Behind the University of Alabama’s football resurgence is a Little Bear, and his millions


Kentucky football coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant poses with his family, Paul Jr. at center with their pet dachshund, and his wife Mary, right, at their home in Lexington, Kent., Feb. 5, 1954. (H.B. Littell/AP)
December 6, 2013

The University of Alabama opened a new football training center in February. Any professional team would be happy to have it. The amenities include a $9 million weight room, a hydrotherapy pool with a Club Med-style cascade of hot water and an anti-gravity treadmill that’s more NASA than Nautilus.

Coach Nick Saban goes over the finer points of football with his team in a 212-seat theater with a multiplex-size screen. After practice, players shoot pool, or kick back on a leather couch with a video game.

Paul “Bear” Bryant, who coached the Crimson Tide to greatness 40 years ago, wouldn’t recognize the posh facilities provided for Saban’s team, which has won three of the past four Bowl Championship Series titles and was en route to another trophy before losing to in-state rival Auburn University on Nov. 30. In the 2012 national championship game, Alabama, led by quarterback A.J. McCarron and running back Eddie Lacy — who’s now playing for the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers — beat the University of Notre Dame 42-14 as hometown fans screamed “Roll, Tide, Roll!”

The late coaching legend would recognize the graying, taciturn man in one of the 101,821 seats at Alabama’s stadium in Tuscaloosa. That man is Bear’s son, Paul Bryant Jr., once known as Little Bear. Paul Jr. quarterbacked the multimillion-dollar 2002 fundraising drive, beginning with his own $10 million, that laid the foundation for Alabama’s return to football glory.

Just as his father personified the rugged individualism of an earlier era, prowling the sidelines in a houndstooth hat, this 68-year-old business mogul and president of the university’s board of trustees has taken advantage of the sport’s new age of commercialism to raise tens of millions of dollars for the football team.

Huge television contracts mean college football is rolling in money. The Southeastern Conference, in which Alabama plays, will partner with ESPN to launch the SEC Network in 2014. Great Falls, Va.-based sports business consultant John Mansell expects the network to boost the SEC’s broadcast revenue by 50 percent, to more than $300 million a year.

Media revenue is augmented by wealthy boosters such as Nike founder Phil Knight, who donated $68 million for University of Oregon football facilities, and energy baron T. Boone Pickens, who has given $250 million to Oklahoma State University athletics. Since 2008, the year before Saban won the first of his three championships, Alabama athletic-department revenue has climbed 38 percent, to $143.4 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The big-money era has brought scandal. The University of Miami was put on three years’ probation after the NCAA found that a school booster had given players up to $50,000 each in cash. In 2010, the NCAA ordered the University of Southern California to forfeit an entire season’s wins after finding that Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush accepted improper gifts. The NCAA put Alabama on five years’ probation in 2002 and imposed a two-year bowl ban after uncovering recruiting and other violations from 1995 to 2000 — before Bryant joined the board of trustees.

In contrast with his father, who basked in the celebrity that came from winning six national football championships, Bryant wields his power under the radar. Little has been written about the sources of his wealth.

He started his fortune with greyhound racing in 1977. One of his tracks, in La Marque, Tex., grossed $268 million in 1993, a record for the sport, according to the Texas Racing Commission. Then he diversified into catfish farming and banking. In 2011, he sold a cement business to Mexico-based Cemex for $350 million.

“I’m a pretty good risk-taker,” Bryant says in a rare interview at the university’s offices in Tuscaloosa.

One of Bryant’s longest-lived ventures is reinsurance. Alabama Reassurance, which became Alabama Life Reinsurance in 2006, paid Bryant and his two partners a total of $46 million in dividends from 2002 to 2006, according to a 2006 examination by the Alabama Department of Insurance. At the time, it had just two employees.

Troubled insurers

The company sold reinsurance that appeared to reduce an insurer’s liability, says W.O. Myrick, a retired Alabama state insurance examiner. The contracts carried little, if any, risk to Alabama Re, he says. One client, Inter-American Insurance of Illinois, went into liquidation in 1991, according to Cook County court documents.

“Historically, Alabama Re has entered into contracts to assume liabilities from problem insurers to help them appear to be in better financial condition than they actually are,” Myrick says.

Mississippi also examined Alabama Re.

“They were propping up broke companies for a fee,” says Tom Gober, who was examiner-in-charge at the Mississippi Insurance Department in the early 1990s. “Companies knew they could call on Alabama Re because Alabama Re had to offset dog track profits.”

Bryant’s enterprises are all units of a holding company called Greene Group, which Gober says allows the firm to consolidate its tax liabilities and offset profits from other enterprises with insurance write-offs.

The owner of one imperiled insurer, Philadelphia lawyer Allen W. Stewart, was convicted by a Philadelphia jury in 1997 on 135 counts of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Nine of those counts concerned a reinsurance agreement with Alabama Re. In 1991, Stewart’s Fidelity General Life Insurance, facing insolvency, paid Alabama Re $412,500 to take on $15 million of its liabilities, according to the indictment. Regulators in California and Arizona rejected the agreement, saying it didn’t really shift the liability. Fidelity and Alabama Re then signed a new agreement in March 1993 that included a clause saying there were no other “understandings” between the parties.

Yet on or around that same day, a side agreement was signed with Fidelity’s parent company, Summit National Life Insurance, the indictment says, limiting Alabama Re’s possible losses to $481,250, guaranteeing that Alabama Re would suffer little or no loss.

