The success of the Southern icon is deeply rooted in the events following the Civil War, aka the "Lost Cause". After the fall of the Confederacy, there was a strong sense of guilt and a need for salvation from people who strived to comprehend the mass destruction and loss they experienced after so many years of righteousness ideology and propaganda they were accustumed to. Post-war Southerners struggled to get behind figures that not only embodied another rise of their self righteousness, but also portrayed the success of "rags to riches". Author Richard Weaver notes that "what the Southerner desired above all else in religion was a fine set of images to contemplate". In a place so deeply rooted in religious practices such as the South, it's hard to distinguish the secular, everyday images from subconscious religious intent. Two clear examples are found in Elvis Presley and Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Both Bryant and Elvis came from poverty stricken backgrounds and achieved major success in their fields, while also maintaining an image of humbleness that followed them till the end (think Elvis's career in gospel music).
Paul "Bear" Bryant pictured front left.
Elvis Aaron Presley, 1936.
To create a comparison between these two seems absurd to many people, in relation to their lifestyles. Elvis's flashy image of a teen heart throb rebel, later turned Vegas rhinestone god, doesnt suit well to the stoic, soft spoken giant that was Paul Bryant; yet overtime these two icons shared the same fate in life and in death. It is important to understand that icons are never stationary. If they survive the test of time, it's because they adapt, lose meaning, or take on a new identity.
"Elvis was notable for transcending the past. As in not reminiscing of his poor upbringing. His 1970's persona was a Southern version of a royal performance that placed Presley far outside, and above, the experiences of ordinary mortals" - Charles Regan
Bryant's establishment as an icon came from his impeccable record as a football coach, his dedication to developing people outside of players, and his humble approach to success. Bryant was the bain of coaches in his own conference, but when he crossed the Mason Dixon to face a foe on the gridiron, it was as if another Gettysburg was going to ensue. The cultural division was present, and formed again as salvation vs damnation, right vs wrong, Alabama vs Notre Dame. The mindset is all too clear, but the crowd has traded their muskets and hard tack for houndstooth hats and Coca-Cola bottles.
Elvis and Bryant's demi god status came later after death. If the Bible ever taught me anything, outside of my love for science, it was that death always transcends the mortal man into something more. Like Jesus, another popular guy in the South, the righteous figure had fallen, and people scrounge for understanding, looking for the heroic models for human behavior and escape from the everyday world of self isolation that is Dixie.