Beyond The Boxscore

Gene Chizik bags Bear, but college football in Houston and Heart are the real winners

Gene Chizik bags Bear, but college football in Houston and Heart are the real winners

Bear Bryant
Long after his death, Bear Bryant remains a mystical figure in college football. And Houston helps keep that legacy alive.
Gene Chizik
Gene Chizik won the Bear Bryant Award in Houston Tuesday night. Of course he did. Auburn wins everything this season.
Bear Bryant hat
Bear Bryant's legacy is never far from the awards dinner. Courtesy of Paul "Bear" Bryant Award
News_Chris Ault_coach
Nevada coach Chris Ault once snuck into a ballroom to hear Bryant speak. Photo by Jeff Chiu/AP
Bear Bryant
Gene Chizik
Bear Bryant hat
News_Chris Ault_coach

Chris Ault still remembers sneaking into the back of a ballroom in the early 1970s to hear Bear Bryant. The man in the houndstooth hat was giving a speech in Miami. Ault felt he had to be there.

He was a young football coach after all and that's what a young football coach should do.

Ault — now a College Football Hall of Fame coach himself — cannot remember all the details about that day. Not even the exact year. But he recalls just about every word said by Bryant.

"Coach Bryant was just so consistent in his message," Ault says. "And that's how I try to be as coach."

Ault up for the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award in Houston Tuesday night, taking his place alongside the likes of longtime Florida State icon Bobby Bowden (whose 57 years of coaching definitely qualify him for the Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award he picked up) and Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who predictably snared the Bear Bryant Award for Coach of the Year — the Tigers win everything this college football season. Not that the idea of an Auburn coach winning the award named after archrival Alabama's legend is any less delicious. 

On this night, it was easy to imagine a few aspiring coaches trying to sneak into the back of this Hilton Americas-Houston ballroom too.

Just like Ault did nearly 40 years ago in Miami.

The 64-year-old coach of a Nevada team that went 13-1 this season, handing Boise State its only loss of the season to clear the way for TCU to play in the Rose Bowl, hasn't spent much time in Houston over the years.

And why would he? Major cities with a plethora of pro sports teams are seldom college football hotbeds. There may be no city in America less interested in college football than biggest city of all, New York (as shown by the dismal TV ratings Saturday showcases draw in the Big Apple).

Houstonians are crazy for their college football team (be it UT, Texas A&M or another), but that doesn't put the actual town on the sport's map nationally (outside of recruiting season).

Bowden admits almost all he knows of Houston is its Texas football high school talent. "We pulled some good players out of here," the 81-year-old coach laughs. Well, Bowden knows that and the fact that his former Heisman Trophy quarterback Charlie Ward is the head coach of little Westbury Christian School, a 560-student K through 12 school on Hillcroft.

"I talk to Charlie maybe once or twice a year," Bowden says.

Soon, everyone in college football may know a little more about the Bayou City though. Quietly, little step by little step, Houston is becoming a stop in the college football world that goes beyond blue-chip recruiting maps. When Chizik picked up his Bear Bryant Award, he did it in Houston. Just like Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley — who had a much better national championship game and will go much higher in the draft (maybe as high as No. 1 overall) than fawned-over Tigers quarterback Cam Newton — won his biggest honor of season (the Lombardi Award) in another Houston ballroom.

H-Town's not just a place for college football's best to stay in a nice hotel room and leave with some hardware though. The Texas Bowl continues to build buzz within the sport as a bowl that treats its participants right with the Houston Texans' first-class professional touch. And with Case Keenum granted a surprise sixth year of eligibility — a move that shows the NCAA's heart goes beyond just quarterbacks who've been shopped around by their fathers — there's suddenly the chance that nationally-significant games will take place in Houston this fall too.

Keenum's return isn't really more important than UH's momentum-building drive for Tier One status for the school, but it sure feels like that to some diehard Cougar fans.

That's college football passion. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio — another of the Bear Bryant finalists in town — knows better than most. Dantonio had a heart attack after coaching the Spartans to a 34-31 overtime win over Notre Dame on Sept. 18 and found himself back in the hospital with blood clots later in the season.

If anyone understands the craziness behind college football — and the significance of the Bear Bryant Awards being a benefit for the American Heart Association — it's Dantonio.

"I did have a heart attack," Dantonio says when asked about his commitment to the American Heart Association.

Yet, the coach whose team went 11-2 while he battled heart troubles didn't win the AHA's Bear Bryant Award. No one can argue the voting is fixed in this banquet.

Not that Dantonio is complaining. He knows what things truly deserve worry.

"I never thought (a heart attack) would happen to me," says Dantonio, a largely lean, thin, disciplined Nick Saban disciple who used to barely tolerate the idea of a dinner break let alone imagine a prolonged absence from his team. "No way."

It all drives home just how many people are affected by heart disease, still the No. 1 killer in the United States. Dantonio's back coaching, but he's not doing it the same way. "I never really got back to the 80-hours per week thing I was doing before," he says.

Like all the coaches on center stage for the Bear Bryant Award, and any of the young ones who've yet to make their name in the crowd, Dantonio would much rather talk football though. He'd rather hear about Ault's Pistol Offense — the innovative formation that everyone from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Alabama (in a Capital One Bowl rout of Dantonio's Spartans no less) are now employing in some manner.

Or Bowden's own Bear tales.

Bear to Bowden

When Bowden was a young head coach at Howard College (now Samford University) in Alabama, Bear Bryant was just starting to building his legend in Tuscaloosa, only 40 miles up the road. Bear immediately saw a way in which the young coach at the minor school could help him.

"In Division I football, when you're got 100 kids on your team, you're going to sign a handful of 'mistakes,' " Bowden laughs. "We don't want to call them that of course. But that's what they are. Good kids who really just aren't talented enough to play for you. So Bear would come to me with a list of kids that he'd decided didn't really have a shot at helping Alabama. He'd tell me to take a look at them and if there was any of them that I thought could help me, he'd talk to them and convince them to go down the road to play for me.

"It helped him by freeing up a scholarship for someone else on his team. It helped the kids because they'd end up somewhere where they'd play. And it helped me because some of those guys turned out to be among our better players."

Bear's rejects must have been pretty good. Bowden went 31-6 at Howard, the launch of what turned out to be a legendary career.

So legendary that Bowden's spent his first year out of coaching (he wanted one more season at Florida State, but the administration wouldn't give the man who largely built the university that), collecting lifetime achievement awards all over the country. After Houston, he's headed to Hawaii for more honors.

"I hope they'll let me play a little golf there too," he cracks.

Everyone isn't in hurry to move on from the Bayou though.

"We just met a guy from Okemos (a town less than 10 miles from Michigan State's campus)," Michigan State associate athletic director for communications John Lewandowski says of an encounter Dantonio and he had in a Hilton Americas hallway. "Houston has everything."

More and more of college football's movers and shakers are seeing that same truth.