The quietest places in America include Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Hoh Valley in Washington State and pretty much any true Alabama fan’s living room last week in the immediate aftermath of the Sugar Bowl.
Oklahoma’s upset of the defending national champions was the unexpected end to a season most other schools would find exemplary, but in Tuscaloosa, an 11-2 record isn’t quite good enough.
“You can’t win them all,” said legendary baseball manager Connie Mack, who in fact won more games than any other major league manager. All well and good for baseball, but when it comes to college football, Alabama is generally expected to win them all, especially under the supervision of Nick Saban, a man who has lost but 15 of the 94 games he’s coached for the University of Alabama.
How did the expectations become so massive? Answers can be discerned in a new book from San Diego’s Skybox Press, entitled The Complete History of Crimson Tide Football, a hefty tome that follows the saga from its inception as sanctioned roughhouse to its apotheosis in The Process.
The world’s greatest repository of Alabama football imagery is found at the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa. Though the museum has published its own overviews, Director Ken Gaddy and his staff generously shared archives with Kevin Toyama and the Skybox Press crew, so that this large-format book contains some of the brightest and best-formatted photos from 121 years of Tide gridiron action.
However, it’s the faces that capture my attention, especially the less self-conscious visages of those who played football before it became a truly national pastime. William Little, who brought the game to the Capstone in 1892, looks a little effete, but on the next page the 1910 team meets your gaze head-on, made of stern stuff and primed to prove its mettle. There’s a spectacular snap of the Tide’s first All-American, “Bully” VandeGraaf, in grim pursuit of a running back, neither of them wearing a helmet, plus informal portraits of early coaches Xen Scott and Wallace Wade, as rough-hewn as the players they coached for astonishingly small salaries.
The narrative takes the reader through the breakout years, 1925-1930, when the Tide made an indelible impression on a nation surprised to find that Southern boys could play the game as well as any Ivy League eleven, but it also covers the less celebrated years before Paul Bryant answered Mama’s call in 1958 and began to change the course of Alabama football history, guiding the Tide to six national championships during his tenure.
After the splendor of the Bryant era, the Tide became something it had not been in a long while: ordinary. Despite recruiting some exceptional players, such as Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas, a succession of head coaches fell short of fans’ expectations. Gene Stallings was able to snag a championship in 1992, but 17 years would elapse before Nick Saban took Alabama back to the top. The Complete History offers a variety of shots from the desert years to make a fan ponder anew what might have been.
Besides exquisite photography, a big draw for this book is a series of first-person essays from people who helped make the history complete. Don Salls, perhaps the Tide’s oldest living player and a fullback on the 1941 national championship team, reflects on the biggest game of that season for him, which was not the Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M but a win over the hated Tennessee Vols, back when the Third Saturday in October was still important. Harry Gilmer reminisces about a 34-14 blowout of USC in 1946 at the Rose Bowl. There’s even a rare Paul Bryant essay in which the coach looked back on his adventures as a player in the 1935 Rose Bowl.
You will find lots of remembrance by genuine Crimson Tide legends, such as Lee Roy Jordan, Joe Namath and John Hannah, which might be expected in a book that calls itself a complete history. More compelling, to me, are the recollections of people less often in history’s spotlight. Linda Knowles, for example, gets to be in the big book, and she should be because she was Paul Bryant’s longtime secretary, too rarely on the record about the coach she served so loyally. Murray Legg speaks eloquently of coaching for the Bear, Jerry Duncan and Barrett Jones talk about life on the offensive line and perhaps the most reclusive of the Tide elite, Paul Bryant Jr., contributes a thoughtful piece about his Papa and that legacy.
Legacy. The future is a prominent part of this book about the past. All-American Woodrow Lowe tells a funny story about missing the team bus to the 1975 Sugar Bowl, but he gets serious when he talks about the lesson he took away from his time with the Tide: “If you’re diligent, dedicated and committed, you’ll be successful.” Ozzie Newsome took a simple but effective piece of advice from Coach Bryant into a peerless NFL career: “Always show your class.” In his afterword, Coach Saban, the current curator of Alabama’s legacy, sums it up succinctly: “We hope that every player in our program has a better opportunity to be successful in life because he was involved in the program.”
Alabama resumes its endless quest to be the national football champion in 33 weeks. This book is a good one to read in the interim, to learn why it has mattered so, then as well as now.
The publishers of The Complete History of Alabama Football are offering a special discount on the book exclusively to Weld readers. Hit their website, www.rolltidebook.com, and use the promo code ALA122 to get a fat $25 off the retail price, plus free shipping. The offer’s good only through January 26 so, as the hard-sell commercial announcer might say, act now.