Glancing at Paul “Bear” Bryant for the first time, one of his former players recalled, was almost a spiritual experience.
“This,” said George Blanda, “must be what God looks like.”
A friend of mine, a sportswriter whose beat was Alabama football, shared a similar memory. The coach had noticed the writer’s presence at practice and began a slow descent down the stairs of the tower.
Bryant got closer and closer, then mumbled, “good afternoon.”
Bryant continued walking toward a nearby tree, where the man with the all-powerful aura took care of a basic human need.
It’s been 34 years since Bryant retired — a retirement he correctly predicted would kill him within weeks — and yet when I think of the Crimson Tide’s powerhouse football program, I still see Bear Bryant.
During a fall day in 1981, I spent an afternoon with him. Even though I was employed by an Atlanta newspaper, I was given a seat in the studio where he accepted phone calls from fans on his weekly radio show.
These days most interaction between writers and college football coaches is limited to a few weekly press conferences during the season, but it was different in 1981. Bryant provided access to the media and, by extension, the public, which came to believe its connection with him was personal.
“Our next caller is from Mrs. Wanda Nickleby in Montgomery,” the host would say, at which point the conversation would continue something like this:
“Coach? I just want to let you know how you’ve all of us so proud.”
“Thank you so much for your very kind words, ma’am,” was Bryant’s standard but gracious reply. “How are all my friends in Montgomery today?”
Bryant didn’t seem to mind that many fans were disinclined to discuss X’s and O’s. To the contrary, I got the sense he preferred small talk.
For many years, he and his wife lived in an unpretentious house without gaudy gates installed to keep the world at a distance. An appealing aspect of the home was its spacious basement, used on those frequent occasions the coach entertained guests.
He had no concerns about finances, except a belief it was unbecoming for any rich man to flaunt his wealth. The $3,000 Bryant collected each week for the televised version of his coach’s show often was donated to charity.
The TV show aired on Sundays at 4.p.m. Because the NCAA’s contract with the ABC network prohibited teams from making more than two regular-season appearances, it gave fans throughout the state a chance to watch highlights from Crimson Tide game played the previous day.
So popular was The Bear Bryant Show, it forced the late-Sunday pro games to be preempted from the TV schedule. No matter. In Alabama, viewers found slow-motion film clips set to an audio loop of canned crows cheers to be quite more enticing than any NFL game played in real time.
The sway Bryant held in Alabama was revealed when he died. Hours before the procession that would begin in Tuscaloosa and end in Birmingham, mourners gathered on the streets outside the church where his funeral service was held. Thousands of other mourners staked out vantage points on each of the Interstate 20 overpasses on the route.
They brought home-made signs, and dabbed away tears during the solemn moment the motorcade proceeded underneath them. I attended the brief graveyard service in Birmingham, where fans paying their respects brought the most elaborate floral arrangements I have ever seen.
To be sure, there is no such outpouring of affection if Bryant had been an ordinary coach, rather the legend hired to revive Alabama’s once-proud football program in 1958. He went on to lead the Crimson Tide to 13 Southeastern Conference titles and six national championships.
But Bryant reached the people of Alabama in a way that can’t be quantified in mere titles and championships. Stymied by George Wallace, the governor determined to keep the state’s largest campus campus all-white, Bryant finally was able to integrate his team with the Class of 1974.
Less a social-justice crusader than a pragmatist who realized the absurdity of watching home-grown athletes taking their talents elsewhere, Bryant helped usher Alabama into the 20th century.
He did all this with the reputation of somebody who supposedly was feared by his own teams and loathed by his opponents. And then you’d sit down with him, and find his charm and warmth to be as undeniable as his gruff edges.
On the day we met, Bryant didn’t resemble any version I had of what God looks like. He was smoking Chesterfields, at peace with the inevitability that his lifestyle choices over five decades would result in a checkmate.
Bryant was a genuine character full of contractions: tough and tender, temperamental and poised.
Flawed? Of course he was flawed. Anybody prone to think of his basement as the ultimate celebration destination can’t be all good.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath