Bear Bryant

What Bear Bryant and Bo Schembechler Thought About Water

On day one of camp, nearly 100 football players pressed their cleats into hard dirt that refused to yield. Sharp rocks gashed their bodies; cacti pierced their skin; crunched noses spilled blood onto ragged jerseys. During the day, players suffocated in the 110-degree heat, fluids exhausted from their worn bodies. At night, they bunked in metal huts “hotter than a breakfast griddle,” sweat running off foreheads and eyelids and dripping from behind knees. By day ten, the team numbered less than 40. This was 1954 in Junction, Texas, a sparse cow town wasted by a years-long drought. This was Coach Paul Bryant’s first training camp at Texas A&M. This was hell at the hands of a man remembered simply as “Bear.”

Bear BryantThis was a different era for football. Toughness mattered more than talent. “Sacrifice. Work. Self-discipline,” as Coach Bryant said, “I teach these things, and my boys don’t forget when they leave.” During this camp, one player cracked multiple ribs at morning practice. He returned in the afternoon – wheezing, wobbling, and vomiting – but still practiced. Injuries needed dirt rubbed on them, not medical attention. Missing practice to heal was not smart it was weakness. And water, well in Coach Bryant’s mind, water was something wasted on the weak.

Bryant believed the fastest way to whip a team into shape was to deny the boys water, even in the brutal heat. He had withheld water during practices at Kentucky and Maryland, and those teams seemed to grow stronger in the fourth quarter. The team doctor even agreed with Bryant’s harsh methods. Back in College Station, Dr. R.H. Harrison had told him, ‘A stomach that is full of water can cause the blood flow to increase to the spleen. That, in turn, could cause a ruptured spleen.’ Smokey Harper (the A&M trainer) summed it up in a manner that pleased Bryant: ‘Hell, you never pour ice water into a car’s hot radiator. So why pour ice water into a hot boy?’

Jim Dent’s Junction Boys offers a glimpse into the harsh sacrifices made to appease the tyrant most players grew to love (or at least respect). Junction Boys is a football book about hard men built by an even harder man. Its stories are hard-nosed and without bullshit, as if also shaped in Coach Bryant’s image. I appreciated the entire read, but loved the point about water because it reminded me of one I heard as a kid.JB

At Michigan, Dad played for an equally determined and driven coach in Bo Schembechler. Though Dad’s nature was not to share many stories about his days playing, he did tell one about a particularly memorable practice. I’ve done my best to paraphrase him:

I don’t know who it was. The NCAA maybe, or the University. But someone mandated to Bo that we needed a certain amount of water at practice. So Bo agreed. ‘Fine, they’ll have their water.’ Next thing, we’re at practice and right at midfield is an oasis of long folding tables stocked with water jugs, cups of cold water, relief from misery. So we’re out smashing into one another for hours, wonderin’ when Bo was gonna let us taste that water. We’re whispering, angling to figure how we could sneak a sip and soothe our damn sandpaper tongues. Finally, one of the guys asked Bo when we’d get a water break. So Bo stopped practice and gave the poor kid an all day stare. Then he said, ‘they told me we needed to have water at practice. Nobody said I had to let you drink it.’

As I said, a different era.

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It Don’t Cost Nothing to be Nice – A Bear Bryant Story

I write regularly about moments and how seemingly ordinary occurrences can cause waves that ripple into lives beyond our own. We never know when or how or even if any one moment will leave a lasting impression that changes the course of someone’s day or inspires a positive change in a life. No on/ off switch exists that lets us choose the moments we want others to remember. They just happen and they often occur without expectation or realization.

What we can control, though, is how we treat others. Are we respectful? Are we kind? Do we care about what others have to say or are we preoccupied with our own thoughts and agendas? Have we valued another’s importance as a friend? Have we offered to help and genuinely meant it? We can control the answers to these questions, and, I believe, it’s how these questions are answered that determine if we can create moments that echo in other’s hearts and minds.

A good friend sent me a story last week. He expected that I would appreciate it. He was right.

In the story, legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant touched a life in a simple conversation over lunch at a small diner. The Bear was a tough as nails football coach, a strict disciplinarian who demanded the most from his players – and then asked them to give even more. In this moment, he also showed he could care more than anyone expected. By doing so, he cut an impression that resounded in ways he could have never imagined.

