Friday, May 31, 2013

Bear Bryant at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt's 1940 coaching staff (l to r): Assistant Paul Bryant,
Head Coach Red Sanders, assistants H.E. Alley and Jim Scoggins.
Following the 1935 season, Alabama end Paul W. Bryant had finished his career as a collegiate athlete. That spring his coach, Frank Thomas, sent him to Union College in Jackson, Tennessee, in order to teach that staff the Notre Dame offense run by the Crimson Tide. It was the first coaching experience for Bryant and it was followed by an offer to join Thomas’ staff as an assistant.

After four years, Bryant had earned his bachelors degree at Alabama and began looking for other coaching opportunities. He applied for a place on Frank Howard’s staff at Clemson but before he got a reply, Red Sanders of Vanderbilt stopped by in Tuscaloosa and offered him a job on the Commodore’s staff as an offensive line coach.

Sanders had planned to offer the job to Mississippi State assistant Murray Warmath but a chance conversation with Nashville sportswriter Fred Russell convinced him to take a chance on the protegee of Alabama's Thomas.

Sanders was in his first year with the Commodores. His predecessor, J. Ray Morrison, had been unable to keep the Vanderbilt program at the lofty heights it enjoyed under Dan McGugin. The first season under Sanders wasn't expected to be a dramatic change but it started off auspiciously enough with a 19-0 pasting of Washington & Lee.

The second contest was a hard fought 6-7 loss to Princeton in New Jersey and by the end of it the Commodore squad had been severely diminished by injuries. Set to play a mediocre Kentucky team at home in Nashville the following week, bettors were favoring the Wildcats. The odds got longer when Sanders took ill with appendicitis the Thursday before the game. With the head coach in the hospital, the top assistant took over his coaching duties.

So on Oct. 12, 1940 Paul “Bear” Bryant walked the sideline as a head coach for the very first time in his long and illustrious career. The 27-year-old was so nervous he later claimed to have driven out into the country and “puked my guts out” the night before the contest. Sanders gave the team a pep talk from his hospital bed by telephone prior the game but it was Bryant who led them onto the field.

The Commodores managed to battle the Wildcats to a 7-7 tie that was marked by an incident between the young coach and official, Bill McMasters. Late in the game McMasters ejected Vandy’s Art Reborovich for slugging Kentucky halfback Noah Mullins. The call that infuriated Bryant and, urged on by Vandy manager Preacher Franklin, he began moving toward the referee. Kentucky Athletic Director Bernie Schiveley stepped in and physically restrained Bryant. The neophyte coach calmed down but the call still rankled.

“Naturally I thought the officials cheated us somehow, else we’d have won,” he said later. “No young coach is going to believe he lost on his own merit.”

Sanders returned for the next game and the Commodores would limp to a disappointing 3-6-1 record for the season but almost upset Alabama on the road. The next year Vanderbilt powered to an 8-2 record that included a 7-0 victory over Bryant’s former team.

Although the 1941 team was one of the strongest the Commodores had seen in years and Bryant had already developed a formidable reputation as a recruiter, the young assistant’s contract was not renewed. Bryant then threw his hat in the ring for the newly vacant head coaching position at Arkansas.

After three meetings with the governor, Bryant was convinced he would return to his home state as the coach of the flagship university’s football team. Everything changed on Dec. 7 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The next morning Bryant drove to Washington D.C. and enlisted in the Navy ending his head coaching hopes for the duration of the war.

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