One hundred years ago last week, the greatest college football coach in American history was born in rural, dirt-poor Arkansas. Paul W. Bryant, better known by his legendary nickname “Bear,” racked up 323 victories (a record when he retired in 1982), mostly for the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama – the team he coached for 25 glorious seasons in his trademark hounds-tooth fedora.
At Tuscaloosa, Bryant – a tough-as-nails, hard-drinking and heavy-smoking disciplinarian – won six national championships and 13 SEC (conference) titles, making him the state’s undisputed sporting icon, even surpassing locally born baseball legends Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
Bryant's emergence as a nationally famous college football coach in the 1960s coincided with two historic and turbulent events: the civil rights revolution across the South and the emergence of another Alabama icon, Gov. George Wallace, who loudly elucidated the very motto of strident white resistance to black equality: "Segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever!"
Bryant, who was solely focused upon coaching football with an almost monastic devotion, largely stayed out of the racial turmoil engulfing his beloved Alabama, eschewing any political statements (at least publicly), while simply biding his time until it became more comfortable to integrate his team – a step that did not take place until 1971.
Thus, perhaps the most controversial and complex portion of the Bear's legacy has to do with his racial attitudes and how committed he truly was to integration.
The late author and journalist David Halberstam, while conceding Bryant's greatness as a gridiron coach, took a rather dim of view of the Bear's behavior during the civil rights area.
"[Bryant] was a formidable football coach and football coaches are supposed to judge players on talent and character, and not on anything else, not on any exterior prejudices," Halberstam wrote for ESPN.
"And [Bryant] was a smart enough man to know that all kinds of great football players from Alabama, some of whom just happened to be black and were not able to play for him because of the prevailing prejudice … and he knew as well that he had the law of the nation on his side now if he wanted to play them, and that only local prejudice kept him from recruiting them."
Halberstam contended that, as the most popular and influential public figure in Alabama at the time, Bryant could have – and should have – defied Wallace's racism and signed black recruits as long ago as the early 1960s.
"When [Bryant] could have made a great difference, he did very little and did not really dissent from the biases of the region," Halberstam declared. "His failure to stand apart from the worst of the region's culture diminished him as a man... We know that he knew better, that he knew that what he was going along with was wrong. Ultimately, [Bryant] did not take on George Wallace when he should have ... at least, not back when it really mattered."
According to many historical accounts, the integration of Crimson Tide football was triggered in 1970 when the (very integrated) University of Southern California football club, led by dynamic black running back Sam "Bam" Cunningham, crushed Alabama 42-21 in an exhibition game in Birmingham that Bryant allegedly arranged. (The Bear had already played integrated teams like Penn State at other venues years before, despite the university’s policy barring such contests.)
However, it later emerged that Bryant had already signed two black players in anticipation of a wave of black players entering the SEC prior to the USC drubbing.
Alas, Bryant’s true record on race relations remains a mystery. Many friends and colleagues have provided a more glowing review of Bryant than Halberstam's.
In 1980, just three years prior to his premature death at the age of 69, Bryant told Time magazine that he had wanted to become "the Branch Rickey of football,” referring to the man who integrated Major League Baseball by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Bryant claimed that around that same time, when he coached at the University of Kentucky, his attempts at signing black players faced stiff resistance from college administrators.
“They told me no,” Bryant said. “So for years, I used to recommend all these great black players to schools up North."
The Crimson Tide remained defiantly all-white throughout the 1960s – indeed, having won three national championships without any blacks on the roster, integration seemed unnecessary.
Allen Barra, a sportswriter from Alabama, contended that, with respect to integration at Tuscaloosa, it was none other than Wallace himself who blocked any attempts by Bryant to sign black athletes.
“[Wallace] was especially watchful of the University of Alabama and let it be known to the school's president, Frank Rose, that funds would be cut if he crossed swords with Wallace on racial policies,” Barra wrote in American Legacy Magazine. “The result was that several Southeastern Conference schools, even Alabama's cross-state rival, Auburn University, integrated their football teams before Alabama.”
That all changed by the end of the decade – by then, Alabama had deteriorated into mediocrity, while integrated clubs like Ohio State and others pulled ahead of Bryant's club.
Alabama’s 1971 club featured two African-American players, John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson. Three years later, one-third of the roster was black. The Bear also added three more national titles during that decade, with the help of an integrated football squad.
By that point, Wallace (who survived an assassination attempt in 1972 while campaigning for president) had changed his views on race – meaning that the two most powerful and iconic figures in the state were operating in a brave new world of (relative) racial tolerance in the very heart of Dixie.