It Don’t Cost Nothing to be Nice – A Bear Bryant Story

I had just been named the new head coach at Alabama and was off in my old car down in South Alabama recruiting a prospect who was supposed to have been a pretty good player, and I was having trouble finding the place. Getting hungry, I spied an old cinderblock building with a small sign out front that simply said “Restaurant.”

I pull up, go in, and every head in the place turns to stare at me. Seems I’m the only white fella in the place. But the food smelled good, so I skip a table and go up to a cement bar and sit. A big ole man in a tee shirt and cap comes over and says, “What do you need?”

I told him I needed lunch and what did they have today?

He says, “You probably won’t like it here. Today we’re having chitlins, collard greens and black-eyed peas with cornbread.

I’ll bet you don’t even know what chitlins are, do you?”

I looked him square in the eye and said, “I’m from Arkansas, and I’ve probably eaten a mile of them. Sounds like I’m in the right place.”

They all smiled as he left to serve me up a big plate. When he comes back he says, “You ain’t from around here then?”

I explain I’m the new football coach up in Tuscaloosa at the University and I’m here to find whatever that boy’s name was, and he says, “Yeah I’ve heard of him, he’s supposed to be pretty good.” And he gives me directions to the school so I can meet him and his coach.
As I’m paying up to leave, I remember my manners and leave a tip, not too big to be flashy, but a good one, and he told me lunch was on him, but I told him for a lunch that good, I felt I should pay. The big man asked me if I had a photograph or something he could hang up to show I’d been there. I was so new that I didn’t have any yet. It really wasn’t that big a thing back then to be asked for, but I took a napkin and wrote his name and address on it and told him I’d get him one.

I met the kid I was looking for later that afternoon and I don’t remember his name, but do remember I didn’t think much of him when I met him. I had wasted a day, or so I thought. When I got back to Tuscaloosa late that night, I took that napkin from my shirt pocket and put it under my keys so I wouldn’t forget it. Back then I was excited that anybody would want a picture of me. The next day we found a picture and I wrote on it, “Thanks for the best lunch I’ve ever had.”

Now let’s go a whole buncha years down the road. Now we have black players at Alabama and I’m back down in that part of the country scouting an offensive lineman we sure needed. Y’all remember, (and I forget the name, but it’s not important to the story), well anyway, he’s got two friends going to Auburn and he tells me he’s got his heart set on Auburn too, so I leave empty handed and go on to see some others while I’m down there.

Two days later, I’m in my office in Tuscaloosa and the phone rings and it’s this kid who just turned me down, and he says, “Coach, do you still want me at Alabama ?”

And I said, “Yes, I sure do.” And he says OK, he’ll come.

And I say, “Well son, what changed your mind?”

And he said, “When my grandpa found out that I had a chance to play for you and said no, he pitched a fit and told me I wasn’t going nowhere but Alabama, and wasn’t playing for nobody but you. He thinks a lot of you and has ever since y’all met.”

Well, I didn’t know his granddad from Adam’s housecat so I asked him who his granddaddy was and he said, “You probably don’t remember him, but you ate in his restaurant your first year at Alabama and you sent him a picture that he’s had hung in that place ever since. That picture’s his pride and joy and he still tells everybody about the day that Bear Bryant came in and had chitlins with him…”

“My grandpa said that when you left there, he never expected you to remember him or to send him that picture, but you kept your word to him and to Grandpa, that’s everything. He said you could teach me more than football and I had to play for a man like you, so I guess I’m going to.”

I was floored. But I learned that the lessons my mama taught me were always right. It don’t cost nuthin’ to be nice. It don’t cost nuthin’ to do the right thing most of the time, and it costs a lot to lose your good name by breaking your word to someone. When I went back to sign that boy, I looked up his Grandpa and he’s still running that place, but it looks a lot better now. And he didn’t have chitlins that day, but he had some ribs that would make Dreamland proud. I made sure I posed for a lot of pictures; and don’t think I didn’t leave some new ones for him, too, along with a signed football.

I made it clear to all my assistants to keep this story and these lessons in mind when they’re out on the road. If you remember anything else from me, remember this. It really doesn’t cost anything to be nice, and the rewards can be unimaginable.

Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant