Recalling 'Bear Bryant' for Father's Day

Players reflect on legend

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 21, 2009 

Thirty of Paul "Bear" Bryant's former University of Kentucky football players gathered this weekend at The Campbell House for their annual reunion to slap backs, catch up with friends, tell stories and do the expected general reminiscing about their old college days.

Bear's Boys.

"We're getting up there," said Ed Hamilton, who played during the 1949-51 seasons and scored a touchdown in the 1952 Cotton Bowl. "Not many of us left."

But with this being Father's Day, thought it might be a good time to inquire just what sort of father figure Paul Bryant was back when he was leading Kentucky to 60 wins and three New Year's Day bowl games from 1946 through 1953.

"He was a lot stricter than your dad," said Neil Lowry. "I can tell you that."

"I don't know that I could talk to him like you could talk to your father," said Bob Fry, an offensive lineman who went on to play 12 years in the pros. "He was more of a 'No, sir. Yes, sir,' guy."

"He was more like Zeus," Bill Evans said with a laugh.

"When he came down on off that tower, you would just cower," said Chuck Bell. "Because you thought he might be coming after you."

"Absolutely, he was a father to me," said Babe Parilli, the star quarterback who now lives in Denver, just had his knee replaced and claims it's the best thing he's ever done. "He was a father to all of us."

And, in his way, Bryant was that, a father away from home to a group of boys, many of them just out of the service, many of them with no money, a long way from home.

"I'll give you an example," said Lowry. "I was a sophomore and had been redshirted. I hadn't even played yet. And he was the one that told me that my mother died. She was just 47, so it wasn't expected. I had no money. But he bought me a train ticket home. It was illegal, but he didn't care. He did that for me. And I was nothing."

"You have to remember, he was a young coach at the time, 37 or 38 years old, and he would, well, he was a great demonstrator," said Hamilton. "Sometimes he might knock you over himself. He was always good to those who gave their utmost.

"And when you got through your senior year, he'd invite you over to the house for cookouts. He found jobs for all of us. He showed you more of that after you finished playing."

"For me personally, he was akin to God," said Ed Burnett, who came from Alabama to play for Bryant in the late '40s. "I have learned to appreciate him more as I have aged in years. He taught me how discipline is in your life."

And dedication. And hard work. Even now, Bear's Boys remember how focused Bryant was, how he was willing to work harder than anyone else and have his players work harder than any other team.

"I lived with him and his family when I got hurt," said Parilli. "To tell you the truth, and I think he'd tell you this, he was so involved with his team he could have been a better father to them. We were his family."

But would his methods work today?

"No," said Parrilli. "And he knew that. I coached with him for a spring at Texas A&M, and he was not the same coach at Alabama. He adapted. Back then, it was about intimidation. I coached. And today it's more about communication."

"No," answered Burnett. "The children of today didn't come out of the Depression like we did. We understood that 'No' meant 'no.' No questions asked."

"He would adjust, and he would (succeed today)," said Evans. "I remember someone one time asked about somebody being charismatic. It was around the time people first started using that word. (Bryant) had charisma. He was charismatic."

"Bryant had a way of telling his players they had the ability to succeed," said Burnett. "And we did succeed."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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