Paul W. “Bear” Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa following the 1982 Liberty Bowl, his last game, as college football’s all-time winningest coach and a man in need of a retirement plan.
Not that his finances weren’t in order – they were – but he needed to decide what to do after leaving coaching. Ray Perkins had been hired as Alabama’s football coach, but Bryant was still director of athletics for the Crimson Tide.
Immediately following Alabama’s 21-15 victory over Illinois in Memphis in its last game on December 29, 1982, Bryant sat down with his son Paul Bryant Jr. and discussed his plans. They were never to come true, however, as the legendary coach died of heart failure less than a month later at the age of 69.
“That was one of the last conversations I remember about anything in particular,” Paul Bryant Jr. told USA TODAY Sports Network.
The elder Bryant wanted to shield Perkins, who he coached at Alabama in the mid-1960s, from criticism. Perkins’ hiring was announced in mid-December at the same time as Bryant’s retirement was announced, with Perkins leaving his position as head coach of the New York Giants to follow coach of the Crimson Tide.
But Bryant also didn’t want his shadow hanging over Perkins as the new coach was trying to establish himself in Alabama.
“Dad was talking after the game (the Liberty Bowl), it wasn’t right after it but a little while after, before he got sick,” said Paul Bryant Jr.. “He was talking about what he was going to do, telling us, ‘What are we going to do? next year?’
He said, “I’ll stay on as athletic director just to keep them away from Perkins,” but said, “By next fall I don’t want to be here where everyone’s asking me what you think.”
“He said to go watch baseball.”
So apparently, Bear Bryant would step down as Alabama’s athletic director before the 1983 season.
Paul Bryant Jr., then 38 and an established businessman with interests in real estate, agriculture and dog racing − as well as a new reinsurance company, which insures insurance companies − had previously worked for the organization Oakland Athletics as general manager of the Birmingham Barons and had many contacts in professional baseball.
One of them was Haywood Sullivan, general manager of the Boston Red Sox, a former Florida quarterback. So Bear Bryant decided that he wanted to attend some Red Sox games.
“Let’s go watch them,” he told his son, “and maybe the Yankees can make the World Series and we can go.
“I don’t want to be here where people are making me guess Perkins every game. I don’t think I should go to games.”
Paul Bryant Jr. assumed his father said “we” in the conversation because he had easy transportation and would enjoy going: “I guess I’ve got the plane by then.”
Obviously the retired coach couldn’t avoid the entire football season by taking baseball trips. He had another idea.
The father told his son, “I really like the people at Penn State. I think I’ll spend the fall up there and watch their games and watch their practices and I’ll do it.”
Paul Bryant Jr. responded, with a laugh, “OK, (Joe) Paterno is going to love this.”
What the son was thinking was that it would have been worse for Paterno to have the retired coaching legend around than it would have been for Perkins. Bear Bryant couldn’t attend a football program without people making comparisons. Subsequently he was able to tell the story to Paterno and he was his son.
The elder Bryant had a long history with Penn State. His first bowl game at Alabama was a Liberty Bowl loss to the Nittany Lions, a Penn State team that had a young Paterno on his staff as an assistant.
Alabama then beat Penn State in the 1975 and 1979 Sugar Bowls, and also beat 1981 and Bryant’s final season as the start of a 10-year home series Bryant had coached with Paterno.
“He liked Penn State and thought a lot about Paterno and he liked the people,” said Paul Bryant Jr.. “We just went up there the year before for that game and we beat them, and we beat them in the bowl game , the standing game on the goal line (in 1979), and we beat them earlier that year in Birmingham.”
That’s how Bear Bryant had lived, that’s how he would spend his time after practice.
“He said that year is what he was going to do,” said Paul Bryant Jr.. “It would have been go up and watch the Red Sox in September and then go to the World Series and go to Penn State home football games when it’s really autumn. They have a real autumn there with their time”.
This article originally appeared in Nashville Tennessean: ‘Bear’ Bryant’s Son Reveals How He Planned To Spend His Retirement