RBR Reading Room: A Damn Good Yankee

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There is no statue of Xen Scott in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium. The four coaches so honored are those led Alabama football to National Championships. Yet, the legacy of such success has served to obscure the significant accomplishments of other Crimson Tide coaches and none more than Coach Scott.

Gregory Kordic’s 2007 tome, A Damn Good Yankee: Xen Scott and the Rise of the Crimson Tide is an exemplary effort to set the record straight. The biography not only charts the life of one of Alabama’s most important coaches – it traces the emergence of Alabama football under the guiding hand of university president George Hutchenson Denny.

Because Xenophon Cole Scott bequeathed Alabama football much more than a stellar 29-9-3 record during his four seasons as  head coach, he set in place the foundations of a winning football program that would realize its full potential under later leaders.

Over the course of four years Scott established the Alabama program as one on par with the best in the region and then pushed it even further. In Nov. 1922 he took his team to Franklin Field in Philadelphia to face John Heisman’s powerful University of Pennsylvania squad – one of the major powers in Midwestern football at the time.

The ensuing 9-7 win put Alabama on the map. At the time it was considered the pinnacle of the Alabama program’s success but it also paved the way for the achievements that followed. The victory over Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl under head coach Wallace Wade announced Alabama’s arrival as a national football power, but it is doubtful the selection committee would have even considered the Crimson Tide for the game without the win over Penn on its resume.

While the attention to detail in A Damn Good Yankee is a godsend, the scarcity of information on Coach Scott makes it feel a bit impersonal. Kordic ably scours newspaper and official records for telling details of the coach’s life but the personality of this intriguing man only emerges in glimpses. And the extensive rote accounts of the man’s copy sometimes become more tedious than illuminating.

Scott was a product of Ohio football, coaching at several schools including then-powerhouses Western Reserve, Case and Cleveland Naval Reserve. He even had a stint as Penn State’s “field coach” in 1917. Otherwise he worked as a sports writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer – a position that gave him a unique opportunity to become an expert on the region’s football.

In 1919, President Denny selected Scott to lead Alabama’s football team on the basis of that expertise to revive the Alabama team that had been mothballed due to World War I.

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Alabama's 1922 football squad.

Denny clearly understood that if Alabama was to become a power in the region he would have to reach outside its geographic confines to land a coach. The innovation in the game was occurring in the Midwest and the Scott had built a reputation as one of the sharpest minds concerning the newest evolution of the game.

With his arrival, the emphasis on game preparation and stringent practices that are the bedrock of Crimson Tide football became standardized. But what started really filling the stands was a wide-open offense style that emphasized unconventional pre-snap shifts and a potent passing attack.

By the middle of his first season the team boasted “the most successful ariel [sic] attack ever seen on a southern gridiron” gushed the Crimson-White.  In 1922 the team racked up 110 points against Marion Institution, the highest scoring game in the history of Alabama football.

Yet, A Damn Good Yankee makes a compelling case for Coach Scott's abiding belief in the importance of defense.  His teams were notoriously stingy in terms of allowing touchdowns; the 1919 squad allowed only a single touchdown and a single field goal all season (every other score against them came from offensive turnovers). All told, Scott’s Alabama teams scored five points for every one they allowed.

And as the team kept winning, the interest of the fans did as well. Scott’s success was proving Denny’s theory that football would be a way to build the university’s reputation while filling it’s coffers. The Alabama athletic department made precisely $270.20 from the gate proceeds of Scott’s first game in 1919. The proceeds from the final game of the season against Mississippi State was almost $3,000.  

And Coach Scott's tenure saw the arrival of two other massively influential aspects of the Alabama football program;  the introduction of the the nickname "Crimson Tide" and the hiring of Hank Crisp, a coach who would become an enduring influence on the program. If there is one common element to all of Alabama’s national championship teams it’s the influence of this man.

Scott resigned after the 1922 due to the ravages of the cancer that would claim his life within two years. By that time Wallace Wade had the program on the cusp of the Rose Bowl and Alabama’s first National Championship. But the importance of Scott’s contribution to that achievement and its impact on the history of the storied program shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

Next week: Crimson Nation

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