Professor Jeff Frederick of the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, who authored a book about Wallace called “Stand Up for Alabama: Governor George C. Wallace,” told International Business Times that Bryant was no pioneer, but neither was he a hard-core racist at all.
“Bryant said that he wouldn’t be the first [to integrate his football team], but he wouldn’t be the third either,” Frederick said.
Separately, those two old warhorses, the governor and the coach, had a cordial, but rather detached relationship. For one thing, the ever-paranoid Wallace reportedly feared that Bryant’s popularity would make him a formidable challenger in a gubernatorial race.
John Hannah, who played as an offensive lineman for Alabama, and later enjoyed a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, once reportedly quipped: "Wallace called Bryant weekly. The reason was he was scared that Bryant would run for governor, because [Bryant would] win.”
Other prominent observers claimed that Bryant held Wallace in contempt and mildly defended Bryant’s inaction during the early 1960s. Shortly after Bryant retired as coach, Alabama-born Howell Raines of the New York Times declared that: “the record is pretty strong that Bryant shared this contempt of Wallace [with thousands of Alabamians] He is credited with working behind the scenes to help Frank A. Rose, the university president, tone down Wallace... Bryant decided against confronting Wallace publicly. Bryant did no worse than other wealthy or progressive or educated Alabamians who feared Wallace or feared Klan reprisal or feared being taken for a 'n_gger lover.' “
Rose himself told the New York Times’ Ira Berkow a slightly different tale: ''I remember going down to Montgomery to talk with Governor Wallace. Now Bear wasn't contemptuous of the governor; he was friendly with him, but like me, differed on his racial position... It was not the [right] climate for getting up on a public rostrum and lecturing people on the racial issue. Nowhere in the South. I don't think even Bryant could have done it and not have a negative effect.”
Wayne Flynt, a professor at Auburn University (Alabama’s main rival) said Bryant’s legacy outshone Wallace's.
"Bear saw success in terms of adapting and modifying,” he told local media. “Wallace saw it by digging in his heels and not giving an inch. I think the great failures of the 1960s and [1970s] in Alabama were in educational and religious leadership… Leadership in this state didn't come from where it should have come from, from education and religion. It came from sports."
Indeed, Sylvester Croom, one of Bryant’s first black players, lauded the coach for encouraging a friendly and warm atmosphere for African-Americans on the club.
“We enjoyed being together because we were trying to build a championship team, and that was it,” he said, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“And when you play together, there’s something about being teammates, working alongside another guy that brings out respect, regardless of color. There’s no doubt we changed the way we look at football in the South.”
Croom eventually became the first black head coach in the SEC (for Mississippi State).
“Coach Bryant just wanted to get the best players possible and never worried about how many were black or white,” Croom added.
Croom also defended Bryant for waiting a number of years before signing black players.
“I really don’t think it would have been possible for Coach Bryant to have brought black players on the team any earlier than he did,” he said. “Bryant knew what was going on at the other schools, and he always knew what he was doing and did it at the right time. I was around Coach Bryant long enough to understand one important thing about him – whatever good things came his way didn’t happen by accident. He planned everything.”
Another black Alabama alum and future NFL star, Ozzie Newsome, once gushed: "Martin Luther King Jr. preached equality. Coach Bryant practiced it."
As for Bryant’s alleged political aspirations, Professor Frederick doesn’t put much stock in it. He noted that the timing was never quite right for a Bryant run -- Wallace won in a landslide in the 1962 gubernatorial election (after making race and segregation his principal campaign issues) when Bryant was still a relative novice at Alabama. In the next election, in 1966 (when Wallace was ineligible to run), he placed his wife Lurleen on the ticket. After she died of cancer in 1968, Wallace gained the sympathies of millions of Alabama natives. He again won the governorship in 1970.
Wallace was a master politician who could easily dispatch his enemies and rivals – perhaps even ultra-popular Coach Bryant.
"Bryant was certainly respected across the state, but only loved by half of it,” Frederick said. “In theory, most Auburn fans voting for the Bear in a hypothetical election would have done so to remove him from coaching the Crimson Tide rather than see him be their governor. Football was Paul Bryant's game; politics was George Wallace's. And neither was wired to switch places."
Now, 30 years after Bryant’s death (and 15 years after Wallace’s passing), these two giants remain the biggest names in Alabama’s history. It would be impossible to determine which icon is bigger – but it would probably be safe to say that while Wallace’s legacy was mixed, at best, Bryant is widely admired, by both black and white Alabamians alike.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.