There’s nothing more Southern than the houndstooth hat of legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. But as the story goes, Bryant got the hat from a Yankee.
We’ll give you time to catch your breath …
OK, now that reality has sunk in, what’s the story behind it?
According to an article by Meredith Cummings entitled “Alabama’s Houndstooth History,” Bryant always had worn plain fedoras or baseball caps on the sideline – not his trademark houndstooth – when he first took over the program in 1958.
That may be tough to swallow, but consider how he then got his trademark look: Multiple reports said that Sonny Werblin, the former owner of the New York Jets, offered Bryant the hat when he was trying to woo former Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to the Jets leading up to the 1965 AFL draft.
Namath eventually was selected first overall in the ’65 AFL draft, 12th overall in that year’s NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals and had a decision to make. Of course, he chose the Jets, whom he led to a famous win in Super Bowl III.
For his part, Bryant was forever stuck as the houndstooth’s unofficial leading man. But it’s unclear if Werblin’s gift had any influence on Namath.
“(Werblin) gave Coach Bryant that hat during that time and I don’t think it was planned, but then other people started giving hats to him,” said Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum, according to Cummings.
“You’ve got to remember the time, so that’s what everybody would have been wearing. It was what men did.”
And a lot of Alabama men wanted to look like Bryant.
In fact, Bryant and Werblin went into business together. The two started a company so that Bryant could manufacture his own line of houndstooth hats, according to “Coach: The Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant” by Keith Dunnavant.
“A football coach really lives football, but making a living at the same time really is difficult,” Bryant said in the book. “I’ve been lucky that I have a lot of good friends who’ve helped me make money without me taking a chance of losing money, and that’s the kind of friend that we all want to have.”
Bryant certainly was speaking of Werblin, a Brooklyn-born executive who also was at one point the chairman of Madison Square Garden and one of the men behind the construction of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. But his gift to Bryant and, in turn, the college football world has become an Alabama staple.
If you aren’t familiar with the hat, well, where have you been for nearly five decades? Bryant’s famous houndstooth lid – which he wore checkered in black and white, royal blue and white and crimson and white – has become just as big a part of Alabama football as anything else.
Cummings’ article describes ‘Bama’s White House visit in the wake of its national championship after the 2009 season, when Terry Saban, the wife of head coach Nick Saban, even wore a houndstooth winter coat for the occasion.
There also were the Houndstooth Twins, Alabama fans Ashley and Maegen Bailey, who became regulars on television during Crimson Tide telecasts for donning the famous caps.
In Tide-crazed Alabama, the blonde twins were instant celebrities who appeared – houndstooth hats in tow – at everything from stock car races to cell phone company store openings, according to reports, as their stars rose in 2007 and 2008.
But the reality? Alabama’s biggest tradition wasn’t the brainchild of its most-famous figure. No, Bryant didn’t start the houndstooth cap – he just made it iconic because he was wearing it for much of the success he had with the Tide until he retired after the 1982 season.
Bryant won six national championships and 14 SEC titles in Tuscaloosa. He was a 12-time Coach of the Year. But Crimson Tide crazies aside, not everyone can recite those accolades.
But they all know what Bryant’s favorite hat looks like.