The Legacies and Lessons of Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno

Paul W. Bryant and Joe Paterno prior to the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

On this very day 29 years ago, Paul W. Bryant passed away at the age of 69. It is with particular sadness we note this anniversary so soon after the death of Penn State’s own legendary head coach Joe Paterno. In the sphere of college football there have been but a handful of men who can boast accomplishments on par with these two and it’s doubtful any can surpass them.

Yesterday, Paterno’s funeral was held in State College and there will be a memorial service today on the Penn State campus. These events have already been compared to those that transpired in January 1982 to mark the passing of Bryant. That should be expected.

There are striking similarities between the two legendary coaches that exceeds the simple parallel of longevity. Bryant and Paterno’s histories are bound together by a multitude of fateful connections and epic football games. Commenting on the congruity has been a staple of sports columnists the past several days.

As Alabama’s head coach, Bryant faced Paterno on the opposite sideline five times – four times as Penn State’s head coach and once as a Nittany Lions assistant. All of the games proved to be memorable, several of them classics and at least two of significant historical significance.

Despite these connections and similarities, it is a great mistake to conflate the legacies of these two coaches. That’s an easy mistake to make due to the immense shadows they both cast over a sport that, in many significant ways, they defined for almost everyone else that followed them.

There may also be clues in the long difficult struggle to cope with the loss endured by Alabama a quarter century ago that can help Penn State navigate the painful journey ahead.

Paterno’s passing is a moment of great loss to his family and to the university he came to symbolize. The personal connection many have for the school is almost indivisible with their personal feelings toward the longtime head coach.

It is also a huge loss for college football as Paterno was one of the last living connections to an era that paved the way for the modern game. An era that included Bryant and his contemporaries. The sport today would be dramatically different if there were no Joe Paterno.

Bryant also embodied all of these things for his team, his school and the sport as a whole. At the time he died he was a towering figure in college football just a few years past some of his greatest triumphs (one of which coming at the expense of the Nittany Lions). Despite his age and clearly declining health, his death came unexpectedly just weeks after he had stepped down from leading his beloved football team.

There was also something else in Bryant’s death that made it resound further across the region as a whole and although it derived from his achievements on the gridiron, it certainly transcended them.

Bryant's rise from depression-era poverty in rural Arkansas to a standout player on a national champion team and then to the pinnacle of success as the most successful coach in the sport was a story that resonated throughout the south. Its facts appealed to a larger myth that resonated across the region.

Historian Charles Reagan Wilson examined this aspect of Bryant’s impact in a 2007 essay "The Death of Bear Bryant: Myth and Ritual in the Modern South." He described the funeral service and procession for Bryant as archetypical of a type common in the south but magnified immeasurably in effect due to the coach’s wider cultural significance.

"The Bear Bryant myth is a success story. A rags-to-riches tale told in the southern vernacular," Wilson explained. "Southerners made him into a modern saint of a civil religion."

This effect is sometimes overlooked today since the mores of the southern society that made Bryant such a compelling figure have changed so dramatically in the three decades since his death. The Alabama faithful still revere his memory but the rest of the south has forgotten they once did as well. While many fans of other southern schools today may be unmoved by what Bryant represented, their grandparent almost certainly were not.

Paterno's passing, for all its emotional power, lacks this symbolism. This in no way suggests the former Penn State coach is in any way inferior to Bryant either as a coach or a man beloved by his peers, his colleagues and the fans who admired him. It simply notes they carried a different mythological baggage.

If there is a way Paterno's legacy carries a symbolism beyond football itself it is of him as a champion of an ideal that athletics and academics must be balanced to allow for men to live a fuller and more satisfying life. He called it "the Grand Experiment." His ability to not only insist on this idealistic credo but to succeed wildly with it has a dramatic appeal that exceeds the devotion of Penn State's devotees.

Yet this is a universal idea, not a dramatic representation of the desires shared by a specific region. It resounds with who we are as people, not the specific aspect of our identity that binds us with a particular group. It inspires admiration and possibly emulation, but not devotion. And Bryant's mythology certainly evoked the latter. Assuming they are equivalent is to grossly misunderstand both.

What is clear is the loss of such a titanic figure as Joe Paterno is something that Penn State will struggle with for some time. Alabama can certainly attest to this. Bryant’s death still reverberates in the both the football program and the university today. At the time the impact of the loss was immeasurable and while there were hopes the team and the school could move forward without him, it took years for normalcy to return.

The experience in Tuscaloosa suggests that State College will find moving forward without Paterno will be neither easy nor quickly accomplished. Cecil Hurt, the dean of Alabama football sportswriters, makes this very point in his column on Paterno’s passing yesterday.

The logic involved here is as brutal as it is simple: the odds of another coach successfully navigating both the demands for wins on the field and the need to measure up to the achievements of the predecessor off it are almost impossible.

