Ask any casual football fan who is responsible for the tradition of championships at the University of Alabama, and they’ll probably tell you Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Ask a casual Alabama fan, and they might tell you Bryant’s coach Frank Thomas.
Ask an avid Alabama fan or a football history buff, and they’ll go further back, evoking the name of Coach Wallace Wade, who led Alabama to the first Rose Bowl appearance for a Southern team. Or they may name Wade’s boss, university President George “Mike” Denny, one of the first administrators to recognize the publicity potential of a successful football program.
However, few would utter the name of William “Champ” Pickens.
In the 1890’s, the small, scrawny Pickens had served as team manager for the first football teams at Alabama. Something about that experience got into his blood, as he was never far from the Alabama football program for the rest of his life.
Pinpointing Pickens’ exact career description is difficult. He is most often labeled a “promoter,” but that descriptor must have been far more broad in his day than it is today. He was the founder of the Blue-Grey All-Star game in Montgomery. He was the namesake of the Pickens Trophy (pictured above) given to the champions of the old Southern Conference. And he acted in a capacity for Alabama football that was like a combination of the duties of modern athletic directors, sport information directors and advertising/PR agencies.
Wherever there was a major sporting event, Pickens was sure to be present, rubbing elbows with the notable and notorious. A legend among sportswriters, Pickens could name as friends such legendary writers as Zipp Newman, Grantland Rice and Damon Runyan. In 1919, he famously stormed out of the press box of the World Series (the year of the infamous Black Sox scandal) declaring,
“This series is fixed. You can have it — I’m going to the race track.”
In 1925, when the Rose Bowl was searching for an opponent for Pacific Coast Conference champion Washington, Pickens was instrumental in Alabama ultimately receiving the invitation. Following the Crimson Tide’s undefeated campaign, Pickens made a quick call to his old friend, Alabama Governor William Brandon. He asked if he could use the governor’s name for something. Brandon agreed without asking what. The “what” was a telegram to the Tournament of Roses selection committee. Weeks later, and after some fortuitous circumstances arising from a season of controversy in college football, Alabama was headed for the Rose Bowl.
But how was Alabama ever going to beat Washington, a team that was as much as a 50-1 favorite? Pickens knew the only answer was to appeal to the players’ Southern sense of honor. From train stops along the line from Birmingham to Pasadena, Pickens organized a campaign to have citizens from not only Alabama but the entire South send telegrams to the team.
When Coach Wade stepped before his players on New Year’s Day, he eschewed his typical pep talk in favor of reading the telegrams. As he finished each one, he would pass it around the room, allowing the players to see it for themselves. It was clear to them that nothing less than the pride of the South was on the line. By the time Wade finished, one player leapt to his feet and shouted something like, “Let me at those damn Yankees!”
When an assistant coach pointed out to Pickens that Washington had been fighting Indian Wars in the 1860’s, Pickens simply replied, “That Civil War stuff gets ’em every time.”
Sixty game minutes later, Alabama had defied the odds and become Rose Bowl champions. No longer could Northern and Western sportswriters denigrate Southern players as too weak, too sickly or too dumb to compete. Just like that, the culture of dominant Southern football was born. For better or for worse, we all have Champ Pickens to thank for that.
Publicist, promoter, raconteur, cheerleader and all-around scoundrel, if there’s one man who personifies a Real Southern Man of football, it’s the forgotten legend, Champ Pickens.