Legendary coach Paul William Bryant died Jan. 26, 1983, which is 30 years ago today. Ten years ago, I wrote this story for The Decatur Daily, marking the 20th anniversary of his death. It still stands, and because I thought you might get something out of it 10 years after publication, I’m reprinting it here.
TUSCALOOSA — The day before Paul “Bear” Bryant died, he still worked to recruit future talent to his beloved University of Alabama football program.
On Jan. 25, 1983, the demigod football coach had gone to DCH Regional Medical Center complaining of severe chest pains, and not long after being admitted, he sat up in his bed in intensive care with one of his nurses, Tammy Kilgore, checking his vital signs.
Kilgore was about seven-and-a-half months pregnant, and an alert and cheerful Bryant patted her stomach while she performed her duties.
“He’s going to be an Alabama football player,” Bryant said.
Kilgore already knew she was expecting a girl and replied, “No, she’s going to be a cheerleader.”
Bryant chuckled and said, “That’s OK as long as she cheers for Alabama.”
Kilgore never thought the next day Bryant would die, and the state would lose one of the most charasmatic and well-known people in its history. While eating lunch Jan. 26, he suffered a heart attack at 12:24 p.m. Hospital personnel attempted to revive him, but couldn’t. He was prounounced dead at 1:30 p.m.
Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of Bryant’s death. Even now, his passing and his funeral Jan. 28, 1983, remain two of the most newsworthy events in state history.
Perhaps the most astonishing part of it all is that 20 years later, those who dealt with him in the final week of his life readily admit that his death came as a shock — even though he was 69 and in poor health.
“With some patients, you can tell,” said Kilgore, who now lives in Hoover. “But the evening before it happened, he didn’t look like a person who was going to die soon.”
He even took care of a little athletic department business that morning.
“He didn’t skip a beat,” said Jack Rutledge, an Alabama assistant coach during 1966-82 and director of Bryant Hall, the players’ dorm. “Even in the hospital, he was in total communication and knew everything that was going on.
“It was a total shock when he died. Nobody expected it — nobody.”
Linda Knowles served as his secretary for the final three years of his life and saw him every day. Even though he officially retired as football coach four weeks earlier with Alabama’s 21-15 Liberty Bowl victory over Illinois, he remained as the Crimson Tide athletics director and still occupied in his office on the second floor of what is now Coleman Coliseum.
In the last four years of his life, Bryant had suffered heart failure and a stroke, and the years of drinking alcohol, smoking and hard living had taken a toll. In the days after his final game, Knowles wondered if Alabama would lose him.
“In his last season, he got through it with his will,” Knowles said. “He felt an inate responsibility to the university, his players and his staff. You could tell he wasn’t feeling well, but he carried on.
“But about two weeks before he died, he began looking better. The spring was back in his step. The color was back in his face. I thought we had gotten past the crisis.”
Knowles, 62, had worked around him since the athletic department hired her in 1961 as a secretary for several of the assistant coaches, including Gene Stallings.
She also served as Stallings’ secretary during his time as Alabama’s head coach in 1990-96. Since then, she has been semi-retired, working as secretary two days a week for the university faculty senate.
She has a small office on the ground floor of Bidgood Hall, and the only reminder of Bryant is a framed needlepoint on the wall that says, “My roots are in Alabama’s sod; I’m Southern by the grace of God; Bear Bryant taught me the meaning of pride; My pledge of allegiance is Roll Tide.”
She said she loves to tell Bryant stories, including one of how he let her two sons, then toddlers, come in his office and play with one of his footballs. Also, she laughingly recounted how he never figured out how to work the staff’s automatic coffee maker.
“He’d always go in the back, pour in the coffee, turn it on and forget to put in the water,” she said. “Then he’d go back later and see there was no coffee. He’d tell me that it was broken, and I’d go put in water when he wasn’t looking.
