The Last Coach is a 500 page biography of legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and I can't even begin to scratch the surface of its thoroughness in a tiny blog entry. I was only six years old when Bryant died, but I still have vivid memories of him because of the The Bear Bryant Show. Bryant would be munching on Golden Flake potato chips and drinking Coca-Cola as he discussed the previous day's game film. Unfortunately, I never saw him coach in person.
It's been impossible as a college football fan to not see the long shadow he's cast over every coach at Alabama since his retirement. My grandparents even had a framed photo of him in their den and his image still adorns the walls of many businesses around Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Despite all of that, I still don't think I had an appreciation for just how famous the man really was in his day.
The book has countless stories of him hanging out with the likes of Frank Sinatra, George Steinbrenner, Mickey Mantle, Bob Hope, Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, as well as a few presidents and other politicians. Of course, countless football coaches and players had great admiration for him, but the list of non-football people in his life is very impressive.
The Last Coach (thankfully) avoids the pitfall of hagiography though. Barra deals with Bryant's less favorable traits as well. That's one of the things that made the book so readable and enjoyable. While Bryant's accomplishments are celebrated, it isn't done in a worshipful fashion. Nor does Barra demonize Bryant for the coach's faults. It's a very evenhanded, fair portrait of a man that is one of the towering figures of the sport.
Even though I was only six years old when he died, I will never forget the vast sea of mourners that lined the route of the three-mile-long funeral procession from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham (about 50-60 miles.) Various estimates have somewhere between 250,000 to 500,000 people lining Interstate 20/59 during the funeral procession. That's the type of send off only heads of state receive, and not even a lot of them receive that type of farewell. That's powerful imagery in the mind of a six year old.
My parents tell a great story (and all Alabama fans have at least one "Bear story") about their trip to the World's Fair in Montreal in 1967. They decided to drive up and stop in various cities along the way. When they reached the Canadian border, my dad remembered he had a pistol under the front seat. Panicking, he wondered if he should just be honest or play dumb if they searched his car. He decided to play dumb if caught. They thought their car had a high liklihood of being searched since they were from Alabama and the state was in world headlines for all of the racial riots at the time. The Canadian border guard saw the Alabama license plates and said to my dad, "So....is the Bear going to have a good team this year?" (They went 8-2-1 that year.) My dad said, "I think so," and the guard proceeded to ask him more questions about Alabama football and eventually waved him through after a few minutes. To this day, my parents are convinced being Alabama football fans got them through the checkpoint without being searched.