Dramatic accounts of every University of Alabama National Championship football season recounted by noted sports writers, players, and Alabamians.
Dating back to 1925, when Wallace Wade coached the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl, the driving goal of every University of Alabama football season has been a national championship. A winning team surfaced that very next year, when Hoyt “Wu” Winslett’s squad sealed the national championship at the Rose Bowl for a second time. Winning seasons and bowl games culminating in the coveted crown followed again in 1930, 1934, 1941, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015more championships than any other college team in the nation.
Sixteen and Counting features a chapter highlighting each of these championship seasons and collects the legendary stories of many of the outstanding coaches and players on the University of Alabama’s championship teams. College football legends such as Wallace Wade, Wu Winslett, Johnny Mack Brown, Pooley Herbert, Frank Thomas, Dixie Howell, Don Hutson, Jimmy Nelson, Holt Rast, Pat Trammel, Sam Bailey, Lee Roy Jordan, Harry Gilmer, Bill Lee, Ken Stabler, Joe Namath, Gary Rutledge, Randy Billingsley, Barry Krauss, Clem Gryska, Gene Stallings, Paul “Bear” Bryant, and, of course, Nick Saban all make prominent appearances.
A seventeenth chapter is included that looks at the uncrowned teams commonly referred to as “the other five,” who were considered national champions by at least one national ranking service at the end of the season. Every glorious milestone and high point in Alabama football history is included here: “Mama called,” the wishbone formation, “The Goal Line Stand,” the Million Dollar Band, the coaching tower, the Davis kicking dynasty, the Notre Dame box, Coach of the Year, Team of the Decade, and two Heisman trophy winners.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Kenneth Gaddy is the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Bill Battle is a special assistant to the president of the University of Alabama and is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. He served as the athletic director for the university from 2013 to 2017.
Read an Excerpt
History is replete with legends that become less impressive under close scrutiny, and the sporting world is no exception. But it is difficult to overstate the achievements of Wallace Wade's 1925 Alabama team. Led by quarterback and defensive stalwart Pooley Hubert and sparked by the game-breaking ability of halfback Johnny Mack Brown, it dominated Southern Conference competition to win its second consecutive conference championship. A Rose Bowl invitation soon followed, but it came under inauspicious circumstances: Alabama was a fallback choice only after several more heralded schools had turned down offers. Entering the game as a lightly regarded underdog and quickly falling behind by two touchdowns, the Tide faced a bitter finale to a brilliant season. But a miraculous come-from-behind victory shocked the so-called experts, sealed the national championship, and vaulted Alabama to football prominence.
This game rocked the football world — southern teams simply did not do things like this. During its early years southern football had been appallingly bad. American football evolved during the 1870s and 1880s at elite northeastern universities, especially Yale. But, plagued by two generations of endemic poverty following the Civil War and wary of Yankee cultural innovations, southerners showed no interest in football until a new generation began the slow process of integrating the South into the nation's economic and cultural mainstream. The football fad spread among southern colleges between the late 1880s and mid-1890s, but enthusiasm hardly guarantees success. Virginia boldly took the South's best team northward in 1889, but it limped home after losing 72–0 to Penn and 115–0 to Princeton.
Southerners narrowed the sectional gap over the next three decades, but progress was excruciatingly slow. Southern states spent little on public education, and most, including Alabama, spent even less than they could afford. Virginia and Vanderbilt generally ranked as the best of the southern schools prior to World War I, and Sewanee was usually close behind. The Ivy Leaguers who invented football envisioned it as a pastime for the elite, and the prep schools from which Virginia, Vandy, and Sewanee recruited virtually all of their students generally had strong football programs. (Public high schools were few in number, their football was usually second-rate, and the vast majority of southern boys worked full-time by age fifteen, anyway.) Virginia defeated mighty Yale in 1915, and Vandy tied them in 1910. But these were the best southern performances against the nation's leading teams prior to World War I. Alabama always lagged among the southern also-rans and did not tempt fate by venturing out of the region.
