houndstooth. That is an industry all of its own. Men, women and children throughout the Yellowhammer State and beyond, dressing in sport coats, miniskirts and onesies fashioned from the black-and-white, eye-bending pattern made famous by the sideline headwear the Bear fancied later in his career. The University of Alabama’s online store features nearly 50 houndstooth items. And for those who like to take their Roll Tide fantasies to the next level, yes, there are houndstooth undergarments, though you’ll need to go somewhere other than the official school vendor for those.

In many of the houses where that houndstooth hangs in the closet, Bryant’s portrait hangs over the mantel, centerpiece of countless homes around Alabama. Many of those were purchased from street vendors who once sold the stately, oak-framed portraits from tents and pickup trucks in the streets of Birmingham, targeting game-day tailgaters around Legion Field. “I only sell portraits of three men!” one such art pusher shouted to passers-by before an Alabama-Tennessee game in 1991. “Jesus, Elvis and Bear Bryant!”

All due respect to the King of Kings, the King of Rock ‘n Roll is the more accurate comparison here. Both Presley and Bryant were born in small, hill-and-dale-surrounded Southern towns — Tupelo, Mississippi, and Moro Bottom, Arkansas, respectively. Both were raised dirt poor and doted on by their mothers. Both rubbed shoulders with Johnny Cash, Presley in the recording studio and Bryant as de facto neighbors in the rural solar system around Fordyce. Both experienced a life-altering moment in a Lyric Theatre — Young Elvis falling in the love with the idea of becoming a movie star as he sat in Tupelo’s Lyric, and teenage Bryant earning the nickname that became his only name when he wrestled a skinny, muzzled bear on the stage of Fordyce’s Lyric to impress a girl and earn one dollar per minute (but collected zero dollars when the carnival barker and his bear slipped out of town).

But both Elvis and the Bear went on to be immortalized not in their birthplaces but in their second hometowns, the places where they had their greatest success, Memphis and Tuscaloosa. Both ascended to national stages, boosted there by the unprecedented and since-unsurpassed golden age of network television. But both died earlier than they should have, victims of hard blowing-off-of-steam when they were given the luxury of stepping off that stage.

“Imagine being so big that you can’t go anywhere, but somehow, you still manage to be yourself. That’s how Elvis was. And that’s how Bear was. All the way up until we lost them both,” said Rick Stanley, Elvis’ stepbrother and a member of the Memphis Mafia who died in January 2019, a few weeks after this interview. He met Bryant in 1977, shortly after Presley’s death and right around the time Stanley decided to ditch the rock-star-entourage life and become a Baptist preacher. Stanley saw Bryant again at the coach’s final game, the 1982 Liberty Bowl. It was played only 8 miles from the front gate of Graceland, the mansion’s stone walls still lined with hundreds of mourners five years after Elvis’ passing. “Their dedication to the job took them both from us too early. They both denied themselves what they needed to do to live longer because they were already worried about the next gig or the next game. As big as they were, they were never bigger than the next time they were on stage.”

Not too long after Stanley and Bryant’s first meeting — Monday night, Sept. 11, 1978, to be exact — Bryant’s friends and family had persuaded him to put a pause on his preparation for that weekend’s game at 11th-ranked Missouri and go to dinner to celebrate his 65th birthday. He looked a hell of a lot older than that, the product of all that sleepless football prep, punctuated by late-night whiskeys, burned-down packs of unfiltered Chesterfields and on-the-go Krystal hamburgers. It was a surprise party, organized by the Birmingham Touchdown Club for months and jammed full of former players, including Joe Namath and even some almost-former players, including Oklahoma Military Academy football star turned Hollywood Western star Dale Robertson.

“I mean, this place was packed with big-deal people. I know because I was one of them!” Namath recalled, laughing. “Actors and coaches and former players and politicians and you name it, right? They rolled a TV out there just in time for the start of Monday Night Football, and as soon as they came on the air, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith spent like the first five minutes of the game, on the biggest show on television, wishing Coach Bryant a happy birthday and talking about how much they loved him. I mean, you know you’re the man when all of these other people, who all think they are the man, take time to tell the United States of America that, no, actually, Coach, it’s you who is the man.”

