What if Bear Bryant never left Kentucky?
Before he made Alabama Football what it is today, before the six national titles or the winning seasons at Texas A&M or the historic Junction Boys, Paul “Bear” Bryant made a name for himself as the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.
He coached at UK for eight seasons from 1946-53, leading the Wildcats to a 60-23-6 record in that time including five top 25 finishes in the season-ending Associated Press poll. His crowning achievement came in 1950, when he led UK to its first-ever SEC title and then snapped No. 1 Oklahoma’s 31-game win streak to close the ’50 season with an 11-1 record. Four years later he left the Bluegrass and only ever returned as an opposing coach who haunted the Cats for years.
So how’d he get away, you ask?
Bryant was Kentucky’s football coach in the thrust of the Adolph Rupp era in Kentucky’s men’s basketball program, an era that spanned more than 40 years. Even after elevating Kentucky to one of the premier football programs in the SEC, and especially after the magical 1950 season that the Sagarin Rankings retroactively placed atop their 1950 rankings, Bryant was not rewarded the way Rupp was for his success on the hardwood.
In the weeks leading up to that showdown with No. 1 Oklahoma, Bryant was quoted by the AP as saying to Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson, “The other night we had a joint basketball-football banquet and Adolph Rupp was presented with a big four-door Cadillac. All I got was a cigarette lighter.”
Four years later, the under-appreciated Bryant left for Texas A&M; four years after that he left for Alabama, and the rest is history.
But what if Kentucky had offered Bryant the car and Rupp the cigarette lighter? Or, to put it in simpler terms, what if Kentucky had kept Bryant and let Rupp walk?
Obviously, any hypothetical involving this many sports legends changing teams more than 60 years ago creates a domino effect that spans generations of multiple sports. So we thought we’d take a closer look at some of those dominoes, and how they may have fallen differently had Bryant remained coach of the Cats.
The Kentucky Dominoes
1. Kentucky would be a football school nowadays, and Alabama likely wouldn’t.
After keeping Rupp, Kentucky won four basketball national championships before 1960, and the Cats’ home arena is now named Rupp Arena in the coach’s honor. That’s how dedicated UK is to Rupp and the game of basketball in the 21st century, and that’s why they’ve been willing to outbid even most NBA teams to keep current coach John Calipari in place. Had UK kept Bryant some 62 years ago, that same dedication would likely have been focused on football all this time. Bryant would be part of UK’s football stadium’s namesake, not Alabama’s, and Kentucky might have eight football championships, not eight NCAA tournament titles.
2. Kentucky would be what Florida has become in the SEC.
There was a time for a large chunk of the last 25 years in which Florida was a top national program in both football and basketball. Obviously that’s not sustainable on an annual basis, but more often than not Steve Spurrier/Urban Meyer’s football teams were ranked in the top 25, as were many of Billy Donovan’s basketball teams. Even if UK had kept Bryant and let Rupp walk, Rupp had already won three national titles from 1948-51 and established Kentucky Basketball as one of the nation’s premier programs. Kentucky could have likely replaced Rupp with someone who might not have been a future Hall of Famer but might have been competent enough to keep the program nationally relevant. From there it could have built back up, and UK could be the current UF in terms of dual-sport success.
3. Kentucky and Florida might share one of the SEC’s top all-sports rivalries.
In continuing to allow dominoes to fall, picture Kentucky as a dual-sport success during the last 25 years. Nothing to do with this Bryant-Rupp-Kentucky-Alabama-SEC hypothetical affects Florida or its hiring of Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer or Billy Donovan. Florida would still likely be the same dual-threat power it is today, just simply joined in that club by East foe Kentucky. Now imagine how good both schools could’ve been in both sports, and how that might’ve affected their rivalry, especially when placed in the same division after the 1992 split. In-state rivalries like UK-Louisville and Florida-Florida State are obvious, but UK and Florida might have shared in one of the conference’s elite all-sports rivalries, fueled only by matched success in football, basketball and beyond. Instead, Florida has beaten Kentucky 28 times in a row in football, which doesn’t exactly constitute a heated rivalry.
The Texas A&M Dominoes
4. There would be no Junction Boys.
Bryant more or less reshaped the Texas A&M program when he arrived in 1954 after leaving Kentucky. He felt the team was weak and under-coached, so he took them to the middle of Hill Country in the midst of a historic drought and worked his boys for 10-plus hours a day in 100-plus degree heat. (If a coach tried to do this today he’d not only be denied permission and would not only be fired, but he’d face a mountain of lawsuits from parents stacked so high you could ski down the side like a Colorado mountain resort.)
