Remembering Bryant Call From Reagan

Legendary Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant moved in different circles. Although his record as a head football coach was extraordinary, better than anyone of his era, as is often the case of greatness it was about much more than the numbers.

It is unlikely that more than a handful of people were aware of former Alabama Assistant Coach Hank Crisp going to Arkansas in 1930 to recruit a big end who had starred for the Fordyce Redbugs. As the player would remember years later, "He put me in the back of his Model T and I rode happily to Tuscaloosa."

Not quite the drama of Cyrus Kouandjio.

Paul Bryant was the stuff of legend. He played against Tennessee on a broken leg. He was a Rose Bowl star who earned a Hollywood screen test and met a young radio broadcaster with who he became a lifelong friend.

And as a coach he was the best ever, dominating the nation for a quarter of a century as head coach of the Crimson Tide.

Along the way he was friends with American leaders in business, politics, entertainment, religion, education, and, of course, athletics (and more than college football): John Wayne, George Steinbrenner, Billy Graham, and on and on.

That young radio broadcaster at the Rose Bowl following the 1934 season was Ronald Reagan. This weekend the nation is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth.

Reagan went on to be a movie and television star, then governor of California. And he was elected President of the United States. Throughout their careers, Bryant and Reagan remained friends.

In 1981, Alabama defeated Auburn, 28-17, for Bryant's 315th coaching victory. A couple of weeks earlier, Bryant and Alabama had defeated Joe Paterno's Penn State team for Bryant's 314th victory, tying Amos Alonzo Stagg for most in college football history.

Following the game, there was a telephone in the Alabama dressing room. And not long after the Crimson Tide celebration, there was a call for Bryant from President Reagan.

"Hello, Gipper," Bryant said. That was his nickname for Reagan, whose starring roles include that of George Gipp, the legendary Notre Dame football player.

Bryant listened for a few minutes, then said, "Thank you, Mr. President, but it is really about all the players and coaches I have been privileged to have around me."

On February 23, 1983, shortly after Bryant's death, President Reagan hosted a ceremony at the White House in which he awarded posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bryant. It was accepted by his granddaughter, Mary Harmon Tyson, on behalf of the Bryant family.

Reagan said, "In many ways, American sports embody the best in our national character -- dedication, teamwork, honor and friendship. Paul ‘Bear' Bryant embodied football. The winner of more games than any other coach in history, Bear Bryant was a true American hero. A hard but beloved taskmaster he pushed ordinary people to perform extraordinary feats. Patriotic to the core, devoted to his players and inspired by a winning spirit that never quit, Bear Bryant gave his country the gift of a legend. In making the impossible seem easy, he lived what we all strive to be."

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