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The men before the Bear that started the story of Alabama football glory

This is the story of the men who did much more than most are aware of to make Alabama what it is today. See if you knew the whole story behind Alabama glory.

Wallace Wade handing off the job to Frank Thomas (Photo - Bryant Museum)

So many years before Nick Saban and even before “Bear” Bryant, there were men that did things that were considered at the time to be much more amazing than anything either of those two men ever did. They not only started the story of Alabama glory, but put history in place that helped pave the road for all the success that was to follow.

To the fans enjoying the wins the current years of success that Alabama is enjoying now without understanding the full story of just who Alabama is and what they mean to the entire South is to rob yourself of the entire fruit of full joy.

The great thing about Touchdown Alabama Magazine is that it was born of an idea by Bennie Bice, whose first words may have actually been “Roll Tide”. It was his dream to give folks information they won’t read everywhere else, to celebrate the present and give you insight into that. He also wanted a place where writers could speculate on what may happen in the coming weeks, months and years. And last, and certainly not least, he wanted the fans to understand the glorious past, to make the past relevant to what we do and say today and to know where we came from so we can appreciate where we are today. So let’s celebrate that you have a place to come for great stories like this where it’s more than just reporting.

So now that you know a little history of this publication, let us give you the story of the glory from Alabama’s past that many may not know.

In 1923, Wallace Wade was the hot assistant coach in the football world. He was an assistant at Vanderbilt when he took the head coaching job at Alabama. In his first season he improved Alabama’s win total to 7-2-1 from the 6-3-1 season the year before. It wasn’t the additional one game in the win column, but the regimented way Wade trained, coached and ran the team. The fans could see the difference in how the team handled their business and knew this was just the beginning.

Wallace Wade is the man who started Alabama down the road to all time glory.

The 1924 season saw an 8-1 record and a conference championship. Their only mistake was a heart breaking upset loss to Florida in a torrential downpour.  And while that took some satisfaction out of the season, the conference championship was still something to celebrate. But Wade told those boys that the best was yet to come if they only believed in themselves and each other.

As excited as the team and fans were with the prospect of even better days coming, not one man on the team, nor any fan could fathom in 1924 just how high they were going to go and what it meant to so many people when they got there.

The 1925 team played every down of every game like men on a mission. They went 9-0 allowing only one team to even score one time. They mauled some teams with scores of 53-0, 50-7 and 42-0, but they had some close games too like 7-0 and 6-0, but they always found a way to win and their confidence was that if a team even could score, they couldn’t outscore the Alabama Squad. They crushed their opponents by a combined score of 277-7 and simply seemed unstoppable.

They were conference champions once again, but after celebrating the end of their season and thinking it was all over, the team got an invitation that they had never gotten before. One that would forevermore change the history of not just Alabama, not just the South, but college football forever.

The Rose Bowl was founded in 1902 and was the Tournament East–West Football Game because it pitted the best team from the East against the best team in the West. In 1916 it became an annual affair, but still pitted the best teams of the East and West, because year in and year out, that’s where the best teams were, or so thought the majority of the country.

You have to understand the time and put things into perspective. When the Rose Bowl became an annual affair, the US was just 51 years from the great civil war. The North, East and West United States were prosperous and boasted the best schools, the biggest factories, the most wealth and more. The South was still recovering from the effects of loss of the war. It still had not completely rebuilt or recovered and the area was overall poor and under educated. Everything produced in the South was seen as second class at best and that included football. No matter what record Southern teams posted, it was viewed as a joke by writers in the East and West, just a bunch of farm boys beating up on one another. At this point in US history, the South really had nothing to be proud of and rally around.

Now with this snapshot of what things were like in these days and times, imagine that as the 1925 Alabama was winding down, Southern writers were goading Eastern and Western newspapers into daring them to play this Alabama team that could play with any of the so called big boys and they were writing that those big teams were actually scared of Alabama.

The Southern writers put pressure on the Rose Bowl saying needed to show the world that Southern teams played football on par with the big Eastern and Western schools. And in truth, even some of the Eastern and Western writers wrote the Rose Bowl to let those country bumpkins come and be destroyed so that they could shut them up once and for all.

But even with Alabama’s perfect season and the stat of outscoring opponents 277-7, the Rose Bowl Committee was not impressed. It was after all just one of those hick teams that played an inferior brand of football. But when Dartmouth, Yale, and Colgate all turned down the invitation in response to criticisms that these kinds of sporting games were keeping the student athletes from concentrating on academics, the committee reluctantly turned to Alabama, almost as a last choice.

