December 15, 1982, 40 years ago today: Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant announces his retirement from football. Bryant, who spent 38 years as a head coach, retired as the winningest coach in college football history at the time—323 wins with the Crimson Tide, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Maryland. He won six national championships and 15 conference titles. All six national titles and 13 of the conference crowns came at Alabama. Bryant’s trademark was the hat he wore, either black-and-white houndstooth or plaid. Ray Perkins would replace him as Alabama head coach.
During a carnival promotion in Arkansas when he was 13, Bryant agreed to wrestle a captive bear, hence his long-standing (and imposing) nickname. His first head coaching job was originally supposed to be at Arkansas following the 1941 season, but Bryant changed course after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and he elected to join the U.S. Navy. Bryant served off the coast of North Africa during World War II and also did some coaching of service football teams.
After the war, Bryant took the head coaching job at Maryland and went 6-2-1 in his only season with the Terrapins in 1945. He then moved to Kentucky, where he coached for eight seasons. The Wildcats best year under Bryant was 1950, when they were 11-1, capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Bud Wilkinson and No. 1 Oklahoma. Four years at Texas A&M followed, including a Southwest Conference championship in 1956. After the 1957 campaign, he came home to roost at his alma mater, Alabama. By 1961, Bryant had a national title with the Crimson Tide, and he’d repeat that feat in 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978 and 1979.
Despite stymied efforts to integrate his teams at Kentucky and Texas A&M, Bryant was accused of racism for refusing to recruit black players to Alabama. Bryant would respond that the social climate in the state and the presence of Governor George Wallace, the noted segregationist, made it all but impossible. But Bryant finally convinced the university administration to let him do it, and running back Wilbur Jackson became the Crimson Tide’s first Black scholarship player when he signed in the spring of 1970.
Bryant’s final game was the 1982 Liberty Bowl, a 21-15 Alabama victory over Illinois. Less than four weeks later, Bryant passed away in Tuscaloosa after a massive heart attack at the age of 69. The school did not wait until his death to honor him. The state legislature voted in 1975 to add his name to the Tide’s stadium, making it Bryant-Denny Stadium.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)