Players reflections on Paul W. “Bear” Bryant


Published: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 10:32 p.m.

Bob Gain

When lineman Bob Gain, the 1950 Outland Trophy winner, first arrived at the University of Kentucky, there was actually a player on the football team who was older than the head coach, Paul W. Bryant. A number of others were just a few years younger.

That’s because those who had served in the military still had their college eligibility, and many took advantage to get their education and play during the years immediately following World War II. Bryant was 32-years old when he left Maryland after one season for Kentucky in 1946. One of his Wildcat guards was 35.

“He worked the hell out of us,” Gain said. “The Junction Boys down at Texas A&M, they didn’t have anything on us up at Kentucky, especially the first few years.”

Indicted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, Gain was one of many players greatly influenced by Bryant’s head coaching career, which spanned parts of five decades and included four schools.

However, he hardly ever talked to his coach during games because players played both ways back then, offense and defense, and Gain was almost always on the field. Even so, Bryant’s philosophy was simple, “I don’t care if I’m wrong, you don’t question me.”

Bryant didn’t start to ease up until Gain’s senior year, when despite a 7-0 loss to Tennessee in the regular-season finale, the Wildcats went 10-1 to capture their first Southeastern Conference title, and for an encore shocked Oklahoma, which had already been named national champion, in the Sugar Bowl.

That’s also when the players had finally built up enough confidence to start speaking up to the man called “Bear.”

“He listened,” said Gain, adding with a laugh: “I tell everyone we taught him how to win.

“I remember one day in practice he jumped on me about missing a play, but I said, ‘I didn’t miss my play, I didn’t miss my block.’ A lot of guys were afraid to talk back to him, but I named every blocking assignment for every offensive player. He just looked at me, like ‘Ah s---.

“He then turned to the assistant coach and said ‘Straighten this out.’ I’ll never forget it.”

After being honored as the nation’s best blocker, Gain (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) played a year for Ottawa in the Canadian Football League, and was with the 1952 Cleveland Browns. He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in Korea before returning to the Browns (1954-64).

“The guys had a lot of respect for the Bear, and he’d always come back to our reunion and spend three days with us,” said Gain, who noted that they used to be held in Louisville so Bryant wouldn’t create a fuss in Lexington (they switched after Bryant died 25 years ago today).

“It was a beautiful affair.”

Lee Roy Jordan

Like so many others, Lee Roy Jordan uses family references when talking about Coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, who died 25 years ago today.

“It’s still a real void in my heart, that I can’t talk to him any more,” Jordan said. “It meant to such to me the conversations, the conversations with ex-players, after we finished our careers or whatever. It was amazing the way he always talk with us, and if we didn’t call him he’d call us.

“It’s kind of like missing talking to my dad. You think of things that were said, and weren’t said. I get nostalgic every time I got to the university and to campus. It’s like he’s still there.”

There have been numerous Crimson Tide players who have finished high in voting for the Heisman Trophy, including Lee Roy Jordan’s fourth-place showing in 1962. However, what makes Jordan’s finish really stand out is that the All-American was primarily known for his play as a linebacker.

Jordan arrived at the Capstone one year after Bryant returned as head coach, and helped lay the foundation for college football’s winningest program over the next two decades.

In 1960, Jordan’s sophomore year, Alabama went 8-1-2 with a 3-3 tie against Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl, where he was voted the game’s most valuable player.

A year later, the Tide finished a perfect 11-0, including a 10-3 victory against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, for Bryant’s first national championship. Opponents scored 25 points all season, compared to 297 for Alabama, with North Carolina State, led by quarterback Roman Gabriel, managing the most points, seven. Two others scored six, and two more had just three points.

For his senior season, 1962, Jordan was a unanimous All-America selection and Alabama went 10-1 with a 17-0 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Jordan made an amazing 30 tackles in the game.

Alabama finished 10-1 and ranked No. 5, and Jordan completed his college career with a 29-2-2 record. Dallas selected him with the sixth-overall pick in 1963 draft, where he eventually became the franchise’s all-time leader in solo tackles with 743. Jordan also helped lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowls, winning one.

“He was one of the finest football players the world has ever seen,” Bryant once said. “If runners stayed between the sidelines, he tackled them. He never had a bad day, he was 100 percent every day in practice and in the games.”

