Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant


The explosive biography of the greatest college football coach in history.
When Paul William "Bear" Bryant died on January 26, 1983, it was the lead story on the all three networks' evening news. New York City newspapers reported his death on their front pages. ("Crimson Tears," read the headline in the New York Post, "Nation weeps over death of legendary Bear Bryant, 69.") Three days later, America watched in awe as an estimated quarter of a million mourners lined the ...

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The explosive biography of the greatest college football coach in history.
When Paul William "Bear" Bryant died on January 26, 1983, it was the lead story on the all three networks' evening news. New York City newspapers reported his death on their front pages. ("Crimson Tears," read the headline in the New York Post, "Nation weeps over death of legendary Bear Bryant, 69.") Three days later, America watched in awe as an estimated quarter of a million mourners lined the fifty-five mile stretch from Tuscaloosa to a Birmingham cemetery to pay their respects as his three-mile long funeral cortege drove by.
President Reagan and the three former American presidents sent flowers, as did people as diverse as Bob Hope, ABC's Roone Arledge, advice columnist Ann Landers and the Reverend Billy Graham. Scores of Bryant's former players, including Joe Namath, Lee Roy Jordan, Ken Stabler and Ozzie Newsome, were in attendance. So were Bryant's most distinguished colleagues, the greatest living football coaches, including Southern Cal's John McKay, who said, "It was like a presidential funeral procession. No coach in America could have gotten that. No coach but him. But then, he wasn't just a coach. He was the coach."
Bryant's passing was noted with the kind of reverence our country reserved for statesmen or military leaders, though Paul "Bear" Bryant had insisted for much of his life that he was "just a football coach." For millions he was much more, he was the greatest coach the game ever saw, the heir to the tradition established by Knute Rockne. He took his Alabama Crimson Tide teams to an unmatched six national championships. But to the players, journalists and fans whose lives he touched in his more than half a century as a player and coach, he was the last symbol of values that transcended football—courage, discipline, loyalty, and hard work.
To his critics, Bryant represented the dark side of big-time college football—brutality, fanaticism and blind adherence to authority. The real Bear Bryant was far more complex than either his admirers or detractors knew. While maintaining a public friendship with Alabama governor George Wallace, he continually sought ways to undermine the governor's segregationist policies, finally forcing a legendary football game in Birmingham with the University of Southern California that opened the floodgates to the integration of football at the University of Alabama, including its coaching staff. Old fashioned in his politics, he was nonetheless an admirer of Robert Kennedy, whom he planning to vote for in 1968.
Allen Barra's The Last Coach traces Paul Bryant's rise from a family of truck farmers to recognition as the most successful and influential coach in the game's history. The eleventh of thirteen children, Bryant was born in tiny Moro Bottom, Arkansas in 1913 and grew up in nearby Fordyce—where his legend was born when he wrestled a live bear on the stage of a local theater. Paul was raised by his mother, who barely managed to keep him out of trouble and on the Fordyce High School Redbugs long enough to get a football scholarship at Alabama, where he would meet and marry the love of his life, campus beauty queen Mary Harmon Black.
At the height of the Depression, football took Bryant to the Rose Bowl with Alabama's 1934 national champions and on to a career as an assistant and, finally, a head football coach, where he matched wit and grit with the greatest coaches of two generations, men like Tennessee's General Robert Neyland, Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson, Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian, Ohio State's Woody Hayes, and Penn State's Joe Paterno. Along the way, he stirred controversy with his infamous "Junction Boys" training camp in 1954, during which almost two-thirds of the Texas A&M football team quit; his legal battle with The Saturday Evening Post over the accusation that he had conspired to fix a college football game, a trial which rocked the sports world; and his pursuit of Amos Alonzo Stagg's all-time record for college coaching victories.
Through it all, Bryant's influence has not only endured but prevailed as his former players and assistants continue to define the best in not only college but professional football. A USA Today and Washington Post Best Sports Book.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Paul "Bear" Bryant (1913-83) was perhaps the greatest coach in college football history; he was certainly the most charismatic. Tight-lipped, gutsy, demanding, ruthlessly competitive, Bryant personified gridiron determination. "I don't want ordinary people," he said. "I want people who are willing to sacrifice and do without a lot of those things ordinary students get to do. That's what it takes to win." Bryant's teams won; in 38 years of coaching, he suffered only one losing season. This rich, full-scale 600-page biography captures "the best coach there ever was" in his full glory.
Mike Jensen - Philadelphia Inquirer
“Barra, a thinking man’s sportswriter, has a companion piece to the outstanding biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss.”
George Will - Newsweek
Paul Finebaum - Mobile Register
“A wonderful read. [Barra] has written a thoughtful, inquiring and evocative look at the life and times of the legendary coach.”
Buzz Bissinger - New York Times
