The legendary stature of Paul "Bear" Bryant presents one hell of an intimidating obstacle to any effort to understand the measure of the man himself. Add to that the surfeit of books written about him and his impact on Alabama football makes undertaking any reasonable effort to plumb the subject seems doomed to failure.
Which is part of the reason The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant is such a welcome addition to the oeuvre. Allen Barra’s book is one of the most recent books to tell the story of Alabama’s legendary head coach and it’s easily one of the best. Most of the folks here at RBR consider it required reading and with good reason.
Penned by a native to the state and longtime sportswriter, The Last Coach it makes an able effort to grapple with its formidable subject. The book builds on the efforts of biographies that have gone before it and then digs even deeper to try and make sense of the tangled mass of fact, legend and flat-out hearsay.
Yet while it’s a defining work on the life of Coach Bryant, it’s far from definitive.
Bryant was well on his way to entering the realm of myth during his own lifetime and that process has only accelerated with his death. For someone who stood as tall as Bryant, we’re going to need a bit more time to get far enough away from him to have enough perspective. Hoping to penetrate that unyielding veil just a generation on is probably a bit excessive.
Right now, though, what we could use is context and that’s just what Barra provides in The Last Coach.
Barra is at his best when he is recounting the litany of important games in Bryant’s life. These passages of The Last Coach are a perfect mix of on-the-field action and necessary background. There is a consistency of pacing from the set up of the stakes to the breakdown of what it all meant afterward. The expert casting of context revives the electric nature of oft-recounted contests.
Similarly, another of the key strengths of The Last Coach is how Barra create sharp and incisive portraits of Coach Bryant’s contemporaries (and predecessors as well). This investment of the narrative presenting the measure of the men Bryant competed against pays off with a more insightful understanding of the forces the legendary Coach was vying against.
Perhaps the most significant challenge to a biographer of Coach Bryant is the power of anecdotes about the man. His particular style and manner lent itself to describe him in terms of individual instances that are as compelling as they are incomplete. Barra’s dependence on substantive research in The Last Coach allows him to overcome the temptation to harvest the best of the lot and present them as the tale.
Yet that presents another danger that The Last Coach falls prey to on several occasions – the apologist. Throughout the book Barra drops his narrative to "explain" certain incidents and situations in Bryant’s life for the reader. It erodes the credibility the writer has usually painstakingly built up of laying out the details of the particular controversy with exhaustive research.
He also takes pains to takes to handle the controversial aspects of the coach. He often tip-toes around them with protracted delicacy but, still, he addresses them and that’s an important start.
What The Last Coach demonstrates most conclusively is the fact it’s far from the last book that needs to be written about Bryant. Bara has done a fantastic job but the problem is he – and most likely we as well – is too close to the subject.
The book closes with Barra’s admitting that, "in my own way I want the Bear’s approval." Which shows why he went to such lengths to see the job was done well, but also how he might not be quite objective enough to do it right.
Next week: Twelve and Counting