McNair: Random Favorite Alabama Wins
One of a series
Alabama football teams have won 971 games on the field and some victories are personal favorites. Officially, owing to capricious NCAA rulings, Crimson Tide teams that won 29 times had those victories either vacated (21) or forfeited (8, and also 1 tie). So while “officially” Bama has 942 wins, tied with Ohio State for second al-time to Michigan’s 976, we prefer to believe our eyes and we saw those games.
All victories are not created equal. And sometimes – quite a few, actually – a favorite win over a team can be supplanted by a later triumph.
In this series we have been looking at some victories that we consider the greatest/most favorite against one other team.
Today we’re examine some wins against teams that have been Crimson Tide opponents only once.
While the 1926 Rose Bowl win over Washington is memorable as an historic first in establishing Alabama football particularly and Southern football generally, there was an earlier Alabama victory that made national news with the same result, at least for the Crimson Tide.
On November 5 this season, Alabama will play at LSU, always a big game. One hundred years and one day earlier, on November 4, 1922, the Crimson Tide of Coach Xen Scott shocked the college football world. Playing the second football game ever in what is now historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia, Bama earned headlines nationwide with a 9-7 win over Coach John Heisman’s Penn Quakers, one of the Ivy League’s Big Four in national college football.
Should Penn come to Tuscaloosa this fall and defeat Alabama, it would be no more a surprise than what that 1922 Bama had done in Philadelphia.
Following its headline, “Alabama’s Eleven Humbles Old Penn,” and three subheads, the lead paragraph in the New York Times read:
“PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 4 – Penn’s football dream had a rude awakening today when the University of Alabama humbled the Red and Blue, 9 to 7, on Franklin Field before 22,000 persons, who could hardly believe the final result.”
Alabama scored its points on a “placement goal” by L.O. Wesley, described in the newspaper as a “giant Alabama tackle who weighs 188 pounds,” and a “1-foot line smash” touchdown by backup halfback Allen Graham McCartee after quarterback Charles “Shorty” Bartlett set it up with a 24-yard run and freshman Pooley Hubert ran it to inside the 1.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called the game “the most spirited” played on the Quaker field in seven years.
One of the scrappiest was Bill Baty, a 160-pound blocking back. W.C. Baty would go on to medical school at Harvard and served as Alabama’s team doctor 1959-71.
Bartlett would be named honorable mention on Walter Camp’s All-America team.
Fuzzy Woodruff’s History of Southern Football reported that when word of the upset victory reached Alabama, “they started burning red fires and celebrating in a manner that Tuscaloosa had never seen before in its history.”
That Alabama team, Scott’s last, went 6-3-1 They began the season with a 110-0 win over Marion Institute. There were wins over LSU, Georgia, and Mississippi State and losses to Georgia Tech, Texas, and Kentucky.
There was a temptation to include some Alabama wins over teams the Tide had played just a few times.
For instance, Bama has a terrible record against Texas (1-7-1), but Alabama’s 37-21 win over the Longhorns capped what many consider to be the greatest season (2009) in Crimson Tide history – an undefeated (14-0 record), SEC and national championships, Bama’s first Heisman Trophy winner (Mark Ingram), and the victory coming against nemesis Texas and in the Rose Bowl Stadium where much Tide history was hatched.
Speaking of the Rose Bowl, Alabama has a 5-1-1 record in the post-season Granddaddy, including the 2020 national championship team defeating Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl game played in Arlington, Texas, as a College Football Playoff semifinal.
The 7-7 tie came on January 1, 1927, against Stanford. The teams met again at the end of the 1934 season with the Tide winning 29-13. Paul Bryant – the other end to Don Hutson – played in that game and told me a story that seems improbable. Playing on defense, he said he spotted a handful of change on the field and scooped it up, planning at the first opportunity to give it to someone on the sideline to keep for him. But, he said, the next play came at him and he had to make a decision – keep the money or make the tackle. Reluctantly, he dropped the change and couldn’t locate it after the play.
