One afternoon toward the end of his coaching career, Paul “Bear” Bryant climbed down from his tower overlooking the Alabama practice field, warmly greeted an elderly gentleman, and called his entire team to attention.
“This man standing here is responsible for the great tradition of Alabama football,” Bryant told his players, who hung on every word as he draped his arm around Wallace Wade.
It was a bit like Neil Armstrong introducing Christopher Columbus to the crew at Mission Control.
The origins of the University of Alabama football program can be traced to 1892, when student William G. Little, fresh from prep school in Massachusetts, led the formation of the first intercollegiate football team on the Tuscaloosa campus, unable to imagine the mighty inferno eventually produced, in a distant, unrecognizable future, by his hopeful spark.
Wallace Wade turned the spark into a flame.
Recruited away from Dan McGugin’s staff at powerful Vanderbilt by University of Alabama President Dr. George Denny—who believed a winning football team could help him raise the institution’s national profile—Wade was a stern disciplinarian and a perfectionist. His arrival in 1923 instantly infused the Crimson Tide with a new level of ambition.
“He was tough on his players and expected them to measure up,” recalled Hoyt “Wu” Winslett, a star end on his teams of the mid-1920s. “And that’s why he was so good.”
After leading Alabama to its first Southern Conference championship in 1924, Wade produced a team for the ages in 1925. Featuring halfback Johnny Mack Brown and quarterback A.T.S. “Pooley” Hubert, the Crimson Tide thundered through the conference, recording eight shutouts en route to a perfect 9-0 mark and becoming the first Southern team invited to the Rose Bowl. Hardly anyone gave the Tide a prayer, but Alabama’s shocking 20-19 upset of Washington, which secured the school’s first national championship, struck a blow for supposedly inferior Southern football—and the region’s battered pride.
The 22 Alabama players who traveled by train to Pasadena felt a tremendous responsibility to defend the honor of the South, still stinging from the distant Civil War, still burdened with feelings of disconnection and inferiority, unaccustomed to claiming national superiority in any significant endeavor. The full measure of the Crimson Tide’s accomplishment began to sink in as their victory train rolled across Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, where delirious crowds gathered at stations large and small to clap and cheer.
“We were the South’s baby,” Winslett said.
When they finally reached Alabama, the celebration lasted for days.
By the time Wade, frustrated by alumni criticism, moved to Duke after the 1930 season, Alabama had claimed three national championships over a six-year period, redefining itself as one of the giant names in college football.
“You can trace it all back to Wade,” said Fred Sington, an All-America tackle on his 1930 national championship team. “He made Alabama synonymous with winning football.”
Alabama’s rich tradition includes 13 national championships, 26 conference championships—including a record 22 Southeastern Conference titles—an NCAA-record 57 bowl appearances, and the sixth-best winning percentage (.712) in college football history.
“The Alabama tradition is a pretty powerful force,” Jay Barker observed during his days as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback in the early 1990s. “You feel a connection to all those great teams and players that have come before…a responsibility to live up to the high standards they set.”
The arrival of Frank Thomas, who played for Knute Rockne, forever intertwined the Alabama dynasty with Notre Dame’s. Building on Wade’s foundation, Thomas directed the Crimson Tide to a 115-24-7 mark (.812) from 1931-46, leading the Crimson Tide’s transition to the Southeastern Conference and capturing four titles in the new league.
The 1934 Crimson Tide, led by the passing of Dixie Howell and the acrobatic catching of Don Hutson, culminated a perfect season with another Rose Bowl victory, giving ‘Bama its fourth national championship over a 10-year period.
“Coach Thomas was some kind of competitor,” recalled Young Boozer, a halfback for the Alabama teams of the mid-1930s. “If you played for him, you had better be willing to fight, scratch and bleed on that field.”
A young team that Thomas admiringly referred to as his “war babies” matured in 1945, producing one of the greatest seasons in school history. Led by Harry Gilmer, master of the jump pass, the Crimson Tide completed an undefeated run by routing Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl but finished second in the rankings behind powerful Army.
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