When the name Bear Bryant comes up in casual conversation, most fans picture the stern-faced, hard-nosed leader of the Alabama Crimson Tide with a rolled up game plan and his iconic checkered houndstooth fedora commanding everybody’s attention. The College Football Hall of Famer was more than just a legendary coach, though. Bryant makes a strong case as the single-most badass human to ever walk the Earth.
At 13 years old, Paul William Bryant was 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds when he was challenged to wrestle a live bear at a carnival. Despite getting his ear bitten, Bryant wasn’t paid the $1 he was promised for the fight, but he did receive a nickname that stuck with him forever. The best part is, Bear was only just beginning his incredible life story.
Paul “Bear” Bryant received a scholarship to play for the University of Alabama where he would earn All-SEC honors as an end in both 1934 and 1935. In his three seasons playing opposite NFL Hall of Fame receiver Don Hutson, Alabama compiled a 23-3-2 record and won the 1934 national championship. He was selected in the 1936 NFL Draft, but decided not to pursue pro football and coach instead.
Don’t worry, he did just fine coaching college football.
After several years working as an assistant coach, Bryant was in line to be head coach at the University of Arkansas before the attack on Pearl Harbor began America’s involvement in World War II. The Moro Bottom, Arkansas native left football to serve his country as a member of the U.S. Navy, where he delivered one of the most heroic, American stories you’ll ever hear.
During World War II, the USS Uruguay ferried army troops to North Africa, Australia and Japan. In 1943, the Uruguay collided with an oil replenishment ship — the USS Salamonie — off the coast of Bermuda. When the Uruguay’s Captain ordered to abandon ship, Lieutenant Paul “Bear” Bryant decided to directly disobey his commanding officer and rushed to empty the forward fuel tanks, shifting the ship’s ballast and kept it from sinking. Hundreds of people died in the water that day, while those who listened to Bryant survived.
Allen Barra, who wrote The Last Coach, gave this account of Bryant’s near death story:
“Bryant, in the middle of a poker game, grabbed his canteen and gun… and ran topside. There he found hundreds of terrified soldiers, ‘praying, and I was leading ’em.’ There was an order to abandon ship; Bryant thought it was premature and disobeyed, urging others to do the same. The ones who listened to him lived. Two hundred other soldiers and sailors died in the water.”
— From The Last Coach, by Allen Barra
Bryant was awarded the Navy medal for his heroics. That leadership and courage led him to coach the Georgia and North Carolina Pre-Flight military football teams during the war, and his coaching aptitude only grew when he came home. He returned to college football and won 91 games in 13 seasons with Maryland, Kentucky and the Texas A&M Aggies — including the infamous “Junction Boys” season — before taking over at the University of Alabama in 1958.
Over the next 25 years, there would be 232 wins, only 46 losses, six national titles and 13 SEC championships. Bryant was named national coach of the year three times, and the award is now named in his honor. If that’s not enough, the Crimson Tide football team’s current home is called Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The legacy that current coach Nick Saban is writing in Tuscaloosa is hard to ignore, but you cannot discredit what Bryant did during an era where social media didn’t help you recruit, players couldn’t easily travel thousands of miles to join the Crimson Tide, and the game was vastly different. For those reasons, Bryant might still be the greatest ever regardless of what Saban does the rest of his career.
Plus, until Saban saves an entire Naval ship from sinking, he doesn’t have anything on the Bear.