Will ESPN get Bryant’s life right?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 1, 2002

Sports Columnist

By now you’ve probably heard about the forthcoming movie about legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

It will be ESPN’s second attempt at movie making, on the heels of their successful, though widely criticized, first offering, Season on the Brink. That was based on the best-selling book about a season in the life of former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight.

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You have to admire ESPN’s guts. In their previous attempt, they took on easily the most controversial basketball coach in the country, who coached in one of the most rabid basketball states in the country. They had to know that no matter how good the script, no matter who they chose to play the fiery coach, that they would never fully please the Hoosier faithful who revere Knight. Now they take on the equally impossible task of trying to win over the Crimson Tide faithful.

No sooner had the word spread about the movie, than the speculation began – who can they possibly get to play the Bear?

I’m sure they faced much the same problem in portraying Knight. In choosing veteran actor Brian Dennehey, they definitely found an actor who had shown prior ability to handle a character with a volatile temperament, such as would be needed for this role.

First Blood and Gladiators are good examples.

The looks were even similar, with the white hair and pudgy build. But I’m sure it wasn’t nearly close enough for the die-hard Hoosiers. Bob Knight always struck me as a powder keg, just waiting for something to set him off. Dennehey’s portrayal was more like an active volcano, exploding over and over and over again with little or no warning.

Now imagine trying to sell the Bama Nation on a substitute for the Bear. Just ask Ray Perkins and Bill Curry what that’s like.

First of all, ESPN must accept the fact that the "perfect guy" just ain’t out there. The only man who ever lived who could have adequately matched The Bear’s larger-than-life persona was John Wayne. And unfortunately, he’s unavailable.

There were so many complex qualities that are necessary to accurately portray Bryant, that it will be quite a task to find them all in one person. He was a large, imposing figure of a man, with rugged good looks, piercing eyes and a deep, gravely voice. Whoever they choose will have to be one heck of an actor to be able to revive the memory of the still-beloved coach.

The movie will be based on the recent book "Junction Boys", which was written about Bear during the time he coached Texas A&M. He was in his forties at the time, which may make the choice a little easier. Most Bama fans picture Bear much later in his life.

Many have played "arm-chair casting director" with their own suggestions. Gene Stallings was an early favorite, and though he reminded us a lot of his mentor during his tenure at the Capstone, he is well beyond his forties and is not an actor. ESPN would be well advised to employ him as an advisor, since he was one of the Junction Boys about whom the book was written, as well as an assistant to Bear for many years.

Gary Busey portrayed Bear in an earlier movie, and as I recall, did a pretty good job with the voice. He definitely has the right build. But I’m afraid he would only serve to remind everyone what a bomb the earlier movie turned out to be.

Tommy Lee Jones was an interesting suggestion. Though not a big man, he could likely do justice to the voice, the southern accent, and the persona. Good directing can often make someone look much bigger, anyway – Sylvester Stallone is under 6-foot tall, for instance.

One actor I had only recently considered was Harrison Ford. The age is about right (at least the age he looks), he is accustomed to larger-than-life roles, and I noticed in a recent interview that his natural speaking voice is actually very deep and he kind of mumbles, as Bryant often did. With a decent makeup job, he could be pretty convincing.

I think my personal pick would have to be Gene Hackman. He often plays the "man in charge" roles in his films (Unforgiven, Hoosiers, The Quick and the Dead), and in my opinion is one of the best actors in the business. His classic portrayal of the basketball coach in Hoosiers displayed many of the same traits he would need to portray the Bear.

Casting Ford or Hackman in the role would bring instant credibility to the movie, and only an actor with credentials such as theirs would stand a chance of pleasing the Crimson Tide fans.