Remembering the great coach

The Huntsville Times
January 26, 1993

The date was Wednesday, Jan. 26, 1983 ... 10 years ago today.

On the front page of first edition of The Huntsville Times, the lead story was President Reagan's State of the Union address, delivered the night before to a joint House-Senate session. Reagan's theme was the troubled economy. He called for a 1 percent income tax hike and suggested that cost-of-living increases in Social Security and government retirement benefits should be delayed.

In Salt Lake City, doctors were disappointed in the progress of artificial heart recipient Barney Clark, who remained "a very weak patient." At Cape Canaveral, NASA engineers were puzzling over a hydrogen leak which reappeared during a test firing of the space shuttle Challenger's main engines.

In Montgomery, Gov. George Wallace indicated he had no plans to raise consumer taxes to offset a $25 million shortfall in the state's general fund.

In Huntsville, Mayor Joe Davis and Sal Vizzini, the police chief, were pondering a comprehensive set of new rules and regulations for city police officers.

In the bottom left-hand corner was a five-paragraph story under the headline: "Bryant Said In No Danger." The Associated Press story, datelined Tuscaloosa, reported that former University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, who won more games than any other college coach, was hospitalized after being admitted to Druid City Hospital Tuesday evening. A spokesman said Bryant, whose final Alabama team had beaten Illinois in the Liberty Bowl just a month earlier, had been brought in with chest pains. He had not suffered a heart attack and, according to the spokesman, "there appears to be no present danger."

The first edition of the newspaper rolled off the presses at 10 o'clock in the morning on that 26th day of January, 10 years ago. It was just another routine press run, just another typical day at the office. That's what everybody thought.

We were all wrong.

A little more than two hours later, the page one story in the left-hand corner was abruptly rendered both obsolete and erroneous.

A bulletin came flashing over the wire: BEAR BRYANT DEAD.

The news kept unfolding over the next few hours. It was a sudden cardiopulmonary arrest. The doctors worked for an hour, trying everything they knew, but it was no use. His wife, son and daughter were at his side when the end came.

As the minutes turned into hours, the eulogies began pouring in from all over the country. Flags were already being lowered to half-staff at public buildings and schools. The whole state was in shock.

At some point, the managing editor wandered into the sports department and asked, "When are you going to Tuscaloosa?"

"In a few minutes."

"Stay as long as you need to," he said.

The next two days were a blur ... interviews with the coach's friends, colleagues and acquaintances; a visit to the family home on Watermelon Road and to the Hayes Funeral Home in downtown Tuscaloosa; a memorial service at the coliseum, where former Crimson Tide quarterback Steadman Shealy recalled what had happened four weeks earlier in the Alabama locker room after the Liberty Bowl.

"I was a couple of people over from him, on my knees," Shealy said, "and he was on his knees. Here was the greatest coach of all time, and he wasn't too proud to get on his knees before God.

"He said, "Lord, thank you for allowing me to be a part of football, to be a part of this team, to be a part of this university, and for these many happy years in coaching.' "

At the funeral on Friday, so many people showed up that they filled three churches in downtown Tuscaloosa. After the service, a long funeral motorcade headed up I-59 toward Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. Thousands lined the route. Homemade banners hung from the overpasses. Near Bessemer, construction workers in hard hats held up a message scrawled in green paint: "Bear, We Love You and We'll Miss You." Officials said the mourners numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They included dozens of Bryant's former players and coaches, along with other famous coaches like Woody Hayes, Frank Broyles, Bobby Dodd, Darrell Royal, John McKay, Eddie Robinson, Duffy Daugherty, Vince Dooley and George Allen.

At the cemetery, eight players from Bryant's last team ... Tommy Wilcox, Mike McQueen, Paul Fields, Walter Lewis, Eddie Lowe, Darryl White, Jeremiah Castille and Jerrill Sprinkle ... carried the coffin to the grave site.

On this day and in the days before and after, tributes from both the meek and the famous filled the columns of the newspapers. The words of former Huntsville High quarterback Robby Rowan, who played for Bryant in the early '70s, were as good as many and better than most. They were spoken a few hours after the coach's death.

"He always planned to win but he also taught you to have a plan if you lose," Rowan said. "Now, I can relate to what he was saying better than when I was in school.

"All my days aren't winning national championships, and all my days aren't on top of the world," Rowan said. "Life has its peaks, but it also has its valleys, and he was preparing us for those valleys, educating us on striving to win but also having a plan for when you don't win."

The date was Wednesday, Jan. 26, 1983 ... 10 years ago today.