That camp caused more than half the team to either quit or fall ill, and by the end of the 10 days there were only 35 players left on the team. That team won just one game all year, but Bryant won at least seven games and never lost more than three in any one season for the duration of his A&M tenure. The team itself is one of the most famous in college football history, and it’s a big part of Bryant’s legacy in addition to his wealth of titles. To imagine it never having happened might not change the course of Bryant’s career or A&M’s program, but it would be a glaring absence in the football history books.
The Alabama Dominoes
5. Alabama athletics would be middle of the pack in the SEC.
It’s important to note that it was Kentucky with two coaching legends under one roof, while Alabama was merely a beneficiary of Bryant’s availability on the coaching market. Had UK never let Bryant walk, Alabama would not have been entitled to taking in another coaching legend in either football or basketball, and it certainly wouldn’t have been entitled to taking in Rupp rather than Bryant (remember, Alabama got Bryant from A&M, not UK).
So imagine if Alabama had only enjoyed modest success in both sports for all these years. It’d likely be the SEC equivalent to Ole Miss, a school from a fertile football region of the country with plenty of pageantry surrounding the football program but not many titles in the last 60 years. Plus, on the basketball side of things, the program might qualify for the NCAA tournament about 50 percent of the time, but it’d never present a realistic title threat. Alabama athletics, and the university as a whole, would be perceived in a totally different light on a national level.
6. Nick Saban might have taken his dynasty elsewhere.
After his first losing season as a head coach at any level, a 6-10 season with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 2006, Saban left Miami to return to college football as the head man at Alabama. The Tide were a historically great program that had fallen on hard times, and just as he had hoped to challenge himself with a leap to the NFL, Saban hoped to challenge himself once again by taking a team with lofty expectations from fans and little talent on the roster and turning it into a perennial contender. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years, you now know Saban succeeded in doing just that, and if anything over-achieved. But ultimately one could argue he might have kept looking for a different college job had Bryant not turned Alabama into the premier football school in America during his reign.
So what if Bryant never made it to Alabama? Would Saban have stayed in the NFL, where many forget he was 9-7 as a first-time pro coach in 2005? Would he have left to fill a vacancy at Michigan that was ultimately filled by Rich Rodriguez? Would he have maybe waited and filled the void at Ohio State that Urban Meyer filled, or might he have filled the void at Florida that Urban Meyer left? It’s all speculation, but it’s fair to believe Saban wouldn’t have left the NFL without being fired for a college job like Alabama had it not been for Bryant so many years earlier.
7. There’d have been no Kick Six.
First of all, had Bryant never arrived at Alabama, there’s a good chance the Iron Bowl would still be just another in-state rivalry game that no one outside the state even knows exists. And there certainly wouldn’t have been a Kick Six had Saban never arrived at Alabama, which he very well may never have had Bryant not made Alabama what it is today. Think about it: Saban came to Alabama, turned it into the national power every team measured itself against, intensified the Iron Bowl rivalry, won three titles in four years, nearly set itself up for a fourth in five years and then Auburn capitalized with one of the most historic plays in college football history. All that other stuff had to come first, and had Bryant not set up Saban’s arrival more than 30 years ahead of time, none of it might’ve happened. Auburn might still have won the 2013 SEC title, but they’d be just another conference champion without that wacky return touchdown for the win.
8. Auburn would be the state of Alabama’s premier football program.
After the Iron Bowl went on a 40-year hiatus from 1907 to 1948, the Tide and Tigers split 10 meetings from 1948-57 before Bryant’s arrival in Tuscaloosa. During Bryant’s 25 seasons at Alabama, however, the Tide defeated Auburn 19 times, winning more than three-fourths of its Iron Bowl appearances with Bryant leading the way. So imagine how different the series, the rivalry, and the football culture in the state might be today had Bryant never arrived in Tuscaloosa. Auburn would still have enjoyed Ralph Jordan and Pat Dye and Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson. It would’ve still finished the 2004 season with a perfect record, and still would’ve claimed Cam Newton in 2010. It’d have been the Tide that would have suffered, and Auburn might have won the state (metaphorically speaking), owning it as its premier program thanks to what we can expect would’ve been a much better record in the foundational years of the Iron Bowl rivalry. The state of Alabama is a high school football hotbed, perhaps not on the level of Florida, Texas or California, but enough so that commanding the state would’ve paid major dividends for Auburn through the years.