The University of Alabama (UA) fielded its first football team in 1892, winning over a team picked from various Birmingham schools and designating itself as Birmingham High School, 56-0. Since that inauspicious beginning, the Crimson Tide has amassed an impressive record of victories, becoming one of college football's most storied programs. Alabama claims 17 national championships and a record 24 Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships. In addition, the Crimson Tide has played in a record number of post-season bowl games and has had more than 100 of its players selected as First Team All-Americans. UA's 2009 national champion team included Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the position of running back, and the 2011 championship team included running back Doak Walker Award winner Trent Richardson and First Team All-American linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
Credited with being the father of Alabama football is William G. Little, who hailed from Livingston in Sumter County. Little had been introduced to the rugby-like sport when he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. When Little's brother died unexpectedly, he returned home to help care for his family. Enrolling at UA in the fall semester of 1892, he organized a team and served as its first captain under the team's first coach, E. B. Beaumont. Alabama's first All-American player was Tuscaloosa native William "Bully" Van de Graaf, who starred as a tackle on offense and defense and was recognized as the best kicker of his era. In 1915, his senior season, he kicked 12 field goals and made a 78-yard punt. He gained legendary status in the 1913 Tennessee game, when he refused to leave the game despite having half of his right ear severed.
The Crimson Tide first began its ascent to national prominence when the university's president George H. Denny hired Xen Scott, a horse-racing journalist from Cleveland, to coach the school in 1919. Denny's unusual choice paid off, as Alabama had its best season ever in Scott's first year. Led by Mulley Lenoir, Riggs Stephenson, and Joe Sewell, Alabama finished with an 8-1 record. The next year, the Tide finished 10-1, marking its first 10-win season. Scott compiled a record of 29-9-3 and coached Alabama to its first major victory over a national powerhouse when his team defeated the University of Pennsylvania 9-7 in Philadelphia in 1922. Thousands of fans greeted the victors at the Tuscaloosa Train Depot when the team arrived back home.
In failing health, Scott resigned, and President Denny turned to Wallace Wade, a graduate of Brown University and a veteran of World War I, to coach Alabama in 1923. During the next eight seasons, Wade put Alabama on the national map, compiling a record of 61-13-3 and leading his team to four Southern Conference titles, three Rose Bowl appearances, and three National Championships. Alabama's 1925 team earned the national title with a 10-0 record, including a historic 20-19 Rose Bowl win over Washington. The 1926 Rose Bowl is deemed by many as the most important game in Southern football history, having social, cultural, and political implications. Alabama was the first team from the South to play in this nationally prominent event. In an unsurprising dichotomy, Northern writers portrayed Alabamians as unreconstructed hayseeds with no chance of a victory; Southerners, not far removed from the effects of Reconstruction, saw the game as an extension of the Civil War, giving the South an opportunity for a perceived redemption. Led by Pooley Hubert and Johnny Mack Brown, who would become a Hollywood legend as a cowboy cinema icon, Alabama stunned a crowd of more than 50,000 in Pasadena and earned plaudits throughout the South for its inspired win over the West Coast power.
After finishing the 1926 season 9-0-1, the Crimson Tide made a return trip to the Rose Bowl in January 1927, where it tied Stanford 7-7. In Wade's final season, Alabama finished 10-0, earning yet another trip to the Rose Bowl, where the team defeated Washington State in the Rose Bowl 24-0 on January 1, 1931. Among the stars of the team was Fred Sington, who was considered by most to be the best player in the nation. He was the subject of "Football Freddie," a popular song that year crooned by Rudy Vallee in honor of the Alabama star.
After Wade left Alabama to become the head coach at Duke University, Frank Thomas took over the helm and launched another successful era for the Crimson Tide from 1931-46. Thomas, who amassed a record of 115-24-7, was a former Notre Dame quarterback who had been a roommate of the fabled George Gipp. In 1933, after the creation of the Southeastern Conference, Coach Thomas's team won the first SEC title. A year later, his team went 10-0, including a 29-13 victory over Stanford in the 1935 Rose Bowl. Among the stars of that team were Don Hutson, Dixie Howell, and Paul Bryant. Hutson went on to become a star for the Green Bay Packers and a member of eight Halls of Fame, including the NFL and college football halls.
Thomas became the first to coach teams that appeared in what at that time were the four major bowls: the Rose, Cotton, Orange, and Sugar. His 1945 team also finished with a 10-0 record, defeating Southern California 34-14 in the Rose Bowl. Birmingham natives Harry Gilmer and Vaughn Mancha were the stars of the team and the last All-Americans for Coach Thomas. He stepped down after the 1946 season because of declining health and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
Harold "Red" Drew followed Thomas and took teams to the Sugar, Orange, and Cotton Bowls. His overall record was 54-28-7. In 1953, his team won the SEC Championship, but it was his 1952 team that gained national acclaim with a 61-6 win over Syracuse in the Orange Bowl. After a losing season in 1954, Drew stepped down. After three dismal seasons from 1955-57 under Jennings B. "Ears" Whitworth, Alabama turned to Paul "Bear" Bryant to reinvigorate the program, as he had at the University of Maryland, the University of Kentucky, and Texas A&M University.