Bryant and attorney Scott Phelps, his partner in Greene Group, deny any impropriety. Neither the firm nor its partners were charged with wrongdoing in the Stewart case.

“The idea that intentionally doing transactions with insolvent companies was a good business plan is ludicrous,” Phelps says in an e-mail.

Phelps says that the Summit side agreement was legal and that Bryant had no inkling that Stewart was breaking the law.

“We didn’t know what he was doing,” Phelps says in a phone interview.

Phelps says that Alabama Re has done 230 to 240 reinsurance deals since it started in 1981 and that almost all have been with solid companies. In the case of Stewart, “the deal was brought to us by a broker, and we didn’t do business with that broker again.”

Bryant’s head may be in reinsurance, but his heart is on the football field. He tears up as he describes his relationship with his old friend Mal Moore, the university’s athletic director until he died in March at 73.

Bryant joined the Alabama board of trustees in 2000. Dorms were shabby and buildings were run-down, Bryant recalls. The once-triumphant football team went 3-8 that year. Bryant and Moore got to work. The key to reviving the university was football, Bryant says. The public — and wealthy donors — would get behind a program that included making the Crimson Tide a winner again. “It’s hard to explain if you’re not from here, but if football isn’t doing well, the whole state is in a funk,” Bryant says.

Bryant and Moore kicked off a $50 million fundraising campaign to upgrade athletic facilities and Bryant-Denny Stadium. Called the Crimson Tradition Fund and led by Bryant, it raised $70 million, including Bryant’s $10 million, according to the university.

“You’ve got to give before you can ask,” Bryant says.

The university supplemented the $70 million in private contributions with a $50 million bond issue, and then issued additional bonds to finance more athletic upgrades, swelling the university’s long-term athletics debt to $197 million in 2012 from $36 million in 2002, according to university financial reports.

Alabama’s boldest move was hiring Saban, then the coach of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, in 2007 and paying him $32 million over eight years, at the time making him the highest-paid coach in the history of college football, according to NCAA reports. Bryant says he had nothing to do with the hire; Moore recruited Saban. Yet he worked behind the scenes to make the school attractive to Saban, those who know Bryant say.

“People don’t understand the thumbprint Paul Jr. has left on Alabama,” says Jackie Sherrill, who played for Bear Bryant from 1962 to 1965 and was a classmate of Little Bear. “He’s like his dad, big in stature but very soft-spoken,” says Sherrill, a retired football coach.

Reviving Crimson Tide football has helped the university by attracting out-of-state students, Bryant says. Non-Alabamians pay $11,975 a semester, compared with $4,725 for Alabama residents. Sixty percent of this year’s freshman class of 6,500 came from out of state, compared with 24 percent in 2002.

Bryant, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, would like to have followed his father into football. That dream ended when he contracted hepatitis, possibly from a dirty dental instrument, and missed a whole year of high school and most of two others, he says.

Bryant studied business at the university. In his 20s, he started Peoples Bank in Tuscaloosa and then sold it. His name brought credibility.

“I met a lot of businesspeople through my parents,” he says.

Bryant first scored big with greyhound racing, a sport that’s condemned as cruel to dogs by animal rights groups. He started Greenetrack, a dog-racing venue in rural Greene County, Ala., with a veterinarian named A. Wayne May and a lawyer named Sam Phelps, who died in 2011. May and Scott Phelps, Sam’s son, remain partners in Greene Group. Bryant owns 72 percent of the enterprise, according to a 2009 examination of Alabama Re by regulators.

Pivoting to cement, catfish

Greenetrack was a quick success, and Bryant expanded nationally, opening tracks in Idaho, Iowa and Texas.

Dog racing, like horse racing, has been in decline since the mid-1990s. When Greenetrack’s profits plunged, Bryant gave it away, in 1995 granting half to employees and half to Greene County. A year later, the county, one of the poorest in the United States, went bankrupt, in part because of a sharp reduction in tax revenue from the dog track, according to a 2009 study of the bankruptcy in the Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management.

Bryant pivoted from dogs to cement. Greene Group bought Reynolds Ready Mix in 1995 and renamed it Ready Mix USA. It used money from Alabama Re to fund the purchase, ownership records show and Phelps confirms. In 1999, Greene Group bought a majority stake in Harvest Select Catfish, a company that raises the freshwater scavengers in 4,410 acres of shallow ponds in Alabama and Mississippi.

In 2005, Ready Mix started a 50-50 partnership with Cemex, with both companies forming related joint ventures: Cemex Southeast LLC and Ready Mix USA LLC. Bryant negotiated a put option, which gave Greene Group the right to sell its share in both to Cemex after three years.

Greene Group got a payout in 2010, when the ventures sold 12 cement quarries to SPO Partners & Co., a private-equity firm in Mill Valley, Calif., for $420 million. Ready Mix and Cemex each got $100 million in cash. The bigger payday came in 2011, when Bryant executed the put option and Cemex paid him $350 million for his half of the joint ventures.

Today, Bryant spends some of his time running Bryant Bank, which he started in 2005 in Tuscaloosa. It has 14 branches across Alabama and $1.17 billion of assets, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Bryant says he wants the bank, which caters to small communities, to be his legacy.

“That’s my winding-down project,” he says. “It’s the only time we put our name on anything.”

Reflecting on his career, Bryant still regrets that he wasn’t able to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I’d like to have coached,” he says.

Still, in this new era of college sports, Bryant can take credit along with coach Saban for the Alabama team’s success. He’s been calling the money plays.

The full version of this Bloomberg Markets article appears in the magazine’s January issue.

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