Thursday, January 6, 2011

The 1946 Rose Bowl: Alabama vs USC

Alabama coach Frank Thomas confers with his team
in Rose Bowl Stadium prior to the 1946 game.

Alabama's final Rose Bowl game in was on New Year's Day, 1946 - a full 20 years since the Crimson Tide's inaugural appearance in the Tournament of Roses invitational football game. Crimson Tide Head Coach Frank Thomas had led Alabama to a second national championship in 1941 - the fifth in the program's history - but building on that success proved impossible due to World War II. The university dropped the football program in 1943 due to the war.

The next season Thomas struggled to restart the program with a group of returning vets, 4-F students and teenagers too young to draft that he dubbed his "War Babies." The first year produced an unsatisfying 5-2-2 record but Thomas knew he had something special with this group of players.

One reason for his optimism was an undersized tailback named Harry Gilmer. With a one-of-a-kind leaping throwing style as accurate as it was unorthodox, Gilmer became the force driving the Crimson Tide offense. He captivated the Alabama faithful from the start when he opened the 1944 season by returning a LSU kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. No less than Grantland Rice declared him "the greatest college passer I ever saw."

With the conclusion of WW II in the spring of 1945, Thomas' war babies were joined by a number of returning veterans on campus in the fall. It proved to be one of the strongest squads Thomas ever put on the field. The Crimson Tide barreled to an undefeated 9-0 season; their closest call being a 28-14 victory over Georgia in Birmingham. Alabama carried the Southeast Conference and earned their sixth invitation to play in the Rose Bowl.

Alabama's 1945 team

In California, the Trojans of USC were riding high under head coach Newell J. "Jeff" Cravath. A center for powerful "Thundering Herd" squads under the legendary Howard Jones in the 1920s, Cravath was called back to Westwood after a dismal 2-6-1 outing in 1941 under Justin M. "Sam" Barry. Cravath fielded several strong Trojan squads relying on experienced players from Navy and Marine training programs set up at USC. He also overhauled the USC offense, instituting the "T" formation featuring with four backs, not one, handling the ball.

The Trojans crushed Tennessee 25-0 in the 1945 Rose Bowl, making the eight consecutive win for USC in the New Year's Day classic. The Trojans carried the Pacific Conference crown with a lackluster 7-3 record outscoring their opposition by just 75 points. Alabama, on the other hand, had amassed a 396-66 point differential during their undefeated season. Going into the game the Crimson Tide was a two-score favorite but that did little to impress the mavens of the West Coast media.

"You've won in the Rose Bowl before," bleated a columnist in the Los Angeles Times. "But you haven’t played Southern Cal yet."

The Rose Bowl boasted a record crowd of 94,000 on a New Year’s Day described as "June in January" weather. Hopes were high for the Trojan's ninth victory by the heavily partisan crowd. USC’s fortunes started foul as a fumble the second play of the game was recovered at the Trojan 15-yard line by Alabama’s Jack Green. Four plays later, with the ball on the two foot line, Alabama’s Henry Self kept the ball on a quarterback sneak and plunged into the end zone. A successful point after kick put Alabama ahead 7-0.

Thomas had kept to the ground game in the first period but as the second quarter opened up he let Gilmer take to the air. The result was an 11-play, 68-yard drive which ended with Gilmer plunging over the pile for the final three yards to score. Another kick and the score was 14-0.

As the second quarter began to wind down, Alabama launched another furious drive covering 64 yards in just four plays. Lowell Tew – who started despite a broken jaw – ran it in from the two-yard-line for the touchdown but kicker Hugh Morrow missed the extra point. The score going into the locker room at halftime was Alabama 20, USC 0.

After the intermission Alabama got the ball at the Trojan’s 39 off of a fumble by Verl Lillywhite and needed all of seven plays to find the end zone again. Norwood Hodges took it in from the one to score and with the kick, the Crimson Tide lead stretched to 27-0. As the fourth quarter started Gilmer completed a 15-yard pass to Self who scooted the final ten yards into the end zone. Alabama now led 34-0 and the Trojan-heavy crowd began heading for the exits. Thomas then took his starters out of the game and let the second and third string squads take over.

Midway through the fourth period, Alabama’s Gordon Pettus fumbled and USC's Jay Perrin, a 320 lb guard, fell on the ball at the Crimson Tide 25-yard line. A pass from Lillywhite to Harry Adelman put the Trojans on the scoreboard at last. With the extra point, the score was 34-7. The Trojans got another break moments later when Myron Dornbos broke through the Crimson Tide line and blocked a punt attempt. USC end Chuck Clark picked it up and ran it back for the touchdown. With Lillywhite's successful kick the score was 34-14 which proved to be the final.

