Chapter 8: Bear Bryant and Doc Sprague
Football isn’t just “king” in Texas, it’s full-blown religion.
At least that’s the way it used to be. Today online stories lament the demise in popularity of football in general and the quality of football played in Texas, particularly on the college level.
The “Hatfield and McCoy” types separately sporting maroon and burnt orange still bicker about Texas A&M’s departure from the Big 12 Conference for membership in the SEC, thus severing the A&M-Texas football rivalry for the recent past and foreseeable future.
To tell you the truth, I was all for the move. And my reasons for that go back a long, long way.
My first time to Austin was in 1956. Daddy took Tim and me up there for the A&M-Texas game. We’d seen the Thanksgiving-week showdown at Kyle Field, but this was our first time to see the contest on our rival’s home soil.
Longhorns commonly abbreviate the name of their school as “UT.” Aggies refer to it as “tu,” which rhymes with “pee-yew” and the lack of capitalization is intentional.
To this day, nothing is more exciting to me than the pre-game pomp and circumstance leading up to the kickoff of a college football game.
That day in Austin, I was on sensory overload. I had on my Aggie visor and my Aggie T-shirt, and I was bouncing around like a kid on a sugar high, taking in all the sights and sounds.
I remember walking through a group of college guys dressed in cowboy gear. That was something I had never seen at an A&M home game, and I thought the cowboys were pretty neat.
They turned out to be the Texas “Silver Spurs,” the group charged with the responsibility of taking care of…
Wait. I cannot proclaim the name of the Texas mascot before telling you about the First Lady of Texas A&M.
Her name is Reveille. She is the finest, most noble, and inspirational mascot in all of college sports. Our current First Lady is Reveille IX, a purebred “rough collie.” Her deceased predecessors are laid to rest outside the north end of Kyle Field. A more sacred patch of land on the A&M campus you cannot find.
Now to continue with my story.
I wasn’t aware of it on my first trip to Austin, but the Silver Spurs were and remain the keepers of Bevo, the Texas Longhorns’ live longhorn-steer mascot. On game days in Austin, Bevo stands, mostly docile, behind the north end zone at Memorial Stadium. His quiet nature amidst the frenzy of the Longhorn faithful attributable, some say, to bovine sedatives.
Thus, like many Tea-Sips on football game day—the Aggie origin of that term stems from the notion that while graduates of Texas A&M were off fighting wars, Longhorn alums were home “sipping tea”—Bevo watches the proceedings in a drug-induced stupor.
My brother Tim wound up attending Texas for a year and a half, but like our father, he saw the “error of his ways,” and completed his schooling at Texas A&M.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have no real animosity for those who support the Texas Longhorns. I have nothing against them as individuals. What I can’t stand is their Longhorn culture, their Longhorn arrogance, and how on too many autumn afternoons, their Longhorns have beaten A&M on the football field.
My bitterness goes all the way back to that first trip to Austin with my brother and Daddy.
It turned out I made a grievous error walking through the group of Silver Spurs. One of them–out of sight of Daddy, I presume, otherwise there would have been hell to pay–put out a cigarette on my rear end, burning a hole through my pants and leaving a good-sized welt on my butt.
So immersed in the setting was I that day, I didn’t really feel any pain. And by the time I did, it didn’t really matter because, dammit, we WON THE GAME! The final score was 34-21, and the victory also gave Coach Paul Bryant’s team a conference championship.
Most of you know Bryant by his nickname.
“Bear” Bryant’s greatest claim to fame came during his twenty-five years as head football coach at the University of Alabama. He guided the Crimson Tide to six national championships there.
Before taking the Alabama job, Bryant coached the Texas Aggies for four seasons. In 1956, the win over Texas that I witnessed completed an undefeated season for Bryant’s squad and gave the school its first Southwest Conference championship since 1941.
Usually, the Southwest Conference title came with an automatic berth into the Cotton Bowl game, but Bryant’s ‘56 Aggies were ineligible for post-season play because of recruiting violations.
That happened a lot back in those days. In fact, a multitude of recruiting scandals brought down the entire legendary league after the 1996 season. For A&M, nothing was ever really the same again until the school moved to the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
In between, A&M played in the Big 12 Conference which ultimately dwindled to just ten teams. Texas remains a member of the Big 12 with no room on their schedule to renew their rivalry with the Aggies.
While Bear Bryant was in College Station, I had the good fortune to become friends with his son, Paul, Jr.
The Bryants lived just north of the A&M campus in Bryan and just down the street on Greenway Drive from my great-aunt and -uncle, Bess and “Doc” Sprague. My great-uncle had been an athletic trainer at A&M, thus earning his moniker.
