Board of Trustees president reflects on life as son of Paul 'Bear' Bryant
Paul W. Bryant, Jr., president pro tempore of the Board of Trustees, has become a major figure at the University of Alabama, nearly 30 years after his father, legendary head football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant last roamed the University's sidelines.
Born in Birmingham in the mid 1940s, Bryant went on to attend Alabama while his father was head football coach, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1982.
While at the Capstone, Bryant was in Sigma Nu fraternity and was elected president of the business college. Today, Bryant jokes about his long-ago dalliance into politics. “I was not the Machine candidate, but then again, no one ran against me,” Bryant said.
A spitting image of his father, he speaks very softly, seemingly judging the weight of each syllable. “It was a little harder,” Bryant said when asked about the difficulties of growing up in the shadow of a legend.
While sitting in his favorite chair at his office on North McFarland Boulevard, Bryant starts in on his early life. “My father wanted me to go to law school, but I did not end up doing that,” he said.
Instead of pursuing a juris doctorate, Bryant went into something he loved: sports.
“I worked as the general manager of the Birmingham minor league baseball team for two years and started when I was 22,” he said.
Although he enjoyed his day-to-day responsibilities in baseball, he was not a fan of the travel associated with it, especially when it took him far from Alabama. The last straw came when he was forced to move to California, a place that he did not enjoy.
He quickly returned to the South, where he began working in the financial services realm.
“The baseball job was a real good experience to be involved in – it dealt with so many aspects of business,” he said.
During his time in the private sector, Bryant has built up a reputation for creating many small businesses – 25, to be exact.
“A lot of them were real estate ventures, pari-mutuel racing tracks and banks,” he said.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Bryant is arguably one of the most successful businessmen in the South.
He is the president of Greene Group, Inc., a privately held holding company, and the chairman of Bryant Bank, a rapidly expanding Alabama-based bank, founded in 2005.
Bryant Bank prides itself with upholding values of a community bank, even saying on its website, “At a time when so many smaller banks have sold to larger ones, we're committed for the long haul.”
Bryant is also a triple-A rated history buff.
“When I was a child in Kentucky, the man who lived across the street from us collected various items from the Civil War, and that’s how I got excited about it,” he said.
He took his love of Civil War history to activism later in life, when the Walt Disney Company pushed to build a new theme park in a historically important area of Virginia.
Bryant sprung to action by helping to fund the anti-development campaign, which was a success, as Disney quickly scrapped the plans.
Bryant went on to continue his passion for saving historic sites by helping found the Civil War Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization that is, according to them, “the number one entity saving battlefield land in America, protecting land at a rate four times that of the National Park Service.” Bryant now wryly calls himself the “Chairman Emeritus” of the trust.
Bryant has had some very interesting run-ins with history in his own right.
“Papa took me to meet Jackie Robinson in the early ‘50s, but I did not know that was significant until many years later,” he said. “We met at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, where he of course ran into some earlier issues.”
At the time, “Bear” Bryant was the head coach of the University of Kentucky Wildcats and was a friend of then Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese.
Bryant was also on campus the summer following the historic “Stand in the School House Door.”
“It was not that strange when we came in the fall, but we were aware of the FBI agents that had their shirttails out because of their concealed weapons,” Bryant said. “Most of the noise was really off campus.”
Bryant is now seeking to create more history with his role as president pro tempore of the Board of Trustees.
The Board governs the University of Alabama system, which encompasses The Capstone, The University of Alabama at Birmingham and The University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Bryant was first elected to the board in 2000 and was involved in the presidential search committee that brought current President Robert E. Witt to campus.
“I was vice chairman of the search committee and met Dr. Witt for the first time at the Fort Worth Airport,” he said.
Since that meeting at the airport, Bryant has been a staunch devotee of Witt’s many expansion projects that have seen the size of the University nearly double in 10 years.
“The board of trustees approves the financial aspects of Dr. Witt’s plans, and we work to help get his projects moving forward,” he said.
Towards the end of the interview, Bryant sat back in his chair and reflected. “It’s been a really good run,” he said. “I’m real proud of what we’ve been able to do, and I think it will continue as long as you guys, the students, help us get there.”