When the dust settled, Alabama didn't simply break USC’s eight Rose Bowl game streak – they racked up more points on the Trojans than all eight opponents that faced USC in the previous New Year’s Day games combined. It wasn't so much a victory as a complete shellacking. Alabama outgained USC 351 yards to 41 and held the men of Troy’s running offense to an anemic six yards. Alabama collected 18 first downs to the Trojans three. Gilmer garnered the game’s MVP honors with a 16 carry, 113 yard performance.

The next day saw the venerable Los Angeles Times  singing quite a different tune declaring the Alabama squad "a faster, smarter, more eager, better trained and conditioned" team than the hometown Trojans.

The recognized national champion for the 1945 season is Army’s undefeated Black Knights squad but the military service academies eschewed bowl appearances during the war years. Still, the National Championship Foundation elected both Alabama and Army as co-national champions for the season.

The game proved to be an end of an era for Alabama. Thomas’ health had declined precipitously as the 1945 season progressed due to heart and lung disease. He continued to coach the team in 1946 but was confined to bed when not on the practice field. He stepped down as head coach at the end of the season (although staying on as the school’s athletic director) with 115-24-7 record and two national championships.

The 1946 Rose Bowl proved to be the final contest featuring any team outside of the Pacific Coast and Big Ten conferences. The Tournament of Roses struck an exclusive deal to pair the champions of the two conferences in the New Year's Day classic beginning with the 1947 game.

A version of this article previously appeared on Roll Bama Roll.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The 1938 Rose Bowl: Alabama vs California

Alabama's 1937 coaching staff: Tilden Campbell, Henry Crisp, Head
Coach Frank Thomas, Harold Drew, Paul Burnham, Paul W. Bryant.

The 1938 Rose Bowl marked the fifth time Alabama had been invited to take part in the New Year’s Day classic and the second time they were led there by head Coach Frank Thomas.

Alabama's 1936 football season ended on an unsatisfying note. A scoreless tie against Tennessee was the only blemish on an undefeated campaign but proved enough to cost  the Crimson Tide the Southeastern Conference Championship as well as an invitation to a bowl game. Alabama ended fourth in AP polling at the end of the season.

Entering the 1937 campaign the Crimson Tide boasted a couple dynamic players. Senior Leroy G. Monsky was a consensus All-American at guard while fullback Joe Kilgrow earned national honors as well. But the Alabama roster lacked the depth of years past and Thomas knew it.

Throughout the 1937 season, Thomas used the bowl snub to motivate his players. The goal seemed that much closer each week as the Crimson Tide crushed another opponent. A come from behind win against Vanderbilt in Nashville on Thanksgiving Day sealed the undefeated season. Alabama claimed the SEC title and garnered the invitation to play in Pasadena 1938.

Alabama's 1937 team
Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, the University of California was fielding one of its strongest squads ever. The Golden Bears were led by Leonard B. "Stub" Allison who had taken over as head coach in 1935. His first season in Berkeley produced a 9-1 record and tie with Stanford for the Pacific Coast Conference title. The 1936 campaign had resulted in a disappointing 6-5 effort but things shaped up quite differently the season that followed.

The 1937 squad was a powerhouse and soon came to be known as the "Thunder Team" due to their physical style of play. No less than five players on the squad ended up earning All-American honors at the end of the season including center Bob Herwig and halfback Sam Chapman. The Golden Bears plowed through the Pacific Conference during the 1937 season slowed only by a scoreless tie with Washington. During the 10-game campaign Cal amassed a 201 to 33 point differential and racked up no less than six shutouts. The conference title was followed with an invitation to the Rose Bowl.

The Cal team had hoped for a matchup with the defending Rose Bowl champions, the University of Pittsburgh who had completed an undefeated regular season. But the Panthers opted to decline the invitation and the Tournament of Roses committee extended the offer to Alabama.

A record crowd of more than 90,000 was on hand in Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena on Jan. 1, 1938 to see the Pacific and Southeastern conference champions go at it. With clear sunny skies and temperatures at 75 degree, Southern California was at its mid-winter best the 23rd Annual Tournament of Roses football game.

The contest started as a defensive battle as both teams were unable to reach the opposing end zone during the first quarter. For Alabama it proved to be the calm before the storm. Early in the second quarter Alabama was driving for a touchdown when Hershel "Herky" Mosley completed a pass to Charlie Holm at the Golden Bear’s seven-yard line. But the receiver bobbled the ball and Cal’s Herwig took it from him and killed the Crimson Tide drive.

A bit later in the quarter it was Mosley’s turn to be the goat, fumbling the ball at the Cal 49-yard-line. The Golden Bears then began a relentless drive down the field that the Crimson Tide defense was unable to stop. Twelve running plays put Cal on the Alabama 3-yard-line and a smartly executed end run by tailback Vic Bottari provided the touchdown. A successful extra point kick gave Cal the lead 7-0.