Namath paused. “And he did what he always did: shrugged his shoulders and, ‘Aw shucks’ and, ‘Y’all are making me into too big of a deal, I’m just a poor kid from Arkansas’ and all of that. But then he would look at me and wink. He knew he was the man. He knew he was The Bear.”

How could he not? This is the kid who immediately recognized football as a way out of Fordyce. The only way. So, he helped the Fordyce High School Red Bugs win the 1930 Arkansas state championship. That earned him a chance to play at Alabama via an established Arkansas-to-Tuscaloosa talent pipeline, and there he learned the game under head coach Frank Thomas, who had played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame.

In 1934, Bryant played end on a team that won a national championship. In 1935, he played against General Neyland’s Tennessee team with a broken leg. The next week, Georgia fans who had read about his efforts (via a doubting columnist ultimately won over by X-ray evidence) gave the youngster a standing ovation before the game. In 1938, the Crimson Tide played in the Rose Bowl, and while they were in Southern California, Paramount Pictures asked Bryant to do a screen test. His performance earned a contract offer, but he refused because his wife, Mary Harmon, wouldn’t move that far west. One of his best friends at Alabama was a kid named Mel Allen, future voice of the Yankees. On Dec. 8, 1941, he enlisted in the Navy to avenge Pearl Harbor and refused to abandon ship when the USS Uruguay was rammed off the coast of North Africa. Then, he coached the North Carolina Navy Flight School football team, the Carolina Cloudbusters. His quarterback was Otto Graham, who went on to become perhaps the greatest signal-caller in NFL history.

Paul Bunyan already had nothing on Paul Bryant. And Paul Bryant was barely 31 years old.

“I would hear people ask Coach Bryant how was he not overwhelmed by the celebrity he experienced, especially in the last decade of his life?” recounted Bill Battle, who played for Bryant in the early 1960s, coached against him at Tennessee in the 1970s and then returned to Alabama, eventually becoming his coach’s agent. All of that stuff for sale on eBay today with Bryant’s face on it? Chances are that was a deal done by Bill Battle. “But when you knew what he had done in his life, where he had been, what he had seen and everyone he had met, you realized nothing was going to rattle him.”

Bryant was once accused of fixing a game with Georgia by the Saturday Evening Post, and sued for $10 million. Bryant settled, but Bulldogs head coach Wally Butts fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the once-unstoppable magazine was mortally wounded. Bryant was on the cover of Time, labeled as “Supercoach,” in 1980 when it was the national newsmagazine. He rode the same perfect media storm wave surfed by Elvis, but also everyone from Evel Knievel to Neil Armstrong. His greatest coaching success came in the mid-1960s and then again throughout the 1970s. It was the glory days of the three-letter television networks.

On Sept. 17, 1960, Bryant’s Alabama team faced Georgia in the first game of ABC’s new, multimillion-dollar college football package. It was one of only a handful of games that would air nationally that fall, and it was the first game in the producer’s chair for a 22-year-old kid named Roone Arledge, who would go on to create “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” Monday Night Football and modern Olympics coverage. Arledge loved stories and characters, and nothing was a better story or character than the leather-faced Alabama coach whose voice sounded like the recording of a cattle drive and who had earned his nickname wrestling a bear.

“Roone Arledge was in the star-making business, and no one had more star potential than Bear Bryant,” Keith Jackson, ABC’s longtime voice of college football, said in late 2017, a few months before his death. “Alabama won the national championship the next year, in 1961. And they kept winning ’em all the way through the next two decades. It didn’t matter where you lived. You knew who he was and how he sounded. Everyone in the United States felt like they knew Bear Bryant.”

At the legendarily, tumultuous, 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with protestors raging outside, Hubert Humphrey won the party’s presidential nomination. But Bear Bryant received 1.5 votes for president. Many still say the only reason lightning-rod Alabama Gov. George Wallace called Bryant nearly every day was to keep him from running for office.

So, it’s no wonder that when talk first started about a movie based on Bryant’s life, the coach lobbied for John Wayne to play his part. “Any lesser man suggests that and he gets laughed out of the building,” said Ozzie Newsome, a 1977 All-American tight end for Bryant. “But when Coach Bryant said that, everyone just nodded and said, ‘Yeah, OK, that sounds about right.'”

