On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, Paul Bryant, 28, began the long drive back from Fayetteville to Nashville. He would say later that he was confident he was going to be the new head coach of the Razorbacks. Along the way he heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
In his long coaching career to follow, Bryant would demonstrate an uncanny ability to quickly diagnose a situation. He would say later that he knew he wouldn’t be coaching football for a while. A few weeks afterwards at the American Coaches Association meeting in Detroit, Bryant was moved by a speech from former Navy Coach Tom Hamilton, who said the Navy would need coaches to teach physical fitness and sports skills to combat pilots.
Hamilton later wrote that he returned to Washington after the meeting and the next day Bryant was in his office. “I heard your talk and I’m ready to go to war,” Hamilton quoted Bryant.
In Delbert Reed’s excellent book, “When Winning Was Everything,” on the 300 former Alabama players who participated in World War II, Hamilton is reported as saying that he told Bryant to go home because the program was not yet in place. Hamilton promised to let Bryant know when he would be needed.
Two weeks later, Hamilton said, Bryant showed up at his office, saying, “I haven’t heard anything from you.” Bryant also told Hamilton that he wasn’t going home, that he had “told everyone he was going to war.”
Hamilton had Bryant live with him and work in his office as a civilian until he could be processed into the Navy. In early 1942, Bryant joined the Navy and was sent to Annapolis for training at the Naval Academy. He was commissioned a lieutenant junior grade.
Bryant was assigned to the coaching staff at the Georgia Navy Pre-Flight School and finished his career as head coach of the North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight football eam in 1945.
He also spent 14 months in North Africa (1943-44) serving as a physical fitness instructor and overseeing aircraft maintenance.
Bryant’s commanding officer in North Africa, retired Rear Admiral M.H. Tuttle, later would say, “He knew how to get the very best effort from his men while still keeping their admiration and respect.
Bryant downplayed his military career, saying he was never involved in fighting and called himself “no more than an errand boy.”
He did have a harrowing experience en route to North Africa when his ship was rammed. Bryant later wrote, “We lay dead in the water about three days. A German sub could have taken us with a pocket knife.”
Following the war, Bryant became head coach at Maryland for a year. The president at Maryland, H.C. Byrd, pronounced after Bryant’s first season in 1945 that Bryant had a lifetime contract. But when the president fired one of Bryant’s assistants and reinstated a player Bryant had thrown off the team, Bryant quit. He went on to successful stints at Kentucky and Texas A&M before returning to his alma mater in 1958 where he became perhaps the most famous football coach in college history.
In 25 years at Alabama his teams won six national championships, had a record of 232-46-9, won 14 Southeastern Conference championships, and went to 24 consecutive bowl games. Bryant was national coach of the year three times. His overall record as a head coach was 323-85-17.
And one can’t help but wonder how events changed the football fortunes of Arkansas.
One irory: Bryant, whom Alabama fans believed could walk on water, was a Navy man despite the fact that he couldn’t swim.
May is Military Appreciation Month.
(Editor's Note: We are indebted to Delbert Reed's book, "When Winning Was Everything," for many of the details in this article. The title is a play on Bryant's famous quote, "Winning isn't everything, but it beats anything that comes in second.")