So when the invitation did amazingly enough get extended, most people outside the South thought Alabama would never accept it. Could they even afford to come to the game and why would they want to come to be trampled by the mighty Washington team that ended the season 10-0-1 against truly worthy opponents. Though there was no Las Vegas yet and no sports gambling industry, the experts that be at the time had Washington as a huge favorite.

Wallace Wade called the team back together to tell them their season may not be over, they had been extended an invitation to the famous Rose Bowl. He told them that if they chose to do this thing, that they would have to go through three more weeks of practice, that they couldn’t go home for Christmas and would have to endure a long train trip to California. Now keep in mind, most of these boys had never traveled more than a hundred miles from their homes in their lives. He also told them that the team they were playing was said to be one of the best teams ever and that few people thought they had a chance of winning.

It was a different day and it was put to a vote by the team whether to accept the invitation or not and the team jumped at the chance. But in the days and weeks before the game, it became much more than just a game. With good intentions, a big Alabama booster, Champ Pickens, started going to all kinds of civic groups imploring them to send individual telegrams to players telling them how important this game was not for just for them, not just for the school, but the South, who desperately needed something to feel proud of. Southern papers were saying much the same thing. These players were put in an unbelievably uncomfortable stress filled situation. They were have to play this game with the weight of the entire South on their backs as well as their own pressure they put on themselves.

Alabama had never played in a bowl game prior to this. In fact, the Rose Bowl was the only bowl in existence at that time and no Southern team had ever been invited to play in it before. So there was that pressure on them too.

While Washington players got to practice at their home campus, spend Christmas day with the family and as stories go, they took the game a little lightly and it showed in their preparation.

Alabama on the other hand Alabama had a scrimmage during one of their train stops and did running exercises at the others on the trip to California. In the week before the game, they had very intense practices at full force taking only a couple of afternoons off to do a bit of site seeing and one staged event where they got to meet some Hollywood stars. But overall, these were men taking this game as seriously as they could and tried to avoid distractions and just focus on the job ahead.

So on January 1st, when the Rose Bowl started, the stadium was filled with Washington fans all waiting to see their team send these boys from Bama back home beaten and bullied. And for the first half of the game, that certainly seemed what was going to happen.

The Washington team had one star who that year’s media darling, his name was George Wilson, their halfback who also threw the ball like a quarterback and played defensive secondary too. In the first half of that game, Wilson intercepted Alabama quarterback Pooley Hubert after Alabama had a promising drive going and then led his team 63 yards for a 6-0 lead after missing an all important extra point. Later, Wilson broke a 36 yard run and then threw a perfect 22 yard pass for yet another touchdown where they missed yet another extra point and now the game was 12-0 going into the locker room for halftime.

However going into the locker rooms two important things happened. Washington star George Wilson who had been killing Alabama in the first half was holding his ribs and Alabama’s coach Wallace Wade noticed that not one head was down in an Alabama uniform and they were all still focused and in control of their emotions. He could tell they hadn’t given up.

In the locker room, Wade told the team that they were switching up their offensive strategy and going to come out and run the ball down their throats. With Washington’s star sitting out the third quarter with sore ribs, Alabama wasted little time pouncing on Washington.

After holding Washington to little gain, they short punted and the Tide had great field possession at the Washington 42 and quickly scored with Pooley Hubert diving in from the 1 yard line. Alabama converted their extra point and it was 12-7. Without Wilson, Washington couldn’t move the ball again and it quickly went back to Alabama. Washington started playing the run because it was working so well and Alabama switched them up. Grant Gillis found Johnny Mack Brown on a 59-yard touchdown pass and suddenly Alabama led 14–12. Clearly momentum had changed and it was suddenly all Alabama.

Again, Washington couldn’t move against the Tide who playing very physical and jarred a fumble loose, recovering on the Washington 30. On the following play Pooley this time found Brown open again and just like that, in about seven minutes, the Bama boys went from being down 12-0 to leading 20-12 after they missed an extra point of their own.

To start the fourth quarter, Wilson came back in the game, sore ribs and all for Washington and hoped to work their magic one more time. The fourth quarter was a defensive showdown with neither team able to do much until Wilson finally got a late Washington score on a touchdown pass. They mounted one more late game drive, but Johnny Mack Brown made a last second game saving tackle. Washington almost came back, but the two first half missed extra points was the difference and Alabama won the game 20-19, stunning the near capacity crowd and the entire sports world.

This game did give Alabama a national championship, but overall, papers outside the South said Alabama’s win was a fluke. If Wilson had not sat out the third quarter or if they hadn’t missed some easy extra points, they would have won. Though Alabama did everything they could, folks outside the South poo poo’d the win. But in the South, it was totally different. They finally had a champion of their own. They had taken on the best the rest of the country could throw at them and beaten them.

