Type “college football museums” into Google and inside the first five hits, you get two for the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana, and three for the Paul W. Bryant Museum located right here in good old Tuscaloosa, Our Fair City, right next to the Flagship State U conference center. The shadow of Paul William Bryant, known of course as Paul Bear Bryant (in local parlance, pronounced always as one word: Paulbearbryant, or phonetically, Pawburbri-an, with a long i), hangs over everything that is Bama to the point that I sometimes feel, walking around, like I’m living with a walking ghost. It’s a very different vibe to being on a campus with that other winning college football coach at Big State U in Pennsylvania. That other coach is no ghost, he’s a living legend. Literally. When you see him walking on campus, he smiles at you as you rush past to teach your next. He donates money to the English department and the library. He still runs out onto the field with the football team. Sure, he’s got a full-sized bronze statue to him out in front of the stadium, but he’s alive.
But Paulbearbryant’s ghost is bigger than any figure any living coach might cut walking across any campus to date. Case in point: Big State U has an All-Sports Museum; Flagship State U has the Bryant Museum. Granted, the Bryant Museum does cover the entirety of the Alabama football tradition, but the video at the heart of the exhibit is about Bryant’s life and his legend, about 1/3 of the museum space is dedicated to Bryant pictures and memorabilia (like his entire office right down to the Green Bay Packers mug on his desk), and shrines to Bryant appear around practically every corner. My personal favorite? The Paulbearbryant Coke bottles and the crystal replica houndstooth hat on the velvet revolving turntable in the lighted display case. I’ll bet the hat is even the right size. Nothing says “overkill” like crystal that would fit on your head.
I take a class to the museum every semester, partly because its very existence is bound to inspire a little writing, mostly because pretty much none of my students have ever been. This semester, I went with my Honors freshman comp class, which is focusing on living locally (I’ve cleverly titled it “Think Globally, Write Locally: Locavores, Rhetoric, and You”), among other things. Only one of my fifteen students had been before. I asked them to go, to take notes, to think about what it means or what it says about Tuscaloosa, Our Fair City, that we have a museum dedicated to the Bear. Some of them might write about it on their blogs. See, we’re trying a little experiment this semester: each student will keep a comprehensive blog in place of a final paper. We’ll see how they work out. I’ll have them all linked to Scooter Nation by tomorrow. And I’m not going to lie. I’m shamelessly using my own blog space to (ideally) spur my students on to a little writing of their own. We’ll see how that will work out, too.
As for the museum, well, even an Auburn fan like yours truly has to give credit where credit is due. Bryant more than just defines the sports tradition here in Tuscaloosa. In a way, Bryant’s legacy defines the best of Southeastern Conference football: a sense of history, of pride, of deep-seated tradition that’s handed down from family member to family member. It’s the sort of stuff we like to trot out when we’re making fun of the South, and admittedly, the parents who name their children “Bryant” or saddle some poor unfortunate kid with the middle name “Bear” really do need to reconsider their priorities (and to be fair, so do those Auburn fan parents who name their kids “Aubie”). Tradition and custom in the South are a catch 22. On the one hand, let’s all agree that any state that does not make an effort to recycle glass and that, in response to recent school shootings, is considering allowing students and teachers to carry guns on college campuses (because obviously arming more unstable young adults is a good way to ensure everyone’s safety) is not the most “with it” of states. On the other hand, there’s something comforting about settling into a place where barbeque sauce recipes are handed down from one generation to the next, where family names get passed along like hand-me-downs and everyone who’s anyone belongs to the DAR or the United Daughter of the Confederacy or both, and where one man’s legacy has the power to inspire thousands long after he’s passed. Southerners are fearless in their pride. Then again, I guess it doesn’t really take a crystal houndstooth hat to tell you that.
Crystal you could wear on your head.
Gen-u-ine Paulbearbryant Coke.