When asked about that quote, Jordan said: “He would brag on me a little bit. He knew how to make you feel great.

Jeremiah Castille

He was the most valuable player of Paul W. “Bear” Bryant’s final game, the coach’s final All-American (along with Mike Pitts and Tommy Wilcox), and less than a month after his collegiate career was completed, Jeremiah Castille served as a pallbearer at his funeral along with teammates Paul Ott Carruth, Paul Fields, Walter Lewis, Mike McQueen, Jerrill Sprinkle, Darryl White and Wilcox.

Castille made seven of his career 16 interceptions during that final 1982 season, when the Crimson Tide defeated eventual national championship Penn State, 42-21, but uncharacteristically lost to Tennessee, LSU, Southern Miss and Auburn.

With his health on the decline, Bryant knew he could no longer continue to meet the daily demands of coaching and called a press conference for December 15 to announce his retirement. College football’s all-time Division I-A (or Bowl Championship Subdivision as it was renamed in 2007) wins leader would have one final sendoff, against Illinois at the Liberty Bowl.

Moments before the game, the soft-spoken Castille spoke to the whole team.

“I came in here an 18-year-old boy, and I’m leaving as a 22-year-old man, and he had a lot to do with that,” Castille recalled in the book “Legends of Alabama Football. “This is my last game, this is Coach Bryant’s last game, and we’re going out a winner. There’s no way we’re going to lose this.”

Castille made three interceptions and forced a fumble against Illinois as the Bryant era concluded with a 21-15 victory. One last time the Tide players carried the coach off the field on their shoulders.

“I am proud they wanted to win this one for me,” Bryant said at the time. While accepting the bowl trophy, he pointed to Castille and said, “My career has been great because of men like this guy right here.”

Castille played five seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being traded to Denver, and during the 1987 AFC Championship Game stripped the ball away from Cleveland running back Earnest Byner, on the play known as “The Fumble.”

Some 20 years after leaving the Capstone, he returned as director the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and was able to enjoy watching his sons Tim and Simeon play fullback and cornerback, respectfully, for the Crimson Tide.

Ozzie Newsome

On the wall of his office with the Baltimore Ravens, for whom Ozzie Newsome has been general manager since 2002, is a sideline portrait of his mentor, Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, wearing his trademark houndstooth hat.

“Coach [Bryant] helped me grow up,” Newsome said. “He pushed me further than I thought I could go, both on and off the field.”

Except for coaching, there’s not much he hasn’t done in football.

Newsome was a four-year starter for the Crimson Tide (1974-77), and set numerous Alabama reception records, many of which were recently broken by DJ Hall (whom Newsome was scouting earlier this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile). He caught 102 passes for 2,070 yards, with an average gain per pass of 20.3 yards, a Southeastern Conference record until 1999 (Anthony Lucas, Arkansas, 21.0).

Alabama’s record each year with Newsome was 11-1, 11-1, 9-3 and 11-1, with three Southeastern Conference championships and a No. 2 finish in 1977 when voters leapfrogged Notre Dame up from No. 5 after it defeated Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 38-10.

He was twice named all-conference, and an All-American his senior year. The Atlanta Touchdown Club and the Birmingham Quarterback Club named Newsome the Southeastern Conference’s Lineman of the Year in 1977, when he was also Alabama’s co-captain.

Newsome arguably had an even better pro career, and retired as the NFL’s all-time leading tight end in receiving with 662 receptions, 7,980 yards, and 47 touchdowns.

Consequently, the Leighton native has gained entry into four halls of fame: NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame (inducted 1999), National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame (1994), NCAA Hall of Fame (1994), and Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (1995).

Bryant called him “the greatest end in Alabama history and that includes Don Hutson. A total team player, fine blocker, outstanding leader, great receiver with concentration, speed, hands.”

John David Crow

One of the most memorable stories regarding John David Crow’s playing days at Texas A&M stems from a game against Southern Methodist in 1955.

Crow, then a sophomore, fielded a punt and while trying to make something happen promptly lost a number of yards. Soon after, he lost another 5 yards on a sweep, and was pulled from the game by Paul W. “Bear” Bryant.

“I made sure that I came off the field a long way away from where Coach Bryant was standing and scooted down on the bench,” Crow said. “I had my head down, I was embarrassed, but I was watching his feet. When he started walking up to me I tensed up and no was sitting near me. He eased around beside me, sat down and said: ‘John, our goal is that-away.’

