Word came so fast today. Not having The Bear around to kick and caress any more seems a bit like the t and b in football all of a sudden taking a hike. The game simply isn't the same. Think of Rockne; think of Lombardi. In time, we'll mention them after Paul William Bryant.
He was an enormous slice of everything inspirational and evil about sport, the grandest college football coach in terms of how he saw himself: a winner. Bear got to 323 victories (against 85 defeats and 17 ties) by being about as mean and cunning, adaptable, durable and lovable as the mind can comprehend.
"He isn't a football coach," Bum Phillips always said. "He's a people coach. Bigger than his sport. The John Wayne of football."
With Bryant, football was brutal and beautiful. He very likely ran off more great players at Kentucky and Texas A&M than most coaches ever recruit in a lifetime. He survived 38 years because he wouldn't let the game get ahead of him, winning more games in the '60s than he had in the '50s and then winning more games in the '70s than he had in the '60s.
Even with a cosmetic tuck last year, his face had the chiseled lines his legend demanded. And his voice was as no other, deep and ominous, each word seeming to have to scratch its way past a gang of tacklers.
Some thought retirement might be the only thing that could beat Bryant, and he died a month after he quit as 'Bama coach. The retirement timing was lousy for himself, what with a season that would end with four losses. It was exactly right for his successor, Ray Perkins, who would follow a legend but a recently tainted one at least.
Bryant never forgot his roots, or the fact that they were tied to about as sad a part of the country as there was: Moro Bottom, Ark. What he wore to play football as a youngster were his only shoes, to which a cobbler afixed cleats. He once thought the most glorious trip possible was to the nearest big town, Memphis. Sometimes, he'd hop a freight there.
What Bryant might do always made even hard men tremble. That's because what he had done, in the early '50s at A&M, had been about the ultimate in the survival of the football fittest.
"I was young and didn't know any other way," said Jack Pardee, one of those who endured that '54 boot camp in Junction, Tex., when Bryant became coach of the Aggies. "We went with about 115; we came back with about 26. We worked hard, played hard and enjoyed it. We were 1-9 that first year, lots of times suiting up 23 and 24 players; we were 8-2 the next year and 9-0-1 the next.
"He was a fair, honest man who got the most out of his players."
Bryant was one of the first coaches to bring sophisticated organization to football. There would be station after station scattered about the practice field, manned by one assistant and several players, with Bryant always overseeing everything from that infamous tower.
Players would get misplaced now and then, and when they scampered to the nearest group for help, the assistant there more than likely panicked himself and muttered: "Don't know where you're supposed to be, but get away from here."
Phillips remembered an early scene with Bryant at A&M. The coach was alone on the field before a workout, pacing, singing "Jesus Loves Me." Phillips approached him, looked around and mentioned that there were no footballs in sight.
No, snapped Bryant, and he wasn't about to go fetch 'em.
"That's when I learned the difference between a head coach and an assistant," Phillips said.
The night before his first game as Maryland coach in 1945, Bryant had dinner with George Preston Marshall and Don Hutson and told them how his nerves were dancing.
"If you're that bad before playing Guilford," he quoted Hutson as saying, "You better get out of the game."
Maryland won, 60-6.
Bryant left Kentucky to escape the suffocating basketball shadow of Adolph Rupp.
"They gave Adolph a Cadillac," he said after an all-sports dinner. "They gave me a cigarette lighter."
His first great quarterback, Babe Parilli, once had a serious thigh injury before the LSU game. A paster-of-paris kind of jock was designed, and Bryant summoned all his raging fire to demand of the offensive line that Parilli not be touched by a Tiger.
In recent years, there got to be a Bryant cult that took special delight in his weekly television show. The old man's mind would drift off to what former player or friend he had seen at the game while the moderator, Charley Thornton, played the harried straight man.
Got those Commodores from Vandy comin' in next week, Thornton once chirped.
Thought they were here last night, Bear mumbled.
No, coach, those were the Beach Boys.
He always knew that players won games, and that a team never had too many great ones. A friend, Paul Gable, happened to be sitting by the recruiting book while waiting for an audience with Bryant during a recruiting trip. Casually, he flipped the book open to his position, fullback, and noticed 38 others the Tide was pitching.
Thornton called the night before Bryant made his retirement announcement and found his dear friend in a state of bafflement.
"Never guess what I'm doing right now," Bryant said. "I'm watching a women's basketball game (Tennessee vs. Louisiana Tech) on ESPN."
Bryant's final game was the Liberty Bowl last month, and it put a great deal of his career in perspective. That was his first bowl as Alabama coach, in the town of his boyhood dreams. Accused of being a racist because his first black player, Wilbur Jackson, still is active with the Redskins, Bryant shared a banquet spotlight with the coach who very likely will surpass his victory record, Grambling's Eddie Robinson.
At his final pregame press conference, Bryant was asked how, given the chance, he would have altered his life.
"I'd have tried to be a better Christian," he said.
The sideline was fiercely cold that night, and Bryant opted for a tannish golf-style cap during the game against Illinois instead of his trademark houndstooth. He moved as slowly as the tide, but his manner still moved an aide to call a never-seen reverse off a wishbone staple that ended in a touchdown.