Jim Dent’s 2001 book The Junction Boys has pretty much become required reading for understanding the peculiar methods of leadership employed by Coach Paul W. Bryant during the first half of his fabled career. While Alabama football is necessarily consigned to an ancillary role in this tale, that doesn’t make the book any less indispensable for a Crimson Tide football fan.
The power of The Junction Boys is in its faithfulness to telling a story. And this is one hell of a story – the legendary coach’s stint at Texas A&M and the infamous preseason camp he conducted at Junction, Texas in Sept. 1954. It's a formidable subject but Dent proves up to the task. In writing the book, Dent has brought to bear his decades of experience of covering sports for various Texas newspapers as well as an adept understanding of the particular culture within which the events unfold.
It’s a raw brutal tale and The Junction Boys pulls few punches in his depiction of the ordeal Coach Bryant put his players through during those ten days at the drought-blasted adjunct campus of Texas A&M. There is little of the apologist and none of the revisionist to be found in Dent's writing and the result is one of the most fully realized portraits of Coach Bryant ever put to print.
“I ain’t comin’ to Texas for no bullshit,” Coach Bryant intones at the start of the tale and the next 285 pages decisively demonstrate that he was a man of his word.
The downside of the approach is that the book (and subsequent movie) has weathered allegations of inaccuracy or even blatant misrepresentation of events that occurred. But it’s pretty clear that Dent has worked to fashion a narrative rather than an authoritative research piece and the work must be judged on its specific merits, not what it ideally could be.
And what The Junction Boys is, in the end, is a well told story. The cohesion of the narrative allows the characters to emerge more fully by providing them a sturdy and consistent context. Too often football books disintegrate into play-by-play accounts of individual games and a nifty quote or two about a noteworthy player. This one never falls prey to siren song of the historical game report.
In The Junction Boys Dent succeeds in crafting deft depictions of the players (and staff) that took part in the events he describes. Instead of a compendium of the horrors they endured at Junction he provides a peek in the individual backgrounds that motivated the survivors of the ordeal to endure.
The trials of the A&M players wasn't without precedent. Upon taking over at the University of Kentucky in 1951, Bryant took his players to a military academy for a grueling preseason camp at a military academy in Millersburg, KY. The ordeal winnowed down the roster to 40 dedicated players that became the core he built the program on. But things went awry at the Junction as a devastating drought made an already strenuous regimen of practices almost inhuman.
Because as beloved as Coach Bryant remains to this very day, the fact of the matter is that he was a study in vast contradictions. On the one hand he was an immensely charismatic man whose leadership abilities were on a scale hard to fathom in this day and age. He was also a profane, narcissistic, dictatorial son-of-a-bitch of the highest caliber.
And it is to Dent’s credit that, in The Junction Boys, he doesn’t shy away from that in the least. While the sheer stature of Coach Bryant's accomplishments make it impossible to repudiate his standing, the disturbing details of his legacy dissuade absolute idolization as well.
While Coach Bryant later lamented his treatment of his charges it’s a fair question to ask if he felt the sympathy during the brutal round of practices he conducted or if he was honestly unmoved by their suffering at the time and only came to regret it years afterward. Dent just presents the facts in this case and lets the reader decide for themselves.
By showing the whole of those elements – both the terrible and the triumphant – Dent gets you somewhere in the ballpark of the truth and within arm’s reach of the sublime.
Next week: Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer