Read an Excerpt
Always a Crimson Tide
Players, Coaches, and Fans Share Their Passion for Alabama Football
By Creg Stephenson, Kirk McNair
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Creg Stephenson and Kirk McNair
All rights reserved.
Color It Crimson: 'Bama Traditions
No sport clings more tightly to its traditions than college football, particularly in the South. And it is certainly difficult to find a college football program where tradition means more than at the University of Alabama. Here's a quick primer on Alabama football, call it Crimson Tide 101:
The Football Capital of the South
It's ironic that many of Alabama's greatest football moments and victories took place more than 40 miles from the university's campus. From the 1920s until well into the 1990s, the Crimson Tide played many of its home games — and all home contests against either Tennessee or Auburn — at Birmingham's Legion Field.
Nicknamed "the Football Capital of the South" and later "the Old Gray Lady of Graymont Avenue," Legion Field was opened in 1927 and, at its peak, could hold more than 83,000 fans, dwarfing Alabama's on-campus stadium until major expansions at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the 1980s and '90s. The stadium featured artificial turf from 1970 to 1994, but grass was replanted for use in qualifying games for the 1996 Summer Olympics soccer tournament.
The Crimson Tide was contractually obligated to play at least three home games per year at Legion Field until 1999, when the university began to move its bigger home football games back onto campus. Alabama played Tennessee in Tuscaloosa that season for the first time since 1930 and hosted Auburn on campus in 2000 for the first time since 1901.
Of course, Legion Field is most famous as the site of the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn from 1948 to 1988. Those 41 meetings featured a true neutral site, with a 50/50 ticket split between each school. Alabama played "home" games against Auburn in Birmingham in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, and 1998, while the 1991 game was designated a home contest for Auburn.
Alabama played its last home game at Legion Field on August 30, 2003, a season-opening 40–17 victory over South Florida that also marked Mike Shula's debut as Crimson Tide head coach. The stadium also hosted the Alabama state high school championships for many years, but now serves primarily as the home stadium for University of Alabama at Birmingham football games.
Closer to Home
Alabama played its earliest home football games on the university quadrangle and on other fields around and near campus, but opened Denny Stadium — named for university president George C. Denny — on the western edge of campus in 1929. The Crimson Tide routed Mississippi College 55–0 on September 28, 1929, in the first game at Denny Stadium, which then had a capacity of 12,000.
Subsequent expansions brought the stadium's capacity to 31,000 in 1946; 43,000 in 1961; and 60,000 in 1966. Artificial turf was installed in 1970, and in 1976 the Alabama legislature voted to rename the venue "Bryant-Denny Stadium" in honor of legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
The first major expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium took place in 1988, when an upper deck was built to bring the seating capacity to 70,123. In 1998 a second upper deck was added to bring the stadium's capacity to 83,018. The north end zone was enclosed and several skyboxes were added in 2006, lifting the capacity to 92,138 and making Bryant-Denny the largest stadium in Alabama. In 2010 the south end zone was enclosed to bring the capacity to 101,821, making it the fifth-largest in college football as of the end of the 2010 season.
Alabama won 57 consecutive games at Bryant-Denny Stadium from 1964 to 1982, a streak snapped by Southern Miss in Bryant's final home game. The Crimson Tide won 20 straight at home from 2008 to 2010.
Fight Songs, Official and Otherwise (and Those Who Sing Them)
Fight songs are nearly as old as football itself, and the Crimson Tide adopted its official song after one of the team's great early victories.
In the afterglow of Alabama's 1926 Rose Bowl victory over Washington, a contest was held on campus for students to write a fight song. The winning entry was penned by engineering student Ethelred "Epp" Sykes, who would go on to become a brigadier general in the United States Air Force.
Sykes' song, titled "Yea Alabama," was originally much longer, but includes the chorus:
Yea, Alabama! Drown 'em Tide!
Every 'Bama man's behind you,
Hit your stride.
Go teach the Bulldogs to behave,
Send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave.
And if a man starts to weaken,
That's his shame!
For Bama's pluck and grit have
Writ her name in Crimson flame.
Fight on, fight on, fight on men!
Remember the Rose Bowl, we'll win then.
Roll on to victory,
Hit your stride,
You're Dixie's football pride,
Crimson Tide, Roll Tide, Roll Tide!
Though references to the Rose Bowl (until its 2010 BCS National Championship Game vs. Texas, Alabama hadn't played in that bowl game since 1946) and the Yellow Jackets (Georgia Tech left the Southeastern Conference in the mid-1960s) soon became outdated, the song remains a standard before, during, and after every Crimson Tide game.
