A disillusioning conversation with The Great Bear Bryant
Alabama kicked off its 2018 campaign with a 51-14 victory over Louisville on Saturday night. The Crimson Tide is ranked No. 1 in most preseason polls and an early favorite to repeat as college football's national champion. Should that happen, it will be Nick Saban's seventh national title as a coach and his sixth at Alabama.
Saban's accomplishments have placed him in sports lore alongside the man who is regarded by many as the greatest college football coach of all time: Paul "Bear" Bryant.
That, in turn, brings back memories of a long-ago conversation I had with Bryant.
The 11th of 12 children, Bryant was born in Moro Bottom, Ark., on Sept. 11, 1913. He was a large man, 6 feet 3 inches tall, whose nickname derived from his having wrestled a bear at a carnival when he was 13.
Bryant played football at Alabama from 1933 through 1935. He later reigned as head coach at Maryland (1945), Kentucky (1946-1953), Texas A&M (1954-1957) and his alma mater (1958-1982). During Bryant's years at the helm, the Crimson Tide won six national championships. At the time he retired, his 323 victories were the most for a coach in modern college football history. In 38 seasons as a head coach, he had one losing season (his first year at Texas A&M).
Bryant epitomized an era when college football coaches were regarded as gods. Men like Bud Wilkinson (Oklahoma), Woody Hayes (Ohio State), Bob Devaney (Nebraska), Darrell Royal (Texas) and Ara Parseghian (Notre Dame) were larger-than-life figures who could do no wrong in the eyes of their supporters. They were admired and adored the way military generals who lead troops into battle were venerated by previous generations of Americans.
The thought that one of these men might be suspended as head coach or have his contract terminated because he failed to report inappropriate conduct by an assistant coach to the proper authorities was unheard of.
Woody Hayes, despite a long record of physically abusive acts, wasn't relieved of his coaching duties until he was shown on national television sucker-punching a Clemson defensive lineman who intercepted a pass in the closing minutes of the 1978 Gator Bowl.
As for a coach's contract being terminated because he evinced a lack of concern for the physical well-being of his players; the cornerstone of the Bear Bryant legend was his first year as head coach at Texas A&M. One hundred eleven players were on the Aggie squad when preseason workouts began. After 10 days of brutal workouts beneath the broiling Texas sun, there were 35 survivors.
The widespread assumption was that, had Bryant chosen to run for governor of Alabama in the 1970s, he would have been elected.
Flashback now to the mid-1970s. Bryant had won four national championships at Alabama. I was a young lawyer working as a litigator for the Wall Street law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. One of my responsibilities was defending against libel suits brought against the media conglomerate then known as Time Inc.
The Time Inc. empire had its origins in 1923 when Henry Luce and Britten Hadden published the inaugural issue of Time. In later years, more than one hundred publications were added to the fold, including Sports Illustrated, People and Fortune. In 1968, Little, Brown & Company (a major book publisher) became part of Time Inc.'s expanding portfolio.
In 1974, Little, Brown published Bear Bryant's autobiography, written with John Underwood. In the book, Bryant said uncomplimentary things about a former player at Alabama. He didn't identify the player by name. Instead, he referred to him as "a cute little red-headed kid with freckles and big thick glasses ... A tough little linebacker from Florida named — well, call him Danny."
That description narrowed the identification of "Danny" down to a field of one.
Sammy Gellerstedt was a 5-foot-8-inch, 196-pound nose guard (not linebacker) who played one season of varsity football (1968) at Alabama. Despite his size, he earned first-team All-American honors and was named United Press International's "Lineman of the Week" after the Crimson Tide's victory over Mississippi State.
Gellerstedt left the University of Alabama after his sophomore season amidst rumors of lifestyle issues. More specifically, it was said that Bryant kicked him off the team because he believed Gellerstedt was smoking marijuana (which Bryant strongly implied in his book).
In an earlier era, Joe Namath (who played quarterback at Alabama from 1962 through 1964) had clashed with Bryant over lifestyle issues. But those issues involved drinking, not drugs.
Namath was suspended for two games and stayed the course. However, as the 1960s neared an end, recreational drugs were becoming more prevalent. Indeed, several years after Gellerstedt's departure, Bryant drew a line in the sand. On one occasion, as recounted in his autobiography, he ordered a search of every player's dorm room and found evidence of marijuana use by seven players. In his words, "We told the seven that they could withdraw from school or we would just let the law handle it. They all withdrew."
Bryant also made it clear in his autobiography that, to his way of thinking, one of the keys to a young man's character was whether he had a "good mama and papa." Then, after noting that "Danny's home life was sad," he offered the opinion, "The biggest mistake coaches make is taking borderline cases and trying to save them. I'm not talking about grades now. I'm talking about character."
Gellerstedt sued for libel. I was assigned to the defense team on the case.
Several years later, I would leave law to pursue a career as a freelance writer. I would work with Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer on biographies of their respective lives and interact with countless sports legends. But in 1974, that was in my future. I was excited then by the fact that I was about to talk with the great Bear Bryant to construct our defense against Gellerstedt's claim.
An appointment was set up. I was to call Bryant at his home telephone number, which I did at the appointed hour of 5 p.m.
The passage of more than four decades has dimmed my memory of the conversation. I remember making the call from my office on the 57th floor at One Chase Manhattan Plaza. Bryant answered the phone, and I introduced myself.
Bryant was no stranger to the law of libel. In 1962, he had sued The Saturday Evening Post for publishing an article that accused him of encouraging his players to play with intent to injure in a 1961 game against Georgia Tech. Thereafter, the magazine published a second article that accused Bryant and Georgia athletic director Wally Butts of conspiring to fix the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game in favor of the Crimson Tide. A second claim by Bryant followed. He settled with The Saturday Evening Post in 1964 for a total of $300,000.
Bryant confirmed to me on the telephone that he had, in fact, been talking about Gellerstedt in his book. "If I'd known it was gonna cause all this trouble," he said, "I never would have mentioned him."
But it was hard to get the factual underpinning for the passages in question out of Bryant; particularly his references to Gellerstedt's family life. His memory of details, as well as larger issues, seemed foggy. He broke off in mid-sentence again and again and kept repeating himself.
The 1970s were a more sheltered time for public figures than the world today. There was no prying social media. By and large, sports heroes were allowed to do as they pleased and remain untarnished.
In wasn't until 1995 that Keith Dunnavant, in a book entitled Coach, would write of Bryant, "His tendency to drink to excess was well known among his friends and among the news media, yet no one ever reported a word about this. Although he never drank at work or let it affect his job, the coach often overindulged in social situations. Whether he was an alcoholic depends on one's definition. But he liked to drink to have a good time, and it was difficult for him to stop before he got sloppy drunk."
Not long into our conversation, I realized that The Great Bear Bryant was drunk. Or to use Dunnavant's phrase, "sloppy drunk."
There wasn't much of use that I could learn from him. I thanked him for his time and said goodbye.
Gellerstedt enrolled at the University of Tampa after his two years at Alabama and continued to enjoy gridiron success. He graduated from Tampa in 1971 and, 13 years later, would be inducted in that university's Hall of Fame. His lawsuit had been filed in Florida, where both he and Underwood were residents. After some preliminary motions, the case was settled.
In the spring of 1978, Bryant entered an alcohol rehabilitation program in a clinic located in Shelby County south of Birmingham but resumed drinking soon after his stay there ended. He retired from coaching following a Dec. 29, 1982, victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. Four weeks later, he died after suffering a massive heart attack.
Our sports gods aren't always what we think they are and want them to be.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His next book — Protect Yourself at All Times — will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.