Paul William “Bear” Bryant (September 11, 1913 – January 26, 1983) was an American college football player and coach….who is best known as the head coach of the University of Alabama football team…..where during his 25-year tenure as Alabama’s head coach….he amassed six national championships….which is tied for the most in modern college football history….and thirteen SEC conference championships….when upon his retirement in 1982, he held the record for most wins as head coach in collegiate football history with 323 wins.
He was also known for his trademark black and white houndstooth fedora, deep voice, casually leaning up against the goal post during pre-game warm-ups….while holding his rolled-up game plan while on the sidelines. Before arriving at Alabama, Bryant was head football coach at the University of Maryland, the University of Kentucky, and Texas A&M University.
Bryant was a heavy smoker and drinker….as his health began to decline in the late 1970’s…..when he collapsed of a cardiac episode in 1977….and decided to enter alcohol rehab….but after a few months of sobriety, he resumed drinking….then Bear experienced a mild stroke in 1980….which weakened the left side of his body….with another cardiac episode in 1981…..which left him taking a battery of medications in his final years.
Shortly before his death, Bryant met with evangelist Robert Schuller on a plane flight and the two talked extensively about religion…..which apparently made an impression on the coach….who felt considerable guilt over his mistreatment of the Junction Boys while holding spring training when he coached at Texas A & M…..and of hiding his smoking and drinking habits from his mother.
After a sixth-place SEC finish in the 1982 season that included losses to LSU and Tennessee…..of which each were for the first time since 1970….that’s when Bryant, who had turned 69 that September, decided to retire….and stating, “This is my school, my alma mater. I love it and I love my players. But in my opinion, they deserved better coaching than they have been getting from me this year.”
His last regular season game was a 23–22 loss to Auburn…..and his last postseason game was a 21–15 victory in the Liberty Bowl over the University of Illinois. After the game, Bryant was asked what he planned to do now that he was retired…..and he replied “Probably croak in a week.”….when four weeks after making that comment….and just one day after passing a routine medical checkup…..that is when on January 25, 1983, Bryant checked into Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa after experiencing chest pain…..and while being prepared for an electrocardiogram, he died after suffering a massive heart attack. His personal physician, Dr. William Hill, said that he was amazed that Bryant had been able to coach Alabama to two national championships in the last five years of his life with the state of his health.
First news of Bryant’s death came from Bert Bank (WTBC Radio Tuscaloosa) and on the NBC Radio Network….which was anchored by Stan Martyn and reported by Stewart Stogel. On his hand at the time of his death was the only piece of jewelry he ever wore….which was a gold ring inscribed “Junction Boys”.
A month after his death, Coach Paul Bear Bryant was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President Ronald Reagan. A moment of silence was held before Super Bowl XVII, played four days after Bryant’s death.