Newsome was part of the final phase of integration of the Crimson Tide roster. Bryant had wanted to recruit black athletes much earlier, in the 1960s, but chose not to. It was a decision that wounded him in the eyes of black Alabama students, all of whom had just been admitted to the school after it had been forced to do so. He later confessed deep regret over his reluctance. But after Newsome had helped integrate his public school back home in Muscle Shoals, he was part of the group of players who finally pushed Alabama into the future for good.

These days, Newsome is a Baltimore Ravens executive, only recently moved out of the general manager’s job. His office in Baltimore is packed with mementos from his Pro Football Hall of Fame playing career and the Super Bowl XXXV and XLVII title teams he assembled. But when visitors stop by, they walk right past the rings and trophies, drawn immediately to Newsome’s very own framed portrait of the Bear.

“People walk up to that portrait even if they don’t know who it is. They just know that is somebody,” Newsome said. “And the people who do know, and that’s most everyone, all they want to know is what was Coach Bryant like and what did I learn from him. The answer is that he’s the greatest influence in my life. And what I learned from him was everything. When I was in a tough spot, would I close my door and turn to him over there and ask him what to do? Of course. Still do. Always have. Always will.”

Newsome is far from alone when it comes to looking at Bryant’s likeness for some sort of portal back to the actual man.

At the Waysider Restaurant in Tuscaloosa, a mile and half west of Bryant-Denny Stadium, nearly two months before the start of the 2019 season, an older couple sat at a worn, wooden, corner table alongside the diner’s boarded-up fireplace. They held hands, their arms bowed around bowls of grits, and wept. Not even the sight nor scent of the breakfast before them could draw their attention from the tabletop bust in the houndstooth hat, sitting behind the sweeteners and staring straight ahead at the patrons bustling around them. The Bear in Bronze, perpetually posing for the cameras and phones that are constantly pointed his way.

“I just can’t believe this is where Bear Bryant used to eat his breakfast,” said Marlene Watkins, taking one hand away from being intertwined with that of her husband, Edward, so she could wipe away a tear before it splashed onto her ham steak. “I asked them what the Bear would order whenever he was here and they said this was it. So, that’s what we’re having, too.”

Marlene shoved a chunk of ham into her mouth, smiled and spoke through full cheeks. “I jusft can’t buhliefe it.”

Across the Black Warrior River in Northport, Bear Bryant fans still sidled up to the lunch counter at City Café, because they heard he used to eat there, too. Until he retired three years ago, Tuscaloosa barber Joe Christian would regularly have men plop down in his chair and say they wanted a shave from the man who used to do the same for Coach Bryant. At the stadium, fans pose for selfies with the larger-than-life statue out front. They do it so much that a security guard on duty for last fall’s huge home game with Texas A&M (Bryant is considered by many to be the best coach the Aggies ever had, too, as well as Kentucky, those being his last two stops before returning to Tuscaloosa to take over at his alma mater) remarked, “They have all these statues of all these other coaches, too. Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Gene Stallings, Nick Saban. But I think they all look kind of jealous watching all these people pose with Bear instead of them.”

And if they’d rather have a pic with a human Bear, they can always ask Alton or Dixon White to pose with them. At seemingly every Alabama football-related event, the brothers from Birmingham and Springvale, Alabama, can be seen pacing the grounds in their crimson sport coats and houndstooth fedoras, rolled-up programs in their hands. “I went to Branson about 10 years ago and had on my houndstooth hat and a guy said, ‘You look just like Bear Bryant!'” said Alton, an 84-year old Alabama alum. “He was right. I did. And my little brother did, too. So now that’s what we do.”

That’s right. The Bear is so much like Elvis, he even has impersonators.

“We don’t look like Nick Saban,” joked Dixon, who is 81. “So, we can’t dress up like him.”

