Oswald Letter

Leadership lessons from Bear Bryant: At fragile Junction of tough love, undying respect

by Dan Oswald

I grew up in Wisconsin and am a Green Bay Packers fan, so I often quote their legendary football coach Vince Lombardi in my writings. Today I live in the South, and here there’s another legendary coach who is revered, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant is best known for his success at the University of Alabama, but the story I’d like to share with you today is from earlier in his career when he was hired by Texas A&M University in 1954.

Bryant believed that many of the players on the team he inherited were weak and had been poorly coached. He decided to take his new team away from the watchful eye of university administrators and boosters to find out what they were made of. He and the team ended up in the small West Texas town of Junction during the middle of a drought and heat wave.

For the next 10 days, Bryant put his players through grueling practices in temperatures that often exceeded 100 degrees. In today’s 24-hour media world, his practices undoubtedly would have come under significant scrutiny, but it was a different time. The exact number of boys who arrived at the camp is debated. Some put the count at more than 100. But the number who survived is well known—only 35. The workouts were so grueling, the camp so intense, that the rest quit, many fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid the next day’s practice.

There’s no doubt that you can question Bryant’s methods, but the results are impressive. Despite having a 1-9 record in Bryant’s first year and bringing the only losing season of his career, the team went on to become successful. It won the Southwest Conference championship two years later, and the following year, Bryant’s star back, John David Crow, a Junction survivor, won the Heisman Trophy.

Of the boys who survived the camp, the majority have gone on to live very successful lives. That grueling experience proved to the survivors what they were actually capable of if they committed themselves to it. One, Gene Stallings, became a successful coach in his own right, winning a national championship. Another, Jack Pardee, went on to a successful playing and coaching career in the NFL. Others went on to successful careers in business, education, and the law. They are lawyers, engineers, professors, and businessmen.

And the group bonded. More than 50 years after their days in Junction, Texas, the group of survivors holds a reunion every five years. They say that Coach Bryant was the most influential man in their lives. That’s quite a testament to the man. And when one apologized to the coach years later for being responsible for the only losing season of his storied career, Bryant replied, “Don’t ever come here to apologize to me. You boys weren’t losers and will never be. Time just ran out on you. Think of the games we almost won. I will never think of any of the Junction boys as a loser.”

So what’s the purpose of relaying this story to you? It’s about developing followership. These players could not have enjoyed what they were subjected to by their coach for those 10 days in the summer heat of Texas. I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of love for Coach Bryant during those days. But those who survived had a respect and admiration for the coach that lasted a lifetime.

They respected Coach Bryant for pushing them beyond their limits and helping them understand what they were capable of if they dedicated themselves to a cause. They knew he would help them succeed. Bryant may have pushed them to extreme limits and beyond what they thought they were capable of, but he got the best out of them. The players understood that. And they knew that Bryant was committed to their success. That’s where the bond came from—they were all in it together.

I hear managers claim they don’t care if they’re liked; they just want to be respected. I know other managers who are well liked but not really respected. The unusual manager, the really good one, is respected and revered. It takes a unique balance in a person to inspire that kind of loyalty and admiration, but it can be done.

To be respected, a manager must treat others with respect. He must be capable, fair, and focused. It takes time to gain the respect of others because it must be earned. Likewise, you don’t have to be a pushover to be well-liked. Bryant was loved by his players, but he was hard on them. He was loved because they knew their coach was pushing them to be their best. He showed genuine affection for his players while still driving them to excel.

And in the end, Bryant and his players formed a lifelong bond because they came together focused on a common goal. They worked together, survived together, and ultimately succeeded together. Those players would have followed Coach Bryant anywhere. Imagine what you and your team could achieve if you could win the admiration and respect of those who work for you—and get them all singularly focused on one goal. It worked for Coach Bryant.