Most serious football scholars — or is that an oxymoron? — are familiar with the legacy of Paul William “Bear” Bryant. The longtime and legendary coach of the Crimson Tide, Bryant led his Alabama teams to 13 Southeastern Conference championships and six national titles over a 25-year span. When he retired in 1982, Bryant was the winningest coach in college football history.
Bryant enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1931 courtesy of an athletic scholarship and played end on the Crimson Tide’s national championship team of 1934. A gritty performer, Bryant earned either second- or third-team All-SEC honors in 1934, 1935 and 1936. That he played the 1935 game against the Tennessee Volunteers with a broken leg illustrates his toughness.
Upon graduation in 1936, Bryant accepted a coaching position with Union University (Jackson, Tennessee) but soon returned to Tuscaloosa as an Alabama assistant coach for a four-year stint. Next was a year as a Vanderbilt assistant before Bryant joined the U.S. Navy at the onset of World War II.
After the war, Bryant served one year as head football coach at the University of Maryland, where his team compiled a 6-2-1 record. That was followed by eight years at Kentucky (60-23-6) and then four years at Texas A&M (25-14-2).
In 1958, his alma mater called, and the Bear returned to Tuscaloosa. Over the next quarter of a century, his Alabama teams chalked up a history of 232 wins, 46 losses and 9 ties — and not one of them suffered through a losing season. In fact, over that 25-year era, Bryant’s Crimson Tide lost only 27 conference games.
But, you may ask, what does all of this have to do with Arkansas? For one thing, Paul William Bryant was born in southern Arkansas in Moro Bottom, a community a few miles east of Fordyce. The 11th of 12 children produced by Ida and William Bryant, the youngster got his notable nickname after wrestling a circus bear during a PR stunt hosted by a local theater. Not only did Bryant fail to collect on the promised dollar, he got bit on the ear by his ursine opponent. By the time his senior year at Fordyce High rolled around, Bryant was a 6-foot-1-inch stalwart on the Red Bugs’ state championship football team, playing on both sides of the ball and earning All-State honors. In the fall of 2012, the town named the local stadium, the very same turf he had played on 80 years earlier, in Bryant’s honor.
There’s one more connection, though not so well-known, between Bear Bryant and Arkansas. At the conclusion of his 1941 season as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, Bryant learned the University of Arkansas had fired head coach Fred Thompson, who had led the Razorbacks for 13 years. Bryant wanted the Arkansas job, and asked his friend Bill Dickey, the baseball great who’d just returned to Little Rock from the World Series, for assistance. Dickey visited with Gov. Homer Adkins on behalf of Bryant, and shortly thereafter personally introduced him to the governor. Things went well, and Adkins and Bryant met two more times to hash out the details. “On my way back to Vanderbilt, I knew the job was mine,” Bryant wrote in his autobiography. As he drove to Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 7 following that final meeting with Gov. Adkins, Bryant heard news reports on the radio of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Rather than becoming the head Razorback, Bryant became a sailor.
Nevertheless, Bear Bryant eventually coached two games in Fayetteville after World War II, both times as head coach at Texas A&M University. His 1955 Aggies battled the Razorbacks to a tie and then won the contest in 1957.
Bear Bryant never lost in Razorback Stadium.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.
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