LIKE A football field and a college football game, the history of the University of Alabama's football team is divided in half. Anno Ursi (Latin: "In the Year of the Bear"), abbreviated as AU or A.U., defines an epoch based on 1958, the year Paul Bryant was hired as coach. Similarly, Before Bear (from the Old English bera), abbreviated as BB or B.B., is used to denote years before the start of this era. In B.B. times, the sacred saga of the Crimson Tide--not to be confused with the Red Sea--took on an almost Biblical dimension.
IN THE BEGINNING, there was no team.
Though the university was founded in 1831, it wasn't until 1892 that a Yankee preppy named William Little brought the game to Tuscaloosa. The stocky, sturdy Livingston, Alabama-born lad had learned to play at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was being groomed for Yale. But the death of a brother forced Little to return home, where he enrolled at the university.
Bearing religious artifacts from the north--uniform, shoes and hallowed pigskin, Little organized a team and became Alabama's first gridiron evangelist. "Football is the game of the future in college life," he sermonized. "Players will be forced to live a most ascetic life, on a diet of rare beef and pork, to say nothing of rice pudding for dessert, for additional courage and fortitude, to stand the bumps and injuries."
Little was elected captain, and for a coach the university's newly formed Athletic Association hired an Ivy League dandy--derby-hatted, cane-brandishing Eugene Beauharnais Beaumont Jr., whose strongest credential was a membership on the "tug-of-war committee" at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Nov. 11, 1892, the Cadets, as they called themselves, played a practice game that is now listed as their first official contest. They scrimmaged at a baseball park in Birmingham against a local high school pickup team. Dressed in white uniforms with red stockings and a large red UA stitched on their sweaters (but no helmets or shoulder pads), they romped 56-0, scoring 28 points in each half.
The big plays--including a 30-yard dash by Big Little, as 'Bama's 5' 11" captain was oxymoronically called--were run behind the Flying Wedge, a brutally effective formation introduced by Harvard earlier that year in a game against Yale. Over the next two decades, so many crippling injuries and deaths (19 in 1904 alone!) in college ball were attributed to various wedges that by '05, at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, the configuration was outlawed.
Alabama faced its first legitimate opponent, the Birmingham Athletic Club, on Nov. 12. The Cadets--also known as the Varsity, the Capstones and the Crimson White--jumped out to a 4-0 lead on a Little touchdown. (Back then TDs counted four points.) But in the waning minutes, Birmingham's J.P. Ross, who had played rugby in Ireland, drop-kicked the ball 65 yards through the uprights. The astounding boot accounted for all of B.A.C.'s scoring (field goals were then worth five points) in the 5-4 victory. It would be the last time 'Bama lost by a single point until a 21-20 defeat at the hands of Tulane in 1947.