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Friday, December 20, 2002
Just a coach, not a leader

By David Halberstam
Special to Page 2

The debut Dec. 14 of "The Junction Boys," ESPN's movie about Bear Bryant and his first preseason training camp as head coach of Texas A & M, got me thinking about Bryant's role as a historic figure, which I think is more tainted than most people realize. Rarely have I seen a movie so well-promoted by a network -- if anything, it struck me as I watched, that more time and energy and perhaps money had gone into promoting it than into making it.

Paul Bear Bryant
No Newspapers dared to criticize Paul "Bear" Bryant.
For one thing, it lacks authenticity because none of the football players look like college football players -- they look more like people who might be on the margin for a high school team, trying to fight their way up from the JV. And the attempt to make it look more primitive by putting them in truly rinky dink uniforms (circa 1911) fails, especially because some old home-made movies make the players look bigger and stronger as they were in real life, and show them in genuine football uniforms.

But that's only a small part of it. Tom Berenger, in the key role as the Bear, usually acts with multiple dimensions. Not here. He's brilliant in "Platoon" as a hard-ass dark-visioned sergeant, a role that should have prepared him perfectly for this one.

In the end, the movie fails because the screenplay is weak and the entire movie focuses on too small a part of the story (to give a drink of water or not to give a drink of water), and fails to follow through on the complexity of the consequences of what we're watching -- it just assures us that it all worked out for the better. Berenger plays a mono-dimensional Bear, who seems almost sadistically driven, depriving his players not merely of water but of adequate medical care.

It's the coach as Super-Darwinist. Strength -- love of the game -- is measured only by willingness to play seriously injured and to suffer pain, even beyond an acceptable medical level. The man we see seems maniacal, out of touch with reality and humanity, with a far too simplistic view of the concepts of strength and character. Might some very good, reasonably intelligent football players who would have been very good on his teams finally have walked from the camp, (a) because football wasn't fun, and (b) they truly needed water? The question hangs there long after the movie is over. We watch the movie unfold this way, with little understanding of what motivates Bryant. In the end, the movie is truly schizophrenic: We come to dislike him, and to sympathize with most of the young men as they are mistreated. And then we are told at the end, that it is all for the good, that it worked, and the Bear went on to win all those titles, so he must have been doing the right thing.

  But the Bear was very late to the dance, especially because people are always talking about football coaches as leaders. In this case, he did not lead very well. We know that he was a divided man on this, and we know that he was slow, much too slow to act, and so here we have a real test of a man in conflict with himself, and of the complexity that takes us inside even the honored and most successful of men. This is subject matter for a very good movie.  
  

Later, after the movie is over, we are introduced through an ESPN special to a handful of survivors of that preseason camp, and they assure us, not surprisingly, that they were the better for going through that experience and that the Bear made them what they are. Well, maybe, but perhaps they would have been just as strong as men if their injuries had been treated properly, the rooms had been cooler, and the entire camp had not been so dismal a place.

But more importantly, in terms of history, I think the movie focuses on the wrong part of Bryant's career. The truth about all of us in life is that when history pays us a call and chooses to judge us on a certain issue, more often than not, it does it by surprise, and it does not warn us in advance that the issue we are being judged on is going to be more important than the thing we think we are going to be judged on. So it was with Bear Bryant.

We know, as a football man, the Bear was a great success, a winner, tough, hard on himself and on his players, and we are assured by the movie that the end was worth the means. But we are all judged in this life on more than that, and it is here on something that seemed ancillary at first, the issue of race, that Bryant's life story is far more interesting and complicated, and the rankings of the time, No. 1 in the country, on his way to yet another bowl game, mean so little.

The great test of him as a man was not whether he gave or did not give water to his players that first summer. The great test of him was how he handled the subject of race as Alabama's football coach -- as the South's signature coach on a subject of great importance, whether or not to go after black players despite regional prejudice -- during a terrible time, when the entire nation, but most importantly the deep South, was being torn apart on the issues of race, prejudice and traditional culture. I happened to be working as a reporter in the South in those years, and I remember what he did not do, as well as what he did do. The Supreme Court in 1954 had mandated integration, but the deep South states, most especially Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were complete in their resistance to change. And Bear Bryant had arrived in Alabama, his old school, in 1958, in time to be there through much of the most bitter and painful part of that struggle.

In Alabama, lest we forget, those were the George Corley Wallace years -- his mantra was segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever. And the Bear was coaching at the University of Alabama in those years. More, he was an icon in the state at the time. And he was a formidable football coach and football coaches are supposed to judge players on talent and character, and not on anything else, not on any exterior prejudices. And he was a smart enough man to know that all kinds of great football players from Alabama, some of whom just happened to be black and were not able to play for him because of the prevailing prejudice, in many cases young men who were on their way to the pros, and he knew as well that he had the law of the nation on his side now if he wanted to play them, and that only local prejudice kept him from recruiting them, and most important of all, he was the one man in all of Alabama who could go ahead and recruit them, and stand up to George Wallace, and bring the culture along with him.

Tom Berenger
Bryant, as portrayed by Tom Berenger in "The Junction Boys," seems almost sadistically driven.
And for 13 years, when he could have made a great difference, he did very little and did not really dissent from the biases of the region. Yes, he let 'Bama play an integrated Penn State team in the Liberty Bowl in 1959. But that was good for him and his players and changed very little. In truth, he denied native sons of Alabama, great players, players better than he was when he was their age, their rightful place on the state university team. It did not take a genius at that time to know something was wrong with this picture, and to know that his failure to stand apart from the worst of the region's culture diminished him as a man on something profoundly important.

We know that he knew better, that he knew that what he was going along with was wrong, and that in the end he was placing a severe ceiling on the quality of his teams, which soon would not be able to compete with the best teams in the nation. We know that in 1970, he arranged a game with Southern Cal, and that Sam (Bam) Cunningham scored two touchdowns in the first half as USC destroyed Alabama 42-21, thus changing the course of deep South football because the Alabama program was integrated the next year. And all the good old boys could later laugh and say that old Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 30 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 16 years.

But the Bear was very late to the dance, especially because people are always talking about football coaches as leaders. In this case, he did not lead very well. We know that he was a divided man on this, and we know that he was slow, much too slow to act, and so here we have a real test of a man in conflict with himself, and of the complexity that takes us inside even the honored and most successful of men. This is subject matter for a very good movie. If I'm grading Bear Bryant -- and remember, I was working in the South during some of those terrible painful years -- I grade him out with a C+ on this one. At best a B-.

And it's the one test that really matters, the one historians are going to remember. There's a line early in the film in which Bryant, meeting with his players for the first time, tells them he doesn't care who their daddies were. But the system did care who their daddies were, and the system cared that their daddies were white. So it leaves us once again with a sense that traditional definitions of the words "strong" and "tough" are often wrong, that Bear Bryant was self evidently very tough, but I am not so sure how strong a man he was. It's a different kind of strength, of course, the strength to take risks and be different from the conventional mores, when those mores are self-evidently wrong; it's the willingness to stand up for an idea that is seemingly very far from the football field.

But, ultimately, he did not take on George Wallace when he should have ... at least, not back when it really mattered.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 best sellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes occasionally for Page 2.