Paul (Bear) Bryant, 69, who won more games than any other coach in the history of American college football, died yesterday at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after a heart attack, less than a month after he retired from active coaching.
On Nov. 28, 1981, Bryant became the winningest coach in college history when Alabama beat Auburn, 28-17, for Bryant's 315th career victory, surpassing Amos Alonzo Stagg's record of 314 wins.
In an interview with The Washington Post that month, Bryant was asked what he would do when he retired from coaching. "I imagine I'll go straight to the graveyard," he said.
In a 38-year career, including 25 years at the University of Alabama, Bryant's lifetime record was 323-85-17. At Alabama he never had a losing season, and his teams won five national championships. Under Bryant, the Crimson Tide participated in a record 24 consecutive postseason bowl games.
Physicians said Bryant died after suffering a massive heart attack while being X-rayed at the hospital, where he had been admitted Tuesday after suffering chest pains. His personal physician, William Hill, said Bryant's heart stopped beating at 12:24 p.m. CST and immediate efforts were made to restore his heartbeat.
"We did put a pacemaker through his chest and were able to restore a weak heartbeat," Hill said. But he said Bryant was declared dead at about 1:30 p.m. Hill said Bryant had been on medication for mild heart trouble during the past few years.
Bryant's death came as a surprise; earlier in the day he had been reported in good spirits. "This morning he joked about going to Las Vegas," Hill said. "He said one thing he wanted to do was go back to Arkansas and do some duck hunting."
Alabama Gov. George Wallace ordered flags to be flown at half-mast throughout the state. He described Bryant as "a man among men who brought great fame and honor to Alabama."
And the White House released this statement from President Reagan: "Today we Americans lost a hero who always seemed larger than life. Paul (Bear) Bryant won more college football games than any other coach in history, and he made legends out of ordinary people.
"He was a hard, but loved taskmaster. Patriotic to the core, devoted to his players and inspired by a winning spirit that would not quit, Bear Bryant gave his country the gift of a life unsurpassed. In making the impossible seem easy, he lived what we strive to be."
A legend in the state of Alabama, Bryant's national image was that of a craggy-faced man with a houndstooth-checked hat and an accent straight from his native Moro Creek, Ark., where he earned his nickname as a teen-ager by wrestling with a bear for a dollar at a country fair.
He played in the first football game he ever saw, persuading a shoemaker to attach cleats to his only pair of shoes. As a player, assistant coach and coach the game of football had dominated his life ever since.
But it became apparent to Bryant during the last season, in which Alabama went 8-4, including a victory over Illinois Dec. 29 in the Liberty Bowl, that he was losing his touch. When he announced his retirement on Dec. 14, he described himself as a "tired old man."
"We lost two games that we shouldn't have," said Bryant, adding that his players "deserve better coaching . . . there comes a time when you need to hang it up."
Bryant agreed to remain director of athletics at Alabama, but Ray Perkins, head coach of the New York Giants and one of Bryant's former players, was named to succeed him as head coach. In all, 44 of Bryant's former players or assistants became head college or professional coaches, including Jerry Claiborne at the University of Kentucky and Jackie Sherrill at Texas A&M, who last year became the highest-paid coach in college football history when he signed a $2 million contract.
Among the notable NFL players to have played under Bryant at Alabama were quarterbacks Ken Stabler, Joe Namath and Richard Todd.
Bryant was one of 11 children from a small town he described as "a little piece of bottom land on the Moro Creek about seven miles south of Fordyce." He played tackle at Fordyce High School and was recruited for Alabama. There, he became the "other end" opposite all-America Don Hutson on teams that went 23-3-2, won Alabama's first Southeastern Conference championship and beat Stanford in the 1935 Rose Bowl.
After six years as an assistant coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt and three years in the Navy, he became head coach at Maryland in 1945, where he was 6-2-1 in his only season. For the next eight years he coached at the University of Kentucky, where his teams were 60-23-5 and participated in four postseason bowl games.
While at Kentucky, Bryant was approached by George Preston Marshall, the Washington Redskins' late owner, about becoming head coach. In 1947, he agreed to take the job, subject to his wife's approval. When his wife, the former Mary Harmon Black, a one-time Alabama beauty queen, refused to accompany Bryant to Washington, he turned the job down.
In 1954, he went to Texas A&M, where, in the first of four seasons as head coach, Bryant had the only losing season of his career, 1-9. Jack Pardee was a player on that team, along with a number of other future professionals--John David Crow, Bobby Joe Conrad, Gene Stallings and Charlie Krueger. And for the following three seasons, Bryant's teams were 24-5-2 and won the Southwest Conference championship.
He was named head coach at Alabama in 1958, and over the next quarter century compiled a record unmatched in American college football. One of the foremost figures nationally on the college football scene, he became something of a folk hero in Alabama. He was Southeastern Conference coach of the year in 1961, 1964, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1977 and 1979. In 1961, 1971 and 1973, he was national coach of the year.
"It was like when you were out in the field and you heard your mama calling you to dinner," Bryant said on the occasion of his return to Alabama. "Mama called."
At the time, Alabama's football program had fallen on hard times, and it needed rebuilding. It was only logical that Bryant, who had earned the nickname, "The Great Rehabilitator," would be summoned back to his alma mater.
But it was not until 1970, eight years after Wallace had made his futile stand in the schoolhouse door in an attempt to bar blacks from the University of Alabama, that Bryant signed his first black player, Wilbur Jackson, now with the Redskins.
Bryant had said on Alabama television that he wanted no black players on his team, but he changed his views after a game with the University of Southern California. A black fullback named Sam Cunningham gained 230 yards against Alabama and scored three touchdowns.
"Tell you the truth, Sam Cunningham did more for integration at Alabama than anybody else, including Martin Luther King," Bryant said. "Came down here and ran all over my skinny little white boys."
It was then that Bryant began to recruit black players actively, and he had a stock answer when asked about his previous statements.
"At that time, that was the way I felt. But times have changed and I've matured and changed. People are people, and they can't be treated by the color of their skin."
"He treated me like everyone else," Jackson said of Bryant last night. "That's all I could ask . . . I enjoyed playing there. If I had it to do all over again, I'd do the same thing."
There will be a 10 a.m. memorial service for Bryant Friday in Tuscaloosa, with burial following in Birmingham. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children, Paul Jr. and Mae Martin Tyson.