The scenario was much the same in the third quarter when the Golden Bears used the powerful running game to drive the ball 48 yards in nine plays. Bottari scampered the final five yards into the end zone on the exact same end run that had worked in the second quarter. The extra point kick failed this time and Cal was up 13-0 which proved to be the final margin of victory. Bottari finished the day with 34 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns earning him player of the game honors.

Whatever success Alabama was able to achieve on offense were hamstrung by turnovers – four fumbles and four interceptions. One fumble killed a Crimson Tide drive at the California one-yard-line and another Alabama scoring drive ended the same way at the Golden Bear’s six. Cal caught more of Alabama's passes  than Crimson Tide receivers did (4 interceptions vs 3 completions).

For Cal, the win gave the Golden Bears their first undefeated season since the "Wonder Teams" of the 1920s and claim to their last national championship. Two of the polling services ranked Cal’s undefeated season national championship worthy (although Pitt is the widely recognized title holder for 1937).

Alabama was forced to return to Tuscaloosa from California empty handed for the first time in five trips out west. While thousands of well-wishers had met the team at the train station each time before, this time it was different. The depot was deserted except for the family members of the players and coaches.

"It appears," Thomas told his wife as they drove home. "Nobody loves a loser."

A version of this article first appeared on Roll Bama Roll.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The 1935 Rose Bowl: Alabama vs Stanford

The 1934 Alabama line in a publicity shot prior to the 1934 Rose Bowl.
The 1935 Rose Bowl marked the start of a new chapter in the history of Alabama football. Under head coach Wallace Wade, New Year’s Day games in Pasadena and subsequent National Championships had become the norm. His departure to Duke University in 1931 left his hand-picked successor, Frank Thomas, loaded with high expectations.

Thomas had been a player at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne and had entered the coaching ranks as an assistant at the University of Georgia. While well recognized for his understanding of the game, Thomas’ only head coaching experience before taking the Alabama job was a five-year stint at the University of Chattanooga.

Yet, University of Alabama president George Hutchenson Denny made his choice and Thomas proved to be the man for the task. In his first three seasons at the Capstone, Thomas amassed a respectable 24-4-1 record. In 1933 his team was able to capture the Southeastern Conference Championship but a 2-0 loss to Fordham dropped their overall record to 7-1-1 and kept them out of the National Championship picture. Thomas was chomping at the bit all off-season knowing his squad was only going to be stronger the next year.

Part of his confidence stemmed from possessing one of the most talented passer-receiver combos the game had ever seen. Quarterback Millard "Dixie" Howell and end Don Hutson were selected as consensus All-Americans in 1934 for the aerial attack they developed under Thomas’ tutelage. It would become the precedent for the modern passing game. The other end on the squad was a lanky young man from rural Arkansas everyone knew by the nickname "Bear" – Paul W. Bryant. His faith in his coach was unwavering.

"The thing about Coach Thomas, like every fine coach, was that he was sound," Bryant recalled years later. "He beat you with the things he did best. Occasionally he would have one little new play for the opponent, but basically he preached blocking and tackling and executing."

It proved to be an unbeatable formula in 1934. Alabama rolled to an undefeated regular season that was highlighted by dramatic wins over Tennessee and Georgia Tech. A Southeastern Conference title followed and no less than four different polling systems chose the Crimson Tide as the national champions.

Alabama's 1934 team
Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, Stanford University was putting the finishing touches on head coach Claude Earl Thornhill’s second season. An assistant under Glenn "Pop" Warner during the legendary coach’s seven-year tenure in Palo Alto, Thornhill took over the head coach slot in 1933 after Warner left for Temple University.

Although Stanford had adopted the Indian mascot in 1930, Thornhill's squad came to be known as the "Vow Boys" for making a pact to never lose to conference rival USC.

They kept the promise in 1933 handing the Trojans their first defeat in 27 games, a 13-7 loss at home. The victory gave Stanford the Pacific Coast Conference championship and a matchup with Colombia University in the Rose Bowl. The Indians subsequently lost 7-0 to the Lions and Thornhill finished his inaugural season with an 8-2-1 record. Stanford's 1934 team was even stronger than the previous year, boasting three consensus All-Americans; quarterback Bobby Grayson, end Jim "Monk" Moscript and tackle Bob Reynolds.

The Vow Boys kept were good to their word the second year running, besting USC in Los Angeles on Nov. 3 that year. The Indians rolled up a 7-0-1 record and coasted to another Pacific Coast Conference title. As the regular season wrapped up, Stanford was ranked the No. 2 team in the nation and earned the inevitable Rose Bowl invitation.