Tim and I spent a lot of time with the Spragues. It was their idea that I go over and meet their neighbors, the Bryants.
“They have a boy about your age,” Aunt Bess told me. “He seems like a real nice young man.”
Knocking on the Bryants’ door, Bear’s wife, Mary Harmon Bryant–she was commonly called “Mary Harmon”–answered. She welcomed me with a warm smile and invited me to come in to meet Paul, Jr. It turned out the cub Bear was two years older than I was, but despite our age difference, we hit it off as friends.
Paul, Jr. would have made a great member of the Bryan family. He grew up to be a banker and has reportedly given millions of dollars to the University of Alabama football program. With the Tide’s recent success under Coach Nick Saban, Paul must be happy with his return on investment.
Come to think of it, maybe he’s not. Saban has won five national championships in Tuscaloosa, just one less than Bear’s remarkable achievement at the school.
I met Coach Bryant only a couple times during his stay at A&M. He was a giant of a man, standing about six feet four inches tall, with a deep gravelly voice and a friendly nature, at least off the football field.
About his home, I distinctly remember two things:
The walls of Paul’s room were covered in wool pennants, the kind depicting the name and mascot of college teams. These represented, I think, the road trips his father had made to out-of-town football games.
Meanwhile, the Bear kept his own memento of his coaching achievements in view of his family. Paul, Jr. called it his dad’s “crying towel.” The towel was draped over the door to the carport of the house and on it, according to Paul, was marked the opponent and score of every game Bryant had lost as a head coach.
I suppose the towel served as a reminder of Bear’s failures as he headed to work each and every day.
On one of my visits to see Paul, Jr., his dad happened to be entertaining some of his players. Among the contingent at the Bryant home: John David Crow, Jack Pardee, and Charlie Krueger. All three were All-Americans under Bryant. All three are today enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame.
And Crow is one of only two Aggies to have won the Heisman Trophy.
Needless to say, those guys were my heroes growing up.
Texas A&M’s other Heisman winner is Johnny Manziel, who dazzled the nation with his playing exploits during the Aggies’ storybook season of 2012, their first year in the SEC.
I met Johnny once, a year or so after his NFL career had come to a disappointing end. While he has struggled in his personal life, and those struggles have impacted his on-field performance, I still hold Johnny in high regard and will never forget the two seasons he put together as A&M quarterback.
On his way to the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman, he beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa and knocked off Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Johnny gave up his last two years of college eligibility and entered the NFL draft.
Following his final game at Kyle Field in 2013, the stadium underwent a two-year, half-billion-dollar redevelopment. At the time, at least one member of the A&M System Board of Regents, Jim Schwertner, wanted to rename the place “The House That Johnny Built.”
I would have been okay with that.
I have to admit, meeting Johnny “Football” in person was a pretty big deal, even for someone old enough to be his grandfather. I had my picture taken with him on the club level at Kyle Field.
That photo now sits framed on the credenza of my office at the Brazos County Courthouse.
I sure hope Johnny gets his act together.
As for Bear Bryant, I have to say I’ve had sort of a love-hate relationship with the man, dating back to my inaugural season of football in the seventh grade at Lamar Junior High School.
When Bear Bryant first took over the A&M football program, I was just seven years old. He inherited a pretty rag-tag bunch that was not only unaccustomed to winning, but also, at least in Bryant’s mind, unacquainted with the price that had to be paid for success.
Prior to taking the job at Texas A&M, Bryant spent eight years at Kentucky, and during his time there, his teams never failed to have a winning record.
As Bryant prepared for his inaugural campaign in College Station, he decided to take his players away from the distractions of campus life, not only to get better acquainted with them, but also to see upon whom he could trust in the heat of battle.
The destination was Junction, a small Texas Hill Country town where A&M had set up a meager adjunct campus. Bryant’s intentions, however, were anything but meager.
He proceeded to put his players through the worst kind of torture in the midst of a record-breaking Texas heat wave. So grueling and rigorous were the practice sessions in Junction, a large chunk of his A&M squad quit the team.
The “survivors” are today known, with the highest regard, as the “Junction Boys.”
Bryant’s training regimen at the time, and for many years to follow, was akin to taking his players to hell and back. By the time I reached seventh grade, the “Bear Bryant way” of coaching was all the rage in Aggieland. The success of Bryant’s Aggie teams had ignited a special passion in football-minded people, and I was no exception. From an early age, my only real goal in life was to play football at Texas A&M.
Even though the beginning of football practice at Lamar was only a week or so removed from the hallway debacle on my first day of class, I was ready to put on the pads and toss around the pigskin on my way to football stardom.
Little did I know the price one had to pay to do it “the Bear’s way.”
