Sports is full of incredible and creative nicknames. David “Big Papi” Ortiz is revered in Boston Red Sox fans’ hearts. Detroit Lions fans called Calvin Johnson “Megatron” for his freakish build and athletic abilities. From Kobe Bryant’s “Black Mamba” moniker to snowboarder Shaun White’s “The Flying Tomato” and the Joey Bats and Johnny Footballs of the world, sports are just more fun with nicknames.
Sometimes you may not even realize an athlete’s name isn’t the one that matches his birth certificate. Eldrick Woods, Lawrence Berra and James Hunter? Yeah, that’d be Tiger Woods and MLB Hall-of-Famers Yogi Berra and Catfish Hunter.
The best nicknames are those that contain a story or myth behind them. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson played a minor league game in his stockings because his shoes gave him blisters. Pete Rose became “Charlie Hustle” after earning a walk and sprinting to first base in a spring training game.
But there might not be a better story than that of legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul William Bryant, AKA “Bear” Bryant.
How Did Bear Bryant Get His Nickname?
Before winning six NCAA national championships over a historic 25-year run as the Crimson Tide’s head football coach, Paul Bryant was just an oversized kid — one of 12 children born to Wilson Monroe and Ida Kilgore Bryant — that played varsity football as an eighth grader in Moro Bottom, Arkansas.
When he was 13, Bryant stood a ridiculous 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. That is massive for 13 years old. So massive that Bryant thought he could wrestle a muzzled bear.
As the story goes, the teenager was challenged to wrestle the imposing mammal at a carnival for $1. Bryant accepted and came away mostly unscathed (his ear was bitten), but the carnival never paid him. One dollar in 1926 is worth about $15 today. That was apparently too steep to pay.
After earning the ursine nickname, Bryant lived up to it every step of his football career.
He won the 1930 Arkansas state championship at Fordyce High School as an offensive lineman and defensive end. Bryant played defensive end alongside NFL Hall-of-Famer Don Hutson at Alabama, where he was part of the 1934 national championship team and earned all-SEC honors. At Alabama, he met and married his wife, Mary Harmon.
Bryant’s coaching career took multiple stops as an assistant coach at Union University, Vanderbilt University, Alabama and the Georgia and North Carolina Pre-Flight military service football teams from the late 1930s to the early 1940s.
As if Bryant wasn’t badass enough, he turned down the head coaching gig at Arkansas in 1941 to join the Navy during World War II following the Pearl Harbor attack.
Bryant continued his football career as a head coach for the University of Maryland Terrapins, University of Kentucky Wildcats and Texas A&M Aggies before accepting the job in Tuscaloosa at his alma mater as both coach and athletic director. He coached numerous stars like New York Jets icon Joe Namath, Oakland Raiders’ Kenny Stabler and 1957 Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow over his illustrious college coaching career.
He won an SEC title in 1950 at Kentucky but left because he was overshadowed by Adolph Rupp’s dominant basketball teams. Bryant won a Southwest Conference championship in 1956 at TAMU, where he implemented his famous grueling training camp for football players dubbed the “Junction Boys.”
Among the awards he earned throughout his lifetime include:
- Three-time National Coach of the Year, which is now named in his honor.
- 12-time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year.
- Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
- Denny Stadium renamed to Bryant-Denny Stadium in his honor.
- Posthumously awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.
Bryant suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983, just weeks after beating the University of Illinois in the Liberty Bowl and subsequently retired as the winningest college football coach ever. The Bear led Alabama to an amazing 24 straight bowl games, eight of which were Sugar Bowls. He went 19-6 against Auburn. Bryant is buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.
Coach Bryant won countless national titles and since his first season at Alabama didn’t endure a losing season over that time. His extensive coaching tree included names like Bruce Arians, Danny Ford, Howard Schnellenberger, Gene Stallings, Joey Jones, Mike Riley and David Cutcliffe.
Paul “Bear” Bryant’s days on the football field may just be pages in the college football history books now, but the nickname and the image of him donning a black-and-white houndstooth hat on the sidelines will forever live on to Alabamans and Americans all over.
This article was originally published August 19, 2019.