Bolstered by growing enrollments, greater revenues, and more public high schools from which to recruit, the public universities in the Deep South rose to prominence just before World War I. Georgia Tech was dominant in 1916 and 1917, and head coach John Heisman and his cheerleaders in the southern newspapers hailed the latter team as the first southern national champion. This claim is dubious at best. America entered World War I in March 1917, and the famed sports columnist Grantland Rice of the New York Herald-Tribune estimated that three-fourths of the nation's best football players had joined the armed services. Unlike the vast majority of their fellow coaches, Heisman and Pitt's Pop Warner persuaded their players to forego military service, and each cruised unbeaten through hapless competition. No poll system yet existed, but a majority of sportswriters nationwide chose Pitt as the best of an abysmally weak field. (Each team's roster had changed significantly, but Pitt defeated Tech in 1918, 1919, and 1920.)
Southern football improved dramatically during the early 1920s. While its overall quality remained well below that of the rest of the nation, the better southern teams occasionally won an inter-sectional game. Alabama pulled off one of these rare upsets with a shocking 9–7 victory over Penn in 1922. But that victory was a bright spot amid the usual mediocrity. Alabama promptly lost to Kentucky and finished with a 6–3–1 record. Head coach Xen Scott died after the season, and for the sixteenth time in its thirty-year football history, Alabama officials cast about for a new coach.
This time, they hit the jackpot. Thirty-one-year-old Wallace Wade was a Tennessee native who had learned big-time football at Brown University, playing on the team that won the first Rose Bowl in 1916. As an assistant at Vanderbilt in 1921 and 1922, he oversaw the day-to-day management of the team while head coach Dan McGugin maintained a Nashville law practice. Part-time coaches were a throwback to an earlier era, but Wade was totally committed to his profession. His skill and dedication temporarily reversed Vanderbilt's decline, and it posted its last undefeated seasons while he worked there.
As he did with most issues facing the school, Alabama president George Denny made the final decision to hire Wade. Upon assuming office in 1914, Denny personally oversaw the football program. Financial support for athletes was the linchpin of any successful program, since outmoded rules originally conceived in Victorian England banned athletic scholarships. So like all but a handful of schools, Alabama provided under-the-table funding to cover tuition and living expenses. But unlike most of his peers, Denny personally supervised the process. And his micromanagement included attendance at many practices, at which he stood on the sideline puffing casually on his pipe. Friction quickly developed between Denny and the equally strong-willed Wade, and it was a factor in the latter's departure in 1931. But for the moment, the new coach focused on building his team.
The fundamentals of blocking and tackling became Wade's first order of business. While southern high school programs had increased in number and quality, most recruits remained raw. Daily practice for freshmen began in November, and the rest of the team joined them in February for rigorous spring drills. Stamina was crucial in that era, as a player who left the game could not return until the next quarter. Wade focused on the line, believing that winning in the trenches was essential to success. But he loved the wide-open offensive strategy of the 1920s, so Alabama ran a variety of reverses, flea-flickers, and misdirection plays. And he also loved the forward pass. It became legal in 1906, and a series of subsequent rule changes encouraged it, but few teams passed very often before 1917. The oval ball was difficult to grip, and most teams threw few passes unless opponents stymied their rushing attack. But by the 1920s, an increasing number of coaches fully integrated the pass into their offensive strategy. Wade was a leader in this trend, and Alabama was one of the nation's best passing teams by 1925.
When he took over in 1923, Wade recognized that he had a player with rare abilities. The Meridian, Mississippi, native Pooley Hubert was a bruising inside runner, strong lead blocker, and excellent passer. (He moved from fullback to quarterback in the middle of the 1925 season, but any back could throw the ball from the single-wing formation of that era.) Hubert was a devastating tackler with an uncanny ability to anticipate opponents' plays, and he played a rover position on defense. One of the few players who still eschewed a leather helmet, a bareheaded Hubert intimidated opponents prior to the snap by grimly pacing behind the defensive line. He also had rare leadership qualities. Professional coaches emerged in the 1890s and gradually gained control of college programs, but football insiders maintained the fiction that players' control of the game helped to build character. Thus, "coaching from the sidelines" during games remained against the rules. "Coach on the field" was more than a cliché then, and Hubert called offensive plays and defensive formations. Nicknamed "Papa" by his teammates, he became the cornerstone of the team.
The speed and moves of halfback Johnny Mack Brown complemented Hubert's power. Brown was a Dothan native described by one sportswriter as "slicker than an eel in a sea of stewed okra," and he became the big-play threat that Wade craved. As juniors in 1924, Hubert and Brown helped lead Alabama to its first-ever conference championship. (Known as the Southern Conference, it included eleven current SEC and seven current ACC schools among its twenty-two members.) But the Tide lost six key players to graduation, and pundits made Georgia Tech the favorite in 1925. Alabama's stellar backfield included Hubert, Brown, Emile "Red" Barnes, Grant Gillis, and Herschel Caldwell, but the line had a number of question marks.
