During my formative years as a college-football fan, there were two giants of the game who did more than anyone to instill in me a passion and reverence for the sport that remain to this day. One was Keith Jackson, whose distinctive drawl provided the soundtrack for countless Saturday afternoons spent devouring ABC’s Game of the Week in front of my parents’ old black-and-white RCA, back in those pre-cable days when games came to us one at a time, once or twice a week.
The other was Bear Bryant.
For a young fan who came of age in the early 1970s, Bryant was part granite monument, part lovable grandpa. He had already become a mythical figure by then, but there was something approachable and endearing about him too. His postgame interviews always revealed humility, respect for opponents, an obvious affection for his own players — character traits that have become alarmingly rare in today’s game.
In a sport where players come and go, Bryant’s sideline presence was a comforting mainstay. His gravelly growl, his patented houndstooth hat, his nearly unbeatable teams — all were as essential to the fabric of college football as the Rose Bowl or the Heisman Trophy.
One of my greatest memories as a fan came in Bear’s final season, 1982. I was a freshman at Vanderbilt, and the upstart Commodores took one of their better teams to Tuscaloosa for an early-season game with the top-ranked Tide, providing me with a prime excuse to make my first visit to Bryant-Denny Stadium. On entering, I immediately caught sight of a familiar figure. It was Bryant, leaning up against a goalpost, observing warm-ups, as he had done countless times before.
It was like seeing the president, or the pope. Actually, for a college-football fan who appreciated the game’s history, it was better than that.
Today, September 11, marks Bryant’s 100th birthday. As we observe the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, let’s pause briefly to honor the centennial of a man who, a rival said, “wasn’t just a coach. He was the coach.” A slideshow featuring classic shots of Bryant is here.<
— Rob Doster is senior editor for Athlon Sports.