“To me that’s what made him so great. You could never figure out what he was going to do or going to say. We did come back and won the game. Maybe that’s the only reason why I’m alive today.”

In 1957, Crow became the lone Heisman Trophy winner in Texas A&M history, and the only one on a Bryant-coached team. However, he was one of the most controversial selections ever because after returning from a variety of injuries Crow played in just seven games. He tallied 562 rushing yards with six touchdowns on offense, and made five interceptions on defense, to edge Iowa tackle Alex Karras in voting.

“All of those were team [awards], for my teammates and coaches,” Crow said. “That’s the way I’ve always thought of them. I get upset when I see kids today when they score a touchdown and a run away from their teammates and celebrate by themselves, what ‘we’ did.

“Coach Bryant grew up in a different era, and I’m happy I played in that different era.”

After an 8-0 start, the Aggies went from being No. 1 to losing their final three games to Rice (7-6), Texas (9-7), and Tennessee in the Gator Bowl (3-0), by a total of six points, after word leaked out that Bryant was going to leave for Alabama.

During Crow’s three years with the Aggies, Texas A&M went 24-5-2, and the 6-foot-2, 210-pound running back averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He was a first-round pick of the Chicago Cardinals in 1958, and played 11 years in the NFL.

Crow served as an assistant coach for Bryant at Alabama (1969-71), in addition to head coach and athletic director at Northeast Louisiana (1976-80), assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers (1972-75), and in 1988 became the athletic director at Texas A&M. He retired in 2001 to devote more time to a business partnership with Bryant’s son, Paul Jr.

“It’s hard for me to talk about him,” Crow said. “Everyone has to realize what he meant to me and my family. He drove me. He was tough. But times were tough in those days. I learned so much from him.”

For example?

“Respect, treat all people with respect,” Crow continued. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the car-washing attendant, the person washing the car, or the president of Exxon. Everyone is due respect.”

Babe Parilli

It’s been said that watching Babe Parilli run Paul W. “Bear” Brant’s T-Formation offense was like seeing a bunch of men successfully play hide-and-seek with a football. During the 1949 and 1950 seasons, the quarterback helped Kentucky score 684 points, while the opposition managed just 115.

“We worked on that,” said Parilli, who was a single-wing fullback in high school and had very little experience taking snaps before joining the Wildcats.

“First of all, he’s the best [coach] I’ve ever had. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have played pro football for 16 years. Discipline, I think that was his strongest strength. There were no favorites and everything was by the book. We believed in him.

“We simulated football games every day for three years. It was on a little board, we’d get down and distance and he more or less programmed me to make the calls. The coaches didn’t call the plays back then, the quarterbacks did on the field. I knew what he wanted in every situation. It just made me a much better ball player.”

The 1950 team, which finished 11-1, is considered the best in Kentucky history. In Bryant’s fifth season in Lexington, the only loss was 7-0 at Tennessee in the regular season finale played in cold and snow. With Kentucky 5-1 in SEC play and Tennessee only 4-1 (thanks to an early-season 7-0 loss at Mississippi State), the Wildcats were awarded their first SEC championship.

As a reward, No. 7 Kentucky was invited to play powerhouse Oklahoma, which had won 31 straight games and had already been awarded the national championship, in the Sugar Bowl. A touchdown pass by Parilli, who finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, helped lead to a stunning 13-7 victory.

“Bryant was a great defensive coach, I mean he was a master at it,” Parilli said. “We were leading 13-0 at the half, and he told me at halftime, ‘Don’t throw the ball, we’ll take care of them on defense.’ That’s how confident he was against Oklahoma, which had six or seven All-Americans, and he was right.”

From 1946-53, Bryant never had a losing season with Kentucky, but left after realizing that contrary to promises basketball would remain the top priority of the athletic department. The story goes, after winning the SEC championship Bryant was honored for his efforts with a cigarette lighter. When Adolph Rupp did the same in basketball, he was a given a Cadillac.

Kentucky didn’t return to postseason football until 1976.

“When coach Bryant walked into the locker room I always had the urge to stand up and cheer,” quarterback/kicker George Blanda (1945-48) once said. “Seeing that face for the first time — granite firm, grim, full of grit — I thought, ‘This must be what God looks like.’”

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