LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The legacy of Paul “Bear” Bryant are captured in still photos at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
Kids, like myself, grew up seeing the legendary coach in Louisville, listening to the great stories of the Kentucky football days.
Bryant spent a lot of time in Louisville, recruiting players and even making friends with University of Louisville greats.
Many of our fathers played for him.
“The Bear” left Kentucky in 1954.
“Why do you think he’s talked about in such a big fashion?” Doug Proffit asked.
David Koch replied, “Until recently, those were the most winning years in UK history. Until now, those were our best teams ever.”
Bryant was a football coach bigger than life in more ways than one.
John and David Koch’s father Joe along with Proffit’s father Jim played for Bryant at UK from 1950 to 1954.
When Proffitt died in 2018, he was the last living member of Bryant’s winning 1952 Cotton Bowl team.
Brian and Caroline Knop’s dad was Otto Knop – a UofL football star linebacker and center for the Cards from 1949 to 1952. The St. Xavier grad, who never played for Bryant, was a favorite of “the Bear’s.”
“He was greeted with open arms by Bear Bryant,” Brian said. “I actually witnessed in a room where he would come up [and say] ‘Otto, how ya doing? Good to see you.’”
In the 1970s, Bryant reunions for his Kentucky players were held in Louisville.
My dad, shown wearing red pants, stood next to Bryant. Koch and Knop were the planners, having the then Alabama coach flowing to the city to play golf.
“He loved these guys, he made it easy,” Knop said. “He appreciated everything they did.”
All to tell those well-worn stories again, in that voice that played out on ABC Sports so many afternoons.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Bryant spent a lot of time in Louisville recruiting at Manual High School.
“We’re sitting on a field where Bear Bryant walked, what runs through your mind on that?” Doug asked.
Knop replied, “To know that he was here recruiting people, it’s pretty incredible.”
As current Coach Mark Stoops is two wins away from tying the legendary coach’s all-time win record at Kentucky, I got everyone together for Bear Bryant stories.
“Always classic outfits – high-waisted pants. Polyester. Always had a lot of 70s right there,” Caroline described as she looked over photos.
John Koch remembers talking to his 90-year-old grandmother about his dad and her son, Joe.
“I said, ‘isn't it something that dad played for Bear Bryant?’ And she said, ‘I wasn’t' a big fan of his. He was kind of mean to Joe’ – and she was looking at it from a mother's perspective and said Bear came into the house and said, ‘you gotta learn how to cook.’ You gotta understand my grandmother was one of the greatest cooks in Louisville. You gotta learn how to cook better and put some weight on him or he's not going to make it. She just took that to heart and that's her memory of Bear Bryant,” he explained.
David added, “You know in our dad’s case he didn't talk a lot about football plays or games, it was always about Otto Knop, or Harry Jones, or guys he played with meant the most to him. Not the football games but the relationships that lasted until his death.”
Brian will never forget the trip, on a leap of faith, to Bryant’s last bowl game as the Alabama coach, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. He was with his brother Otto Jr., his dad Otto and former UK player Nick Odlivak. They had no tickets. Bryant had told them to just show up.
“We’re in the hotel lobby with all of these Alabama fans,” he said. “We’re out in front with all these Alabama fans and Bear Bryant sees my dad and he sees Nick and he goes right through the crowd, the state troopers and he opens his coat, and he says, ‘Otto, Nick and Otto, here’s your tickets.’”
He said the Alabama fans looked and wondered who they were following the moment.
After the game, Bryant told a story about an ice-cold Liberty Bowl he once coached.
"At the half, I didn't want to go back out, I asked for volunteers to start the second half. One of the few games I’ve even seen we were behind I was glad it was over,” Bryant said.
My father always said as player, they couldn’t stand Bryant but then truly loved him afterwards.
“Those guys had double sessions of Christmas Day before a bowl game. They thought they may be off, but no, they practiced twice – full pads. He ran them to death,” John said. “I think when you go through all that as players, he probably ran several off.”
And he did run some off. Here’s one of my dad’s [Jim Proffitt] favorite stories.
“He my dad and Steve Meilenger had a great game. They thought they were everything. They thought they were the UK tam – forget all these other players who had played,” Doug recalled. “Team meeting comes the next day and they were in an auditorium and my dad and Steve Meilinger decided to put their feet up on the stage. They’re waiting for Bear Bryant to walk out. He comes out, he sees their feet on the stage, doesn’t say a thing – looks out in the audience and he says, ‘well, I think I ran off the thoroughbreds and kept the mules.’”
So, about Bryant’s record so close to falling? The consensus?
“Our dad, your dad – they played for UK back in the day when they were going to Cotton Bowls and Sugar Bowls. They sat through quite a few two and nine, three and eight seasons. I think he's thrilled,” John said.
David added, “I know our dad would be thrilled the record was going to be broken, because it means the Cats are still winning in the modern era and that's what he always wanted.”
Caroline said it was the way he coached, and his character is some of the reasons why he is remembered.
They’re all gone and with them the original, possibly embellished stories. My dad Jim had number 87 at Kentucky and died in 2018 – ironically two weeks after turning 87-years-old.
He died two weeks before the Cats last trip to the Citrus Bowl.
Louisville Hall of Famer Otto Knop died at the age of 56 in 1987.
The fun times are still celebrated and the memory of a coach who we can only guess by history, would cheer on the next legacy at UK. He’s immortalized in Louisville with photos that tell a story.
Kentucky would go on to win the Citrus Bowl 20-17, defeating Iowa.