“Chasing the Bear" By: Lars Anderson

Sep 25, 2019

“Chasing the Bear: How Bear Bryant and Nick Saban Made Alabama the Greatest College Football Program of All Time”

Author: Lars Anderson

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Pages: 304

Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)

Only three years ago Monte Burke published a pretty good biography, “Nick Saban: The Making of a Coach.” Coach Bryant’s life has been done in detail by Allan Barra in “The Last Coach” (2006) and by many others including Keith Dunnavant (1996) and, earlier, John Underwood (1975) in cooperation with Bryant himself.

The basic biographical information about these two men is well established. But veteran sports writer Lars Anderson, in dealing with the lives together, has taken a different angle. This book is beautifully written, unlike most sports writing, and the pairing device really works.

The two men never met, but what strikes the reader first and hardest is how very similar their lives are, especially in the formative years.

Bryant in Fordyce, Arkansas, had it particularly hard.

One of 10 surviving children in a shack with no running water or electricity, Bryant worked the fields, sold vegetables in town on Saturdays, and at school was laughed at for his smelly clothes and dirty bare feet. Chopping cotton paid 50 cents a day; wrestling the visiting bear was to pay a dollar a minute. Bryant did wrestle and pin the bear but the carny fled town and the boy was never paid.

Life for young Saban was not as desperate as THAT, but was narrow and hard. In rural West Virginia, Nick played Pop Warner football, coached by his father, Big Nick, and worked at his service station and Dairy Queen. Big Nick was a hard driver and a perfectionist, perhaps THE traits most ingrained in Coach Saban.

Migration, as we are learning, has both a pull and in these two cases, a powerful push. Both boys saw football as the way out of their isolated and dreary towns and both wanted out, never to return.

Where young Saban was brought up with football, young Paul had only heard games on the radio, and had never actually seen one. At 13, at the end of his 8th grade year, he was watching a high school practice when the head coach spotted the big boy. (Bryant was already 6’ 1’’ and weighed 180 pounds.) The coach asked him if he was interested in football and young Paul said he was but also asked “how do you play?” The coach answered, “You see that fellow catching the ball down there? …Well, whenever he catches it, you go down there and try to kill him.”

Anderson says: “The core of his future football beliefs had just been formed.”

Soccer moms everywhere reading this will tremble and hug their sons closer while adjusting their shin guards.

As all the world knows, Bryant played for Alabama, then after years of assistant coaching and head coaching, returned when “Mama Called.” Saban played at Kent State, then moved around and up in the coaching world, arriving here in 2007.

Both men achieved superhuman success, via similar but not identical methods.

Bryant in Junction, Texas, and everywhere else, stressed conditioning and toughness, dedication and character. He succeeded as a player through “his force of will—and his joy of violence” then extracted the best from each player, as coach, father figure, object of awe and terror.

Coach Saban is all that, surely, but is presented as far more analytical, adding “The Process,” the breaking down of the game into small bits, which, if performed perfectly by each player, will yield success.

One similarity of the two coaches, not always noted, is their ability to adjust to changing cultural times and changing football strategies.

Bryant instituted the wishbone offense when he saw it was needed. He subtly integrated the team, whatever the population of Alabama might have thought about it. Coach Saban switched to a hurry-up offense after Alabama was somewhat bedazzled by the Ole Miss no-huddle offense.

Both men‘s lives are utterly dedicated to football: planning, recruiting, improving. Fortunately, both have the perfect wives for the job, wives who understand the stresses and demands, and help in every useful way possible.

It looks like Coach Bryant perhaps had a little more joie de vivre –there are great stories of Bryant enjoying gambling in Las Vegas, an occasional toddy, and an evening with Frank Sinatra—but it also appears that Saban will chase and catch the Bear and have more national championships than anyone, anywhere, ever.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.