When Alabama was chosen as their opponent there was a feeling that the Tournament of Roses had made a grave error by selecting the Crimson Tide over undefeated Minnesota. The Golden Gophers were widely viewed as the best team in the country after racking up an 8-0 record and outscoring opponents 270-38 in the process. Even though numerous polling services tapped Minnesota as the national champion following the close of the college football regular season, the Big Ten Conference prohibited its teams from participating in bowl games. Thus, Alabama got the nod from the Tournament of Roses Committee.

Many Stanford supporters felt the Gophers were a more deserving opponent and used the issue to taunt the Crimson Tide players when they arrived in Los Angeles. Hundreds of Indians fans flocked to the Alabama practices to loudly insist their team was going to whip the squad from the south decisively. Stanford’s coach was having none of it. "The boys know they've got a fight on their hands," Thornhill said of his players the day before the game.

A record total of 84,474 spectators were on hand in Rose Bowl stadium on New Year's Day 1935 to see the two lauded teams face off at last. The Crimson Tide's luck started early with tackle Bill Lee calling the coin toss.  Alabama chose to kick off and Stanford chose to defend the south goal, favored by the light breeze.

Alabama was slow to get started in the game, amassing just four yards in four plays during the first period. Stanford got a break when Alabama’s Joe Demyanovich fumbled the ball on the 29-yard-line and the Indian’s Keith Topping recovered. A few plays later Stanford’s Bobby Grayson plowed in for the score and Stanford had the lead 7-0. That situation held until the second quarter when Thomas unleashed the Crimson Tide’s passing attack and Alabama’s offensive exploded for a flurry of scores that Stanford was all but helpless to stop.

Alabama’s second possession in the second quarter began with a bang as Howell returned the kick 25-yards to the Indian’s 45-yard line. Howell then completed passes to Hutson, James Angelich and then Bryant to reach the 5-yard line. On the next play Howell kept the ball and blasted through the line where he was hit and did a complete somersault in the air. Amazingly, he landed on his feet at the two-yard-line and bounced into the end zone for the score. Riley Smith missed the point after and Alabama cut Stanford’s lead to 7-6.

Stanford then chose to kick the ball. Alabama drove back down the field on their next possession but the Indian’s defense held this time. Thomas called a timeout before Smith was set to attempt the 27-yard field goal. During the wait the kicker overhead Bryant and another player arguing if he could make it after the missed point after a few minutes prior.

"You sonsabitches should have better confidence in me than that," Smith told them then went out and booted it through the uprights. Alabama took the lead, 9-7.

Once again, Stanford chose to kick off to the Crimson Tide. Two plays later Howell made them pay for the decision, carrying the ball around the right side of the line and down the sideline for a 67-yard touchdown run to lengthen the Crimson Tide lead to 16-7.

Any hopes Stanford had for recapturing the momentum before halftime was ended with an interception by Alabama’s Smith giving the Crimson Tide the ball on the Indian’s 46 yard line. With just eight second left in the half Alabama’s Joe Riley completed a 24-yard pass to Hutson who galloped the rest of the way into the end zone. Another missed extra point and the score 22-7 in favor of Alabama. After halftime Stanford tried to regain the momentum and launched a frantic drive to catch up. A 74-yard Indian drive was topped with a 12-yard touchdown run by halfback Elzo L. Van Dellen Jr. The Alabama lead narrowed to 22-13. 

In the fourth quarter, Stanford fans, upset at the beatdown their team was receiving, began throwing money onto the field during a timeout in hopes  of distracting  the Alabama players. Bryant recalled scooping up some of the change in his hands but then having to drop it when he had to tackle a Stanford runner heading downfield on a sweep.

"It was the only decent tackle I made all day," he later said.

The gambit didn't stop the dynamic combo of Howell and Hutson from striking one more time. On third and 23 from the Alabama 41-yard-line, Howell completed a 59-yard touchdown pass to Hutson to seal the game. The kick by Smith was the final point of the game, 29-13. Howell finished the game with 111 yards rushing, 164 yards passing and punted six times for an average of almost 44 yards. No less than legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice described his performance as "the greatest all-around exhibitions that football has ever known"

Once again, Alabama’s victory in Pasadena had brought a fourth national championship to Tuscaloosa and the fans in Alabama showed up to show their appreciation. On Jan. 5, thousands of fans mobbed the Tuscaloosa train station to welcome the team back home.

Hutson went on to play for the Green Bay Packers, eventually being enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. Howell played for the Washington Redskins for several years and was a head coach at Arizona State University as well as Idaho. Both are now in the College Football Hall of Fame.

The next year, Riley Smith became the first Alabama player selected in the inaugural NFL draft when he was chosen second overall by the Boston Redskins. Bryant, of course, went onto one of the most celebrated coaching careers in college football history.

A version of this article first appeared on Roll Bama Roll.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The 1931 Rose Bowl: Alabama vs Washington State

The 1930 Alabama team prepares for the Rose Bowl in California.

