In December 1982, kids flocked to the arcade and played a new video game called Pac-Man. Music fans walked into record stores and bought Michael Jackson’s just-released “Thriller” album. And in Washington, DC, the president introduced his new program, Reaganomics, in hopes of easing the country’s recession.
As people said hello to plenty of new stuff nearly 40 years ago, the college football world in general and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in particular, were preparing to say goodbye to a legendary coach, Paul W. “Bear.” Bryant.
A new exhibition at Paul W. Bryant Museum on UA campus focuses on Dec. 29, 1982, when Bryant led the Crimson Tide onto the football field for his final game as coach in a 21-15 win over the University of Illinois in front of a sold-out crowd of 54,123. at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee.
Olivia Arnold, director of the Bryant Museum, said the museum is always looking for new historical insights into Bryant’s legacy and the 40th anniversary of his last game provides such an opportunity.
“It was a big enough milestone that we wanted to commemorate it. Any kind of anniversary is an opportunity to show how Coach Bryant’s legacy is still there,” she said.
The exhibit includes video highlights from the game, Liberty Bowl programs and ticket stubs, the Liberty Bowl trophy, two special editions of The Tuscaloosa News commemorating Bryant’s final game, and the shoe that UA player Peter Kim used to score an extra run which turned out to be the last run scored by a team coached by Bryant.
But the centerpiece of the exhibit is the distinctive green parka with a fur-lined hood that Bryant wore on the sidelines. This is the first time the parka has been on public display, Arnold said.
The green parka was a necessity, not just a fashion statement for Bryant, who was known for his usual sideline attire of a houndstooth hat and sports jacket.
“It was very, very, very cold,” Arnold said of that night in Memphis, with some media saying the wind chill dropped to 8 degrees during the game.
Due to the uniqueness of the park and since the only time Bryant wore it was during the 1982 Liberty Bowl, Arnold contacted Marc Tyson, Bryant’s grandson, to see if he knew where he was. stood for possible inclusion in the exhibit.
Arnold said Tyson’s simple answer was, “”I got it. Do you need to borrow it?”
“He had taken very, very good care of it. It had great sentimental value to him. It was his grandfather’s,” she said.
Arnold said former Bryant players who visited the Liberty Bowl exhibit became emotional when they saw this large green parka.
“For some of them, that’s what he was wearing the last time they saw him alive, so seeing him is very emotional,” she said.
Also included in the exhibit is a tan cap with the UA logo, just like the one Bryant wore that night. Arnold said the cap on display at the museum belonged to longtime employee of the athletic department, Coleman Coliseum’s namesake, Jeff Coleman.
Also on display is the handwritten depth chart of UA’s offensive and defensive teams for the Liberty Bowl game with Illinois.
“When you see Coach Bryant on the sidelines during that game, that depth chart was what he was holding in his hands,” said Arnold, who has worked at the museum since 2002 and became its director in 2021 after the Ken Gaddy’s retirement.
Illinois, led by future NFL quarterback Tony Eason, threatened to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but the Tide managed to turn the clock around after an interception from linebacker Eddie Lowe. Alabama intercepted seven passes that night, including three picks from defensive back Jeremiah Castille, the game’s most valuable player.
Quarterback Walter Lewis led the offense for Tide, which scored on runs from halfback Rickey Moore, wide receiver Jesse Bendross and fullback Craig “Touchdown” Turner.
The final season of The Bear
The 1982 season started with a lot of promise for UA and Bryant. The Tide was ranked No. 4 in the country and reached a 5-0 record, which included a 42-21 blow against eventual national champion Penn State at Legion Field in Birmingham. But the following week, Alabama lost to Tennessee in Knoxville, Bryant’s first loss to the Vols since 1970.
Three straight home losses followed — to LSU and Auburn in Birmingham and one to Southern Mississippi in Tuscaloosa, which snapped Bryant’s 57-game winning streak at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
After the 23-22 loss to rival Auburn, the game in which Bo Jackson scored the game-winning touchdown for the Tigers, retirement rumors began swirling around the 69-year-old Bryant.
He confirmed these rumors during a press conference on December 15, 1982.
“I like the players, but in my opinion they deserve better coaching than what I gave them, and that’s why I’m stepping down, with the aim of seeing them better coached by someone else” , Bryant said.
While the 1982 team’s results were not up to Bryant’s standards, the Tide won a bid for the Liberty Bowl and finished 8-4 with the victory over Illinois.
He planned to stay on as UA athletic director, but Bryant died of a heart attack on January 26, 1983, about four weeks after coaching his last game.
Bryant ended his coaching career with 323 wins, 85 losses and 17 draws. He coached at the University of Maryland, University of Kentucky, and Texas A&M before returning to Tuscaloosa in 1958 to coach his alma mater. He won six national championships, 13 SEC titles and three Coach of the Year honors during his 25 seasons at UA.
In 1986, the latter award became the Paul “Bear” Bryant Coach of the Year Award. The award honors Bryant’s legacy by recognizing excellence in coaching while raising funds to support the mission of the American Heart Association through event sponsorships, an auction and donations individual charities.
The Bryant Museum opened on October 8, 1988 in Tuscaloosa to commemorate the history of athletics at the University of Alabama, with an emphasis on Bryant and the historic football tradition of the school. In addition to the Liberty Bowl exhibit, the museum currently features exhibits dedicated to the first 25 years of UA softball and a permanent exhibit detailing the integration of Crimson Tide athletics.
The exhibit on Bryant’s last game will remain on display at the museum until the summer of 2023.
The museum, 300 Paul W. Bryant Drive, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children. Children under 5, museum members, and UA faculty, staff, and students are admitted free.