I’m trying to figure out how to write about Paul Bryant (1990) without sounding like a cheese ball.
I’m not kidding. The guy’s story is straight out of one of those movies where the odds are heavily stacked against the main character (think “The Karate Kid” or “Girlfight” or “Hoosiers” or “The Blindside,” or “Good Will Hunting” or “Saint Ralph” or, or, or …), who, by the grace of the gods and the timely arrival of wily and compassionate mentors with just the right words on their lips, is inspired to reach down deep inside, see the greatness that was always there, and manifest it.
Because that’s Paul Bryant’s story and that’s pretty much what happened.
I am a sucker for stories like this and so are you, because they are archetypal, the Hero’s Journey. You find it in every culture in some form or another and it resonates with us deeply because the Hero’s Journey is the human journey, and nothing less. Not everyone’s story has the legs to make the rest of us want to watch it on the big screen, but still. The arc of every human life at some point involves facing an overwhelming challenge, something that tests our character and courage, the very stuff of which we are made to a degree that, should we prevail, we emerge stronger, wiser and fundamentally changed on the other side.
I first learned about Paul Bryant last fall, when someone told me that an Alaska Pacific University alum had just been named Athletics Director at South Carolina State University. I’ve been hearing amazing alumni success stories all year, but most of them involve someone advancing in the business industry or government. That’s laudatory, you bet. But it doesn’t give me goosebumps. When you throw athletics into the mix, however, it changes the emotional tenor of the story by moving it to The Arena, so to speak, where now we have spectacle and our hearts become engaged in the outcome.
Basically, I could not wait to talk to this guy.
SCSU is not a small place and so I knew Mr. Bryant had to be a busy man and that, odds were, the message I left on the only number I could find for him (an administrative assistant for something or other) would get lost in a long line of voicemails, emails and sticky notes. A quick survey of LinkedIn allowed me to find Paul without any trouble and dash off a quick, personal note of congratulations, along with a request for an interview. Paul responded immediately and by the next week, we were talking.
Our Hero hails from inner-city Dayton, Ohio….
As the beginning of this story, that doesn’t pack the same punch as, say. “Our Hero hails from Compton/the Bronx/inner-city Detroit,” but nevertheless, life in inner-city Dayton was a rough place to launch that seemed to offer basically two options for a young, black male with game: the streets, or the NBA. Paul’s friends chose the streets, with predictable results.
“I left Dayton because if I stayed, I knew what my path was,” Bryant said. “And I wanted to maximize my every potential.”
In 1984, a basketball scholarship from North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene gave Bryant the two things he wanted most: to get out of the city and to play ball. As for college?
“For me it was like, oh, and by the way, you can get a degree,” he laughed.
North Idaho was a two-year, community college and when he left, Bryant was recruited by Mike Blewett to play basketball for Alaska Pacific University. Again, Bryant didn’t care about the academic opportunities. All he cared about was playing ball. But solid academic performance was prioritized and enforced for athletes at APU, and when he almost failed out his first semester, Duncan Ferguson, APU’s VP for Academic Affairs, told Bryant in no uncertain terms that he was about to lose everything – his chance to play ball and his chance to get a college education.
Along with Coach Mike Blewett, Professors Barbara and Bob Goldberg had become mentors to Bryant and convinced him of the importance, and his capability, of doing both.
“I had never even considered that,” Bryant said.
The Goldbergs and Blewett became catalysts for Paul to change his perspective, to develop the confidence that he had other options besides basketball and the streets, and that he could be successful. Paul learned to be a “student-athlete” instead of an “athlete-student” and graduated with a BA in Human Resources and Education. Bryant has since earned his master’s degree in Education and is currently pursuing his Doctorate of Education in Athletic Administration.
“If it wasn’t for APU and my mentors there, I wouldn’t be doing anything that I’m doing today,” he told me.
Bryant has brought the lessons forward with his own student-athletes, first at Stillman College, Eureka College, Urbana University and Sinclair Community College, and now at SCSU. He dismisses the required study halls that some schools use to address academic performance issues in athletes as “babysitting.” Paul believes in giving his athletes close, individual mentoring instead.
“Once you start to acknowledge students and show your interest in them, it creates success in areas they don’t expect to have it,” he said. “Everything I do as a coach is student-centered.”
APU provided Bryant more motivation for success by starting the “5th Year Program” in response to the number of athletes who were taking five years to graduate. The program required that athletes had to earn their fifth year scholarships and they could do it in sports, by coaching and refereeing games. Bryant became an Assistant Coach to the basketball team in his fifth and final year at APU. He has brought the “5th Year” forward to his own programs as well.
Before starting his career working with athletes, Bryant worked for the foster care system in Ohio. He had talked often about doing something for youth with his APU teammate, Larry Johnson, who died of leukemia while the two were still in school. With Larry’s brother, Reggie, Bryant created the Larry Johnson Home for boys aged 10 to 18, who were referred by local children’s services, juvenile court or the Department of Youth Services. They went on to create more group homes in Dayton and Springfield Ohio, to guide boys ages 17 to 18 – who are transitioning out of foster care – toward independent living.
“The greatest acknowledgement I ever receive is when former athletes or group home kids contact me. They still call me ‘Coach’ or ‘Mr. Paul.’ They respected me and I made a difference in their lives,” Bryant said.
As we were winding up the interview, Bryant told me about his nephew, who was getting ready to graduate from high school.
“He’s just like me. He wants to go to a big, Division I school and then play ball professionally. I tell him that 1% of college athletes make it to the pros and then I say ‘let me tell you what a small school can do for you …’”.