“I’d tell him, `Coach, we need to have somebody come look at that coffee maker.’ ”
But even with their friendship, she was dumbfounded when she found out the morning of the 26th that he had gone into the hospital that night.
She received a call from Billy Varner, an officer with the University of Alabama police department who was assigned as his bodyguard. He passed along Bryant’s orders to cancel all his engagements for the next two weeks because his doctors had told him to take two weeks off.
“I asked Billy what was wrong, and he said, `Coach ate some sausage for a late breakfast, and it made him ill,’ ” Knowles said.
Later, she received another call … from the hospital. Associate athletics director Sam Bailey, a longtime friend and Bryant assistant coach, had just left Bryant’s side, and the hospital was requesting he return.
“I saw Coach Bailey getting out of his car and went and told him to go back up to the hospital,” Knowles said. “They didn’t tell me what had happened, but I knew.”
After Bailey told her the news, she spent the rest of the day making arrangements for Bryant’s funeral, including fielding calls through the afternoon from President Ronald Reagan, who apparently wanted to attend. Knowles said he didn’t because he wasn’t able to change his plans.
“I thought Coach Bryant would go on forever,” Knowles said. “He was Coach Bryant. I thought he was invincible.”
Perhaps Varner was one of his closest friends in his final years. Varner was a bartender at Indian Hills Country Club and got to know Bryant there. Kirk McNair, publisher of Bama magazine since 1979, said when Bryant found out Varner had no retirement benefits, he helped him get into the university’s law enforcement academy in the mid-1970s.
When Varner graduated, he became Bryant’s bodyguard and confidante until the end. He still lives in Tuscaloosa, although he retired a couple of years ago because of health reasons.
Through a family member, Varner turned down a request for an interview. That isn’t unusual, Knowles and McNair said. They both added Varner has turned down every interview request for years and does so because he respects the Bryant family privacy.
“He isn’t going to betray any secrets,” McNair said.
Varner did a 1991 interview with Al Browning, a former sports writer and Bryant administrative aide, for a videotape about the coach called, “The Legacy Lives.”
Varner told Browning he had seen Bryant an hour before he died.
“I had taken his daughter (Mae Martin Tyson) to see him, and he was joking and laughing,” Varner said. “When I took Mae Martin back to Coach and Mrs. Bryant’s house, I said, `Well, this looks good. I can go home for a while.’
“When I got home, I called Linda to let her know where I was, and she told me he had taken a sudden turn for the worse. I hurried back to the hospital. When I got there, he was gone.”
The news hit Tuscaloosa before news reports came out.
“The telephones went out of order because the circuits were overloaded,” McNair said.
Later that day, McNair went to the Bryant home and visited with family members, including Paul Bryant Jr. Meanwhile, Bryant’s widow, Mary Harmon Bryant, was in another part of the house and wasn’t taking visitors, but McNair said she did visit with one person who nearly got turned away at the door.
Frank Rose, the University of Alabama president who hired Bryant away from Texas A&M in 1958, came unnanounced.
“He was told that Mrs. Bryant wasn’t seeing anybody, and Dr. Rose said, `Tell her Frank Rose came by,’ ” McNair said. “Paul Jr. saw him and caught him as Dr. Rose was turning away. He took him back to see Mrs. Bryant.”
At one point, Mrs. Bryant came out of the living room to tell Paul Jr. that she wanted a local priest to perform the funeral services. She thought that Rev. Billy Graham, a close family friend, might call and offer to do it.
“She thought it might be pretentious,” McNair said.
Many of Bryant’s staff and players found out from each other, the assistant coaches, staff members and friends.
“No one knew what to do,” Rutledge said. “Coach Bryant was the one who told us what we could do and what we should do. And now he was gone.”
Kilgore said the hospital was “chaotic.” Police arrived to keep the crush of curious fans from interferring with the medical staff. Souvenir hunters raided Bryant’s room.
