In Alabama, “Better to Bear the Cross Than to Cross The Bear”

If ever a college and a coach were meant for each other, it was Bama and Bear Bryant. After winning a scholarship in 1931 and then being informed he’d be ineligible without a high school degree, young Paul Bryant spent his fall days attending classes at Tuscaloosa High School earning his degree, and when the school bell rang in the afternoon he rushed over to practice with the Crimson Tide. Playing second fiddle to all-time great Don Hutson (the Jerry Rice of his day) during his college career, he played through a broken leg in his senior year, and still wound up third team all-conference.

After graduation, and after turning down an offer to play with the old Brooklyn Dodgers of the NFL (now the Indy Colts), Bryant’s dream of coaching his old team was blocked by the presence of the then-current coaching legend Frank Thomas, a relatively young man who seemed to be a permanent fixture on the Tuscaloosa campus. After a few years of serving as Thomas’s assistant, and a stint in the wartime Navy, he parlayed an introduction by Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall into his first head coaching job at the University of Maryland, which in turn he used to land a more long-term run at the University of Kentucky.

In Lexington, he led the Wildcats to by far their most successful stretch of seasons, with 5 top-20 rankings in 8 years, capped by a No. 7 in 1950 that culminated in a stunning upset of No. 1 ranked Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, a shocker that snapped the Sooners’ 31-game winning streak. What is generally not known about Bryant’s years at Kentucky was that he attempted to persuade the administration to recruit black players. This was prior to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, however, and in the racial climate of the time, his request was turned down.

From Kentucky, the Bear went on to resurrect another dormant program, this time at Texas A&M. His first team, called “The Junction Boys” after their brutal summer camp at Junction, Texas, struggled through a 1-9 season, but within two years the Aggies had smashed the Texas Longhorns, en route to an unbeaten season and the Southwest Conference championship. Once again, as at Kentucky, he failed to persuade the school officials to integrate.

But finally in 1958, 23 years after he’d covered himself with glory on the playing field of Denny Stadium, the Bear came back to where he wanted to be all along, to his alma mater in Tuscaloosa. Once again he inherited a wreck – his seniors had seen but a total of four wins in the previous three years combined – and once again he resurrected the carcass.

In his first year, Bryant produced the Tide’s first winning season since 1953. In his second season, the Tide beat 10th ranked Auburn and played in a bowl game. And by his fourth season, Bryant led the Tide to his first of six national championships.

They used to say in Alabama that it was “better to bear the Cross, than to cross the Bear”, and there were countless Tide opponents who learned that lesson the hard way.

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