By FRED MARSHALL
The popular Food for Thought series is continuing another year of fascinating lectures on the rich history of Alabama at the Department of Archives and History. One of the most anticipated lectures of the year was Thursday the 16th as special guest speaker Ken Gaddy presented Paul “Bear” Bryant: An American Story. Gaddy, now in his 26th year as Director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum on the University of Alabama campus, discussed the life story of Coach Bryant from humble beginnings in rural Arkansas, to wrestling a bear, to playing at the University of Alabama, playing second fiddle to Coach Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, and finally to the pinnacle of success as Head Coach at the University of Alabama.
As director of the museum, Gaddy is certainly in a most unique position, as he has undoubtedly heard first hand the plethora of stories coming from many of Coach Bryant’s former players. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Mr. Gaddy probably knows as much or more about Coach Bryant than anyone alive. In a talk that could have lasted for hours, Gaddy hit the high points in Coach Bryant’s life that molded the man, made him the envy of the college football coaching world, and elicited a fierce loyalty and love from his former players. Indeed, many players, myself included, have said that we would rather disappoint our mother and father than disappoint Coach Bryant.
It is pretty much agreed upon by everyone who played for him that his drive to succeed, to achieve,and the fire inside him was ignited in rural Arkansas. Born on September 11th in 1913, in Cleveland Co. Arkansas, Coach Bryant’s whole world as a child revolved around a three square mile area known as Moro Bottom, a mostly farming area with only six other families living in the area. It was tough in those days. Coach Bryant had four brothers and four sisters. Three other children had died in childbirth. Due to his father Monroe’s ill health and the family’s economic situation, he and the others had to work together on the farm to scratch-out a living. It’s interesting to note that Coach Bryant always said he didn’t realize the family was poor until he got to Fordyce High School and saw the things the other youngsters had.
Being the youngest boy, Coach Bryant always felt close to his mother, Dora, especially listening to her teachings and encouragements as they rode together in the mule-drawn wagon to market to sell their produce from the farm. As a pre-teen he was introduced to football while visiting his grandfather, W.L. Kilgore, in nearby Fordyce. When old enough, he started playing football for the Fordyce High School Redbugs. At the age of 14 he entered a contest at the Fordyce Theatre to wrestle a bear. The promoter had offered a whopping, whole dollar to anyone who could stay with the bear, but the promoter took a powder and young Coach Bryant never got paid, though he forever more earned the nickname “Bear.”
The 1930 Redbugs went undefeated and were named an Arkansas Football State Champion. It just so happened that a University of Alabama assistant coach came to Fordyce in 1931 to sign two boys to scholarships, but they decided to go to the University of Arkansas, so the coach decided to sign Coach Bryant instead. And that was that. Coach Bryant had gotten the break he’d worked for. His mother had always told him that anything worthwhile required hard work.
Playing right offensive end at Alabama, the team won the SEC Championship during the SEC’s inaugural season in 1933. In 1935, he and his Alabama team beat Tennessee 25-0, with Coach Bryant playing with a broken leg. It was also in 1935 that he married the Alabama campus beauty queen, Mary Harmon Black. In 1936, his Alabama team played in the Rose Bowl and claimed the National Title. In 1941, after serving as an assistant coach at Union College in Tennessee and Vanderbilt University, Coach Bryant was in the running for the head coaching job at the University of Arkansas, but World War Two had started, so he joined the Navy. After his military service, Coach Bryant was the head coach at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M. At each stop, his penchant for discipline and hard work became legend.
At A&M, his Aggies trailed 12-0 in the final two minutes of a game, but Coach Bryant had told the team they could win if they believed in themselves. They scored 20 unanswered points to win the game. Those were some of the now famous Junction Boys who had learned the value of hard work. Coach Bryant’s legend was secure. That legend followed him in 1958 when “Mama Called” him to return to the University of Alabama. At Alabama, a shake-up was in order....a rude awakening for those players who had gotten used to losing. That first meeting with the team let the players know exactly what he expected of them, and they knew he meant it. Three years after meeting with the team that first time, Alabama won the National Championship in 1961. Then again in 1964, 1965, 1978, and 1979, which included the Tide’s defeat of Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
Coach Bryant announced his retirement in 1982, with the Tide winning his last bowl game, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Under Coach Bryant, Alabama won numerous SEC titles, with his teams appearing in 24 consecutive bowl games. He was named SEC Coach of the Year 10 times, and National Coach of the Year three times. His record at Alabama was 232-46-9, and 325-85-17 overall. Coach Bryant died in Tuscaloosa on January 26, 1983, less than a month after winning the ‘82 Liberty Bowl. A month after his death, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by Ronald Reagan. At the time of his death, he was the all-time most successful coach in American college football history. Not at all bad for a poor boy from Moro Bottom, Arkansas.
Because I played for Coach Bryant, I am often asked what is my favorite quote from Coach Bryant? They are called quotes now, but back then they were just things he would tell us at practice, or in a meeting. If I had to pick one that has always stuck with me, I suppose it would have to be when he would tell us: “Don’t ever let anyone out-work you.” Mr. Ken Gaddy is from Thomasville, Alabama, and has a BS in Biology and Geology from the University of South Alabama. He is an executive producer of several films, including the Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Mama Called.” He is also editor of “Twelve and Counting,” a chronicle of Alabama football’s National Championships, and its sequel, “Sixteen and Counting.” The Department of Archives and History wishes to express its sincere gratitude for his appearing at Food for Thought.