“Admirably ambitious. . . . Barra is one of the country’s most thoughtful writers on the subject.”
Michale MacCambridge - Wall Street Journal
“A worthy work that does much to separate myth from fact and to restore the sense of Bryant himself.”
Bill Briggs - Denver Post
“A biography with a bite . . . a work of solid fact, airtight and accurate.”
Buzz Bissinger
He's best when the book takes a breath from those monotonous season-by-season regurgitations and finds a theme. The section dealing with one of Bryant's biggest controversies off the field, the successful undertaking of a libel suit against The Saturday Evening Post over unproven allegations that he conspired to fix the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game, is thick and revealing. Even better, truly superb, is Barra's evenhanded recounting of the role Bryant played - or, more precisely, did not play, given his remarkable influence in the state of Alabama - in hastening the integration of the football program.
— The New York York Times
Larry Moffi
If you're from anywhere but Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant is merely one of the greatest football coaches of all time. For Alabamians, Bryant is the only coach, and for good reason. Allen Barra, himself an Alabamian and a gifted writer, doesn't go quite that far, but his comprehensive and endearing biography, The Last Coach: A Life of Paul Bear Bryant, substantiates the legend—yes, he did once wrestle a bear—without sidestepping some less pleasant issues, including racial segregation.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This meticulous, fascinating look at the life of the legendary "Bear" Bryant (1913-1983), longtime head football coach of the University of Alabama's fearsome "Crimson Tide," will further enhance the reputation of Barra (Clearing the Bases) as one of America's finest sportswriters. It begins with a powerful and unsentimental view of Bryant's difficult childhood in Moro Bottom, Ark., an area Barra describes as "the reality of which Al Capp's Dogpatch, the home of L'il Abner, was the hideous caricature." It ends with a moving description of Bryant's death, just 27 days after his final game and retirement, and the three-mile-long funeral procession viewed by an estimated quarter of a million people. In between, Barra covers Bryant's rise as a cultural and sports icon whose influence helped transform college football "from a game with a large cult following into the most lucrative spectator sport in the world." Among the many incidents Barra deftly explores are Bryant's hesitancy--followed by his thoroughness--in integrating the Alabama team (in 1971), and his visionary use of televised games in the early 1960s--which he accomplished with ABC sports broadcasting superstar Roone Arledge, then a 29-year-old rookie--to establish himself and his team (including flamboyant players such as Joe Namath) in the minds of a national sports audience. Throughout, Barra illuminates the complexities of what he sees as Bryant's legacies: "his intensity and will to win and his unshakable belief that these qualities, when applied to a higher purpose, can make you a better person." Photos. Agent, Jay Mandel. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Both arrogant and self-critical, Paul "Bear" Bryant was a man of contradictions, which makes it easy to focus on the extremes of his personality. Sports journalist Barra (Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries), however, provides a balance between the college football legend's flaws and strengths in this satisfying account of the real man. All the stories are here: his humble beginnings; his ruthless competitiveness; his colorful and often quoted language; the boot camp-style practices in Junction, TX; his alcoholism; his steadfast refusal to coach in the NFL; and his prediction that he would die without football. What makes this work particularly rich is Barra's careful attention to detail and history. Bryant's life is framed within the context of his time and the culture of the South. Readers will experience an array of emotions-humor, sadness, inspiration, awe-as Barra reveals his subject's contributions to college football and ability to touch and inspire people long after their associations with Bryant ended. Anyone who loves football will further enjoy this book for its glimpse into the game before it became the multimillion-dollar business it is today. Highly recommend for both public and academic libraries.-Kimberley Robles-Smith, California State Univ. Lib., Fresno Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393328974
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/12/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 360,138
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the best-selling author of The Last Coach, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee and Rickwood Field. His writing appears in the Washington Post, Salon, Playboy, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New Jersey.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xiii
Prologue xxvii
Part 1
Chapter 1 Up from the Bottom 3
Chapter 2 You've Got to Be a Football Hero 34
Chapter 3 Coach in Progress 73
Part 2
Chapter 4 New Kentucky Home 109
Chapter 5 Gone to Texas 156
Chapter 6 The Second Coming 206
Part 3
Chapter 7 Bear Accused 249
Chapter 8 High Tide 308
Chapter 9 Ebb Tide 343
Part 4
Chapter 10 Bear Redux 383
Chapter 11 The Bear in Winter 429
Chapter 12 Like Having John Wayne for Your Grandfather 493
Appendix 1 Bud and Bear 505
Appendix 2 Was Bear the Greatest Coach Ever? 509
Appendix 3 Bear by the Numbers 516
Appendix 4 Chronology 522
Acknowledgments 531
Notes 537
Bibliography 544
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    What a great read

    What a life. the good the bad and the ugly if the Bear can evolve we all can

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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