Remembering Paul W. ‘Bear’ Bryant 40 years after death

Thursday, Crimson Tide fans remembered football coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, who passed away 40 years ago on Jan. 26, 1983. His outstanding legacy as Alabama’s football coach left a lasting mark on Alabama and Tuscaloosa. Street, schools, buildings and, of course, the Crimson Tide’s stadium are named in his honor.

During his 25 years with the Alabama Crimson Tide, Bryant led the team to six National Championships. When he retired in 1982, he held the record for most wins as a head coach in college football history. Bryant died from a heart attack just 28 days after coaching his last game, a 21-15 win over the University of Illinois in the Liberty Bowl.

Tommy Wilcox played under Bryant as a defensive back for four years, including during the 1979 National Championship.

Wilcox said Bryant was as tough as he seemed. And then some.

“He wanted to work us so hard and put us in situations in practice that we would never face in a game,” Wilcox said. “So when it happened in a game it was just nothing to it. We’d done it a million times.”

Although Bryant could be tough, Wilcox is forever grateful because Bryant believed he had something special.

“At one time I was really immature, and I was homesick, and I wasn’t coming back up here,” Wilcox said. “And he flew down with just his pilots and him and came and got me. He got me back on the team. And if it wasn’t for him coming and getting me, I probably wouldn’t have ever come back and Lord knows where I’d be today. I owe my life to him.”

Wilcox said Bryant was always there for his players, no matter how tough he seemed.

“I don’t know if loving would be the word,” Wilcox said. “I think he cared for us. No player ever saw that soft side of him. He was always rough and tough and all that. But he always said to all his players, if you need me, I don’t care who I’ve got in my office whether it’s president, vice president. Give me three minutes to politely get them out of the office, and I’ll see you.”

Ken Gaddy was director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum for almost three decades. He said Bryant’s impact on the state and the University of Alabama is still obvious today.

“Coach Bryant still impacts the university today,” Gaddy said. “People wearing houndstooth, that’s from coach Bryant. That’s almost a university third color. Crimson, white and houndstooth are the colors for Alabama. If you talk to former players and their families, he still has an impact on them today. Almost everyone will say they think about him every day.”

Butch Jones visited the Bryant Museum Thursday. He remembers the Bear Bryant Show even more than the games.

“What I remember most about him was watching his shows because we didn’t get a lot of the games on TV back then, but we could see the show and see the replays and listen to him talk about it,” Jones said.

“Coach Bryant taught you more than football,” Wilcox said. “He taught you about the game of life. And it’s not some cliché. He really prepared us for life, how to get knocked down and get up.”

On the day of Bryant’s funeral, fans from all around the state showed up to pay their respects, lining the streets from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham during his procession.

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