The first two games revealed little about Alabama's true strength, since all major teams scheduled a couple of "warm-up games" against hopelessly overmatched opponents. The "Fighting Preachers" from Union College in Kentucky were the first designated victim, and Alabama romped to a 53–0 victory in Tuscaloosa. Next came Birmingham-Southern College, which the Tide dispatched 50–7. The Panthers' touchdown was the only surprise. Facing Alabama's reserves, they recovered a fumble and drove twenty-five yards for a touchdown. Only the most optimistic fan would have dared predict it, but Alabama surrendered no more points until the Rose Bowl.
LSU was the first of seven consecutive conference opponents. It had languished for decades below Alabama in the southern football hierarchy, but school officials hired the longtime Auburn coach Mike Donahue in 1923 and unveiled a beautiful new stadium the following year. Donahue stubbornly adhered to the ultra-conservative "Yale system" he had learned as a player there, and restive alumni had shoved him out of Auburn for resisting current offensive trends. But the law of unintended consequences struck both programs: Auburn descended into the depths of southern football, from which it did not emerge until the 1950s. And LSU under Donahue never caught a whiff of greatness. LSU officials also displayed poor judgment by scheduling Alabama as their 1925 homecoming opponent. Seeing significant action for the first time, the Tide starters put on a show that horrified LSU alumni. Brown and halfback Hershel Caldwell ran to the outside virtually at will, and Hubert's inside rushing produced four touchdowns. The Tideracked up twenty-five first downs and 42 points. And if it's possible, the defense was even better: it not only shut out LSU, it held them without a single first down.
Next up came Sewanee, which in the topsy-turvy world of prewar southern football had once owned Alabama. But the "Sewanee jinx" ended when the Wade era began, and Alabama overwhelmed them 27–0 at Birmingham's Rickwood Field. For the second consecutive week, the crushing defense held a conference opponent without a first down. And the passing game was spectacular, completing nine of sixteen for 171 yards.
The Tide faced its toughest challenge on October 24, when it traveled to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech. Like virtually every other southern school, Alabama annually conceded home field advantage to Tech in exchange for greater revenue. The Atlanta market was the South's largest, as was Grant Field. The special train from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta included a record eight Pullman sleeper cars and several passenger cars. But in a practice nearly as old as southern football, the more adventurous students, many fueled by bootleg liquor, opted to clamber aboard an Atlanta-bound freight train.
Grant Field may have been the finest in the South, but advanced groundskeeping practices lay many decades away. Playing fields steadily deteriorated through the course of a season, and rain on game day inevitably created a quagmire. Neither offense moved the ball well; Tech gained only 125 yards and held Alabama under 100. Playing for field position and seeking to capitalize on a mistake, the teams often punted on second or third down. Undeterred by the mud, Johnny Mack Brown upended this strategy. Fielding a punt at his own 45, he followed a block by Red Barnes that took out three Tech defenders and sprinted untouched to the end zone. A tenacious Alabama defense held on to preserve the 7–0 victory. Brown provided the only scoring, but Wade and the sportswriters reserved their highest praise for Hubert's defensive play. He made or assisted in eighteen of Alabama's first twenty tackles and was instrumental in stopping Tech's inside rushing attack. Hubert later admitted that by the fourth quarter, "When I would hit the ground, I didn't know whether I was ever going to get to my feet again." But he had never left a game due to injury or fatigue, and he somehow managed to play the entire sixty minutes.
With several players nursing injuries after the battle with Tech, a flat Tide fought off a surprisingly strong Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State) in its homecoming game. Facing a cold rain and a muddy field and not expecting a close game, Wade rested most of his starters during the first quarter. Fortunately for Alabama, Hubert played the entire game. In the first quarter, he tossed a fourteen-yard touchdown pass to end Wu Winslett that put Alabama up 6–0. Once again, a lone touchdown was the sum of the scoring. Playing most of the second half in its own territory, the defense preserved another shutout.
