Historically Alabama football has been synonymous with defense. Brutal defenses that tend to run roughshod over opponents and win championships. And that longstanding tradition can be traced back to one man, Wallace Wade who coached the Crimson Tide from 1923 to 1930.
Lewis Bowling’s 2006 biography of Coach Wade is a thoroughly enjoyable examination on, not only the life and times of this great coach, but the eras of college football he influenced. There’s a heapin’ helping of history to be found and not just the usual tired recollections of days of greatness gone by. Bowling has an eye for the interesting (and downright amusing) anecdote that adds to the whole proceeding.
Still, for every enticing aside there is a huge amount of unnecessary errata clogging the narrative – song lyrics, personal letters and entire newspaper columns. It’s fantastic for the devoted researcher but hard going for the regular fan.
While it’s arguable that Xen Scott deserves credit for establishing the foundations of greatness that the program would later realize, the specific style and approach that have come to be associated with Alabama football were undeniably derived from Coach Wade’s approach. One thing you come away with from Bowling's account is that Coach Wade believed in defense to a degree almost unmatched in Alabama football – and that’s saying something.
Yet when it’s time to let the numbers speak for themselves, Bowling makes sure they do. Aside from the three National Championships his teams garnered, Wade set the bar for winning at the Capstone. Wade’s .812 winning percentage was matched by his successor, Frank Thomas, and eventually surpassed by Coach Bryant’s phenomenal .824.*
Coach Wade’s defensive acumen stands out due to the staggering number of games he held opponents scoreless – 47, a full 61 percent. In his first six games as coach, Alabama had racked up 219 points to zero. It wasn’t a fluke. During his career, Coach Wade blanked opposing teams in more than half the games he coached – a staggering 118 times in 230 games.
(Bowling points out this is a trait Coach Wade inherited from his coaching mentor, Vanderbilt’s Dan McGugin who holds the NCAA career record of 137 shutouts).
How awesome were his defenses? So awesome he would often start the second team knowing that they could hold the opposing team scoreless – thereby completely demoralizing their players when he called in his starting lineup.
But it was bringing Alabama to the 1926 Rose Bowl and then solidly trouncing a formidable Washington team that cemented Coach Wade’s reputation. That victory established the Crimson Tide as a national football power and began a legacy that continues to this day. And Bowling clearly shows how this victory came about and what it’s impact was to the school, the state and the game itself.
The focus of Bowling’s book takes the expected turn away from Alabama and to Duke upon reaching Coach Wade’s departure from the Capstone for Durham, N.C. While these chapters are sparse in terms of information about Crimson Tide football, they are excellent for better understanding the man's contribution to college football as a whole.
Coach Wade was renowned for a number of traits that are consistent with all the great Crimson Tide coaches up to and including Coach Bryant; year-round conditioning, exhaustive recruiting and practices so tough they made the games seem easy in comparison. He also pioneered activities that are now considered part of the job description including coaching camps and his own radio show.
Perhaps the most illuminating insight the book provided me was there is a strong parallel between Coach Wade and the current head coach of the Crimson Tide. Coach Wade comes across as a master organizer although somewhat distant and prickly personality. It’s in this respect that his coaching model has more in common with Coach Saban than the gregarious and engaging approach that worked so well for Coach Bryant. Although they all shared that glorious devotion to Defense we've come to love so much.
Next week: Bama After Bear
* It should be noted that two Alabama coaches exceeded Bryant’s win percentage. J.W.H. Pollard tallied an impressive .867 but he coached for just four years, 1906-1909. Allen McCants holds a perfect record but only coached a single game in 1897 before the university issued a ban on athletic teams travelling off-campus.