Alabama has a number of unofficial fight songs, including the Lynyrd Skynyrd southern rock standard "Sweet Home Alabama." Lynyrd Skynyrd wasn't from Alabama, and the song's lyrics aren't about football, but it's been played at Crimson Tide games almost since it was first released in 1974.
Always popular with students and hard-core fans is the pre- and postgame "Rammer Jammer" chant, with its sometimes controversial lyrics "we're gonna beat the hell out of you!" or "we just beat the hell out of you!" The cheer — which was derived from Ole Miss' "Hotty Toddy" cheer at some point in the 1970s, after James Ferguson left that Mississippi school to become Alabama's band director — is unofficially discouraged by the school's administration and has even been banned more than once, but always seems to find its way back into the game-day routine.
Performing all those songs at one time or another has been the Million Dollar Band, Alabama's student marching band. The band — formed in the early 1920s — took its name, legend has it, from a comment by General John J. Pershing that marching bands had been "worth a million dollars" to American military forces during World War I.
Alongside the band on game day are Alabama's cheerleaders and majorette team, the Crimsonettes. Perhaps the most famous alumna of the Crimson Tide cheerleading squad is television actress Sela Ward, an Alabama cheerleader in the mid-1970s.
In the Press Box
Alabama football has been making major national news for more than 85 years as of 2011, and the biggest names in sports media have come to be associated with the Crimson Tide. Legendary Atlanta sportswriter Grantland Rice was an early proponent of the Crimson Tide in print, while longtime ABC sportscaster Keith Jackson called many of the team's biggest games on television.
Alabama football has also been served by a dedicated corps of instate media, including newspaper sportswriters and columnists such as Zipp Newman, Naylor Stone, Benny Marshall, Alf Van Hoose, Bill Lumpkin, Clyde Bolton, and Jimmy Bryan of Birmingham; Jimmy Smothers of Gadsden; John Pruett of Huntsville; George Smith of Anniston; and Charles Land, Al Browning, and Cecil Hurt of Tuscaloosa. Great Crimson Tide sports information directors have included Finus Gaston, Charlie Thornton, Larry White, and this volume's coauthor, Kirk McNair.
But it is the men in the radio booth who have had the greatest and most intimate connection to Crimson Tide football. Mel Allen called games while still an Alabama student in the 1930s, before embarking on a long career as the voice of baseball's New York Yankees.
Gabby Bell and Maury Farrell were among the Crimson Tide's radio broadcasters in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was Farrell's young partner who would come to be most closely associated with Alabama football on the radio. John Forney called Alabama football games on the radio for more than 30 seasons, including all of the Paul Bryant glory years.
Eli Gold has been Alabama's football play-by-play man since 1988, a 23-season tenure (as of 2010) exceeded only by Forney's. Notable color analysts and sideline reporters in recent years have included Doug Layton, Tom Roberts, and Phil Savage, and former Crimson Tide players Ken Stabler, Jerry Duncan, and Barry Krauss.
Crimson Tide in Their Own Words
At the end of the 1978 season, we had motivation and we had a second chance. A year earlier, we thought we were going to win the national championship. We had beaten Woody Hayes and a good Ohio State football team in the Sugar Bowl. We thought if Notre Dame could somehow upset Texas — which was ranked No. 1 in 1977 — in the Cotton Bowl that we'd win the national championship. Notre Dame did upset Texas, but then jumped over us from fifth to first.
The next year in the Sugar Bowl we had another chance. Penn State was No. 1 in 1978, and their coach, Joe Paterno, decided to play the next-highest-ranked team, which was Alabama, in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.
We knew we had to play another great game, and we were ready. I can remember how relaxed everyone was before the game.
Everyone played well. Tony Nathan rushed for more than 100 yards. Murray Legg had a great defensive game. Benny Perrin had a big interception. Bruce Bolton had a big touchdown catch. Lou Ikner had a punt return that took the pressure off us. As Legg said after the game, "I don't believe we were a great football team. We were a good football team, and Coach Bryant made us think we were great." And that was the difference in the game.
It came down to the goal-line stand. Don McNeal made a great play on a pass, and I think everyone came together after that. It came down to a fourth-down play. We were holding hands in the huddle. We knew everything we had worked for was at stake, particularly for the four seniors on defense. And we knew we were going to make the play.
We had just stopped a dive play, and I thought they would probably play action or sweep. But Coach Donahue made a great call for us to sell out and crash the corners. The defensive line did an incredible job of reestablishing the line of scrimmage.
So, yes, he [Mike Guman] went over the top, and I was the one who hit him. But that was because of what the defensive line had done. It was Coach Bryant's plan that the defensive line would take out the interference and let the linebackers make the play. And then Murray came in and pushed us back, keeping the back from twisting and maybe falling into the end zone. Everyone was involved. It was the epitome of Alabama defense, which was teamwork at its best.
Before the game, Coach Bryant had told us he expected the game to come down to a defensive opportunity.
He always said that in a close game it would be two or three key plays that would determine the outcome. And it's the same thing in people's lives. Two or three opportunities.
Coach Bryant taught us to always be ready for the moment you can make a difference and said you never know when that time will come. We learned to condition ourselves to be ready for success. He pushed us until we felt we had nothing left and we had to dig deeper to do the job. We did that every day in practice, and so we were able to do it when the national championship was at stake.
That Penn State game was a second chance for our football team. I had a second chance with Coach Bryant. My sophomore year I wasn't happy about my place on the depth chart. And we had a quarterback who wasn't happy because they were moving him to defensive back. One night after a game, we went out and we missed curfew. It so happened that this was a night that Coach Bryant made room checks himself. I knew we were dead.
I didn't wait for him to call me. I went to see him. And I cried and apologized and begged for mercy. The quarterback didn't do anything. Coach Bryant kicked him out of the dorm and took his scholarship. He gave me a second chance. I kept my scholarship and learned a big lesson. Maybe I wasn't a model citizen, but I straightened up a lot.
My introduction to Alabama was really on the beach. I grew up in Pompano Beach, Florida, and one of my friends, Eddie Blankenship, was a big Alabama fan. We liked to toss a football around on the beach, trying to impress the girls, I'm sure. But Eddie introduced me to the wishbone offense versus the wave. What we'd do is line up in the wishbone on the shore. And when the wave came, we'd start the triple option. A wave hits at an angle so we could run the option down the sand. The fullback would dive into the wave, then the quarterback would run down the wave until he had to give it up. He'd pitch it to the halfback, who would try to dive over the wave. That kind of made me an Alabama fan.
I was being recruited by Florida, Florida State, Miami, and Georgia Tech. Alabama didn't come in until late. Miami invited me to come when Alabama was playing them in the Orange Bowl. I went to the game and thought that Alabama looked cool. And they beat Miami pretty badly, worse than the final score.
Kenny Martin was recruiting me and invited me for a visit. I went up there, and I fell in love with Alabama. I can still remember going in the locker room and standing in front of Woodrow Lowe's locker and looking at his helmet. That was awesome, because Woodrow Lowe was one of the greatest linebackers ever. I was basically done.
My signing was memorable. I had gone to our football banquet. And when I came home and opened the door, there was Coach Bryant. He had flown down, and my family knew he would be there, but I didn't. He had my scholarship, and I signed right then. Coach Bryant was not the kind of man you said no to.
I was on cloud nine, but I remember one of my best friends saying, "Why would you go to Alabama? They've got great players. You'll never get to play." And I thought, Thanks a lot for the confidence. Coach Bryant had promised me an opportunity, and I thought that was all I would need.
I can't begin to tell you how tough it was. It was hot and humid. Byron Braggs, a defensive tackle, nearly died of heat stroke. After that, we started getting water breaks. Even the water breaks were so disciplined. The whistle would blow, and you'd have to hustle to your spot, a hundred or more of us on one knee in one straight line, and the managers would bring the water to us.
At one practice I told our trainer, Jim Goostree, that I was going to throw up and that I should go in. I was trying to get out of practice. He told me to go over by the bushes and throw up and then to get back in the drill.
I really didn't start playing much until midway through my sophomore season when we went to Notre Dame. Somebody missed a tackle, and I went in and had a pretty good game, hitting people and making an interception. Coach Bryant started me the second half. He said for the guys who had started the game to start the second half, "except I want Krauss in there. He wants to hit someone."
I led the team in tackles in that game and again a couple of weeks later when we beat Auburn really badly.
We played UCLA in the Liberty Bowl. There was a fireworks display before the game that got me going. On the kickoff, nobody touched me, and I drilled the return guy at about the 5-yard line. Our defense was all over them, and we won big. I had an interception for a touchdown. It was probably the best game of my career.
I didn't realize at the time what I was a part of. We had great football teams at Alabama. When I got to professional football, I realized how great Coach Bryant was. The best lessons I learned were at Alabama.
There is no question that the greatest experience of my life was playing football for Coach Bryant at the University of Alabama. It is something I am very proud of and something I think about every day.
Excerpted from Always a Crimson Tide by Creg Stephenson, Kirk McNair. Copyright © 2011 Creg Stephenson and Kirk McNair. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.