CHC- Bear Bryant Was A Commodore

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CHC- Bear Bryant Was A Commodore


by Bill Traughber

The legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was a Vanderbilt assistant coach for two years in 1940-41. Bryant was an All-SEC lineman at Alabama (1933-35) as a player. After his playing days he became an assistant coach for “The Tide” for Coach Frank Thomas.

Red Sanders & Paul “Bear” Bryant

Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner recommended to Vanderbilt Coach Red Sanders that he hire Bryant to his staff. Sanders, a former Vanderbilt player (1924-26), was in his first year at Vanderbilt and offered Bryant a position as offensive line coach. Bryant was also offered the top assistant’s position that appealed to him.

The Commodores opened the 1940 season with a win over Washington and Lee and a loss to Princeton. Next on the schedule was Kentucky, which was favored to win the game. The game was played in Dudley Field.

But, on the Thursday before the game, Sanders was in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The Tennessean reported:

Paul (Bear) Bryant, line coach who took over the head man’s job yesterday when Sanders had his inflamed appendix whacked out, was doubtful last night if Ellis would be of much service. In fact, he was not counting on starting him but hoped that he would be available for some duty.

The loss of Sanders, who is not apt to be back on the practice field for two weeks, if that soon, was a jolt. Bryant is thoroughly capable of handling the Commodores, but the absence of Sanders leaves him with two tasks to perform and it requires a super man for such an undertaking.

John Ellis was Vanderbilt’s captain and offensive guard. Before the game, Sanders talked to the team by telephone from his bedside. The injury-plagued Commodores tied Kentucky that day, 7-7.

Bryant had these comments after coaching his first game as an acting head coach:

“I couldn’t ask a bunch of boys to play a better game than they did today. Bob Gude played the greatest game at center I’ve ever seen. Roy Huggins was marvelous. (Dan) Walton, (Mac) Peebles, (William) McElreath, (Eddie) Atkinson, (Blinks) Bushmiser–well, all of them gave a wonderful exhibition. It’s too bad they didn’t win after rising to such great heights. I’m thoroughly satisfied with their play.

“We were in the worst physical condition we have been in the season and I am still wondering how some of them stayed in there as well as they did. These boys certainly are fighters and they’ve got plenty of guts. It’s hard to beat that kind of team.”

Paul “Bear” Bryant

Bryant also wrote in his autobiography Bear, The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama Coach Bryant, published in 1974:

“The night before the game I went out into the country and puked my guts out. My big chance. All I really had to do was give them that lineup. Instead I coached a 7-0 victory into a 7-7 tie. Kentucky didn’t have a great team. We struggled along and finally went ahead in the first half when an Irish kid named Flanagan, our tailback passed for a touchdown.

“So in the second half I didn’t let Flanagan throw any more passes. And Kentucky tied the game in the fourth quarter. Naturally I thought the officials cheated us somehow, else we’d have won. No young coach is going to believe he lost on his own merit. Preacher Franklin, who has a Coca-Cola distributorship in Birmingham now and is one of my television sponsors, was the Vanderbilt team manager, and he always had my ear.

“Preacher wanted me to go out there and kill the referee, a distinguished gentleman named Bill McMasters. Preacher had on his white coveralls and he was hopping around egging me on. He was like that. Even today when we lose old Preach thinks we got cheated.

“I had made a couple of steps towards McMasters, who was looking at me out of one eye, when Bernie Shiveley, the Kentucky athletic director, came up from behind and put his big arms around me and pulled me away. If he hadn’t I’d probably got thrown out of football before my time. I didn’t get to say a word.”

Mickey Flanagan played for Vanderbilt in 1939-40. One of the referee’s calls that must have irritated Bryant was described in the Tennessean:

The break that turned victory for the turned, worn-out and reeling Commodores into a tie came when the officials called a slugging penalty in the fading minutes just after Noah Mullins, Kentucky right halfback, had wiggled through the Vanderbilt line for 21 yards to place the ball only 22 yards from goal.

Art Rebrovich, Vandy’s 165-pound back, was accused of slugging and with his ejection from the game went an 11-yard penalty. Three plays later Charley Ishmael, Cat fullback who was supposed to have had a sprained ankle, shot through right guard and into the end zone for the touchdown. Hardly a hand touched him.

Red Sanders

Sanders came back the next week to coach at Georgia Tech. Vanderbilt continued on to a 3-6-1 record including a 25-21 loss to 17th ranked Alabama. The 1941 Commodores club was 8-2 with a 7-0 upset victory over 7th ranked Alabama.

Clemson was Sanders first coaching assignment as an assistant (1927-29) and from 1931- 37 he was head coach at Columbia Military Academy and Riverside Military Academy. Those teams combined for a 55-4-2 record. Sanders was also on the staffs of Florida (1938) and LSU (1939) before becoming Vandy’s head coach.

Sanders left Vanderbilt for UCLA in 1949 and compiled a 66-19-1 record as a Bruin. When he retired in 1957, Sanders won a national championship in 1954 and was named Coach-of-the-Year. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and died in 1958 in Los Angeles.

Bryant, an Arkansas native, was 28 years old when he interviewed for the vacant head coaching position at Arkansas in December 1941. While driving back to Nashville from the interview, he listened on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Bryant immediately joined the Navy where he later attained a rank of Lieutenant Commander.

After his service during World War II, Bryant was given the head-coaching job at Maryland in 1945. He later coached at Kentucky (1946-53), Texas A&M (1954-57) and Alabama (1958-82). When he retired at the end of the 1982 season, he was college’s all-time winningest football coach (323-85-17). He also won six national championships. Bryant died on January 26, 1983 at age 69.

Next week read about Vanderbilt’s first football rivalry against Sewanee.

Traughber’s Tidbit: Sir Henry Thornton was Vanderbilt’s first salaried football coach (1894) who was knighted. Thornton later became president of the Canadian National Railways Systems and made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and given many decorations from several governments. He died on March 14, 1933.

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail