Account Benefits

"Find an Aggie" Online Directory

HireAggies Career Services


Watch the 2024 Worldwide Muster Roll Call for the Absent on Muster Live

The Bear Bryant Days at Aggieland, 1954 – 1957

Robert "Bob" Coffey II '58 September 26, 2015 1:20 PM updated: September 29, 2015 9:49 AM

My first college football game was as a “fish” at the opening game at Kyle field in 1954. It was also the first game at Aggieland for head coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. The opponent was Texas Tech. We were roundly outscored; 9-41 … and it was all because we fish had not yelled loudly enough, according to the upperclassmen. However, there were some other reasons.

The Bear had been hired to bring respectability back to A&M. It was a tough place to recruit players, since the Aggies were the cellar team in the Southwest Conference, there were no girls and it was mostly military with compulsory ROTC, including the athletes. It was often referred to as a “poor boys school” and a “cow college” and was the brunt of a lot of Aggie jokes. Also, the campus looked a little bit like a penitentiary.

When he arrived for spring training in ’54 he didn’t like what he saw. In those days there were actually two teams; freshman and varsity, each with their own scheduled games. While he could recruit new players they would not be eligible to play on the varsity squad until their sophomore year, so he was stuck with all the players from his predecessor. The Bear was not impressed and was determined to weed out the losers.

That August, to remove the team from the anxious eyes of “mamas and papas” and the news media, he loaded the team into three buses and took them to an isolated and terribly rugged training camp in Junction, Texas, for what has become legendary as the toughest football camp in football history. Only one bus with 38 players returned to campus “after ten days of hell”. Among the “Junction Boys” were Gene Stallings ’57 and Jack Pardee ‘57. At game time for the first game, they were literally worn out.

His first season went 1 – 9, the only losing season in Bryant’s career and he never again suffered another 30 point loss. Except for the first game they were all fairly close scores and the Aggies showed a lot of grit and determination.

The “fish” team did very well with a winning season and we fish got our hair privileges, something that had not happened for many years. The fish team included an outstanding halfback from Springhill, LA. His name was John David Crow.

The next year, 1955, the Aggies were the surprise team of the conference with a winning season. In the Rice game they scored three touchdowns in the last 3:28 minutes for one of the most thrilling comebacks in school history. It was the first time I had ever heard of an “on-side” kick...and it worked.

In 1956 we reversed the score of Bryant’s first game against Texas Tech, beat Texas for the first time in Memorial Stadium in Austin, went undefeated and won the Southwest Conference Championship for the first time since WWII!

In 1957 we beat out Oklahoma for the #1 ranking after remaining undefeated for 18 games. John David Crow won the Heisman Trophy and we all got to see it on display in the MSC.

We were all pretty cocky as we marched in Corps Trip parades in our senior boots; after all, we were cruising towards our second national championship!

And then came the sucker punch! With only two games left in the regular season on the day before the Rice game, the Bear announced that he was “going home to Mama” to be the head coach at his alma mater, Alabama. Everyone was in shock, as though the rug had been jerked out from under them. We were outscored by Rice 6 – 7 as we ran out of time right at their goal line just about to score the winning touchdown. The next game with t.u. was worse; 7 – 9. The post season Gator Bowl game with Tennessee ended 0 – 3. That made a total of only six points in the last three games.

It was a bitter disappointment after sailing so high, but we had been uniquely spoiled with such an exciting four seasons. It took another fifty five years to watch another John…Johnny Football…lead the Aggies to a stunning season and win a second Heisman Trophy.

Ten years after Bryant left A&M there was some restitution. After working for the Bear at Alabama as an assistant coach, Gene Stallings returned to the mother ship as head coach and led the Aggies to another SWC championship. On New Year’s Day in 1968 in the Cotton Bowl it was the former student pitted against the former coach, mentee versus mentor, when the Aggies played eighth ranked Alabama. The Aggies won 20 – 16. At game’s end when the two coaches met at mid-field for the traditional handshake, the Bear went one step farther. He picked up Gene Stallings on his shoulder and carried him toward the sideline. He then went into the Aggies locker room and congratulated the players face-to-face. These were magnanimous gestures by one of football’s greatest coaches.