In fact, no one dresses up to look like the current Alabama coach. No one weeps when they eat an oatmeal cream pie because that’s what Saban has for breakfast. And they don’t name their children after him, either. According to the Social Security database, since 1959 there have been 1,403 Bryants born in the state of Alabama, as in named for the coach. Today, there are at least 700 living people who carry his namesake. Bryants, Pauls, Paulas and even a few Bears. Those are only the ones that we know of, kept on the roster of the official Paul Bear Bryant Namesake Registry. Yes, that’s a real thing. They even hold a reunion each year. It took place last weekend at the Paul W. “Bear” Bryant Museum on campus, the morning before the Tide’s first home game of 2019.

But why Bear and only Bear? When Saban is finished, his résumé will be better than Bryant’s. Why don’t people dress up like Knute Rockne in South Bend? Why don’t folks seek out the barber of Woody Hayes in Columbus, Ohio? Or the breakfast cook who served Bud Wilkinson in Norman, Oklahoma?

“I think, that for whatever reason, a reason bigger than I can explain, people feel a connection with my grandfather because he gave that connection back,” Mary Harmon Hilburn said of the man she knew as “Papa.” She was at the namesake reunion last weekend, named for her grandmother, aka the First Lady of Alabama.

Hilburn grew up in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa but rarely felt the crush of her last name because Papa worked hard to shield her from it. She was trampled once in a stampede of fans during a game weekend, and he made sure it never happened again. When he took little Mary Harmon to dinner, they went to the Shoney’s Big Boy because it had a drive-in area where the wait staff would bring their food out to their car.

“I think they also equate Papa with a better time,” she said of the fans. “We all think the time we grew up in was the best, the good old days, right? When people think of Papa, they think of the good old days. Even if today is pretty good.”

Those who study such theories don’t disagree. Dr. Mathieu Deflem is a professor in the department of sociology at the University of South Carolina. “The remembrance of famous people fulfills a function today. So, it is not just about history, it is not just in the past. But it is in the present that certain aspects of the past are remembered,” says the author of 2017’s “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” a book that delves into rises of stardom, especially during this overcooked era of celebrity. He references the surge (and, since, the wane) in interest in Vince Lombardi that was ushered in (and since out) by Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers glory years. “In the case of Alabama, the success of today’s team is amplified by remembering that the program was also successful in earlier times. It makes Bama even more of a powerhouse today to have such a glorious history.”

As for Saban? “He is surely duly rewarded for his success today,” Deflem said. “But a legend he cannot be until he retires or dies. It’s easier to celebrate what is no more.”

That’s exactly what Hilburn finds when she visits her grandfather’s gravesite in the center of Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery. It’s a surprisingly simple headstone. There’s no “He could take your’n and beat his’n” quotes or mention of his 323 wins and six national titles. It’s just his name, his birthday and the date he left this mortal coil.

But that marker is never without accompaniment.

On Jan. 28, 1983, Bear Bryant’s funeral procession left the First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa, passed by the football stadium and turned onto Interstate 59. The hearse traveled 58 miles and did so in front of an estimated 250,000 people. One out of every 12 Alabama citizens came out to watch the Bear go by. In Memphis, still helping to sort out his late stepbrother’s estate, the Rev. Rick Stanley couldn’t believe what he was seeing on his television. “Not a day a goes by in my life when I don’t wonder, ‘What would Elvis have thought of this?'”

Stanley said of his stepbrother: “We thought his procession was a big deal. I’d never seen anything like this outside of President Kennedy.”

Today, Bear Bryant’s final resting place receives 40-50 visitors per week, a little more than that during football season. They leave flowers and coins and houndstooth hats. They leave lots of Coca-Cola bottles and bags of Golden Flake potato chips, a nod to the product placement on his insanely popular local weekly TV show, breaking down every game, win or loss.

And they leave letters. So many letters.

“My brother and I go up there and clean the place up about once a week,” Hilburn said. “Sometimes I will stand off to the side where no one can see me and watch the people. They are white and black, young and old. I can’t believe how young some of them are. I think to myself, ‘I know you never knew my Papa, so how you can be this emotional about coming to see his gravesite?'”

She always waits until the visitors are long gone to collect what they’ve left behind. And she always reads the letters.

“They all say the same thing. That they miss him. I miss him, too. Every single day. I wish we’d had him around much longer than we did. But I’m so glad we had him as long as we did. I loved him so much. I am so thankful that so many people loved him, too. And I am really thankful that so many people still do.”

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