Tony DeMeo

The Last Coach by Allen Barra

When I think of Bear Bryant I think of Darwin and “The Survival of the Fittest” because that’s how The Bear coached. He is one of the true coaching icons in college football. His success is as great as any who have prowled the sideline. But he was much more than a brutal taskmaster and that’s where the story begins.

In 1988 I had the good fortune of coaching with a young coach by the name of Amos Jones who had played for Coach Bryant (the only way Amos referred to his former coach was Coach Bryant), his devotion to Coach Bryant was so strong I started to study his biographies and things written by or about him. The best book about Coach Bryant that I’ve come across is The Last Coach by Allen Barra. Barra, a writer for the Wall Street Journal gives a great account of a great man’s life.

Barra traces Paul Bryant’s life from literally the bottom up. Paul was born in poverty in Fordyce, Arkansas and used football to get an education at the University of Alabama. From there he became a coach and the rest is history. His coach Frank Thomas had a positive influence on Bryant especially in his motto: The Team is more important than any player. Bear suspended two of his best players Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler for thinking they were bigger than the team.

Barra does an interesting comparison between Vince Lombardi and Paul Bryant. Both used tough blue-collar, over-achievers to build their programs. Both stressed Defense first, and emphasized controlling the ball on offense. And of course both were fanatical about physical and mental toughness. Another interesting note is both were fired as an assistant coach. Lombardi was fired at Fordham University and Bryant was fired by Red Saunders at Vanderbilt. Also both were born in 1913. They were turn-around artists and were believers in discipline as the foundation of the program.

Bear’s first Head Coaching position was at the University of Maryland and it lasted one year. When the school’s President re-instated a player that Bear had kicked off, Bear was off to The University of Kentucky. Maryland 5-8 in previous two years went 6-2-1 in Brant’s one year.

At UK, Bear turned his second program around by recruiting a large number of talented athletes and letting them fight it out to see who played. Toughness was the name of the game. UK Finished 5-3-1 in year one and had a win over Red Saunders at Vandy. In year two Bear led the Wildcats to a 9-2 record and a trip to the Orange Bowl. 1950 was a defining moment for the 37 year old Bear leading UK to an 11-1 record and they upset Bud Wilkinson’s OU Sooners in the Sugar Bowl 13-7. In 1951 and 1952 UK went 13-8-1 and Bryant felt he had hit a ceiling. !953 saw UK go 7-2-1 and it was time to move on.

The story of “the Junction Boys” has been well documented but it was far from Bryant’s best work. In 1954 Texas A &M won only one game but The Bear established that foundation for toughness that would pave the way for big things. He built the team around John David Crow and went 7-2-1 in year #2. Bear was at A&M for four years and had a record of 25-14-2.

Back at Alabama Bear Bryant became a superstar coach. TV was becoming popular and college football was made for it. Bryant turned “Bama around in typical Darwinesque fashion – only the strong survive. Get his guys and outwork and outhit the opponent.

Weed out the weak and work with what’s left. Football is a tough game that can only be won by tough people. Total commitment was demanded.

!959 saw the Tide go 7-2-2 and the turnaround complete in only year two. Bryant stacked one great recruiting class after another and won the National Championship in 1961 in only his fourth year. Bear went on to win the National championship in 1964 and 1965. The Tide finished undefeated in 1966 but was 3rd behind Notre Dame and Michigan State who finished 9-0-1. Bear had reached Legend Status.

In the late 60s Bear hit a slump and had two 6-5 seasons before reviving his career with two key factors: The Wishbone and integration. Bear was a strong supporter of integrating the Bama football team and in 1970 that was accomplished. Bear also switched to the Wishbone in 1971 and had the finest offensive production of his career. In his first 3 years in the Bone, Bear was 43-1! Bear felt the Bone gave him an advantage because he was not recruiting the same type of people as everyone else. Bear also thought the Bone was a great Passing Offense because of the one on one matchups. So Bear threw the ball more effectively than the other option coaches of the day. Bear also liked the Bone because it was an unselfish offense. Everyone had to block.

The Last Coach is a fascinating book about a football coaching legend. Allen Barra is a thorough writer who digs deeper than most into the life of Bear and not just the legend. I strongly recommend this book. Coach Bryant turned around four football programs and hundreds of lives.