Heroes Who Rarely Get Recognition in College Football

Larry BurtonSenior Writer IJune 27, 2009

Coaches wives are much like the players who surround their husbands.  Some are content to sit on the bench, stay in the background, and just go along for the ride. 

Others are dedicated partners who help their spouses bring players in and make them part of the family.

Mary Harmon Bryant was one of the jewels among sports wives, and it would be hard to imagine Paul "Bear" Bryant attaining all he did without her. 

She was the jewel of his eye and a surrogate mother to thousands of young men.  She visited with parents of potential recruits and assured their mothers that she would help look after them and won over many fence-sitting recruit.

Mary looked up those young men as her boys, too, and like a mother often times had to play the role of mediator between a player in trouble and his angry coach.

Joe Namath recounted such a time when he was in the doghouse with Coach Bryant and he went to "Momma Mary" to help him with Bear.  He came home early and Mary had to hide Joe in the basement so Coach Bryant would be the wiser. 

She had a way of juggling her duties of wife and momma that seemed to make things work out.  The boys always knew they had a shoulder to cry on with Mary, and an ear to bend if they needed it.

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Players who got to know her worshiped her, but the public rarely knew about it.  About the only time I remember her getting any national exposure for all she did was in the post-game press coverage of the 1980 Sugar Bowl and Alabama's second consecutive national championship.

Major Ogilvie had just won the MVP and had ABC-TV and most of America watching when he was asked what he wanted to say about just being voted MVP.

Without even mentioning his own achievement, he said he knew Mrs. Bryant hadn't been feeling well this week, and he knew she was watching and hoped she was doing better.

So here's a guy with the biggest honor he had ever won with more people ready to hang on his every word and he's worried only about the condition of his "other momma."

Mary Harmon was always hosting parties, helping both students and new coaches and their families 'learn the ropes' of life in Tuscaloosa.

She helped with many charities and could always be counted on to give a hand to any organization that asked.

Terry Saban is cut from that same cloth.  Recently, I had the opportunity to be with Nick Saban on signing day; he was commenting on the great class and all the people who helped land them.

He did not leave out Terry.

Saban has told me many times how Terry entertains mothers and fathers of prospects when they come to Tuscaloosa. 

One particular story he recounted to me was of coming home one afternoon to find Terry with the Karaoke machine out and a full-blown party going on with Terry and the families of prospective recruits all taking part.

As he told this story, you couldn't help but notice the big smile and the sense of pride he has in his wife.  You just don't see him smile that way very often.

Though in today's world of instant messaging and laptops with video calls, the boys that come to Tuscaloosa now are much less homesick than the days of coach Bryant and a lot less in need of a mother's touch. But Terry still makes connections with many of them.

Talking to the players, many like to tell their favorite story about Terry, and she calls the team her "extended family."

She has involved herself in a other aspects of the university too.  Recently, when we added new coaches, she helped with the transition with the new coaches' wives.  She manages Nick's Kids, a foundation that has given over $300,000 to help needy children.

Her boundless energy also extends to her work with Habitat for Humanity, raising money for the library on campus, and so much more.

I met her recently and she one of the things she and Nick enjoy supporting the most is the scholarship fund for first-generation college students.

"Nick and I were both the first generation in our families to graduate from college.  We both come from grass-roots families and know the hardships that come with trying to manage a household budget and still send kids to college," Terry told me.

"Nick's dad made a living running a gas station; he worked hard and long hours but still found the time to coach Pop Warner football and give back something to his community," she continued.

"These are lessons we learned as kids, and we want to pass them along to our children as well.  You enjoy the blessings you have more when you learn to share those with others," Terry concluded.

Seeing the work these two ladies have done for Alabama makes one realize that these lessons will be passed on to the next generation.

Coach Bryant and Mary's son learned those lessons from his parents and recently gave $10 million to the university's Crimson Tradition Fund, as well as serving on the board of directors for many years.

So the next time you cheer another great recruiting class or another great season, don't forget that there are many behind the scenes who helped make it happen.

At Alabama, one of those people is Terry Saban, who like another great coach's wife, is happy to do those usually thankless jobs that mean so much.