Tonight, much to the dismay of most of the rest of the country, two powerhouse Southern teams face off for the BCS National Championship. In a re-match of the hyperbolically named “Game of the Century” from early November, Alabama and LSU, with their good-enough offenses, will attempt to find the end zone against the best two defenses in the land. The bad news for SEC haters is that the conference will claim its sixth straight national title. The silver lining is that, in doing so, the conference will also have a losing team in the matchup.
Despite the unrelenting hype for this game, this Alabama alumnus has found it difficult to get excited about the game. Perhaps that’s because I’m spoiled. In the two previous opportunities my alma mater had to win a national championship in my adult life, the Tide entered the final game undefeated, if not universally praised. And they won both.
This year, Alabama sort of backed into the opportunity after losing to LSU at home in November. That one 3-point loss to the #1 team in the land kept Alabama out of the SEC championship and forced them to wait while a number of other top-10 teams bungled their chances to play for the big one. The end result is that Alabama’s worthiness to be in the championship game has been endlessly debated since the final BCS standings were announced.
And it has brought out the Bama haters.
Let’s face it; Alabama fans and their belief that championships are a birthright make hating easy. In expressing my desire to attend this game, I found myself saying to a friend that I had only been to one Alabama national championship game. Poor baby. Many schools’ fans are happy to have that opportunity even once. This will be at least the sixth time in my life Alabama has played for it all. We’re spoiled. I admit it.
Nevertheless, I am proudly sporting the crimson and white today … and for reason more than the mythical 13 national championships. (More on that later.) Here are some reasons why:
1. History – And I don’t mean just the history of the football program. Most schools have that. I’m talking about honest-to-goodness, actual U.S. History. In 1925, the South was still suffering the psychological and economic effects of Reconstruction. Thanks in part to that year’s Scopes Monkey Trial, the intellectual elite of the country were piling on the South as backward, barefoot, poor, dirt-eating hookworm victims incapable of excellence in any regard.
At the same time, something was brewing in college football. A growing concern with commercialism came to a head in November. Illinois’ Harold “Red” Grange, the most storied player the sport had ever seen, won his final game with the Fighting Illini one week and then suited up for the Chicago Bears as a professional player the next. Why was that a big deal?
In 1925, probably more divisive than North vs. South or White vs. Black was Rich vs. Poor. College football was considered a gentleman’s game, the game of Ivy Leaguers and the educated elite. Pro football, due to its roots as a loose collection of factory teams in the Midwest, was a lesser sport, gauche and unrefined. Having Grange, the pride of the college game, not only join the pro ranks but drop out of school to do so was considered by many the final blow of commercialism on the game.
As a result, many conferences chose to ban post-season play that year. (That ban continues to this day in the Ivy League.) Two men, however, saw this overreaction as an opportunity. George “Mike” Denny, the president of the University of Alabama and Steadman Vincent Sanford, head of the Southern Conference (with the help of Alabama booster Champ Pickens) promoted Alabama to represent the East against Washington in the Rose Bowl. To that point, no Southern team had ever been invited to play in the game. The Pacific Coast Conference’s representative, in fact, was doubtful of Bama’s worthiness, saying he couldn’t take the chance of “mixing a lemon with a rose.”
Needless to say, Alabama not only got the invitation, but shocked the nation by actually defeating Washington 20-19. What they won, however, was more than a game. Historians will point to that outcome as the first significant victory for the South since the Civil War. Southerners united behind their team, giving them a hero’s welcome at every stop along the train ride from Pasadena back to Tuscaloosa.
The long-term effects of that game could not have been predicted at the time, but we’re living them now: six straight SEC teams winning national championships, huge TV contracts, larger crowds, more passionate fans and bigger athletic budgets than any other section of the country.
2. Philosophy – Five coaches have won national championships at Alabama: Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. It’s no coincidence that all of them were known as hard-nosed disciplinarians with a heavy focus on defense and the fundamentals of football. I can’t really say why, but that’s the only recipe for consistent success at Alabama. Perhaps it has something to do with the state’s culture and a history rooted in such old-fashioned notions as hard work and perseverance against the odds and all opponents.
When you’re from Alabama, you don’t get to brag about much, You learn early on that your best chance at success is to keep your mouth shut, do your job and work harder than the other guy. That’s what the best Alabama teams do.
Nick Saban’s teams have bought in to his talk about focusing on the process of winning rather than the results. They follow a 24-hour rule when it comes to celebrating a victory. When that 24-hour period is up, it’s time to focus on the next game. While other teams may appear to have more fun on the field, drawing heavily on emotion and arrogance, Bama teams are best described as workmanlike. It’s not sexy, but it wins. As Coach Bryant famously said when telling his players how to properly celebrate a touchdown, “Act like you’ve been there before.” Alabama does … because Alabama has.
3. Tradition – Sure, it’s a hackneyed byword surrounding the Alabama football program, but it’s no less accurate. The greatest traditions in any walk of life are those that happen organically. From the name Crimson Tide, given the team in an article written by legendary Birmingham sports writer Zipp Newman in the early 20s to the rousing fight song “Yea Alabama,” written to celebrate the 1925 team, the traditions of Alabama football seem to have grown from the very soil of the Black Belt itself.
Debunking the Myth of the National Championships
Now, about those much debated 13 national championships …
Prior to the early 1980s, the University of Alabama did not claim a specific number of national championships. Coach Bryant’s letterhead listed only the six won during his tenure (five consensus and one UPI championship awarded prior to a bowl loss to Notre Dame in 1973). After Bryant’s passing – and symptomatic of the bizarre anti-Bryant attitude of the Ray Perkins era – sports information director Wayne Atcheson took it upon himself to claim eleven national championships for the school. This wouldn’t have been such an egregious and specious claim if not for some of the years he chose, especially the two-loss 1941 season.
The first of the championships Atcheson claimed was 1925. Having read every local paper from the 1925 season, including those with coverage of Alabama’s historic win over Washington in the Rose Bowl, I can say that there was absolutely no talk of Alabama being the national champion. Sorry, Bama fans.
That being said, there was no talk in those papers of any team being national champion. Sorry, Bama haters. It was simply not a focus at the time. It may be hard for us to understand in our modern era, when everything must be defined in terms of superlatives, but that phrase simply wasn’t part of the national discussion. That being said, there is no question that the 1925 Alabama team was regarded as one of the all-time greats at the time … and continues to be so.
Since 1936, the national championship has largely been awarded by the so-called wire services polls, beginning with the Associated Press. Later, the UPI poll joined the mix, evolving into the Coaches’ Poll and the BCS.
As far as I’m concerned, anything prior to 1936 is fair game. After that, you better have won one of the major polls. Based on that, I have no problem with my alma mater claiming 1925, 1926, 1930 and 1934, but 1941 is indefensible.
So there you have it. Alabama doesn’t have 13 national championships … but they might later tonight.