Alabama’s first coach after Bryant was Ray Perkins. He was one of the family. He was a key part of Bryant’s 1965 national champion team and had earned a solid reputation as a coach on his own terms. Most importantly, he carried his patriarch’s blessing as he took up the mantle.

Yet Perkins’ efforts to define himself in terms completely separate from Bryant struck a fanbase still in mourning as insensitive and even disrespectful. As Hurt noted, nothing embodied this more than his decision to dismantle the tower on the Alabama practice field that Bryant had used for so long to watch over his teams.

Even a ten-win season and the program’s first victory over Notre Dame wasn’t enough to quell the dissatisfaction. He left for the pros.

So Alabama went the complete opposite direction and hired Bill Curry, a complete outsider. This was even worse. Despite his best efforts – he returned the tower to the practice field – he seemed to have a tin ear to how the fanbase felt and an inability to respond to them. He also couldn’t beat Auburn.

Even a ten-win season and a SEC Championship wasn’t enough to quell the dissatisfaction. He left for Kentucky.

It was only then that Alabama turned the man who would resolve all these concerns and both restore the Crimson Tide to its winning ways and also help put Bryant’s tremendous legacy in the past. In retrospect Gene Stallings was the perfect choice to succeed Bryant but that kind of hindsight overlooks the disarray and uncertainty that followed with his passing.

Upon his retirement as Alabama’s head coach, Bryant retained his title of Athletic Director. His intention was to guide the university through the transition of his long tenure in power to the next. With his death that plan was rendered moot. The power vacuum within the administration of the university was immense and there was no one even close to Bryant’s stature to fill it.

The result was a large number of people vying for influence on the course of the football program and, by extension, the university as a whole. Even assuming all of these people were acting in the best interest of the team and the school, the sheer number of conflicting voices lead to disarray.

The hiring of Gene Stallings quelled this within the football program for a time, but it was not until the arrival of Robert Witt that this underlying problem was finally resolved. That was a full two decades on from Bryant’s departure.

Lastly, there is an aspect of Bryant’s history that may prove instructive for understanding Paterno’s legacy in light of the ongoing revelations of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The disclosures contained in the grand jury report last November lead to Paterno’s firing and the horrific nature of the accusations have charged the discussions of his legacy. Here again, there is an aspect of Bryant’s legacy and how Alabama has grappled with its import that might prove instructive.

There were several controversies that marked Coach Bryant's career closest thing to the Sandusky scandal is Coach Bryant's history in terms of segregation.

Alabama was one of the last schools in the country to integrate its football team. It was not until 1971 that a black player - John Mitchell - represented the Crimson Tide on the football field as a starter. (Paterno and Penn State, it should be noted, played a key role in Alabama’s process of integration and Bryant’s efforts to achieve it.)

Some credit Bryant for his ability to navigate the treacherous issue of segregation during the turbulent events that consumed the state during the Civil Rights struggle. Others feel he is to blame for not using his considerable influence to take a more active effort to bring the change about. The debate between the two positions remains heated and contentious.

Historian C. Van Woodward argued that Bryant represented southerner’s aspirations of overcoming the guilt of segregation, the limitations of rural poverty and the ability to overcome the historic defeats the region had endured.

Journalist David Halberstam, who covered the Civil Rights movement as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, insisted Bryant was morally complicit in the endurance of segregation in the region and, by extension, the horrific abuses that occurred in its name. In his essay referenced above, Historian Charles Regan Wilson derides Bryant's symbolism as "a harbinger of a Biracial south" as a conscience-soothing aspect of his myth for southern whites.

Where, exactly, the truth lies in these allegations is difficult to judge. Bryant's masterful ability to disguise his intentions and use the media for his specific intents clouds the matter even further. Yet no matter what your personal opinion on it, the fact is you cannot properly discuss Bryant's legacy without addressing the topic of segregation. It's an integral part of what defines him for the coach he was.

These polarized views ring painfully familiar in the wake of Paterno’s passing. The sheer magnitude of the coach’s achievements on the field and the manner he accomplished them clearly demonstrate the value of his legacy. Yet the absolute horror at the crimes that allegedly occurred on his watch and the questions of how much responsibility he must bear for allowing them to continue are certain to persist.

Obviously, by the time Bryant died, the civil rights struggle was part of history. There had been more than a decade of time to grapple with its horrors and attempt to reconcile those events in an effort place them in a context that allowed progress to the future. Paterno's passing comes while the Sandusky scandal is an open wound and, as the investigation is continuing, we cannot even say with any certainty how deep it cleaves.

If Bryant’s example holds true it is likely to be decades before we can step back far enough to judge these things with cold objectivity and, even then, there is not likely to be any simple answers waiting to be divined. Instead, grappling with the troubling moral arithmetic will become the last enduring lesson of Paterno’s legacy.

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