Mon October 3, 2005
The Last Coach: A Life of Paul
Think you know all there is to know about the life of Paul "Bear" Bryant? Allen Barra assures us that there have been no authoritative biographies.
By Don Noble
We all think that we know all there is to know about the life of Paul "Bear" Bryant, but Allen Barra assures his readers that there have, in fact, been no authoritative biographies.
The Bryant autobiography, written with John Underwood, ends in 1974, and Coach Bryant, born in 1913, did not die until 1983, at age sixty-nine.
Barra brings to this book the intelligence and work habits of a professional biographer, having previously written a life of Wyatt Earp.
Barra is a local boy, but not a worshipper of the Bear. This is a genuinely fair and balanced treatment, not a hatchet job, not a hagiography -- ?a saint's life. Barra interviewed over 300 people and read all there was to read.
What did he find out that we didn't already know?
Not all that much. Barra has been as thorough as possible (especially when describing the play-by-play action of a hundred football games) and stops short of speculating where he has no hard evidence. Coach Bryant drank a great deal of scotch and at one point admitted himself to a rehab center. For hard-driving men of his generation, this is no big deal.
Barra had heard rumors of womanizing, especially when Bryant was head coach in Lexington, Kentucky, which was a pretty famous place for the fast, high life, but no one there, or here in Tuscaloosa, would speak directly of it.
His stressful life -- not enough sleep, two packs of cigarettes a day -- made him look older than his years, and Barra tells us of Coach's cosmetic plastic surgery in 1975. It made him look younger.
So this is not a revelatory or tell-all, debunking biography, either. Then what is it?
Finally, I think, this is a rather full picture of a man, a man with real strengths and real flaws.
He had been very poor and found football to be the way out of Moro Bottom and Fordyce, Arkansas. He focused on football as a drowning man in high seas might focus on a life buoy, and he required his players to do likewise.
He did, without doubt, drive his players excessively, especially at the infamous Junction, Texas, pre-season camp, and that was to challenge them and bring out the best in them and weed out the quitters, but also because he, Bryant, would not, could not fail.
Over the years, some few truly talented players did not respond to his very demanding methods and just quit, walked away. Bryant thought about these young men for years. Why had he not reached them? What had gone wrong?
Bryant was not a very educated or sophisticated man, and football was what he had. Besides, most coaches in those days had apparently not yet learned that humans needed water in order to live, so they may be forgiven for withholding it, and in spite of physical education classes in human physiology it was still widely thought that broken bones healed better under violent stress, so there you are.
Bryant did what most coaches did, but he did it harder and better, with, as we all do know, sensational results, 323 career wins.
But he was not entirely without regrets. When he heard of the death of Vince Lombardi, Bryant said, "It's a shame he didn't last long enough to do anything in his life outside of football," to spend more time with his family.
Barra doesn't say much about Bryant's relationship to his wife and family, maybe because there wasn't much to say. It seems Coach Bryant wanted some time after football to spend with his family and friends, but he didn't get it. He had said that if he retired he'd be dead in seven days; in fact, it was twenty-eight days.
A subject even touchier for the biographer than Bryant's personal life is the question of race. Coach Bryant was a racial moderate and no bigot. Nevertheless, the Tide was the seventh team in the SEC to integrate. But we should remember: the other states did not have George Wallace as governor.
Bryant himself spoke often, sometimes seriously and sometimes playfully, of running for governor. How would that have been?
The author Kinky Friedman is running, right now, for governor of Texas with the campaign slogan "How hard can it be?" Bryant could have run with the slogan "It can't get any worse."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard most Mondays on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.