A preacher after all
Bryant once said, “My mama wanted me to be a preacher. I told her that coaching and preaching were a lot alike, but I don’t think she believed me.”
Most who watched the “Bear Bryant Show” on Sunday afternoons during the fall for 25 years would likely side with Bryant in that argument, since his comments on the weekly television show were often more like sermons than commentary on the previous day’s game.
Bryant not only quickly revived Alabama football after his return to Tuscaloosa, he arguably changed the culture of the entire state as he looked into the television camera and spoke directly to his players, coaches, fans and practically every citizen of the state each Sunday afternoon. Through the years, whether they realized it or not, he converted farmers, factory workers, mechanics and housewives who had never seen a college football game into Alabama fans as he talked about pride and class and fourth-quarter gut checks with folksy charm and humor.
Few of us had heard those terms before Bryant arrived, but he taught the same lesson each week, pounding a change of attitude—a feeling of pride and confidence—into the heads of viewers just as he did on the practice field with his players. His hoarse admonitions to “hold your head up, look people in the eye, show your class and never quit” slowly sank into the psyche of all who watched, and practically everyone in the state came to see him as a genuine leader if not a personal mentor. Whether he knew it or not, he was motivating his television audience just as he was motivating his teams.
All the while, he was coaching his player and coaches, recruiting, teaching fans the game of football and converting most of those who watched to his way of thinking, acting and living, often more in the style of a television evangelist than a football coach.
Fans gathered around their television sets at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons as much to hear Bryant’s weekly comments, mumbled in pithy football jargon and filled with his own “commandments” for winning football games and succeeding in life, as they did to watch the replay of the games. As a result, most of the coffee shop discussions on Monday mornings and the day’s sports headlines almost always centered on what Bryant had said on Sunday afternoon.
The Bear Bryant Show gave many people their first opportunity to see an football game, and it won many new fans for the Crimson Tide. People were just beginning to watch college football on television during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and only appeared on television 24 times from 1958-1969, including 11 bowl games and 13 “game of the week” appearances.
Bryant, a tough and fearless man known for having once played against Tennessee with a broken leg, never wavered in spreading his formula for success—class, discipline, sweat, perseverance, dedication, pride—to all ears and eyes through all his years as Alabama’s head coach, and his teams demonstrated clearly that the formula worked by winning 232 games over those 25 years, an astounding average of 9.3 wins per season.
Bryant won only 323 football games, but he won hundreds of thousands of fans throughout Alabama and the nation, and those fans believed in him, quoted him, named their children after him, lined the streets and highways for 60 miles to say one final goodbye as his funeral procession passed, and still remember him with reverence and admiration 30 years later.
Winning football games is one thing; winning people is quite another. Coach Bryant was better at winning people than any football coach ever.