Alabama shares history with Duke

Staff writerSeptember 15, 2010 

Few states embrace their football traditions as fiercely as Alabama.

Over the course of 115 seasons at the University of Alabama, 13 national championships, 22 SEC championships and an NCAA record 57 bowl-game appearances will fan a lot of football passion.

The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide and its convoy of red-clad fans will be in Durham to take on Duke on Saturday. The defending national champion is a heavy favorite - oddsmakers had coach Nick Saban's club posted as a 23-point favorite Tuesday - to thump the Blue Devils, who share some history with the Southeastern Conference heavyweight.

An upset loss to the Blue Devils - coached by Birmingham, Ala., native David Cutcliffe - no doubt would crush the spirits of millions who follow the program like a religion.

"They would be in mourning on Sunday," said Cutcliffe, a 1976 graduate of Alabama and former undergraduate assistant coach for the Tide. "There would be a lot of angry people."

More than 92,000 fans showed up for coach Nick Saban's inaugural spring game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., three years ago. Legions of fans travel with the team for road games, packing into RVs and crisscrossing the nation in support of the Tide.

"My hat's off to the faithful fans. That's a lot of the people over a long period of time, some of them passed away that we're going to have their children, and their children's children, and their children's children at the ballgame," Cutcliffe said. "It's a pretty amazing thing that it is passed down."

For the uninitiated, here's a quick primer on the obsession that is Alabama football:

The Bear and his hat

Not a college football season passes without the mention of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

In leading the Crimson Tide to six national championships, he earned his reputation as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. The late Hall of Fame coach owns a overall career record of 323-85-17, which, at the time of his retirement in 1982, was the most wins ever by a college football coach.

As an Alabama football player, he nicknamed himself, "The Other End." While playing for the Tide's 1934 national championship team, Bryant played end while the great Don Hutson played end on the other side of the line.

Bryant started wearing houndstooth hats after New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin sent him one in 1965. Werblin had tried to hire Bryant to coach the Jets, and they became friends. Bryant personified the expectations heaped on Alabama football players, saying, "I ain't never been nothin' but a winner."

He died on Jan. 26, 1983, four weeks after he coached his final game.

Remember when Duke beat Alabama?

After watching Duke beat top-ranked Alabama 29-26 in the 1945 Sugar Bowl, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice called the game "one of the great thrillers of all time." And for good reason.

The Crimson Tide's "War Babies," a team consisting mostly of the leftover teenagers who had not gone off to serve during World War II, faced off against a veteran Blue Devils roster that featured a bevy of Navy trainees on New Year's Day.

At halftime on Saturday, Duke will honor the 1944 team that beat the Crimson Tide more than six decades ago. In three meetings all-time, that Sugar Bowl has been Duke's only victory in the series.

Shared legend

Saturday's game will mark the Crimson Tide's first visit to the Blue Devils' Wallace Wade Stadium, named for the coach who delivered Alabama's first three national titles (1925, 1926 and 1930) before his departure for Duke.

Wade's 1925 Alabama team went 9-0 in the regular season and allowed only seven points while shutting out eight opponents.

It was the first team from the South invited to play in the Rose Bowl, and the Tide beat Washington 20-19 to claim Alabama's first national championship.

In 1930, Wade's last season at Alabama before coming to Duke, the Tide went 10-0 and shut out eight of its opponents, including Washington State in the 1931 Rose Bowl when it played its second-team players.

Overall, Wade went 61-13-3 at Alabama.

What's with the elephant?

During the 1930 season, Everett Stupper wrote about the Tide's 64-0 win over Mississippi.

In that game, Wade started his second-string players in the first quarter then put his starters in the game when the second quarter began.

Stupper wrote, "At the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow.

Some excited fan in the stands bellowed, 'Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,' and out stamped the Alabama varsity."

For the rest of that season, writers and fans referred to the Alabama line as the "Red Elephants."

Cranking out football heroes

Alabama's program has produced 97 first-team All-Americans, including some of the most legendary players in football history.

Before he guaranteed a Super Bowl III victory for the New York Jets in 1969, Joe Namath was an All-America quarterback for the Tide. Kenny "Snake" Stabler (1967 first-team All-America) also played quarterback for Alabama.

Famed offensive linemen such as Lee Roy Jordan (1962), John Hannah (1971) and Dwight Stevenson (1979) all played there.

Linebacker Cornelius Bennett was a three-time, first-team All-America (1984-86).

Alabama even has Hollywood covered with fictional All-America back Forrest Gump running back kicks for touchdowns in the 1994 Oscar-winning movie.

Staff writers Ron Green, Jr. and Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.

robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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