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Interesting story; deserved a better writer
on May 7, 2012
The story of the Junction boys, Bear Bryant's first team at Texas A&M, is Texas legend, almost mythology by now. It's a compelling story but one not done justice here. The author, Jim Dent, is addicted to cliche and writes like the sports guy at a small-town newspaper.
But worse than the prose is the overall shallowness of the book. Dent, so intent on furthering the legend, never asks any of the questions a normal person, much less a professional journalist, would ask. Bear Bryant was, famously, iconically, obsessed with character and discipline and toughness and staying power. That is, he was obsessed with his players having those attributes. Personally, he a) openly and admittedly cheated, paying for players, among other infractons b) couldn't remain faithful to his wife c) couldn't quit drinking or smoking and also had some gambling issues later in life. Dent never even wonders at the paradox, hypocrisy or irony of any of this. In the final chapter, Dent gives some details on players who went on to be professionally successful and who credited Bryant with making them so. Did these men also follow Bryant in that regard? Were they, too, professional successes with terrible character flaws? Dent doesn't say.
Bryant also, at least as described in the book, had different rules and standards for different players. He waffled on his own rules right after making them. He endangered the lives of a few players, forcing them beyond exhaustion and heat stroke, while taking it easier on others. He comes across as capricious, almost crazy, more like Kim Jong Il than George Washington.
The coach also comes across, at least at this stage of his career, as incompetent, handling his players poorly, playing them at positions for which they were ill-suited, altogether ignoring one great talent, possibly the best he'd ever see as a coach. I'm not a Bryant scholar, haven't read any of the biographies, and maybe some of those books would tell me more, but there's little in The Junction Boys to suggest that he was even half the coach he's reputed to have been. He seems to have been a great recruiter, albeit a crooked one. Maybe he won simply because he was able to load his teams with (often ill-gotten) talent. Of course he never coached in the NFL where recruiting is largely taken out of the equation and a coach has to be a master of the x's and o's. Dent never even tries to tell us what made Bryant's teams win.
The other obvious thing Dent misses is: what about the seventy five or so players who quit the Junction training camp? Not one of those guys is interviewed, only the ones who stayed and loved Bryant and would be interested in furthering his legend.
Bryant's legacy in terms of his influence on other coaches is another area left unexplored. His belief that 'toughness' was more important than speed or skill or execution or anything else was prevalent, even dominant for a long time, not so much at the collegiate or professional levels but definitely in high school football. I don't live in the South anymore and I'm not close to the high school football scene anywhere but I still read, every year or so, about a player being 'conditioned' to death during two-a-days. I know Bryant didn't start this sort of practice and he was never the only one doing it but he was the most prominent. How much of it still goes on and how much of that is still attributable to Bryant's influence is not entirely determinable but it would have been nice if Dent had looked at the issue.
Again, though, this is a compelling story, one that's fascinated Texas and, really, the entire South, for a long time. I read this book quickly, even with all its flaws. I just wish a better writer would have written it, some modern-day Melville maybe. It's pretty easy to see Bryant as Captain Ahab, standing out on the dusty practice field at Junction, Texas, getting crazier and crazier, driving his crew to ruin. Robert Penn Warren, who fashioned Huey Long into Willie Stark in All the King's Men, might also have been up to the task, having seen the way the tawdry and the grandiose co-exist, the way a great man can fall. But Dent's a newspaperman, not a poet, and his small talent fails this big story.