As the team traveled home, once the train started going through Southern towns, people and brass bands would show up to honor the victors. Even conference rival Tulane University showed up when the train stopped in New Orleans to cheer the team. It was truly a Southern victory and a sense of pride finally was restored to a part of the country that desperately needed something to celebrate.

Now folks, I can’t say this say this strongly enough. This win by Alabama was not just a glorious kickoff for what was to become the best team in all of college football, it was the biggest thing that happened in the South since the civil war. That was just how much this game meant to everyone in the South. Even Alabama’s hated rivals celebrated the win because in a sense, it truly was a win for all of them. Southern football would never be thought of as second best again. Not just Alabama, but all the teams in the South had arrived.

On campus  Epp Sykes, writing as editor of the student newspaper, the Crimson White, complained that Alabama needed it’s own unique fight song, one that embody the championship that Alabama had earned and one that would tell of what that championship game game meant not just to the South for now, but also of Alabama’s place in the future.

Soon afterward, Rammer Jammer held a contest and offered $50 for the winning fight song or battle march. Now folks this was 1926 and $50 was like over $700 dollars in today’s money, so 12 serious challengers were submitted and of course the winning one was Yea Alabama! by old Epp Sykes himself, and though the first introduction is not sung much anymore, the chorus became famous. Let’s look at it and talk about it’s meaning.

Chorus:
Yea, Alabama! Drown ’em Tide!   (A reference to our nickname, drown ’em in the Crimson Tide)
Ev’ry ‘Bama man’s behind you;
Hit your stride!
Go teach the “Bulldogs” to behave.
Send the “Yellow Jackets” to a watery grave!     (A reference to Ga. Tech was a huge conference rival at the time)
And if a man starts to weaken,
That’s his shame:
For ‘Bama’s pluck and grit have
Writ her name in Crimson flame   (Alabama wrote their name in the history books for all time and did it with pluck and grit)
Fight on! fight on! fight on men!
“Remember the Rose Bowl”: We’ll win then.   (Remember what you accomplished that no one thought you could do. Do that and you’ll win again!)
Go! Roll to vict’ry!
Hit your stride!
You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide!  (Lastly, it’s not you’re Alabama’s pride, but all of Dixie’s pride, and it was so true)

That game alone would not have cemented Alabama in legend, it would have just been a nice story of a team that once performed a miracle. Thank goodness that this Alabama win festered in the minds of Northern  and Western sportswriters who still called the Alabama win a fluke. It really bothered them that Alabama had proven them wrong and they really wanted another chance to prove they were right and that the first game was a fluke as they were touting.

Alabama player Johnny Mack Brown from that team made such an impression on the folks in Hollywood with his gritty play and folksy attitude that he was offered an acting job when he finished college. He went on to a 40 year career in the movies and became one of Hollywood’s top stars.

Johnny Mack Brown turned his gutsy Rose Bowl performance into a Hollywood career. (photo – Charles Starett, WordPress.com)

So the next year when Alabama, without stars Pooley Hubert and Johnny Mack Brown, still managed a perfect season and a 9-0 record, beating teams by a combined score of 242 to 20. As the defending national champions with a perfect record, the Rose Bowl Committee had no choice but to offer Alabama an invitation, but they thought that Stanford would be the team that could end this Southern uprising. After all, their coach was Glenn Scobey Warner, better known by his nickname “Pop.” Warner was a legendary figure, maybe one of the most famous coaches in America due to his success at Georgia, Cornell, Pittsburgh and Carlisle Indian Industrial School where he coached Jim Thorpe.

Wade was glad to see this team take this game as seriously as the team the year before and just as he did in 1926, he worked them hard on the trip out there. Even when they arrived in California on Christmas day, he worked them out vigorously.

Now it was time to prove the first game wasn’t a fluke after all. National interest was at an all time high and the stadium itself had to add 4000 more seats just to satisfy demand. Not only was every big newspaper playing up the game, but for the first time the game was going to be broadcast on NBC national radio. One young 13 year old boy in Arkansas heard that game and thought it was the most exciting thing he’d ever heard and resolved to himself to work hard and do whatever it took to one day join the Alabama team and play in a Rose Bowl. That boy was Paul “Bear” Bryant, who later in life did play for Alabama and did play in his own Rose Bowl.

This was a game of two defensive titans. And the game certainly played out that way. Stanford moved the ball early, but missed a 18 yard field goal. Alabama was held time and again and late in the first quarter, Stanford moved the ball 63 yards for a touchdown and made the all important extra point.