From the first day of pre-season workouts, the Lamar coaches put us through the wringer.
We practiced every day in full gear. We ran laps every day in full gear. We hit each other constantly, and our reward every day was not a single drop of water to drink until we were done.
That was a lot for a bunch of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds to deal with, both physically and psychologically.
By the end of the first week, I’d had enough.
When Daddy picked me up after practice on Friday, I had news for him, but not the kind of news he was hoping to hear.
“I’ve decided I don’t want to play football,” I said.
“But you’ve been looking forward to this experience since you could walk,” Daddy responded. “Aren’t you excited?”
“No, Daddy,” I replied without emotion. “I don’t want to play football.
“I want to quit.”
And, just in case he hadn’t heard me, I clarified, “I’m going to quit football.”
“No, you’re not going to quit,” came the immediate response.
“You don’t understand,” I continued, “You have no idea what those coaches are doing to us.”
“They’re making you winners and better men,” he informed me.
I gave my father a quizzical look. He obviously didn’t understand what was going on.
“We can’t have any water. We’re hitting all the time. We run laps constantly. I’m exhausted. My mouth feels like cotton. I’m SO THIRSTY!”
I paused for dramatic effect, a tactic that later worked well in the courtroom.
“I want to quit.”
“You’re not quitting,” Daddy said again.
“So, you’re going to make me play football?” I asked, incredulously.
Still calm and collected, Daddy replied, “Yep. And here’s why.”
I was certain nothing he could say would change my mind about football.
“You’re going back out there Monday because you’re never in your life ever going to quit anything you start. You start something, you finish it.
“That’s going to be who you are from this point forward.” Daddy gave me a look that said he meant business.
Having inherited my father’s stubborn streak, I was not yet finished with my opening argument.
“PLEASE let me quit. I just don’t want to go back…SO BAD!”
“Nope, you're going back out there.”
And just like that, my conviction that football had become a thing in my past wilted into sheer nothingness, as I sat beside my father in the front seat of his car.
By the next Monday, though, I sprinted out to the practice field after school. Over the preceding weekend, Daddy had continued to work on me, and by the time he was done, he had convinced me that quitters were losers.
Second Chronicles puts it like this: “Be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded” (2 Chron. 15:7).
I quickly adjusted to the rigors of seventh-grade football. As the years passed, the Bear’s ways troubled me less, at least until I ran into Coach Bryant’s most ardent coaching disciple as a freshman walk-on player at Texas A&M.
I absolutely loved my high school years in the sport. As for Daddy, he never missed a single one of my games. In fact, after his return from the Second World War until he died in 2009, Daddy missed a grand total of only five of his hometown’s high school football team’s contests, both before and long after my own playing days.
Eventually, my father served as president of the Bryan school board for nearly twenty years. Shortly after he died, the Bryan Independent School District renamed the city’s high school in his honor: Travis B. Bryan High School. Of course, in doing so, the school remained “Bryan High.”
Daddy certainly loved that school, and he loved their football teams.
So much so, that his unending quest for football excellence wound up derailing my senior year on the Bronco baseball team.
A fellow my dad knew, a guy by the name of Nooks Bond, came into Daddy’s bank one day, entered his office, and closed the door.
“Travis, I know a guy that gathers eggs at the chicken hatchery in Hearne, and he’s got a boy that can really play football. He tells me he wants to move his son to Bryan so he can play here.”
After a short period of silence, Bond continued, “Do you think you might be able to help arrange a job for his dad here?”
Not one to pass up news of a great prospect, Daddy was soon on his way to Hearne to watch the boy play. Although just a ninth grader, the youngster, named Pete Martin, was obviously an outstanding future talent on the gridiron.
Daddy pulled a few strings and got Pete’s father a job offer in Bryan. But in the end, Pete’s family stayed in Hearne. News of my father’s attempt to “recruit” him did not. A grain dealer in Hearne by the name of Sam Degelia blew the whistle on the whole affair. Degelia reported the activity to the Texas University Interscholastic League, which then investigated the claim.
Daddy led the contingent from Bryan to answer to the accusations at UIL headquarters in Austin.
By the time of the meeting, our football season was over. We finished a disappointing 3-7, but I was named most valuable player of the team, still my greatest accomplishment in sports.
My father somehow convinced the UIL investigating board that he had recruited the young Martin to play baseball. His prospective participation in football would have been merely an “afterthought.”
Somehow, the UIL bought the story and, rather than punishing the Bronco football team, they cancelled our entire season of baseball games.
I would have been the starting catcher on that squad.
In a “true-crime” aside to that story, Degelia, the Hearne whistle-blower, was later murdered in a contract killing orchestrated by his business partner and carried out by Charles Voyde Harrelson, the father of actor Woody Harrelson. Charles later went on to assassinate Federal District Judge John Woods in San Antonio.