As the 1930 football season began, Alabama was a program in transition. Between 1927 and 1930, The Crimson Tide had produced no better than a 6-3 record and hopes that Alabama football could rebound for a Southern Conference title - much less a Rose Bowl berth and a chance at a National Championship were - were small.

They got even smaller in April 1930 when head coach Wallace Wade announced he would resign at the end of the season to take the head coach position at Duke the following year. Wade handpicked Georgia assistant Frank Thomas as his successor and brought him on board his staff to ease the transition after the season. At the onset, the peculiar situation left little reason to expect better than the mediocre seasons that had gone before. But Wade believed he had a special group of players on his hands for the 1930 campaign and he made it clear to them what his goal was in preseason practices.

"Gentlemen," he told them. "I’m gonna win this damn championship this season and if you want to be part of it, let's get going. If there is anyone here who is not 100 percent committed, leave now."

As the season started, it became apparent his players had taken heed. Alabama began destroying opposing teams. "The thin red line is a think of the past, existing no more," opined sportswriter Everett Stupper in the Atlanta Journal Constitution after the game against Ole Miss. "The red elephants have replaced it at the Capstone."

Wade’s squad was so strong defensively that he began starting the second team for the first quarter and putting the starters in after the second period had begun. The practice tended to demoralize opponents that had struggled against the "scrub" players for 15 minutes and saw the fresh starters enter the game. He used it in no less than eight games during the season. Alabama rolled up seven shutouts on their path to an undefeated regular season and the Southern Conference Championship.

The Crimson Tide had outscored their opponents 247 to 13 - just two teams, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, proved able to manage a single touchdown against Wade’s stingy defense. An invitation to play in the 1931 Rose Bowl followed.

Alabama's 1930 team
The opponent would be undefeated Washington State (then State College of Washington). The Cougars were led by Coach Orin E. "Babe" Hollingbery – who had amassed a 26-9-2 record between 1926 and 1929. Like Alabama, the 1930 Washington State squad had become the Pacific Coast Conference champions with a dominating defense. The line was anchored by All-American Mel Hein and Glenn "Turk" Edwards, considered two of the greatest players to emerge from the school’s long gridiron history.

Leading up to the New Year's Day game, Wade kept to his habit of rigorous practices – even on Christmas Day – and keeping his players under his watchful eye. Sightseeing was almost completely eliminated; Alabama players weren't even allowed to go see the famous Tournament of Roses parade.

"We did go on one little trip," recalled the team’s All-American tackle Fred Sington. "Out to an orange grove. We picked two oranges and came back. That was his big outing."

Jan. 1, 1931 proved to be a dour affair in Pasadena with the famed Southern California sunshine giving way to a drizzling rain. Still, interest in the game ran high. Tournament of Roses officials estimated 81,000 spectators were on hand at Rose Bowl stadium for the game. The increased number of spectators was due to the recent competition of the South end of the stadium - making the venue a true bowl (instead of its original horseshoe shape). And, just like in 1927, organizers brought in additional seats to accommodate the crowd.

Wade stuck to his tried-and-true practice of starting the game with the second string squad. He used the opportunity to study the Washington State defense all the while wearing down their starting players. The first period ended with neither team on the scoreboard. As the second period began, Wade put in his starters but limited their ability to execute by calling for 13 straight running plays. This offensive attack was complimented by John Cain’s punting efforts. With an average distance of 46 yards, his kicks put the Cougars deep in their territory every possession.

Then, with the ball on the Alabama 39 yard line, the Crimson Tide took to the air. When the ball was snapped left end Jimmy Moore dashed into the backfield and took a handoff from Cain. Moore then stopped, turned and launched the ball to John "Flash" Suther who heading down the left side of the field. Suther caught it at the Cougar’s 22-yard line and galloped into the end-zone for the score.

Washington State’s next possession came to a quick and unhappy conclusion when Crimson Tide center Jess Eberdt intercepted a pass at the Cougar 47. Alabama’s Moore threw another pass this time connecting with Ben Smith who made it all the away to the one yard line. On the next play, Monk Campbell powered in for the touchdown. Alabama’s second-quarter onslaught wasn't finished. On the next possession, Campbell faked to Moore and carried the ball through the line and then rolled 43 yards for the score – the last one of the half.

In the span of less than seven minutes, the Crimson Tide had scored a total of 21 points – an accomplishment that echoed the third quarter heroics of the Alabama team during 1926 Rose Bowl. After halftime, Wade put the second team back in the game and scoring ebbed dramatically. Still, Alabama managed a 30-yard field goal to make the score 24-0. While the Cougars defense kept Alabama out of the end zone during the third and fourth quarters, Washington State remained unable to produce points themselves.

