By John Pancake
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Down South they like to tell this story about legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
It seems Bear had just gotten home after beating the tar out of Penn State. As he climbed into bed, Mrs. Bryant exclaimed, "God, you've got cold feet."
After a pause, he replied: "Mary Harmon, in the bedroom you can call me Paul."
Although Bear Bryant was not God, here in Alabama he was a god. Football fans who find themselves in the vicinity of Tuscaloosa won't want to miss one of America's most unusual shrines, the Paul W. Bryant Museum. A lot of college football museums can be found across the country, but none so dedicated to a single man's legend.
When I was growing up many years ago in Tuscaloosa, I thought people were obsessed with the football team because everything else in town was so drab and small. That, of course, was wrong. (Was I wrong about everything when I was 19?) Time has helped me see Tuscaloosa as a shady city with quiet charms, sly storytellers, tortured history, a semi-secret art museum and some of the world's best barbecue (see the box on this page).
And the urge to glorify winners isn't the least bit peculiar to the city. After all, you can't drive very far in downtown Washington without seeing a bronze Yankee general on his bronze Yankee horse. And isn't a discus thrower one of the best-known statues from the golden age of Greece?
The Bryant museum, on the east side of the University of Alabama campus, isn't just about the Bear. It tells the whole history of Alabama football. Battered leather helmets, old jerseys, a lumpy ball from the 1894 Auburn game (Bama won, 18-0) fill cases alongside scores of trophies. (According to the museum, Alabama has won more games in the past 65 years than any other college football team. It lists 12 national championships, including six during Bryant's 25-year reign.) The Saturday I was there, a flat-screen TV showed highlights from the previous week's game. And by next week there should be highlights of tonight's Independence Bowl game against Colorado.
But almost one-third of the museum is about Bryant. You get the story of 13-year-old Paul wrestling a carnival bear in Fordyce, Ark. Bryant needed money, and the carnival paid a dollar a minute to stay in the ring with the bear. (He never actually got the dollar, but he did wind up with a nickname.) You hear about his playing days on the 1933-35 Alabama teams. He was the less famous of Alabama's two ends during those years. The other, Don Hutson, is in the college and pro football halls of fame. Hutson is credited with creating many of the pass routes used in pro football today.
But Bryant wasn't entirely overshadowed. He prided himself on his toughness, once having a cast cut off so he could play against Tennessee with a broken leg. He had one of the best games of his career, and Bama won, 25-0. When Bama put out word he'd played with a busted fibula, a sports editor from Atlanta drove over and looked at the X-rays.
After college, Bryant became an assistant coach, earning $1,250 a year. He went on to become a successful head coach at several other schools, including Maryland and Texas A&M.
Football at Alabama meanwhile deteriorated. The saddest display in the museum is dedicated to J.B. "Ears" Whitworth, who coached from 1955 to 1957, once going 0-10. There is nothing mean-spirited in the Whitworth display, but if you look through the books in the gift shop, you will find that Whitworth is best remembered for benching Bart Starr, one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history, during his senior year. Ears had no eye for talent.
In that dark hour, Bryant returned to his alma mater. "Mama called, and when Mama calls, you have to come running," he said.
You'll see trophies and film clips of his signal victories. In one corner, there's even a re-creation of his office, with the original low-slung couch where he sat people down for a talk. (Bear glowered down on them from behind a massive desk.) One wall bears an advertising poster with Bryant plugging Coca-Cola and Golden Flake potato chips.
People who admired what the Bear stood for fastened on the coach's signature houndstooth snap-brim hat as a symbol of how much they venerated him. It is as much a talisman of Alabama football as are the school's crimson and white. In the museum, almost as many hats are on display as there are footballs. The strangest of all is a Waterford crystal number sculpted in glass. In the gift shop, you can buy houndstooth visors, umbrellas, earrings, hair bands, purses, string ties, key chains, scarves, beer-can holders, notecards and, of course, hats.
You can do the museum in about an hour, although devout Alabama faithful will take longer. Just don't miss the video right inside the entrance. It tells Bryant's life story and closes with a quote from him:
"I'd like people to remember me as a winner, because I ain't never been nothing but a winner."
The Paul W. Bryant Museum is in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $2. Info: 866-772-BEAR; http://www.bryant.ua.edu.