Thirty-nine years ago, thousands gathered in Tuscaloosa for Bear Bryant's funeral

Ken Roberts
The Tuscaloosa News

Thirty-nine years ago, Paul William "Bear" Bryant died of a heart attack in a Tuscaloosa hospital.

The legendary University of Alabama football coach, who won 323 games and six national championships, passed away on Jan. 26, 1983. He died just 28 days after coaching his last game, a 21-15 victory over the University of Illinois in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee.

Thousands of mourners attended Bryant's funeral in Tuscaloosa, which was so large that it was held in three churches on Greensboro Avenue. 

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About 400 dignitaries, family members and friends packed First United Methodist Church for the service. Because of the overflow crowd, the service also was piped into the  First Baptist Church, which seated 1,300, and First Presbyterian Church, which seated 600.

A who's who of football notables came to Tuscaloosa to attend Bryant's funeral, including former players Joe Namath, Richard Todd, Marty Lyons and Lee Roy Jordan.

The coaching fraternity was represented by Bud Wilkinson, Vince Dooley, Bobby Dodd, Steve Sloan, Woody Hayes,  Charley Pell, Frank Broyles, Pat Dye and Ray Perkins, who succeeded Bryant as UA's coach.

The Bear Bryant statue on the Walk of Champions outside Bryant-Denny Stadium is seen Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Former Washington Redskins coach George Allen also attended the funeral, representing then-President Ronald Reagan.

Bryant's hearse was driven 60 miles from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham for his burial at Elmwood Cemetery. The funeral procession measured  three miles long, consisting of more than 300 cars and six buses carrying Bryant's last UA team and many of his former players.

According to media reports at the time, hundreds of cars lined the interstate on the way  to Birmingham as spectators watched the procession pass. Several red-and-white banners reading "We Love You, Bear" flapped from interstate overpasses as the motorcade rolled by.

At the request of Bryant's family, the motorcade passed by Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Crimson Tide's home field, and drove within sight of Legion Field in Birmingham, scene of many of his biggest wins.

Reach Ken Roberts at ken.roberts@tuscaloosanews.com.