Alabama won 24-0 and gained their third National Championship under Coach Wade. It gave coach  a 61-13-3 record over his eight year stay at the Capstone, including a whopping 47 shutouts - a full 61% of the games his Alabama teams played.

Wade then went onto become the head coach at Duke where he would amass a record of record of 110 wins, 36 losses, and 7 ties in 16 seasons. He took the Blue Devils to two Rose Bowl games (one which he hosted in Durham, N.C. due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor the month before) but was unable to gain another victory playing in "the grandaddy of them all." His protege, Frank Thomas, took the reins of the Alabama football program beginning with the 1931 season and began a 14-year career that would rival his predecessor's in terms of achievement.

A version of this article first appeared on Roll Bama Roll.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The 1927 Rose Bowl: Alabama vs Stanford

The 1927 Rose Bowl set an attendance record of 57,417.
While the 1926 Rose Bowl and subsequent National Championship brought unprecedented nationwide attention to Alabama football program, the season that followed was the opportunity to cement the program’s success.

To achieve that Coach Wallace Wade faced a difficult challenge. Gone were Alabama’s marquee names of "Pooley" Hubert and Johnny Mack Brown as well as a host of key playmakers. Yet Wade was convinced  the team still had enough of talent and determination to make it back to Pasadena. With disciplined play Alabama continued to be an immovable object on defense. The Crimson Tide outscored opponents 242-20 during the 1926 regular season, allowing just three touchdowns.

The closest game was an Oct. 23 matchup against the Tigers of Sewanee that was decided by a safety in the waning minutes of the contest. The victory ensured Alabama would retain the Southern Conference crown and an invitation to the Rose Bowl to face the Pacific Coast Conference champion, Stanford. As he had the year before, Wade insisted his players were to stay focused on the game and he made sure to provide plenty of practices to ensure they would.

Alabama's 1926 team
The team completed the 2,000-mile train journey to California on Christmas morning and Wade had them on the practice field that afternoon. The Crimson Tide had arrived in Pasadena the defending national champions riding a 20-game win streak and they were ready to play. Their opponent wasn't cowed in the least.

In the 1920s, Stanford was coached by Glenn Scobey Warner, better known by his nickname "Pop." Warner was a legendary figure due to his success at Georgia, Cornell, Pittsburgh and Carlisle Indian Industrial School where he coached Jim Thorpe. Warner had revolutionized football with his innovative strategies. One of which, the single wing, had become a standard of Wade’s dynamic offensive attack. Hired by the Cardinal in 1924, Warner quickly built the team into a West Coast football power.

He led Stanford to a 6-1 season and the Pacific Coast Conference championship. A Rose Bowl invitation followed matching the Cardinal against Knute Rockne and the famed Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. While Warner's team dominated the Fighting Irish for most of the contest, Notre Dame capitalized on three Stanford turnovers to win it 27-10. Two seasons later Stanford amassed a 9-0 record, another conference crown and an invitation to spend New Year’s Day in Pasadena.

On Jan. 1, 1927, a record Rose Bowl crowd of 57,417 showed up on a sunny and hot afternoon to see the showdown of the last undefeated and untied teams in the country. The United Press called it "the football championship of America" and demand for tickets was so great organizers had added extra stands to boost the stadium’s capacity by 4,000 seats. The game also boasted a national audience as NBC made it the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast with famed sports broadcaster Graham McNamee calling the play-by-play.

Stanford wasted no time trying to get the upper hand. On the Card’s first play from scrimmage the teams fullback and primary passer, Clifford Hoffman, threw a 40-yard pass to end Ted Shipkey. First down on the Alabama 27-yard line. The Crimson Tide defense stepped up and forced Stanford’s George Bogue to try an 18-yard field goal. The kick went wide and Alabama took over on downs. Yet, three unsuccessful running plays later the Crimson Tide was forced to punt.

Then things got a little crazy. Stanford’s William Hyland caught the ball but before he could return it he was hit Alabama’s Fred Pickhard. Hyland fumbled the ball and Alabama’s Herschel Caldwell scooped it up… only to fumble it himself. Shipkey finally fell on it giving the Card’s possession and starting their drive again. It wasn't until late in the quarter that Stanford completed a 63-yard drive with a five-yard-pass from Bogue to Ed Walker who scrambled the remaining yard into the end zone. A successful extra point kick by Bogue made it 7-0 Stanford.

The second and third quarters produced a scoreless defensive struggle. It wasn't until well into the final period that either team had a real chance to score. Late in the fourth quarter Stanford was forced to punt from their own 42-yard-line and Alabama’s Baba Pearce blocked the kick. The Crimson Tide recovered the ball at the Card’s 14.

