Friday, December 28, 2012

Frank Thomas at Notre Dame

Frank Thomas, the future head football coach at the University of Alabama, was born in Muncie, Indiana in 1898. His father, an iron worker, moved the family to East Chicago six years later in search of employment.

The young Thomas became such a standout high school athlete he skipped his senior year to enter Kalamazoo College in Michigan. After two years there his prowess on the gridiron caught the eye of Notre Dame great Chipper Smith who contrived to get him admitted to his Indiana alma mater.

Arriving in South Bend in1919, Thomas was part of the Notre Dame freshman squad and gained the notice of second-year coach Knute Rockne. Thomas served as a third-string quarterback on the undefeated 1920 team, playing in five games.

His roommate was star George Gipp and the two played professional baseball in the off-season. (Thomas and many other Notre Dame players regularly played professional football on Sundays as well.) Gipp's sudden death from a throat infection in December of 1920 affected Thomas deeply.

"I broke down and cried like a baby," he later said. "It was like losing a brother."

Thomas was a staple of the Notre Dame roster for his junior and senior seasons which saw the team go 10-1 and 8-1-1, respectively. (Late in the 1922 season Rockne shuffled the starting lineup, switching Harry Stuhldreher for Thomas and creating the group that Grantland Rice would dub "The Four Horsemen" two years later).

Thomas' on-the-field decision making earned him the praise of Rockne who called Thomas "a fine field general."

"It's amazing the amount of football sense that Thomas kid has," Rockne told his staff after one game. "He can't miss becoming a great coach some day."

After graduating in the Spring of 1923, Thomas was contacted by the University of Georgia and subsequently hired. As the bulldogs' backfield coach, he was entrusted with importing Rockne's dynamic "Notre Dame Box" offense to southern football.

After a stop as head coach of University of Chattanooga, Thomas was tapped for the head coaching position at Alabama in 1931 following the surprise resignation of Wallace Wade. The Notre Dame alumnus would lead the Crimson Tide a 115-24-7 record, six bowl games and two national titles over the next fourteen seasons.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dixie Howell and "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell"

Dixie Howell and Jean Rogers in a publicity photo of the All-
American's screen test for "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell."
While Johnny Mack Brown famously used his performance in the 1925 Rose Bowl to launch a career as a movie star, several other Alabama players were wooed by Hollywood during their trips to Pasadena. When the Crimson Tide came west and defeated Stanford in the 1935 Rose Bowl it gave Alabama's All-American Dixie Howell an opportunity to seek his silver screen fortune.

Howell was invited by Universal Pictures president Carl Laemmle to take screen test which led to the Rose Bowl MVP's appearance in the serial "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell."  Howell appeared uncredited in the eleventh film of the 12-part series, "The Crash in the Chasm." It was his only film role.

(A teammate of Howell's, Paul W. Bryant, would take a screen test when he traveled to California as an assistant coach on the Tide's 1938 Rose Bowl team. He never appeared in a film. "They were trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," he later commented.)

The Merriwell franchise originated in a popular series of books published from 1896 to 1912 that were penned by Gilbert Patten writing under the pseudonym, Burt L. Standish. While the plots centered around the lead character solving a mystery or some similar adventure, Merriwell was notable for excelling at sports as an athlete at Yale.

Football games and other athletic contests were often featured prominently in the stories. As a result, the franchise became the model for the wave of juvenile sports fiction that peaked in popularity in the 1940s.

The series was adapted into comic books, radio serials and, eventually, a series of films starring Donald Briggs as the title character. The romantic interest, Elsie Belwood, was played by a pre-"Flash Gordon" Jean Rogers (who may also have appeared in publicity photos for the Rose Bowl game as well).

While Howell's film career came to naught his trip to Hollywood in 1935 did have a major impact on his life. While in California he met aspiring actress Peggy Watters whom he married in Mexico City in November of that same year.