Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Alabama Rose Bowl That Wasn't

Bama's standout tailback Joe Kilgrow and head coach Frank Thomas.
Between 1926 and 1946 the Crimson Tide played in six Rose Bowl games – a total exceeded only by the University of Southern California. Then there was the one that got away. In 1936, despite earning one of the best records in the nation, Alabama found itself locked out of Pasadena's New Year's Day classic.

After winning the 1935 Rose Bowl and claiming the national championship, Alabama's football fortunes fell back to earth. The Crimson Tide lost no less than nine of the starters that led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated 1934 season and the team limped to a disappointing 6-2-1 record.

Going into the 1936 campaign, Crimson Tide head coach Frank Thomas was far more optimistic than the season prior.

"We'll do better this year," he said. "Our fellows learned a lot last season. They learned it the hard way."

The talent was certainly there in 1936. Alabama had added a quality tailback in Joe Kilgrow, ace kicker Riley Smith was back in the lineup and guard Arthur "Tarzan" White would go on to earn All-American honors for his play that season. In addition, Thomas had added of two former players as coaches to his staff; Tilden Campbell and Paul W. Bryant.

The Crimson Tide came out of the gate red hot. Over the first three games – Howard, Clemson and Mississippi State – Alabama didn't allow a single point while scoring a total of 73. Then came The Third Saturday in October.

In 1935 Alabama drubbed the Volunteers 25-0 in Knoxville but Tennessee's legendary coach, Major Robert Neyland, had been absent due to being been called away for service in the Panama Canal Zone. In 1936 he was back and his Volunteers battled a favored Tide squad to a 0-0 tie at Birmingham's Legion Field.

It would be the sole blemish on Alabama's record and it proved a costly one.

Alabama dominated the remainder of the 1936 slate including a season finale against a highly-regarded Vanderbilt squad. Many observers, including Thomas himself, thought the 14-6 victory against the Commodores would be enough to garner post-season bowl bid. Of the country's five bowl games (and Cuba's Rhumba Bowl), the Sugar and the Rose were strongly considering extending an invitation to the Crimson Tide.

Yet it wasn't to be.

The first problem was Bernie Moore's powerful LSU squad. Although the Bayou Bengals' record was marred by a tie with Texas, they they had been victorious against all their conference foes that season. Thus, they claimed the SEC crown.

LSU's Mike the Tiger debuted
in 1936. Shown here with
trainer Mike Chambers.
Yet with matching unbeaten records both the Tigers and the Crimson Tide held out hope to be matched against Pacific Coast Conference champion Washington (7-1-1) in the 1937 Rose Bowl game. As November dragged into December the Huskies dithered on making a decision.

Many observers thought Alabama's chances were quite good since the Huskies' coach Jimmie Phelan had been teammates with the Tide's Thomas at Notre Dame. On the other hand, the Tide had stunned Washington 20-19 in their first meeting, the 1926 Rose Bowl.

Finally, after putting off the decision for weeks, Washington balked at playing the powerful SEC teams and tapped Pittsburgh as their opponent in Pasadena's inter-sectional showcase.

The choice sparked a firestorm of criticism. Sportswriters from coast to cost immediately blasted the decision citing Pittsburgh's record – the Panthers had been tied by Fordham 0-0 and beaten by Duquesne 7-0 – as well as three previous losses in the Rose Bowl game itself.

Maxwell Stiles of the Los Angeles Examiner went as far as to dismiss Pitt as "the greatest 'el foldo' of all the teams to ever play in Pasadena." Sid Ziff of the Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express dismissed the match up as "just blah" and said "Washington can have the game, we don't want it."

John Lardner of the American Newspaper Alliance regaled his readers with jokes he had heard about the contest:
"For instance, there is the one about the two football teams named Pat and Mike. ‘Have you been asked to the Rose Bowl?' says Mike. ‘Hell, no,' says Pat. ‘I'm undefeated."
Meanwhile, Alabama and LSU fans responded by dispatching a deluge of angry telegrams to Washington's athletic director Ray Eckmann. A sampling:
"I really don't blame you. You probably have to look out for your dear boys, even to tucking them to bed at night. The way Alabama has licked the West's pets in past games, it must be embarrassing."
"You're afraid to invite LSU, so let me wish you success with your game against Vassar."
"Our boys play football. What do the Pacific Coast Lord Fauntleroys play? Touch football?"
"There is no question in my mind but that Pittsburgh was selected because you wanted to satisfy the motion picture industry."
Pittsburgh would end up having the last laugh. The Panthers walloped the Huskies 21-0 on New Years Day 1937 and claimed the national championship.

LSU's consolation prize would be an invitation to play the Santa Clara Broncos in the third annual Sugar Bowl. The favored Bayou Bengals were subsequently bested in New Orleans' Tulane Stadium by the California squad, 21-14.

And Alabama's 1936 team stayed home and remained the only major college squad without a loss on its record. In the Associated Press poll, the first ever tabulated, the Tide finished fourth in the nation.

"Can you imagine going through an unbeaten season with only one tie and not getting a bowl bid?" Thomas remarked a decade later. "Things are different today. You can lose several times and still get into a bowl."