Sunday, August 21, 2016

Harry Gilmer: 1926 - 2016

Harry Gilmer was Alabama's first superstar player.
Harry Gilmer was Alabama's first true superstar player. While several Crimson Tide players became nationally renowned prior to to Gilmer's arrival at the Capstone, typically their fame came at the conclusion of their time on the Tide team. Johnny Mack Brown, Dixie Howell and others became famous with their final performances in Crimson and White. Gilmer was a household name almost his entire career at Alabama.

Mr. Gilmer passed away on Saturday, Aug. 20 at the age of 90.

Gilmer was famous for his astonishingly accurate jump pass but he was a superb runner as well. For opposing teams, kicking or punting to his side of the field was always a gamble, and one with absolutely terrible odds. If that wasn't enough, he also was a constant threat to intercept you on defense and had a reputation as a hard hitter.
  • He is the only Alabama player to be a finalist for the Heisman trophy twice.
  • He is the only Alabama player ever taken with the first selection in the NFL Draft.*
  • He was an all-American in 1945, SEC Player of the Year in 1945 and the MVP of the 1946 Rose Bowl.
  • He was the first player to leave his cleat and hand impressions in the concrete at the Walk of Fame at Denny Chimes.
  • He is a member of The Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
There is now a biography of Gilmer at the Encyclopedia of Alabama that outlines his life and career. Obituary stories are available at, the Tuscaloosa News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Additionally, there is a post at Roll Bama Roll looking at Gilmer's on-field accomplishments.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Traveling to Away Games in the Early Decades of Alabama Football

A trio of couples head to the Alabama game in 1898.
Today one of the hallmarks of die-hard Alabama football fandom is traveling to away games in the comfort of a luxury mobile home. In fact, the ease of finding a ride to the game is underscored by the headache of traffic around the stadium on gameday. It wasn't always like this.

In the earliest days of Alabama football, travel to out-of-town games was far more difficult. Most often the team played with little to no supporters in the stands. Occasionally, for high marquee games in the region, trains would be scheduled at special rates to ferry fans to and from the contests.

Still, paying the fare could be tough for cash strapped college students. In 1914 UA student George Waring Huston mentioned in a letter to his parents that 50 of his classmates had left the night before walking the 60 miles to Birmingham for the game against Sewanee the next day.

The growing popularity (and affordability) of the motor car as a personal mode of transportation revolutionized the gameday experience by making more distant contests available to the ardent fan. With it was born that staple of the collegiate experience, the impromptu road trip.

But it would take the introduction of the interstate highway and, later, the advent of affordable air travel, to make attending away games a regular occurrence for the Crimson Tide fanbase.

Alabama fans and their jitney bus that conveyed them to the
1907 game against Auburn at Lakeview Park in Birmingham.
A rakish group of UA students pose in their rambler in 1912.
Alabama's Million Dollar Band prepares to embark to Florida
where the Crimson Tide faced the Gators in 1925.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Father of Auburn Football Backs the Tide

In December of 1934 the fortunes of Alabama's premier college football teams could not have been farther apart. The Alabama Crimson Tide had rolled to an undefeated season and were preparing to head to California and take on Stanford in the Rose Bowl . Across the state the Auburn Tigers had limped to a 2-8 record under first year coach Jack Meagher.

The founder of Auburn football, Dr. George Petrie, was interviewed at an Atlanta conference about his thoughts on the two teams and was sanguine about the state of affairs at the two programs. Although retired from athletics, the 68-year-old Petrie continued to teach history and remained dean of Auburn's graduate school.

"Alabama has the best football team in the country, except Minnesota. Auburn's one consolation this year is they didn't have to play Alabama."

Alabama went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, 29-13, and claimed the national championship. Minnesota, who were also undefeated, did not play in a bowl game and also claimed the title.

Despite the conciliatory tone, Petrie remained adamantly opposed to a renewal of the rivalry that had been curtailed in 1907 following a bitter accusations between the two teams. The two schools, he insisted, were against it.

"The state legislature can't make us play as has been suggested. For that matter we couldn't make the boys play if they didn't want to."

In 1947 the Alabama legislature did decreed the rivalry resume -- and then backed it up by threatening to pull funding to the schools. After a four-decade hiatus, Alabama and Auburn met again on the gridiron the following year.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Crimson Tide Special En Route to the 1938 Rose Bowl

In December 1937, the University of Alabama scheduled a special Southern Pacific train to carry the Crimson Tide football team and their supporters to Pasadena for the New Years Day game against the University of California. As in years past, the transportation for the Bama backers to the West Coast was organized by Jefferson Coleman, the UA athletic department business manager.

The 14-car train with 248 passengers dubbed "The Crimson Tide Special" by sportswriters left Tuscaloosa on Dec. 21 and traveled the 2,500 miles to California in three days, arriving at the Pasadena station at 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve morning.

