Mark Story: A living witness to Bear Bryant's final day as Kentucky football coach

Frank Sadler first met Bear Bryant when he tried out for the football team at his Navy base in Chapel Hill. He didn't make the team but instead worked closely with Bryant for years.
Frank Sadler first met Bear Bryant when he tried out for the football team at his Navy base in Chapel Hill. He didn't make the team but instead worked closely with Bryant for years. Herald-Leader

Across the decades, The Long Suffering UK Football Fan has oft looked to history with a mournful lament: Why did Bear Bryant have to leave Kentucky?

If you want at least somewhat of an answer to that, 89-year-old Frank Sadler is a pretty good person to ask.

A good bit of Sadler's adult life was spent as a prominent Lexington real-estate developer. Yet when the Alabama native came to Kentucky in 1946, he was a student football manager who became something of a Man Friday for Bryant.

"Coach Bryant lived on Cherokee Park," Sadler said of the Lexington street. "I cut his grass with a push mower. I was the baby sitter. When it came Halloween time, I'd have to take his daughter, Mae Martin, around to all the houses to collect the candy."

Long before Bryant achieved iconic status coaching at Alabama, he spent seven years (1946-53) leading Kentucky football. In that span, the Wildcats did things they had never done before — and have never done since.

UK went 60-23-5 overall under Bryant. The Wildcats had an 11-win season (1950). In one three-year stretch (1949-51), Kentucky made appearances in the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls.

Then the Bear bailed to go to Texas A&M.

"When he left here, when he was going to Texas A&M, he called me," Sadler said. "I drove him to Louisville to catch the plane. He said, '(Kentucky fans) may not like me now, but look at the record book. I had some good seasons here.'"

On that trip to Louisville, Sadler says Bryant gave him one main reason for leaving.

Bear with us (pun intended), and it will be revealed.

Meeting the Bear

During World War II, Sadler was an aspiring Naval pilot stationed at North Carolina Pre-Flight in Chapel Hill. "One afternoon, they announced that anyone who wants to play on the (base) football team, meet Coach Bryant at the field at 5 o'clock," he said.

Bryant was then a lieutenant commander in the Navy. When Sadler showed up for the practice, the Bear did not exactly see a football player.

"I weighed 145 pounds soaking wet, 5-foot-6, 145," Sadler says. "(Bryant) said, 'They'll kill you out here. I tell you what you do, you come out here tomorrow and carry the water bucket.' And I did."

When the war ended, Bryant took Sadler with him as a manager to the coach's new job as head man at Maryland. After one year in College Park, the Bear came to Lexington.

"I was still in school at Maryland and he wrote me a letter to come down (to Kentucky)," Sadler said. "He was going to give me room and board during the football season and $10 a month."

Sadler didn't have enough money to take a bus from College Park to Lexington. He hitchhiked to Bristol, Va. "From there, I had enough money to get to Lexington and caught the bus," he said.

Bear in the Bluegrass

In his latter years coaching at Alabama in the 1970s, Bryant seemed a grandfatherly figure in a houndstooth hat. That was not the Bear who roamed the sidelines in the Bluegrass.

The Bryant of Kentucky was the fierce coach pictured in The Junction Boys, the Jim Dent book (and later ESPN movie) about the grueling preseason training camp the coach subjected his initial Texas A&M team to in Junction, Texas.

At Kentucky, those demanding Bryant preseason camps were held at the Millersburg Military Institute.

"Ohhhh, that was rough. We lost 21 (players) the first night," Sadler said. "In Coach Bryant's view, if a player didn't have any guts and couldn't take it, he didn't want them."

As successful as Bryant was at UK, Tennessee and its legendary coach "General" Robert Neyland were a persistent nemesis. Bryant-coached Kentucky teams faced Neyland-led UT squads seven times; UK's record in those games was 0-5-2.

That futility ate at the Bear. "He had a hard time with that, he did," Sadler said. "Neyland just seemed to have his number."

Bryant's frustration reached the point, Sadler says, that at least once he sent 11 Kentucky scouts to one Tennessee game. "Each fellow had one (UT) player to watch," Sadler said. "My job was the Tennessee fullback, to see what he was doing."

Neyland stepped down as Tennessee coach after the 1952 season. The next year, the Bear and UK finally beat the Vols 27-21.

It turned out to be Bryant's final game as Kentucky head man.

Preserving the memories

Sadler is doing what he can to make sure Bryant's time in the Bluegrass is not lost to the fog of history.

Nine years ago, Sadler wrote a private book about his time with the coach: The Bear, Paul W. Bryant The Greatest Coach Who Ever Lived and his Water Boy.

"I never tried to sell one, it was just things I wanted to get down (on paper) for my family and my friends," Sadler said.

A donation from Sadler is allowing the University of Kentucky to transfer 34 game tapes from the Bryant era from 16 millimeter film onto DVD.

"In general, it costs about $300 an hour to digitize film," said Deirdre Scaggs, UK associate dean of special collections. "Some of them, we've been able to sync the action with the radio play-by-play calls, which is really cool, but that's even more expensive. Of the 34 films, we've got 30 already digitized. That we've been able to do it is all because of Frank."

The Bear's departure

On that long-ago drive to Louisville to catch a plane to Texas, Sadler says Bryant explained his decision to leave Kentucky like this.

"He said, 'The university had made some promises to me and they didn't fulfill them, so I have accepted another job,'" Sadler said.

What were the broken promises that altered the course of Kentucky football history by driving Bear Bryant away?

"I don't know what it was," Sadler said. "He wouldn't really say. But that was the crux of it, he said promises had not been kept."