- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Fred Glasgow, the pastor of Marble City Baptist Church in Sylacauga, Ala., had not expected to meet the great man when he wrote him a letter. He was hoping perhaps to obtain an autographed picture for his son, Fred Jr., who was about to celebrate his 16th birthday.

But miracles can happen, and so it was that the Glasgows found themselves in the University of Alabama football office on Jan. 22, 1983, shaking hands with the Crimson Tide’s recently retired football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. And the preacher chided the coach for working at 10:30 on a Saturday morning instead of enjoying his newfound leisure.

“I’ve really enjoyed [working long hours],” Bryant replied, according to the Decatur (Ala.) Daily News. “But you know, I’m tired. I’m really tired.”

Bryant’s remarks were a harbinger. Four days later, the legendary coach died of a heart attack at age 69 — less than a month after ending his 37-year career at four colleges (Maryland in 1945, Kentucky, Texas A&M; and Alabama). The Glasgows are believed to have been the last people to visit him at his office.

Bryant’s 323rd victory, then a record, came against Illinois 21-15 in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 29. Ironically, he went into a hospital for a checkup Jan. 25 and was pronounced in reasonably good health. But he returned the following day because of chest pains and died shortly thereafter from a massive heart attack.

The man in the houndstooth hat was gone but certainly not forgotten. His spirit and shadow loom over every subsequent coach at Alabama, where football is a religion to many. During Bryant’s 25 years (1958-83) at his alma mater, the Crimson Tide won six national championships (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979), 13 SEC titles and had a gaudy record of 232-46-9 (.824).

What’s more, Bryant helped a Deep South state and university free itself from the moral and legal shackles of racial prejudice. When he began coaching at Alabama, the school and football team were entirely white. When he retired, they were anything but.

Bryant’s own views on segregation were not recorded, but nobody ever called him a fool. It is said that his eyes were opened to the value of black players after running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham led Southern Cal to a 42-21 rout of Alabama in 1970. After the game, Bryant invited Cunningham, a Mobile native, into the Crimson Tide locker room and told his team the visitor was the model of what a college football player should be.

The coach then visited Gov. Albert Brewer to request and gain a change in the university’s policy of not giving athletic scholarships to blacks — after all, what Alabama politician would dare go against the Bear’s wishes? Three years later, a third of his players were African-American.

“He won and he had class,” longtime fan Toni Stetson told the Montgomery Advertiser. “He gave something to Alabamians to be proud of at a time when we didn’t feel we had much [else]. Alabama doesn’t rank very high statistically in most categories. It was nice to be No. 1 in something.”

Bryant surpassed football pioneer Amos Alonzo Stagg’s 314 career victories (over 57 seasons) when Alabama defeated archrival Auburn 28-17 on Nov. 28, 1981. Several years earlier, with an appealing mixture of modesty and bravado, he had said, “If someone has to be the winningest coach, it might as well be me.”

By then Bryant was a certified folk hero in the South, long hailed as a man so tough that he won his notable nickname by wrestling a bear at a carnival as a teenager and yielded to nobody in or out of his profession when it came to being rock-rumped. Yet Bryant also was a man of remarkable compassion. Just ask Kent Waldrep.

Waldrep, a running back at Texas Christian, was paralyzed from the neck down in a game against Alabama in 1975. Bryant visited him in the hospital the next day and called or wrote him daily for three months until Waldrep returned to Dallas. Inspired by the Bear, he vowed to walk again.

“I was an athlete, and athletes are driven by motivation and inspiration,” Waldrep recalled at Bryant’s funeral more than seven years later. “I wasn’t that good of a player, and our team didn’t have that good of a record, yet here was the greatest coach ever calling and asking about me. And they weren’t just quick calls either. Some would last 30 minutes or more.”

Most Alabama opponents had a different view of Bryant. His mere presence seemed to instill fear in some.

“He would always lean against the goal post before a game,” recalled Jim Bunch, an All-American offensive tackle for the Crimson Tide in the late 1970s. “One day the lead guy [on the other team] had his eyes fixed on Coach Bryant as he came out of the tunnel, and he fell. Then everyone else fell right after him. Coach was always good for a touchdown.”

During the 1982 season, Bryant requested a meeting with university president Joab Thomas and told him he was considering retirement. Said Thomas later: “I remember him saying over and over, ‘If I didn’t have to recruit, I would stay on until I died.’ ” A bit later, the old coach told his boss, “I think it’s time to go.”

And it was, more so than Bear Bryant knew.

President Ronald Reagan described his legacy very well in a statement on Jan. 26, 1983: “Today we Americans lost a hero who always seemed larger than life. … Bear Bryant gave his country the gift of a life unsurpassed. In making the impossible seem easy, he lived what we strive to be.”

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