“… the long legend … the shaggy tremendous shape … an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time … the old bear.”
–William Faulkner, “The Bear”
For me, Paul Bryant wasn’t just the greatest football coach who ever lived. And for anyone who looks at the man, at who he was, they’ll realize how much bigger than life a man can truly be. It wouldn’t have mattered what he might have decided to do with his life, he would still have been one of those few, once-in-a-lifetime characters, like John Wayne or Ernest Hemingway, men that other people rallied around, followed. These men don’t come around very often, and it’s a simple thing for me to say he was the greatest coach who ever lived, but in my opinion he was one of the greatest men who ever lived as well. For all his faults, of which you might say there were many, he had a core fundamental set of values that he never swayed from, and those people whom he came into contact with through the years invariably were left in awe of him, his presence, and his character. He made the people around him better.
“I’m just a simple plowhand from Arkansas, but I have learned over the years how to hold a team together. How to lift some men up, how to calm others down, until finally they’ve got one heartbeat, together, a team.”
Was Bear Bryant the greatest football coach who ever lived? Certainly. Other coaches have surpassed his record for wins, but those coaches, while great in their own right, could never aspire to fill the shoes of Bear Bryant. They might have surpassed him in wins–a sheer feat of longevity, something Bryant couldn’t have had–but combined they don’t have as many National Championships as Bryant did. And the simple fact remains that no other coach had the presence of Bear Bryant. George Blanda, a HOF NFL quarterback, stated upon meeting Bear Bryant: “This must be what God looks like.”
There’s one other thing that separates Bryant from the rest of the pack. College football has endured many changes through the years, but can be divided distinctly into two separate eras. The era before and after unlimited substitution (US). Before 1965 there were rules imposed by the NCAA barring player subtitutions. As a result, players had to play an entire game without a break at their position. After 1965 and the unlimited substitution ammendment this was no longer the case. If a player got tired you could just put another player in. The result of this rule change led to the modern-day 300+ lb lineman. Before US, a lineman might weigh as little as 160 lbs or as much as 225 but rarely more than that. Bear Bryant was the only coach who excelled before and after unlimited substitution.
Southern Cal’s John McKay, after Bryant’s funeral: “It was like a presidential funeral procession. No coach in America could have gotten that. No coach but him. But then, he wasn’t just a coach. He was the coach.”