THE BEAR IN COLLEGE STATION
Bear Bryant spent a grand total of four years in College Station, coaching only 41 games. He arrived in 1954, having left Kentucky to escape the shadow of Adolph Rupp. He left for Tuscaloosa and immortality in late 1957 when "mama called" him home. Despite his brief stay, Bryant's methods and success had a lasting impact on the culture of Aggie football.
Bryant was already a famous coach by the time he arrived in Texas, having brought both Maryland and Kentucky to unprecedented heights during brief tenures. Texas A&M had fallen on hard times after experiencing great success in the late 30s and early 1940s. That the program's fall paralleled the rise of Texas Longhorn football was almost too much to bear for Aggies whose mission in life was beating "tu." Since 1939, A&M had won only one game in fourteen tries against Texas. The program was crawling with over-enthusiastic boosters who meddled in coaching decisions over strategy and playing time.
Again, we recommend the Junction Boys by Jim Dent for a review of Bryant's early days at A&M. In it, he describes a memorable rally introducing A&M's new head coach in early 1954:
Bryant ripped off his suit coat and glared at the crowd like a man ready for a back-alley fight. He slammed the expensive fabric down on the stage and stomped it with both shoes. Whipping off his tie, he twirled it above his head and threw it down. He kicked and stomped the tie like a menacing rattlesnake and then danced around it. He mimicked the yell leaders by rolling up his sleeves almost to the elbows. Then he cradled the silver microphone in both hands and waited for the silence. "Boys," he drawled deeply and resonantly and then paused. "It's time to win some damn football games."Dent goes on to write that A&M end Bill Schroeder turned to teammate Gene Stallings, who would go on to be a coach of some renown, and shouted "Bebes, we've been saved!"
Dent has been criticized for dramatizing elements of Bryant's first camp at Junction, TX, and who knows whether he did. Some of the facts, however, are beyond dispute. Bryant's first order of business was segregating the Aggies from their fellow students and meddling boosters. He did so by taking his new team by bus to Junction, a small town west of College Station situated in a fairly desolate landscape.
It's interesting that the official Junction website makes no mention of its most famous visitor; perhaps that's because Bryant chose Junction for its lack of charms. The place was oppressively hot in summer, and Bryant practiced the Ags on a patch of briar-filled dirt for the first several days. The camp was famed for its attrition rate, though the exact number of quitters is in dispute.
Bryant inherited a team of about 100 players, of whom he cut a good number before the team even left for Junction. Assuming he arrived in Junction with 75 men, he lost a little more than half during the camp. As Gene Stallings, one of the 30 or so who stuck it out, said "we went out in two buses and came back in one."
The brutality of those Junction practices is described in vivid detail by Dent. Bryant before his first Junction workout:
"First, I'm going to whip your butts into shape. Second, I want you to become a team. We're gonna turn this love boat around...Just to show you I ain't kidding, I want you boys to form one line over by that pile of rocks. We're gonna start this beautiful mornin' off with a few gassers. Coach Owens, line 'em up."The temperature was consistently above 100 degrees, and Bryant did forbid his players from drinking water during practice. But some players and coaches, including assistant Bum Phillips, dispute Dent's claims that Bryant hit players and left injuries untreated. The legendary head-butt that Bryant supposedly applied to an un-helmeted Henry Clark apparently never happened. In fact, it's not at all clear that Bryant's practices were any worse than Frank Kush's legendary Camp Tontozona (aside from the oppressive heat, which can be verified).
The sun had climbed far into the pale blue sky and the gravel pit known as the practice field was dotted with orange juice stains when the eighty-yard wind sprints, also known as gassers, finally ended. More than twenty times the boys had chugged to the other end of the field, taken a short break, then wobbled back, stirring up clouds of thick dust. Just as Bryant predicted, the boys were vomiting everything in their stomachs - the orange juice, vitamins and salt tablets. Bryant seemed happy to see the boys bent over and puking so early in the morning.
What is clear is that Bryant forever changed the self-image of the A&M program. The boys he brought back to College Station were too few in number to compete effectively in 1954 - the Aggies finished a dismal 1-9 that year. The next year, however, they finished 7-2-1 and in 1956 they nearly won the national championship at 9-0-1.
The expectations endured, but the success on the field did not. Following Bryant's departure to Tuscaloosa in 1957, the Aggies endured eight straight losing seasons. Their 7-4 mark in 1967 - under Bryant protege Gene Stallings - was A&M's only winning season between 1958 and 1974. But Aggies who lived through the roman candle of Bryant's career in College Station never lost their expectation that A&M would eventually return to national prominence. They did shortly after Emory Bellard, the architect of the wishbone, left Austin for College Station in 1972. We'll review 'modern' A&M football history - from Bellard to the Wrecking Crew - in an upcoming post.