For the next 25 years, Alabama football would become not only a source of pride for much of the state but the elite program of college football. No school would match the 232 victories or the six national titles (1961-64-65-73-78-79) that Alabama compiled during that time, and Bryant became the most dominant figure in college athletics. In his fourth year as head coach, Bryant's 1961 team won the national championship with a 11-0 record. Its stars included quarterback Pat Trammell and linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. The quarterbacks who would follow Trammell were a virtual all-star list, most notably Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler. After winning two more national championships in 1964 and 1965, Alabama endured several subpar seasons in the late 1960s. In response to this mediocrity, Bryant made a radical change in 1971 when, on the eve of the team's showdown with Southern California at the Los Angeles Coliseum, he installed the wishbone offense, primarily an option offense that used a running quarterback, a fullback, and two tailbacks. In one of the best-kept secrets in football history, the Crimson Tide shifted to the formation in August practices, helping them to surprise the Trojans with a 17-10 victory. It was an upset of epic proportions and served as the catalyst for a memorable decade that featured national title runs in 1973, 1978, and 1979. Among the players of the decade were guard John Hannah and wide receiver Ozzie Newsome, both of whom would become college and NFL Hall of Fame members.
Alabama capped off the 1970s with back-to-back national championships in 1978 and 1979. One of the most famous plays in the decade came in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, when linebacker Barry Krauss stopped Penn State's Mike Guman on a fourth-down goal-line stand. In a match-up of legendary coaches, Bryant and Penn State's Joe Paterno, second-ranked Alabama defeated top-ranked Penn State 14-7 to capture the fifth national crown under Bryant's leadership. Bryant's final national championship came a year later, when the Crimson Tide finished with a 12-0 record and beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
After the 1982 season, Bryant announced his retirement, turning over the reins to former player Ray Perkins, then the head coach of the New York Giants. A month after coaching his team to a victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, Alabama's icon passed away from a heart attack on January 26, 1983. More than 100,000 fans lined the interstate from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, where the coach was interred at Elmwood Cemetery. Perkins served as head coach until 1986, compiling a record of 32-15-1. He was responsible for recruiting two of Alabama's greatest players, the linebacking tandem of Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. Bennett's outstanding play in a 28-10 win over Notre Dame in 1986 helped him earn the Lombardi Trophy, given annually to the best lineman in the nation. Two years later, Thomas's sterling performance against Penn State helped him earn the Butkus Trophy.
After Perkins accepted the head coaching job with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 1986 season, Georgia Tech's Bill Curry assumed the helm of the Crimson Tide, a position he held for only three years. His 1989 team finished 10-2 and shared the SEC title with Auburn and Tennessee. Curry left for the University of Kentucky after the 1990 Sugar Bowl with 26 wins and 10 losses. Gene Stallings—a former Bryant player at Texas A&M and assistant at Alabama—was hired as Alabama's next head coach. The tall Texan displayed many of the qualities of Bryant, especially the mental and physical toughness of his teams. From 1990-96, Stallings' teams went 70-16-1, including a 13-0 season in 1992, when Alabama won the national championship and Stallings was selected as national Coach of the Year. The Stallings era ended on New Year's Day 1997, when his Crimson Tide team defeated Michigan, 17-14, in the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
Former Alabama player Mike Dubose coached the Crimson Tide from 1997-2000, with his 1999 team winning the SEC title and earning a spot in the Orange Bowl. Running back Shaun Alexander and offensive tackle Chris Samuels were the stars of the team. Alexander was voted as the SEC Player of the Year, and Samuels claimed the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country.
For the next several years the Crimson Tide program was in turmoil as the result of several coaching changes and NCAA sanctions. After a 3-8 season in 2000, Dubose was fired and replaced by TCU's Dennis Francione, who remained for only two seasons, posting a 17-8 record before leaving to coach the Texas A&M Aggies. Alabama next turned to Mike Price of Washington State University, who never coached a game as he was fired after just five months for off-the-field misconduct. Former Alabama quarterback Mike Shula was hired to replace Dubose. He coached from 2003 until 2006 and posted a 26-23 record, with no wins over cross-state rival Auburn.
During the 2000 season, allegations that an Alabama booster had paid a recruit to sign with Alabama eventually lead to NCAA sanctions in 2002, including a two-year bowl ban and a severe reduction in the number of football scholarships that Alabama could award. This was Alabama's second probation within four years. The combination of coaching changes and the NCAA sanctions undoubtedly contributed to Alabama's record of 46-40 from 2000 through 2006
Following the turbulent first years of the new century, Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore hired Nick Saban on January 4, 2007, with the hopes of quickly reinstating Alabama as a national power. Saban, who had coached Louisiana State
University (LSU) to the national crown in 2003, opted to return to college football after a two-year stint in the NFL with
the Miami Dolphins. His first Crimson Tide team went 7-6, including a win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl. In December
2009, running back Mark Ingram became the first Crimson Tide player to win the Heisman Trophy. In January 2010, the University
of Alabama won its 13th national title to cap a 14-0 season, defeating the University of Texas, 37-21, in the BCS National
Championship. In January 2012, UA won its second BCS championship in three years, defeating then-number one LSU, 21-0. The
following year, UA won their third BCS championship in a 42-14 win over Notre Dame. Alabama opened the 2013 season ranked
number one and remained undefeated until its 34-28 loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl and suffered a 45-31 loss in the Sugar
Bowl to the University of Oklahoma.
Barker, Jay. The University of Alabama Football Vault: The Story of the Crimson Tide, 1892-2007. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, 2007.
Groom, Winston. The Crimson Tide: The Official Illustrated History of Alabama Football, National Championship Edition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.
Published January 6, 2009
Last updated July 21, 2014