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Alabama's first coach, E.B. Beaumont, went 2--2 in 1892. "We therefore got rid of him," says the 1894 school yearbook.
It was hard-nosed Wallace Wade who took Alabama to its first recognized national championship, in 1925, when his undefeated team beat Washington 20--19 in the Rose Bowl, the first time a Southern team had ever played in the game. Alabama won more national titles—and Rose Bowls—under Wade in '26 and '30. His successor, Frank Thomas, who had learned his football as a quarterback for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, took Alabama to Pasadena three more times, won a widely recognized national title in '34—with Paul Bryant playing end—and a still-debated title in '41. Some fans say Thomas's best team was the undefeated Rose Bowl--winning squad in '45.
They were college boys in suits, but on the trips home from California, across Texas and the lower South, people stood beside the railroad tracks, waving and cheering. It was Faulkner's South, Huey P. Long's and the Klan's. Night riders in sheets still enforced their doomed ideals, and mill workers spun cotton all week for pocket change. Writers from the North and the West would question if it was wise to open the nation's premier bowl game quite so often to the unsophisticated South.
"Columbia or Pennsylvania would make a much better game with the Pacific Coast Conference representative for the 1946 Rose Bowl than would Alabama and, in addition, such a game would have that intangible thing called 'class,' something it can never have with a southern club being one of the participants," wrote Dick Hyland in the Los Angeles Times. "Me, I'm kinda tired of hillbillies and swamp students in the Rose Bowl."
But from beside the tracks, people waved and waved. Reconstruction had faded into the Depression, and not much had changed. "It became our culture," says Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two Klansmen for the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. "We were a poor state, with a great darkness in our history, but we took a team by train across the nation and played the best and beat the best."
From 1947 through '54 Harold (Red) Drew kept winning at Alabama, but it is a testament to the expectations here that a coach who went 45-28-7 with berths in the Sugar, Orange and Cotton bowls would be considered subpar. Over the next three years, under J.B. Whitworth, it got much worse. He was a nice man, people said, but he was 4-24-2. They needed something else.
Bryant always said his impetus for winning was the fear that he'd have to go home to a plow in Fordyce, Ark. In December '57, after having coached at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, he came to Alabama. "One year [my family and I] were in Miami, and Auburn happened to be playing the Hurricanes," says Fowler. "I walked out on the beach, and there were all these Auburn people. It was terrible. I looked up as one of these little planes went by pulling a banner, EAT AT JOE'S STONE CRABS, or something, and I got to thinking. The next day the Auburn people were still there, and a plane flies over, and it says ATTENTION AUBURN, THE BEAR LIVES. I don't remember what it cost, but it was pittance for what I got for it."
There was a swagger then. "I had an Auburn friend, Spiro Gregory (Speedy) Mastoras," Fowler says. "He would tell me, after another Auburn loss [to Alabama], 'Wait till year after next.' He knew that next year was out of reach."
What a shame it couldn't last forever.
EXCEPT FOR Stallings, no coach after Bryant lasted more than four years. Bear's successor was Ray Perkins, a wideout on the 1964 and '65 national championship teams, who went 32-15-1 and forever angered fans when he pulled down the tower from which Bryant would watch practice. It went back up after Perkins left. Bill Curry went 26--10 and was never beloved. (An 0--3 record against Auburn didn't help.) Stallings won his title and 70 games, but the record book reads 62--25 after the NCAA stripped eight wins and a tie from the '93 season, when a player was found to have had improper dealings with an agent.