Knowing he'd need fresh legs to run the ball, Wade sent in running back Jimmy Johnson who had not played all afternoon due to a dislocated shoulder. On the first play of the drive, Hoyt "Wu" Winslett carried the ball three yards. Johnson then got the ball and ground out four more. Two more carries by Winslett got the ball to the Stanford one-yard-line and Johnson made the final carry into the end zone for the score.

Wade was taking no chances on getting the extra point and relied on a bit of deception to make sure the kick went good. As Alabama got set for the play, running back and signal caller Emile Barnes stood up and yelled "Signals off!" Stanford’s players took this to mean Alabama was going to reset for the play and relaxed for a moment. Instead, Crimson Tide center Gordon "Sherlock" Holmes snapped the ball, Winslett placed it on the ground and kicker Herschel Caldwell put it through the uprights to tie the game at 7-7.

On the following possession, Stanford started at their own 22-yard-line but only had time to get off two plays. With no overtime the final score stood 7-7. The game would be the final Rose Bowl to conclude with a tie and the outcome resulted in Alabama and Stanford sharing the National Champion title.

Stanford returned to Pasadena the next year to face the University of Pittsburgh. The Cardinal edged the Panthers 7-6 to give Warner his only Rose Bowl victory. Although Alabama would not return to the Rose Bowl for another four years, the two successive New Year’s Day contests had cemented the program’s future. The Crimson Tide was now a household name across the country and that brought greater attention to both the football team and the university itself.

In addition, the proceeds from the two Rose Bowl games helped pay the $150,000 cost to construct Alabama’s own football stadium. On Sept. 28, 1929 the school opened the 12,000-seat Denny Stadium – named for the University’s president George Hutchenson Denny.

Perhaps the most important impact of the 1927 Rose Bowl for Alabama’s football program went completely unnoticed at the time. In rural Arkansas, a 13-year-old boy listened to the historic broadcast of the game on the radio and heard the siren call of his destiny.

"I never imagined anything could be that exciting," recalled Paul W. Bryant years later. "I still didn’t have much of an idea what football was, but after listening to that game, I had it in my mind I wanted to go Alabama and play in the Rose Bowl."

A version of this article first appeared on Roll Bama Roll.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 1926 Rose Bowl: Alabama vs Washington

Coach Wallace Wade gives last minute instructions
to the Alabama team before the game starts.
Alabama’s first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 1926 was not just a landmark event for Crimson Tide football, it was "the Game that changed the South." Until that time the recognized powers of the gridiron dwelt on either coast and in the hoary Midwest. It was up to this upstart team from Tuscaloosa to change that perception but it wasn't going to be easy.

By the 1920s, the Tournament of Roses inter-sectional matchup of the best football team from both sides of the country had become the de facto national championship game. The popularity of Pasadena, California’s premier event had prompted the organizers to construct the largest stadium in the country in 1922 – the Rose Bowl.

As Alabama wrapped up a dominant 1925 season there was little consideration the Crimson Tide would be playing one more game on New Year’s Day. Southern teams simply weren't invited to the Tournament of Roses invitational - even teams as dominant as Alabama. Under head coach Wallace Wade, the Crimson Tide had become a gridiron juggernaut. In his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa the Crimson Tide had outscored opponents 516 to 74 and rang up a dozen shutouts.

The 1925 season was no different, with the Crimson Tide running up a 9-0 record and only allowing a single touchdown the whole season. It helped that his squad boasted two of the greatest talents in southern football at the time; All-American Allison "Pooley" Hubert and Johnny Mack Brown, also known as "the Dothan Antelope."

Alabama's 1925 team.

Up in the Pacific Northwest, the University of Washington football team was on a roll as well. In five years under head coach Enoch Bagshaw the Huskies had amassed a 37-6-5 record. The success was partially due to the presence of All-American George "Wildcat" Wilson. On offense Wilson played halfback and was a master of the stiff-arm tactic to gain more yardage. Able to to run, pass and kick with equal skill it was impossible to predict what he might do with the ball in his hands. As a linebacker he anchored the Husky's stout defense.

The Husky’s 10-0-1 record in 1925 earned them the Pacific Coast Conference crown and an invitation to play in the 1926 Rose Bowl. But just who would be their opponent wasn’t clear at first. Dartmouth had finished the 1925 season 8-0 and was considered the eastern champion but turned down the invite to play. Offers to Princeton and then Colgate were also extended and rejected. Finally, the Tournament of Roses committee turned to the recognized southern champion and offered an invitation to Alabama. Wade and his players accepted.

The general consensus was that Alabama was going to get whupped.

No less than coaching legend Glen "Pop" Warner said Washington was just too big for the smaller Crimson Tide squad to handle. Entertainer Will Rogers summed up the general sentiment when he called the Alabama the "Tusca-losers." Washington’s players took a lot of such talk to heart, treating their game preparation as light workouts. Wade, on the other hand, promised his team three weeks of "tough hard practice" and kept his word.

