Bear Bryant’s practices in Junction, Texas, in the summer of ’54 have been broadly documented and sensationalized, but one would be remiss to believe that this grueling week was an outlier. A fledgling and perhaps more pitiless precursor occurred while Bryant was the head coach at the University of Kentucky.
Arriving in Lexington in 1946, Bryant was tasked with reversing the course of a faltering program led the previous season by Bernie Shively. Preseason camp for Bryant’s Kentucky teams occurred at Millersburg Military Institute, a military preparatory school located twenty-six miles northeast of Lexington in the little Bourbon County town of Millersburg, population 850.
MMI had all of the trappings of a military school: brick colonial architecture, Quonset huts, quadrangles, austerity. Bryant cherry-picked the location for two principle reasons: it was removed from the distractions of Lexington and the hot conditions on Rees Field, where the team practiced, were ideal for Bryant brutality.
Players would later refer to the place as “Death Valley” or “Hell’s Hollow.”
Howard Schnellenberger, who played for Bryant at Kentucky from ’52-‘53, ensures that preseason camps at Millersburg were tougher than Junction. “Everybody thought Junction was tough. That was a boy scout camp compared to Millersburg,” Schnellenberger reflects. “It went from 140 to 40 who went to Lexington to start training camp. Junction happened in ten days. Millersburg was a month. We were out there twice as long.”
“Twenty-one quit in one night,” recalls Frank Sadler, who self-describes himself as Bryant’s “waterboy” at Kentucky, though no water was dispensed. “The road was full of people going from Millersburg to Paris. They didn’t have the guts to take it.”
Schnellenberger recalls lying in bed at night while men slipped off under the cover of darkness, sliding down drainpipes that dangled from second floor of the institute dormitory.
Author Keith Dunnavant suggests that the Millersburg attrition rate was somewhere north of 75 percent. “The security of not having to worry about losing some talented stud in those heady days—there were always a dozen more ready to step up and play—reinforced Bryant’s Darwinist approach to the game while he was still learning how to coach,” Dunnavant said.
Bryant was doing more than just whipping players into shape. He was developing a reputation and a standard by which all other teams are measured. In short, he was becoming Bear Bryant.
Ensuring his way was administered, Bryant fitted together a team of supremely loyal assistants who loved to dispense pain. Perhaps a little in awe, perhaps a little crazy themselves, or perhaps terrified, Bryant’s yes men were a large factor in the overall success of the program. And Bryant could not have done what he did without them. In that first year, his loyal staff of agony lovers included Mike Balitsaris, Bill McCubbin, Carney Laslie, Frank Moseley, and Joe Atkinson. Save for Laslie, who boasted a gob of white hair, all were men who could easily be confused for a Kentucky player. They wore dusty high-top cleats, wizened baseball caps, and t-shirts cropped highly at the shoulders.
The staff arrived at the office before daylight and their women suffered. Bryant and assistants were overworked and football mad. They began to know the players better than they knew their own families.
Practice sessions included drills, conditioning, and wind sprints that were often tailor made for each individual. Bryant’s practice philosophy could be summed up with the following statement about his ’46 team: “You don’t know how a horse is going to pull until you hook him to a heavy load.” H&A
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Photo of Bryant courtesy of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.