The second, third and most of the fourth quarter was a defensive standoff. But late in the game, on their own 42 yard line, Stanford was forced to punt and Alabama’s Baba Pearce somehow squeezed through the line and blocked a punt and after a wild scramble, Alabama recovered the ball on the 14 yard line. Wade knew this was their chance, but he had to find a way to move the ball against that immovable Stanford defense.

He turned to Jimmy Johnson, a running back that hadn’t been used due to dislocating his shoulder before the game in one of their tough practices. Wade knew he at least had fresh legs and he didn’t have to ask twice and Johnson took the field in a heartbeat. Years later Johnson said he’d have played in his arm had been ripped off.

It was decided that if they were going to score, they just had to man up and take it to them man on man, running right into the teeth of a defense that hadn’t given them anything all day. On the first play, “Wu” Winslett ground out three three yards. Johnson then got the ball and ground out four more. Two more carries by Winslett got the ball to the Stanford one. Johnson made the final carry into the end zone for the score, carrying the ball in his good arm.

Now this was in the day before there was such a thing as a two point conversion and Alabama knew first hand just how important an extra point could be so Wade decided to try a trick play to make sure the kick wouldn’t be blocked or stopped. As they lined up for the extra point, running back and signal caller Emile Barnes stood up and yelled “Signals off!” Stanford’s players thought this meant Alabama was going to reset for the play and relaxed for a moment. But Alabama center Gordon “Sherlock” Holmes snapped the ball, Winslett got the snap, placed the ball and kicker Herschel Caldwell put it through the uprights to tie the game at 7-7.

There was no time left for either team to more and the game ended in a tie and both teams shared the national championship. Once again, Alabama returned to the South as a champion.

Alabama was now a household name all across the country. Alabama was considered one of the elite teams in the country but still, many considered Alabama as lucky and each game was without a big decisive win.

But in 1930, in Wade’s last year in charge of the Alabama program, Alabama went 9-0 once again and went back to the Rose Bowl to face Washington State. Wade had announce this was his last year as he was heading to Duke. But with Alabama’s permission, Wade handpicked his own successor and brought him in for his last season to “ease him in” into the transition.

Wade’s last team was his absolute best. his defense was so outstanding that in almost every game he’d start the second team players just the frustrate teams and wear down their starters and then bring in the fresh first team in the second quarter against tired opposing players. It worked to a charm.

Wade told his team that they weren’t just going to win this game, they were going to dominate the Washington State team so badly that no one would ever forget it. They practiced tough just as they always had and all side trips and appearances were canceled. Rumor has it they stopped by an Orange grove and were allowed to pick two oranges and that was it. It was all business.

So when the game started, once again on national radio, fans didn’t matter it was a rainy, drizzly day, and over 8100 folks showed up to see the game.

Wade stayed true to form, starting the second string players while seeing how Washington State sought to attack his team. His offense couldn’t move the ball against the Cougar defense, but surprisingly, Alabama’s scrub players kept State from moving the ball too and the first quarter ended in 0-0 score.

When the first string came in the second quarter, Wade wanted to do two things. Wear the butts out and get them used to Alabama simply trying to overpower them by running it down their throats. They ran the ball 13 times in a row until Alabama ran an end around to Jimmy Moore, but instead of turning up field, Moore stopped and threw the ball to John “Flash” Suther who was streaking down the left side of the field. Suther caught it at the Cougar’s 22-yard line and easily loped into the end zone. It was all the points Alabama would need as their defense would not be moved, but there was more to come.

A frustrated State team got the ball after the kickoff and immediately threw an interception on the Cougar’s 47 yard line. Alabama wasted no time showing them it was supposed to be done and a long pass play put the ball on the one yard line where Monk Campbell muscled it and in just a matter of a few minutes it was 14-0.

State was held once again on their next drive and once again Bama wasted no time. Cambell faked a hand off to Moore, found a gap of his own and ran 43 yards for another score. After wearing out the Cougars with the second team in the first quarter, the first team had come in and scored 21 points in less that seven minutes, seemingly scoring at will. Meanwhile, the Cougars couldn’t get anything going against either the first or second string and the Tide went into the locker room at halftime with the game firmly in hand.

In the second half, Wade put the second team back in and just about everyone in a Crimson Tide uniform participated in the game to have their own Rose Bowl moment. While the Alabama offense with mostly subs only managed a second half field goal, Washington State’s offense was never able to make a credible scoring threat against any combination of players the Tide put on the field. It was a game of just utter domination.

