Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant
Almost a century ago, the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, representing an economically prostrate state and region derided by the rest of the country as a cultural backwater, undertook the long transcontinental journey to compete against the University of Washington Huskies in the 1926 Rose Bowl.
The Tide was widely regarded as the underdog. The sports pundits of the time expected those Deep South provincials to return to Alabama as “Tusca-losers,” the term Will Rogers invented to emphasize the low regard in which the team was held.
The WSJ article posted today about about that epic match underscores two vital truths: first, how far Crimson Tide Football and the University of Alabama in general have traveled in the 90 years since the first Alabama/Washington match in 1926 and, second, and even more significant, how a rising Crimson Tide has lifted Alabama and Southern fortunes more than once in the last century.
Alabamians and other Southerners at the time regarded the Rose Bowl as a sort of Civil War rematch. The subsequent upset not only marked the resurgence of Southern pride but also the ascent of a Southern football tradition that would dominate so much of college football, with the Crimson Tide in the forefront.
But the Rose Bowl upset was only the first of many notable examples of how thr Crimson Tide has lifted both Alabama and Southern fortunes. As a middle-aged man, I can remember how a racially integrated Crimson Tide under the tutelage and inspiration of Coach Paul “Bear Bryant” captured the imagination of black and white Alabamians and Southerners during a troubling juncture in history when my native state and the rest of the Southland was subjected to merciless derision by national elites.
To a significant degree, I remain that odd thing in Alabama: a man of divided loyalties. I spent 29 years working for one of the greatest Cooperative Extension programs at one of the greatest land-grant universities in the South and the country: Auburn University, which remains Alabama’s biggest athletic rival.
I love Auburn. I love her traditions, and I dearly cherish her remarkable educational and athletic legacy.
But I’m a congenital Alabama fan. According to family legend, I was conceived in the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham after a big Alabama 21-6 upset over the Georgia Bulldogs in the fall of 1960. (Actually, given the date of my birth, that doesn’t seem right, but that’s another story entirely.) I’m a proud alumnus of the university (MA, 1985) who also grew up as the son and grandson of former former Alabama students. I can still remember feeling a rush of pride, if not a measure of reverence, on autumn Sunday afternoons listening to the tolling of the Denny chimes marking the start of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Show, featuring Bryant’s play-by-play analysis of the previous day’s game.
Every Alabama home that was not deep-dyed blue and orange (Auburn’s colors) tuned in faithfully to those broadcasts. For millions of us, a connection with the Crimson Tide was inextricably bound up with a sense of being an Alabamian and even a Southerner at a time when those identities were not held in universally high regard.
Needless to say, the University of Alabama and Crimson Tide Football have come an exceedingly long way since 1926. The university is now deeply invested in becoming a national university, even competing favorably with elite universities such Stanford University and the University of Virginia in attracting cognitively gifted out-of-state elites into its Honors Program, partly by assuring these students and their parents that Alabama-born and bred students now comprise only a minority of the school’s enrollment.
Like most Southern flagship universities – Georgia, South Carolina and, most assuredly, Florida – the University of Alabama increasingly seems less and less discernibly Southern with each passing year. And so, for that matter, does Crimson Tide Football.
To be sure, what self-respecting Tide fan isn’t proud of the program’s remarkable fortunes under Saban’s leadership? Saban is a profoundly intelligent and gifted individual and coach – not at all surprising considering that he majored in physics as an undergraduate. But there has always been an ersatz quality associated with the Saban legacy. His whole demeanor is that of a polished CEO presiding over a well-established, well-heeled corporate enterprise, which, after all, is what the Crimson Tide Football has become.
As for the university’s host state, Alabama, well, it’s still dealing with a troubling historical legacy and, with it, the derision of the elites who frankly have never devoted so much as a millisecond trying to understand its immensely complicated historical legacy. It is an an enduring burden that has been felt all the more acutely recently in the aftermath of the Donald Trump upset. Indeed, I’m still rather incensed after reading an article about the outrage that spontaneously erupted in an upscale Brooklyn organic market several days after the Trump victory when Sweet Home Alabama was played over the loudspeaker.
It’s partly the derision of these elites, I suppose, that has bonded me permanently to the University of Alabama and its hallowed football tradition. Despite the loss of their cultural moorings, the University of Alabama and Crimson Tide Football will always remain both Alabama and Southern icons to me and countless other aging Southerners.
They will always be inextricably linked with the fortunes and culture of the Alabama and the South, even if they no longer want to be.