They'll Never Call Him "Bear"
To his Crimson Tide players, he was—and still is—the feared and revered Coach Bryant.
“People often ask me if Coach Bryant ever came down out of that tower during practice,” remembers Alabama Sports Hall of Famer Jerry Duncan. “Believe me, you wanted him to stay up there. Because when he came down, the fur was about to fly.”
As Coach Nick Saban and his team go for another National Championship, which would be the sixth for Saban and a tie with Bryant, we caught up with a Crimson Tide All-SEC Tackle from that heartbreaker of a year, 1966. That’s when an undefeated Alabama won the Sugar Bowl, but the national title went to Notre Dame, which had a 9-0-1 season. “Man, that was such a disappointment,” Duncan remembers.
After trying the 5-foot-11, 165-pound North Carolina country boy at several different positions, Bryant finally moved Duncan to tackle and let him start in 1965. “He came down from the tower as I was running onto the field and yelled, “Duncan! I’m moving you to tackle—and if I have to move you again, it’ll be back to North Carolina.”
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and Duncan went on to make a name for himself in Tuscaloosa, playing on two consecutive National Championship teams and three consecutive SEC Championship teams. He spent 20 years as the sideline announcer for the Alabama Radio Network. But he was an unlikely football star, coming from Sparta, North Carolina, in tiny Allegheny County. “In 1962, when I signed with Alabama, it was the smallest county in North Carolina—and in 2016 it still is,” Duncan laughs.
Without a single scholarship offer, Duncan hardly had his eye on a Bama jersey after graduating high school, but his former basketball coach happened to meet—maybe we should say corner—The Bear at a convention. So passionately did the basketball coach plead Duncan’s case, that Coach Bryant reportedly said, “Look, if you’ll just hush, I’ll sign the boy.” And he did—without seeing the first reel of film or even talking to Duncan.
Players reporting for their first practice back then might walk onto a field in 100-degree heat, with the chemical aromas from a nearby paper mill wafting through the air. “It was a rude awakening for me because here I was, not very big at all and coming from a tiny high school, and Coach Bryant had players like Joe Namath and Leroy Jordan. Ray Perkins was a freshman with me. Many of us were first-generation college students, coming off farms in the Southeast, so we knew about hard work. And I would say 80 percent of us came to Alabama just to see if we could play for Coach Bryant. He was a tough taskmaster and a strict disciplinarian. He could walk into a team meeting with 75 or 80 guys, and you could hear a pin drop. But we knew he could win games, and we all wanted to win. He signed 67 freshmen in 1962, and I think 17 of us made it through to start on the varsity team and graduate.”
There are two great stories that we couldn’t substantiate, but they get repeated enough (and we so want to believe they’re true), that we just have to share:
When Joe Namath committed some infraction that got him suspended for a week or so, he didn’t have anywhere to stay besides the football dorm. So Mary Harmon, the coach’s wife, let him hide out in the Bryants’ basement till he could get back on the team.
Coach Bryant had a driver who would pick him up at the airport when he flew into Birmingham and chauffeur him back to Tuscaloosa. A houndstooth hat placed in the back window of the car signaled to the Alabama State Troopers that The Bear was on board (at which point the speed limit likely became irrelevant).
Though they’ve heard the stories and cheered at the games, even many diehard Tide fans might not know how far beyond the gridiron Alabama’s football powerhouse can reach.
Coach Bryant created a scholarship, funded with his own money, to give a UA education to any children of former players who didn’t have the financial means to pay for college. His son, Paul Bryant, Jr., picked up that torch after his father died.
“Coach Bryant did so much for people,” Duncan remembers. “After his players graduated, we could pick up the phone any time and call him. And if you were just getting started in your career, one call from him could get you an interview with anybody in the state of Alabama.”
Likewise, Nick and Terry Saban’s nonprofit, the Nick’s Kids Foundation, has given some $6 million to charities supporting children, families, and education.
“It was an incredible experience to play in the golden era that I did and then to watch Coach Bryant start recruiting big players and running the wishbone in the 70s,” Duncan said. “And now to see what Coach Saban has been able to do—it’s just unbelievable.”