“Everything was taken,” Kilgore said. “The sheets, the oxygen mask he wore, the newspaper he was reading — they even took the gown he was wearing.”
The funeral took place in two cities. The Tuscaloosa service was so large it took up three churches. The funeral was held in First United Methodist Church in downtown Tuscaloosa, with audio piped into First Presbyterian and First Baptist churches.
The First United Methodist pastor, Rev. Joe Elmore, presided over the service.
Eight players from his last Crimson Tide team were chosen by the Bryant family as pall bearers: Jeremiah Castille, Tommy Wilcox, Walter Lewis, Jerrill Sprinkle, Mike McQueen, Paul Fields, Darryl White and Eddie Lowe. Later, Lowe was replaced by Paul Carruth because he was practicing with the Birmingham Stallions of the old USFL.
After the service, the procession headed to Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetary for another memorial and to bury Bryant. The motorcade included six buses filled with current and former players and staff members.
It traveled down 10th Street, which is now Bryant Drive, turned onto McFarland Boulevard and hit Interstate 20/59 to Birmingham from there.
“It was a difficult day, but on the drive to Birmingham, I spent the whole time in awe of all the people who turned out and stood on the side of the road,” said Castille, who played defensive back in the NFL before returning to the university as the campus Fellowship of Christian Athletics director.
Thomas C. Ford‘s 1992 book “Alabama’s Family Tides” estimated as many as 500,000 to 700,000 either attended one of the services or watched the motorcade pass by.
“There were people along the road the whole way,” Castille said. “All along the interstate, cars and trucks had pulled off to the side, and the people were watching us go by. I didn’t have a chance to be sad, because I saw face after face after face, and I was in awe of the fact that Coach Bryant had touched all these lives.
“I knew he was loved and that thousands came to see our football games, but I never realized he touched so many people like he did.”
Knowles was in one of the buses, and she said the magnitude of the funeral struck home with her when the procession passed a lone man who was sweeping his porch.
“He must’ve been in his 80s and was wearing overalls,” Knowles said. “He stopped sweeping when he came by, and I could see that tears were streaming down his eyes. He didn’t know Coach Bryant and probably never met him face-to-face.
“But Coach Bryant meant something to him, and he felt the loss.”
Knowles also noticed kindergarten children lined along McFarland Boulevard.
“They were waving red hearts that said, `We love you Bear,’ ” Knowles said.
Coaches from all the other Southeastern Conference schools came to the services. McNair said Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, who broke Bryant’s all-time coaching victories record in 1985, was the first coach to arrive. Ford’s book said then-Washington Redskins coach George Allen represented Reagan.
Stallings came, too. At the time, he was a Dallas Cowboys assistant coach and was Bryant’s hand-picked successor to him at Alabama. However, then-university president Joab Thomas picked Ray Perkins instead.
“I don’t guess I’ve ever witnessed anything like that funeral, and I probably never will,” said Stallings, who is retired and lives on his family ranch outside Paris, Texas.
Mal Moore served as a Bryant assistant coach during 1964-82 and now is Alabama’s athletics director. He took time recently to talk about Bryant’s death and kept emphasizing a story he heard about a truck driver who watched the procession along the interstate.
“He had been talking to a reporter about Coach Bryant, but when the funeral procession passed, he said, `I better get going. Coach Bryant wouldn’t want me standing around here talking,’ ” Moore said. “If you want to know what Coach Bryant meant to people, that sums it up right there.
“That story shows the kind of effect he had. That truck driver was a man who didn’t know Coach Bryant, but he was affected by him.”
In March of that year, Kilgore gave birth to a girl — just like she told Bryant she would.
She and her husband, John, a respiratory therapist, named her Emily. An only child, Emily eventually enrolled at Alabama.
Although she didn’t become a cheerleader, she still helps the Crimson Tide football program, like Bryant wanted.
She serves as an athletic hostess for various events, including football games, and works part-time as an assistant in the athletic department’s media relations department.