Wade went out keeping his promises to the his players. He made them unquestioned champions and he did as he promised he would leave the team in good hands as he went on Duke. Wade went to Duke and continued his legacy by taking over a team not known for good football teams and leading them to Rose Bowls of their own. One of his teams, nicknamed the “Iron Dukes” went a whole season without allowing a team to score on them in the regular season. Duke ended up naming their stadium after him and it carries that name today.

With Wade gone, Alabama fans were nervous much as they would be today if Saban announced his retirement. Frank Thomas had only been a coach of lowly Chattanooga for a short while and few outside of football’s brightest minds didn’t have a lot of faith in this man.

Frank Thomas proved Alabama was more than a one coach wonder and cemented Alabama in legend. (Photo-Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Thomas however became his own man, changed things from the way Wade had done in offensive philosophies and became a legend in his own right with his own players and his own new ideas. His Rose Bowl win in 1935 featured a young man who wasn’t as strong in talent as he was in heart and determination playing as “The other end” of the Alabama offense. That young man was Paul “Bear” Bryant and that passing game forevermore changed college football and ushered in the era of modern football offenses. But they were not a popular choice to face a mighty Stanford team. Many thought Minnesota was truly deserving of the invitation, so much so that when Alabama arrived in Los Angeles, Stanford players turned out to jeer them. However at that time, the Big 10, of which Minnesota was a member, did not allow their schools to take time off to play in bowl games.

Conversely, wherever Alabama went and whenever they practiced, hundreds of Stanford supporters would show up to the yell insults to the Crimson Tide players and scream that Stanford was going to whip their butts. Without Wade in charge and without their stars of the past, few people outside the south felt Alabama would win this game, but just as in the past, it didn’t pay to underestimate these boys from Tuscaloosa.

The game didn’t start well, with Alabama fumbling on the 29 yard line and a few plays later Stanford jumped ahead to a 7-0 lead and it held that until the second quarter. After testing the Stanford defense to no avail with the running game and getting them used to Alabama running the ball, Thomas knew it was time to let his quarterback, nicknamed “Dixie” Howell rain hell on the unsuspecting Stanford defense.

It worked to perfection and the offense simply exploded and Stanford could do nothing but helplessly watch the Tide pile up 22 quick points to go into halftime ahead 22-7.

Stanford did manage one more score in the second half, a long 74 yard drive to lower the deficit to 22-13, but it was a last hurrah. As the game went on the Bama defense was simply manhandling Stanford to such a point that the fans, mostly all Stanford fans, started throwing money on the field to distract the Alabama players. Even “Bear” Bryant recalled picking up some money before looking up and making one of the best tackles he’d made all day.

Still hoping the Stanford defense could keep them in the game, it was looking good as they had Alabama in a 3rd and long on the Alabama side of the field, they were totally disheartened when Dixie once again proved why he was All American worthy as he hit another All American worthy player, Don Hutson, with a 59 yard touchdown pass. Ahead 29-13, more than a two touchdown lead, Thomas began to play his bench let as many as possible enjoy a Rose Bowl experience.

When it was over, it was lopsided Alabama victory. There were many big plays turned in by so many Alabama players, but none more than Dixie Howell,  who ran for 111 yards, threw for 164 yards and punted six times for an average of almost 44 yards keeping Stanford bottled up all day. Even one of the best sportswriters of all time,  Grantland Rice, who had player awards and bowl games named in his honor, described Dixie’s performance as “the greatest all-around exhibitions that football has ever known”.

That was just the first of Thomas’ four national championships. His style and mannerisms inspired “Bear” Bryant to go into coaching himself and Bryant became the next giant to step forward, not the first as many of today’s younger fans believe. Without Wallace and Thomas paving the way and making Alabama a place of legend, they would have never attracted Bryant to one day play and coach there. Without Bryant Alabama would not have been the kind of place Nick Saban would have ever come to. Today’s Alabama fans need to know how much they owe the men who laid the pillars for the legend that is Alabama today.

Both men have statues placed in the coaching ring of honor just outside the stadium and deservedly so. One man made Alabama a national household name and the other proved that Alabama would endure as a national leader for years to come. One man built the Alabama into a legend and the second proved that it was a program that could endure and continue to be a dominate national powerhouse. And now you know the tale of the men before the Bear that started the story of Alabama football glory.

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Larry Burton has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter

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  1. Larry Burton

    August 24, 2019 at 3:35 pm

    Hey folks, I’m on a birthday vacation for my wife in Japan and internet on this ship we’re on is terrible, so if you’d share the link to this story on your favorite Alabama site on Facebook, Instagram or twitter, I’d sure appreciate it as I can’t in the land of slow internet.

    Thanks,

    Larry

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