I could have included Bama’s second meeting against Syracuse. The first came at Syracuse in 1923, a 23-0 Bama loss, but the second was considerable revenge, a 61-6 win in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 1952 season that set numerous, long-standing bowl records.
I even thought about a Virginia Tech game. Alabama has an all-time record of 12-1 against the Hokies, but the one that I remember most came in 1973, a night game in Tuscaloosa. Bama won 77-6 and I was up late into the night searching Alabama, SEC, and NCAA record books to determine which ones had been broken. There were a lot of them. Years later when Bryant hired a young running backs coach, Bruce Arians, I was interviewing Arians and learned he had been a senior quarterback at Virginia Tech in 1973, but that the Hokies coach had decided not to take any seniors to the game. I also remember following Alabama’s 35-0 win over Auburn at the end of the season seeing a bumper sticker: Even VPI Scored 6.
When Alabama hired Mike Price as head football coach from Washington State, I was impressed to learn that he had taken the Cougars to two Rose Bowl games. That would be like a coach taking two Mississippi State teams to the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama has played Washington State only one time, and it fits this narrative only because Rose Bowl wins are important, and Bama’s only game against the Cougars came in Pasadena at the end of the 1930 season, a 24-0 win.
I came to know John Henry Suther, a friend of Bryant’s who was named honorary head coach in an A-Day Game – Joe Namath the honorary coach on the other side. In that Rose Bowl game Suther had two catches for 101 yards, a 61-yard TD and a 40 yard catch. One other Tide player making the box score with a 30-yard field goal was J.B. Whitworth, who would precede Bryant as Alabama’s head coach.
My favorite Bama win in this group other than the circumstances would rank low on the list of Tide achievements, one of those post-season games that usually drift into insignificance. But Alabama’s appearance in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis at the end of the 1982 season would attract unprecedented interest for a second tier bowl game. That’s because it would be the last game coached by Bryant.
If ever there was a game that Alabama players were determined to win it was this one.
“Coach Bryant told us he was one of the seniors,” defensive end Mike Pitts said in the book Game Changers. “It was emotional. We knew he would be doing all he could to win this game, and we wanted to do everything we could.”
Defensive tackle Randy Edwards said, “Before the game we talked about how much it meant, how historic this game was, and how we’d have to live the rest of our lives and regret it if we got beat.”
The opponent was Illinois and it is the only time the Tide and Illini have met in football. Illinois was not a pushover, led by quarterback Tony Eason. Although Alabama was a 21-15 winner, the Bama defense gave up 444 yards of offense, including 423 yards passing by Eason.
Late in the game, clinging to the eventual 6-point lead, strong safety Tommy Wilcox said, “We were telling each other, ‘We’ve got to win, we’ve got to win.’”
Defensive end Russ Wood said, “Every time we’d get into a tough situation, in the huddle someone would say, ‘Coach Bryant.’ That was the word – Coach Bryant – every time we were in a tough spot.”
Eason would say after the game that Alabama was the hardest-hitting defense he had ever played against. Wood delivered one of those hits late in the game, coming from the blind side. The sack sent Eason to the sideline. The Illinois back-up quarterback surrendered the seventh and final interception of the night to linebacker Robbie Jones.
Alabama’s scores came on a 4-yard rush by Ricky Moore, an 8-yard run by flanker Jesse Bendross, and a 1-yard run by Craig Turner. Peter Kim made all three extra points and has the distinction of scoring the final point of the Bryant Era.
Jeremiah Castille was game MVP with his three interceptions and Walter Lewis quarterbacked the win – Bryant’s 323rd.
Back in his office on January 3, 1983, five days after the Liberty Bowl, I popped in to congratulate him. He said, “It was my last roundup. Winning will make my future much more enjoyable.”
On January 26, four weeks after his final coaching victory, Paul William “Bear” Bryant died of a heart attack at age 69.