Wade worked the team unmercifully after their poor homecoming performance. Almost welcoming the break from practice, the Tide exploited its advantage in team speed in a 31–0 victory over Kentucky at Rickwood Field. Brown thrilled spectators with his "crow-hop" move on a seventy-nine-yard touchdown run, and he added another on a double reverse. Red Barnes returned a fumble seventy-five yards for a score, and Hubert added a final touchdown plunge. Joined by tackles Pete Camp and "Cupid" Perry, Hubert led the usual defensive dominance. Halfback Grant Gillis doubled as punter, and his booming kicks awed the crowd and pinned Kentucky in its own territory.
Alabama next met Florida in Montgomery. The Cramton Bowl was only one-third the size of Grant Field, but three years earlier it had joined the growing list of modern stadiums built during the economic boom of the 1920s. The "Alligators" had defeated Alabama in their only two previous games, including a season-ending heartbreaker in 1923 that had denied Wade a conference championship in his rookie season. But the Tide toyed with a Florida lineup that included three all-conference starters. Johnny Mack Brown caught two touchdown passes in the first half, and Red Barnes added two more on the ground in the second in a 34–0 victory.
In a tradition as old as college football, teams usually scheduled their leading rival in a Thanksgiving Day showdown. But Alabama and Auburn did not meet between 1907 and 1948, so Georgia filled that role in 1925. A victory would seal the Tide's second consecutive undefeated season and conference title, and Wade intensified his grueling practice routine. The game, however, proved anti-climactic. Georgia had a poor team that season, and Alabama's 27–0 victory surprised no one. Still smarting after Caldwell had replaced him in the starting lineup against Florida, Grant Gillis led a balanced Tide attack. He rushed for a team-leading fifty-four yards and also caught a fifty-yard touchdown pass from Winslett. And in a display of power that Bama fans never tired of, Hubert's inside rushing produced three touchdowns.
Alabama once again stood atop southern football, and individual honors poured in. A panel of game officials named Hubert the MVP of the Southern Conference, and Johnny Mack Brown and guard Bill Buckler joined him as starters on the all-conference team. Nearly every other starter ended up on somebody's second or third team. The Atlanta Journal columnist Morgan Blake gave unaccustomed praise to Alabama. He hailed Wade's brilliance, observing that neither Georgia nor Georgia Tech had scored on Alabama in six games over three years. And he declared Hubert a "Napoleon in football intellect." Grantland Rice topped the tributes by naming Hubert a second-team All-American, making him one of the few southern players ever to receive such an honor.
The Rose Bowl, however, remained an elusive dream. The nation's only bowl game until 1935, it pitted the Pacific Coast champion against the strongest team from the Northeast or Midwest. Bowl officials had never seriously considered a southern team, let alone invited one. But Alabama's unprecedented opportunity came after the University of Illinois halfback Red Grange ignited a ruckus by joining the Chicago Bears only hours after he had played his final college game. College football had been a big business for four decades, but a horde of self-righteous critics that included his own coach castigated Grange for violating football's "amateur purity." Worse, the fledgling NFL had a seedy image; it had an ethnic working-class fan base, owners with underworld ties, and franchises that regularly bankrupted or skipped town. Many university officials feared a public relations nightmare if they accepted a Rose Bowl bid — and cashed the fat check that came with it. West Coast champion Washington consequently dithered for a week before accepting a bid, and Dartmouth, Colgate, Princeton, and Michigan reportedly rejected invitations. George Denny, however, was not about to turn down this unprecedented opportunity.
Excerpted from "Sixteen And Counting"
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Bill Battle,
Introduction by Kenneth Gaddy,
CHAPTER ONE 1925 Andrew Doyle,
CHAPTER TWO 1926 Taylor Watson,
CHAPTER THREE 1930 Delbert Reed,
CHAPTER FOUR 1934 Mitch Dobbs,
CHAPTER FIVE 1941 Wayne Atcheson,
CHAPTER SIX 1961 The Resurrection Winston Groom,
CHAPTER SEVEN 1964 Tom Roberts,
CHAPTER EIGHT 1965 Keith Dunnavant,
CHAPTER NINE 1973 John David Briley,
CHAPTER TEN 1978 Kirk McNair,
CHAPTER ELEVEN 1979 Steve Townsend,
CHAPTER TWELVE 1992 Gene Stallings with Erik Stinnett,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN 2009 Eryk Anders, Javier Arenas, and Tommy Deas,
CHAPTER FOURTEEN 2011 Mayor Walter Maddox,
CHAPTER FIFTEEN 2012 Tommy Deas and Barrett Jones,
CHAPTER SIXTEEN 2015 Phil Savage,
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Other Five Allen Barra,