By 1971, the Bryan Independent School District had opened a new high school and taken advantage of the move to fully integrate its schools. This was some seventeen years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Topeka Board of Education constitutionally mandating the abolishment of “separate but equal” public-school facilities.
The new high school also adopted a new mascot. Gone were my Stephen F. Austin Broncos and in their place, local townsfolk rooted for the Bryan Vikings.
Bryan High School’s football fortunes soon faltered, in large part because of “white flight,” the relocation of affluent and middle-class white families to the newer neighborhoods which had been built in College Station. To try to restore gridiron success to the school, Daddy went in search for a new football coach, someone whose presence could keep the best players in the Bryan school district.
His top target was the coach of the über-successful Abilene Cooper High School program, a gentleman by the name of Merrill Green.
Green and the Cougars had come up just inches short of winning a state championship in 1967. The quarterback of that Cooper team was Jack Mildren, who went on to become a standout signal caller at the University of Oklahoma, where Green himself had played under the legendary head coach Bud Wilkinson.
Because of his success in Abilene, Green was one of the most well-known and highly regarded high school coaches in the Lone Star State.
With nothing to lose, Daddy gave Green a call. After a few minutes exchanging pleasantries, Daddy cut straight to the chase, offering Green the Bryan High School job.
“Mr. Bryan, I’m very happy in Abilene,” Green said.
Daddy responded, “What kind of salary are you making there now?”
Green threw out a number. Daddy laughed.
“Well, it would appear to me,” Daddy said, “that you’re going to be the next head football coach at Bryan High.”
With that, Daddy threw out a bigger number for Green to consider, bigger than the Abilene coach might ever have imagined.
In his twenty years as head coach at Bryan High School, Green won 197 games, nearly ten victories a season.
Today, the Bryan High School football stadium–next to Travis B. Bryan High School– is named, and deservedly so, for Coach Merrill Green.
And someplace in our fair community, there needs to be a marker or memorial or even a statue dedicated to my great uncle, Carl “Doc” Sprague.
In his youth, Doc–although everyone called him by his last name–played baseball at Texas A&M. There’s a picture of him and his Aggie teammates on a table at the Longhorn Tavern Steak House, an eating establishment in downtown Bryan popular with the courthouse crowd. My great-uncle taught me a lot growing up: the finer points of baseball, how to pick out a tasty watermelon, how to hunt and fish, and how to maintain a purposeful and organized lifestyle.
He was also the consummate Christian. He read the Bible, offered beautiful prayers over meals at his home, and sang in the church choir.
Doc loved to sing.
For most of his adult life, Doc sold life insurance. Occasionally, he would take my brother and me on business trips to places like Houston and Dallas. On those trips, he would regale us with song. On fishing or camping trips, Doc would pull out his guitar and sing about a cowboy life. We sang along with him on the songs that we knew, not because we had heard them on the radio, but because he had sung them to us so many times.
Little did we know that our uncle had been, in his youth, “the Original Singing Cowboy.”
Here’s an excerpt from his remarkable story pulled from the Encyclopedia of Country Music:
Carl Sprague, the "Original Singing Cowboy," had the pedigree to prove it. Texas born, a veteran of World War I and graduate of Texas A&M, Sprague learned his songs while working on a cattle ranch. Inspired by fellow Texan Vernon Dalhart, whose "Wreck of the Old 97" took the nation by storm in 1924, Sprague proved that cowboy songs had commercial potential when his version of "When the Work's All Done This Fall" sold 900,000 copies for Victor. Sprague would make a total of 33 recordings for Victor before the Depression ended his musical career.
And then there’s this from the Texas State Historical Society’s Handbook of Texas:
Carl Sprague lived in Bryan, Texas, from 1920 until his death. He married Lura Bess Mayo in 1926. They had no children. His wife, a pianist and music teacher, assisted Sprague in arranging music for his recording sessions and was an important musical influence. In later years, they led singing at the Bryan Lions Club and Businessmen's Bible Class of the First Baptist Church of Bryan. Carl Sprague died on February 21, 1979, in Bryan. In 2003 a collection of his twenty-four songs, including "When the Work's All Done This Fall," "Rounded Up in Glory," "Last Great Round Up," and "Utah Carrol," was released in an anthology titled Cowtrails, Longhorns, and Tight Saddles: Cowboy Songs 1925–1929.
That album, renamed Cowboy Classics, can be found on iTunes today.
Carl T. Sprague was an absolute sparkling gem among all the people I have ever known. Of whatever redeeming qualities I may possess, many came from him.