The stops on the 2,000-mile train ride were punctuated with wind sprints and practices. Moreover, when the team arrived in Southern California Wade kept the player’s sightseeing jaunts to an absolute minimum.

So on Jan. 1, 1926 an estimated 45,000 spectators were on hand for the 12th Rose Bowl game in the distinctive horseshoe shaped stadium located in the Arroyo Seco section of Pasadena. In Alabama, theaters were set up with a special news wire so audiences could follow the play-by-play.

Washington’s Wilson didn't waste much time before making his presence felt. In the first quarter he singlehandedly stopped an Alabama drive that reached the Washington 15-yard line with a tackle for a loss, a sack and an interception back to midfield.The powerful halfback picked up most of the remaining yardage in the drive until the last play, when Harold Patton took it in from the one for the score. George Guttormsen's drop-kick for the extra point was no good. The Huskies were on the scoreboard 6-0.

Alabama's offense found itself stymied by the Wilson-led Husky defense on every possession. Hubert got so upset with his teammate's performance he called them over during a timeout and yelled, "All right, what the hell’s going on here?"

In the second quarter Wilson struck again ripping off a 36-yard-run to the Alabama 20. Then, on the very next play, he tossed a touchdown strike to Johnny Cole. Guttormsen missed the extra point once again. Washington was up 12-0. Right before halftime, Wilson was hit hard by three Alabama players and fell to the ground unconscious. He was carried off the field and the second quarter finally expired.

The Alabama players were expecting a halftime speech from their coach that would sear the paint off the walls. Instead Wade walked into the locker room and, in a low voice, simply said: "They told me boys from the south would fight."

As Alabama returned to the field for the third quarter, Wade made a few key adjustments; moving heavier players to the end and allowing Hubert to run more. In addition, Washington's star player was still out of the game allowing Hubert and Brown a unique opportunity to go to work. On the Crimson Tide's first possession in the second half Hubert immediately ripped off 26-yard dash to the Alabama 12-yard-line. Hubert carried the ball on the next four plays, the last a one-yard plunge into the end zone. Bill Buckler made the extra point and the score was 12-7.

Alabama’s defense forced Washington to punt on the next possession and the Crimson Tide offense went to work again. Crimson Tide back Red Barns ripped off a pair of runs to the Alabama 39-yard line. Washington got set for the run, bringing seven men to the line, and Grant Gillis took the ball and threw a long pass to Brown at the Washington 25. Brown sidestepped the only Husky defender between him and the goal line and scored. Buckler made the extra point and Alabama grabbed the lead, 14-12.

Pooley Hubert scores for Alabama.

The Crimson Tide got another break on the next possession when Washington fumbled the ball over at their own 30-yard-line. Hubert immediately threw a pass to Brown who caught it at the three-yard-line and powered it in.

"I took it in stride," he said. "I used my stiff arm on one man and went over carrying somebody."

Buckler missed the kick after and the score was 20-12 in favor of the Crimson Tide. In the span of less than seven minutes, Alabama had managed to score three times and held Washington to less than 17 yards of offense. Alabama was on another drive in the fourth quarter when Wilson came back in the game and the Huskies mustered the will to stop the Crimson Tide on fourth and one at the 12-yard-line.

Wilson then led his team the other direction. A 27-yard pass from the All-American to John Cole shaved Alabama's lead to a single point. The Washington kicker completed the point after but the Crimson Tide was still ahead 20-19. The Crimson Tide secondary then stepped up to seal the game. On Washington’s next possession, Gillis intercepted a Wilson pass and Herschel Caldwell ended the Husky’s last possession in the same manner. Alabama prevailed 20-19.

Washington's Wilson finished the game with 134 yards in 15 carries, five completions for 77 yards and three touchdowns. He accounted for 211 of Washington’s 317 total yards and Alabama was unable to reach the end zone while he was on the field. Yet, for the 22 minutes he was on the sideline the Huskies could only manage 17 yards and the Crimson Tide scored three unanswered touchdowns. The difference in the contest was Alabama kicker Buckler whose two of three extra point conversions provided the margin of victory.

The victory gave Alabama its first National Championship and raised the estimation of Southern football immensely. The Crimson Tide had "won the Rose Bowl for the whole South," Brown declared and the whole south turned out to celebrate.

The newspaper reports of the game had electrified the country and they showed up to celebrate their heroes. At every stop on the way back to Tuscaloosa the Alabama train was met with jubilant crowds, marching bands and the inevitable speeches by local panjandrums.

The Tuscaloosa train depot was inundated with well wishers as the train pulled in with eager fans climbing on the building’s roof for a better look at the players. It took an hour for the team caravan to progress from the depot to downtown – a distance of less than a mile.

Alabama football had finally arrived.

A version of this story first appeared on Roll Bama Roll.