Whenever the Bear entered a room, he had a commanding presence that was felt by all. He was stern and unsmiling. He had a deep voice with a slow southern drawl. When he spoke, it was deliberate, straight forward, authoritative… and intimidating. He always demanded the utmost from his players and he let them know in no uncertain terms whenever they failed to measure up. He was a firm advocate of the adage that quitters never win and winners never quit. He had weeded out the quitters at Junction, which became legendary as the forge from which champions were molded.

Jack Pardee recalled that the Bear always stressed the importance of the fourth quarter because it built character and determination for the game of life. It was a lesson well learned by Jack, Gene Stallings, John David Crow and their team mates. I feel that my own life was greatly enriched and highly inspired for having been there as a witness. I think that one of the Bear’s great legacies was in teaching us all something about playing the game of life.


Having since read Jim Dent’s New York Times Best Selling book, The Junction Boys, I can attest to the completeness and accuracy of many details. However, there was one major revelation that really impressed me because I had not been aware of the gravity of the situation at A&M during the fifties, not just with the football team, but with the school itself. I didn’t gain that that big picture perspective until decades later.

Early on the Monday morning following the 9-41 loss of the first game to Texas Tech, Chancellor M. T. Harrington called Coach Bryant into his office for a meeting. He reportedly told Coach Bryant that he was “worried about the spirit around this place” because the enrollment had slipped for the past six years, potential Aggies were going other places and politicians were pushing for coeducation. He said “I hate to put this on you. But I’m really depending on the football team to pick this place back up.” Coach Bryant replied, “You’re telling me that the future of this college might just depend on wins and losses. Is that right?” As it played out over those four seasons Coach Bryant did just that and the spirits were raised tremendously. He was certainly in the right place at the right time and he made an indelible imprint on all our lives.

Unfortunately, the movie, The Junction Boys, did not do justice to this legendary event and Gary Busey was not creditable playing the part of Bear Bryant.

Shortly before delivering this talk at our 2013 Muster, I was scanning the list of deceased Aggies and preparing the Roll Call list to be read during the upcoming ceremony. While I was looking for classmates I also checked the names of other classes that I could have known. When I came to John F. Pardee ’57 it took me a second to realize that it was, indeed, Jack Pardee. It still seemed unreal when shortly afterward I answered with an emotional “Here” when his name was called.
One last foot note. In Dent’s Book, he reported an incident that allegedly took place at the University of Kentucky in early 1954. Coach Bryant’s football team had just won the conference championship the previous season for the first time in many years. After starting as head coach in 1946, he had led the resurgence that pulled Kentucky back into the limelight in football. However, Kentucky had long been known for its prowess as a basketball powerhouse, so football still took a back seat. According to an AP release, Bryant was quoted as saying that at a joint football-basketball banquet, legendary basketball coach, Adolph Rupp, had been presented with a new Cadillac while Coach Bryant had only been given a cigarette lighter. As an apparent result Bear Bryant resigned from UK. Shortly afterwards he was approached with an offer to become the head coach at A&M.

The rest is history that might not have happened had he not made those momentous decisions. It is fascinating to contemplate how many lives have been so profoundly changed because he did.

I was most fortunate to have been a student during the Bear Bryant era. Its real significance in A&M’s history has only emerged after many years of gaining the broader perspective that I and my classmates could not have seen at the time. Bear Bryant’s legacy of regaining respectability for the college was just the first step that was followed by many others under the Earl Rudder administration, most notably the change to co-education, that led to A&M’s growth into the great university that it has become.

comments powered by Disqus

505 George Bush Drive
College Station, TX 77840

Phone Number

(979) 845-7514

© 2024 The Association of Former Students of Texas A&M University, All Rights Reserved