How Alabama Swiped Bear Bryant From Texas A&M
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one man’s move led to the divergence of two football powers.
By Daniel Malloy
Undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country, the Texas A&M football team was set for a game critical to its national championship hopes. But the players’ resolve for the Nov. 16, 1957, contest at Rice University was shaken before kickoff. Word had spread of a stunner of a scoop from the Houston Post: Coach Bear Bryant was leaving for Alabama.
Bryant later would sum up the move as “Mama called,” but the reasons were more complex than an alma mater’s siren song. He went on to revive the fortunes of the sport’s premier program, the ramifications of which are still being felt: The Crimson Tide is again undefeated, and the favorite to capture its 12th national championship since Bryant’s era. A&M has not topped the polls since that climactic November.
Aggie players knew something was off the Wednesday before the game when Bryant wore a business suit to practice.
Born in rural Moro Bottom, Arkansas, in 1913, Paul Bryant earned the “Bear” nickname as a teen when he agreed to wrestle a bear in front of a crowd for money. (The bear bit him, and the animal’s owner stiffed Bryant.) He was a starter for powerful Alabama teams in the mid-1930s, leading to a coaching career in which he amassed a then-record 323 major college victories — and at each stop, he was a turnaround artist. He turned Kentucky from moribund to contender, but he left after eight seasons, knowing football would never eclipse basketball with iconic coach Adolph Rupp at the helm.
Bryant signed with A&M for $15,000 per year plus 1 percent of gate receipts without even seeing the campus. When Bryant’s family first arrived in dismal College Station, biographer Allen Barra recounts how Bryant’s wife, Mary Harmon, exclaimed, “Oh my, oh my. What has Daddy done?” Bryant compared the all-male military school to a penitentiary, and recruiting was a chore. Future Dallas Cowboys star quarterback Don Meredith turned Bryant down in part because there were no female students at A&M. Bryant made do with what he had — and, it appears, some extra cash. After a brutal first training camp that weeded out much of the team and was later memorialized in the book and TV movie The Junction Boys, the Aggies went 1-9 in 1954. But that would be Bryant’s only losing season as a head coach. The team quickly burst onto the national scene, though such NCAA violations as paying players would cost the undefeated Aggies a Cotton Bowl berth after the 1956 season.
For A&M, 1957 began with a No. 2 ranking and a stacked lineup that included eventual Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow. With a suffocating defense, they allowed a total of 31 points over the course of an 8-0 start before heading to Houston to face 20th-ranked Rice. Aggie players knew something was off the Wednesday before the game when Bryant wore a business suit to practice, several players told Rusty Burson of Texas A&M’s 12th Man Magazine decades later. Bryant was meeting with Alabama that day.
The final decision wasn’t about money. Barra says he scrutinized all the records he could track down, and Bryant might have even taken a slight pay cut to go back to Tuscaloosa. The decision had to do with timing. Alabama had approached Bryant before, but he had elected to stay put — in one case so as not to backstab his friend Harold “Red” Drew, then Alabama’s coach. This time, Alabama was going through a desultory stretch under Jennings Bryan “Ears” Whitworth, winning just four games in three seasons, and in desperate need of a savior.
Alabama native Mary Harmon was eager to get out of College Station, and Bryant might have peaked there. Even though Alabama was down, it had a strong tradition, and it was always going to be easier to recruit 18-year-olds to a place with more, let’s say, scenery. Bryant told Alabama classmate and New York Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen, “I’m gonna feel bad no matter what decision I make. I hate to let anybody down,” as the broadcaster later relayed to Barra. Allen told him: “You passed up the chance to go home before. You may never get the chance again.”
A&M boosters scrambled to change Bryant’s mind, but matters of the heart are rarely subject to counteroffers. Fans and players felt betrayed, and the effects were obvious on the field: The Aggies lost to Rice that day by a single point, followed by a defeat to Texas and a limp Gator Bowl, in which the Aggies failed to score a single point. “We were absolutely deflated,” quarterback Charlie Milstead later told Burson.
But Tuscaloosa was elated. Stalking the sidelines in his signature houndstooth hat, Bryant won six national titles there. A&M, which finally started admitting women in the mid-1960s, has had strong teams since, but never recaptured the magic of the Bryant years. There’s little hand-wringing now in College Station over what might have been, Burson says. The Aggies have moved into Alabama’s Southeastern Conference and boast a 102,000-capacity stadium. A couple of years ago, A&M leaders unveiled a new artifact for display on campus: Bryant’s original contract, a bittersweet memento.