The trip was not uneventful for the squad. During a practice on a rain-drenched field while on a stopover at San Antonio, Texas, Alabama player Leroy Munskie sustained a severe cut over his right eye that required several stiches. The cut was re-injured in a collision during another practice in a Tuscon, AZ stop. The injury sparked concern over if he would be able to play in the New Year's Day game.

Another train carrying Alabama supporters departed Tuscaloosa on Dec. 27 with about 150 passengers and two more trains, one leaving Montgomery and another from Birmingham, departed the same day with about 200 additional Crimson Tide backers.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

1926 Rose Bowl Player of the Game Johnny Mack Brown

The Dothan Antelope put his speed and elusiveness on display at the 1925 Rose Bowl against Washington. Down by five to the Huskies in the third quarter, Alabama's Grant Gillis dropped back to his own 41 and launched a bomb to Brown who snagged it at the 25-yard-line at a dead run and galloped in the go-ahead touchdown.

Two plays later, Washington fumbled near their own 40 and the Alabama offense went to work again. On the first play of the drive Brown dashed down the field while Pooley Hubert dropped back and launched it. The Antelope looked over his shoulder and reeled in the pass at the three-yard-line and scored on the next stride.

In addition to his two touchdown receptions, Brown carried the ball eight times for 78 yards, averaging 6.3 yards a carry. He was later named Alabama's player of the game for his performance. Washington's MVP, George "Wildcat" Wilson, said of his foe in crimson, "That Mack Brown was all they said of him and more. He was about the fastest man in a football suit I have ever bumped up against."

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Diagramming Alabama & California's Key Plays

In the week prior to the 1938 Rose Bowl, the Newspaper Enterprise Association's sports artist Art Krenz produced this illustration featuring a play of each of the teams -- Alabama and California.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The 1942 Cotton Bowl: Alabama vs Texas A&M

Alabama and Texas A&M met on the gridiron for the first time on Jan. 1, 1942 in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. With the United States entrance into World War II less than a month before, football was not the primary thing on the mind of many.

“The whole mood of the country was downcast,” Alabama’s All-American end Holt Rast recalled years later. “We knew we were in a war and I was kind of anxious to get the game and my college degree behind me so I could join up and help my country.”

Over the course of the 1941 season, Texas A&M dominated the Southwest Conference with a record-breaking passing game that had tallied a total of 1,658 passing yards. The Aggies finished with a 9-1-0 record, a conference championship and ranked No. 9 in the nation. And they had outscored their opposition 260-46.

Despite a reputation as a run-heavy offense, Alabama’s air attack was even more potent than the Aggies. The Tide's "Notre Dame Box" offense lead to 1,698 yards aloft during the regular season. Still, that didn’t translate into the same kind of success that Texas A&M enjoyed. Alabama ended the season had an 8-2-0 record and were ranked 20th. Despite facing one of the toughest schedules in the nation, Alabama had outscored their opponents 234-64.

While the two teams seemed well matched on paper, Texas A&M’s record of success made them the favorite in the eyes of the oddsmakers. The Aggies went into Dallas as two time conference champions having also earned the national title in 1939. The 1942 Cotton Bowl was their third straight bowl game while two-loss Alabama had not had a post-season contest since the 13-0 drubbing by Cal in the 1938 Rose Bowl.

The Aggies coach, Homer Norton, was a native of Birmingham, a fact Thomas shared with his team prior to the game. “He has a lot of friends in Alabama,” Thomas said. “If we lose this one we’ll never hear the last of it. We’ll never live it down.”

In addition to the wartime setting, the North Texas winter weather conspired to dampen the mood of the game as well. The temperature at the 1:15 p.m. kickoff was 20 degrees but a crowd 33,000 spectators braved the brisk conditions for the highly anticipated contest.

The game turned into a defensive slugfest with both offenses doing their best to give the game away. Texas A&M tallied no less than seven interceptions and five lost fumbles. Alabama converted just a single first down, punted no less than sixteen times and gave up 81 yards in penalties. The Aggies outrushed Alabama 115 to 59 and outpassed the Crimson Tide 194 to 16.

The Crimson Tide scoring was fueled by the heads up play of halfback Jimmy Nelson. In the second quarter, the All-American returned an Aggie punt 72 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to even the score. He scored again in the third quarter by recovering a Texas A&M fumble and dashing 21 yards to the end zone to put Alabama ahead 20-7. Nelson also snagged two of the Aggies’ interceptions.

Rast returned an interception for a touchdown to put the final points on the scoreboard for the Crimson Tide. With a 29-7 lead, Thomas put in his second and third stringers who gave up two touchdowns before time expired. The final score: Alabama 29 –Texas A&M 21.

“Now when they tell me Southwest Conference football is better than ours, I’ll just laugh at them,” Thomas quipped afterward. “They play good football but we play a better brand.”