Sean Pendergast

Nine Finalists Named For Houston-Based Paul "Bear" Bryant Award

These helmets are for the nine schools represented by this season's Bear Bryant Award finalists.
These helmets are for the nine schools represented by this season's Bear Bryant Award finalists. Photo by Sean Pendergast
One of the signature awards for each college football season is based right here in Houston, as the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award is handed out each year in the middle of January, after the college football postseason is in the books. It is the one award that is not just handed out after the postseason, but voted on after the postseason as well.

Each season, the Bryant Award is voted on by a combination of media members, current coaches, former winners, the award's Executive Leadership Team, and the Bryant family themselves, and it is chosen on a criteria made up of a combination of on field performance and off field deeds and attributes, like grit and integrity.

Each year, the award ceremony itself raises money for the American Heart Association, as it was a heart attack in 1983 that caused the death of Bear Bryant at the age of 70. In 1986, the Bryant family teamed with the American Heart Association to create this award to honor Bryant's memory and bring awareness and resources to combat heart disease for people of all ages.

This year's event, naming the 2021 Bryant Award winner, takes place on January 12, 2022, at the Post Oak Hotel, and on Tuesday afternoon, the Bryant Award committee named nine finalists for this season's award. They represent all five Power Five conferences, as well as one finalist from the Group of Five. The 2021 Coach of the Year finalists are (in alphabetical order by finalist last name):

Big XII – Dave Aranda - Baylor University
ACC – Dave Clawson – Wake Forest University
Group of 5 – Luke Fickell – University of Cincinnati, American Athletic Conference
Big Ten – Jim Harbaugh – University of Michigan
SEC – Lane Kiffin – University of Mississippi
ACC – Pat Narduzzi - University of Pittsburgh
SEC – Nick Saban - University of Alabama
Big Ten – Mel Tucker – Michigan State University
Pac 12 – Kyle Whittingham – University of Utah

Additionally, college coaching legends John Robinson and David Shaw will be recognized at the event. Coach Robinson will receive the 2022 Paul “Bear” Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award, and Coach Shaw will receive the 2022 Heart of a Champion Award.

A few thoughts on the field of nine finalists:

Luke Fickell obviously has the chance to make the biggest impression, but might have this thing sewn up
For an award like this, the 2021 season has felt like a year long coronation for Fickell, who followed last season's New Year's Six bowl appearance (and solid performance in a close loss to Georgia) by becoming the first Group of Five head coach to lead a team to the College Football Playoff. Personally, I think if Fickell keeps the game within two touchdowns of Alabama — the spread is Alabama -13.5 — then he will win this award. If not, I think Jim Harbaugh has a great opportunity with potentially two wins over the best two teams in the country for most of the season, Georgia in the semifinal and Alabama in the title game. If Alabama steamrolls Cincy and the winner of Michigan-Georgia, then Saban, the reigning Bryant Award winner, probably wins the award for the third time. He also won it in 2003 at LSU.

Don't necessarily view the finalist omissions as your classic "snubs"
As I lay out the scenarios involving the three playoff coaches on this finalists list, some of you are probably asking "Why isn't Georgia's Kirby Smart on here? Did one loss to Alabama in the SEC Title game damage him that much?" I don't know this for certain, but my guess is that Smart had another endeavor to attend on the evening of January 12. The Bryant Award folks require a finalist to attend the actual event here in Houston to be considered for the award.  I would suggest Smart, Ryan Day of Ohio State, and perhaps Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State may fall into this category, based on where their teams finished in the rankings and the fact that none are on the finalists list.

Bowl season is almost like a Bryant Award elimination tournament
Given the award is based on much bigger picture things than just the results of mere football games, then the results on New Year's Day (and the rest of bowl season) shouldn't be ultimate deciders. They should just be small elements of a big decision. However, if we pretend that the bowl games are like the final exam in a college course, then dammit, this bowl season gets fun, as it pertains to the Bryant Award! Among the nine finalists, only three don't play another Bryant finalist in their bowl game, and one of those three, Harbaugh, is guaranteed to actually face a Bryant finalist in the College Football Playoff title game if Michigan defeats Georgia. Among the six finalists who square off against each other, we have Aranda versus Kiffin in the Sugar Bowl, Narduzzi versus Tucker in the Peach Bowl, and Saban versus Fickell in the Cotton Bowl.

MY PREDICTION: LUKE FICKELL, Cincinnati

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast