The University of Alabama Crimson Tide football program began play in 1892. After understandable hiccups getting the team started, and after loosening Alabama’s onerous travel restrictions on campus teams, ‘Bama finally got its program off the ground with its first spate of success in the first decade of the new century.
The Tide did it the way most growing programs did at the time: by hiring a professional coach. For Alabama, that would J.W.H Pollard.
Pollard led the Tide to a 21-4-5 record. Besides raising the profile of the program, Pollard also introduced the “military shift” to southern college football. You may better know it as “the swinging gate” still in use today.
Several men rotated in and out of the position after Pollard’s departure to Washington & Lee. So, it would not be until the end of the Great War that Alabama’s program regained momentum lost from Pollard’s exit.
In 1918 the Tide hired Xen Scott from Case Western. Scott stayed at the Capstone for seven years, leading the Tide to a record of 49–26–4. During this time, the sport was growing more popular nationally, made possible by a variety of factors; none perhaps as significant as the Rose Bowl beginning its annual play in 1916. That game, of course, would originally pit the best teams from the East and West to crown a putative national champion.
With Scott’s health deteriorating in 1922, Alabama began to search for a coach in earnest. The hunt finally landed on Wallace Wade, the Tide’s first native-born southern coach in the professional era.
Like most of Alabama’s previous coaches, Wade had played college ball at a Northeast school. For Wade, that would be Brown University. Wade was in the Army for the War Years, rising to the rank of cavalry captain. But, after his discharge, there were no further career disruptions — Wade wanted to coach. And coach he did — He spent the next year at Vanderbilt, where he was involved in practically every sport. In addition to being its head basketball and baseball coach from 1921 to 1923, Wade also spent time on the Vanderbilt football staff in 1921 and 1922. While there, the Commodores split national titles both years, compiling a 15-0-2 record.
In 1922, the 28-year old Wade was called to Tuscaloosa to direct both baseball and football for the Tide.* And, it did not take long for Wade to put his stamp on the program.
Wade’s first year in 1923 was the Tide’s second year in the Southern Conference, and he improved the record from 6-3-1 (8th) to 7-2-1 (2nd) place. The next year would see even more success, as Alabama completed an 8-1 season, going undefeated in conference play.
Although Coach Pollard had begun the tradition of defensive excellence, one Xen Scott continued, defense became synonymous with a Wallace Wade program, and by extension, Alabama. In 1924, the Crimson Tide surrendered just 24 points all season (229-24.) What came next in 1925 season, though shocking to the college football world, was of little surprise to observers of the southern football landscape.
Kleph has lovingly, covered the result of Alabama’s first national championship in the 1926 Rose Bowl. I encourage you to read it: This was the single biggest moment in Alabama football, and I would suggest that 90 years later it remains so:
Alabama’s first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 1926 was not just a landmark event for Crimson Tide football, it was "the Game that changed the South." Until that time the recognized powers of the gridiron dwelt on either coast and in the hoary Midwest. It was up to this upstart team from Tuscaloosa to change that perception but it wasn't going to be easy.
* * *
By the 1920s, the Tournament of Roses inter-sectional matchup of the best football team from both sides of the country had become the de facto national championship game.
The popularity of Pasadena, California’s premier event had prompted the organizers to construct the largest stadium in the country in 1922 – the Rose Bowl.
As Alabama wrapped up a dominant 1925 season there was little consideration the Crimson Tide would be playing one more game on New Year’s Day. Southern teams simply weren’t invited to the Tournament of Roses invitational - even teams as dominant as Alabama.
Under head coach Wallace Wade, the Crimson Tide had become a gridiron juggernaut. In his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa the Crimson Tide had outscored opponents 516 to 74 and rang up a dozen shutouts. The 1925 season was no different, with the Crimson Tide running up a 9-0 record and only allowing a single touchdown the whole season.
Alabama would win the 1925 national championship, and there were more to come. Wallace Wade’s Alabama squads claimed a total of three titles and four Southern Conference crowns in eight years before his somewhat acrimonious departure to Duke University.
In those eight years not a facet of the University’s football program was left untouched by Wade’s presence: as the standard-bearer for Southern football; dominance of a Southern Conference that remains today as the SEC; the first conference title; the first bowl appearance; the first bowl win; the first Rose Bowl for the South and for the school; the first national recognition for defensive excellence; the first of many championships; all the way down to the elephant that we call Big Al — all of those happened on his watch.
When Wade turned the program over to another legend, Frank Thomas, he left a juggernaut now a century in the making. So, it is fitting on Father’s Day that we honor the father of that juggernaut and his 77 wins.
77 days ‘til Alabama football.
In addition to being the founder of the football dynasty, Wallace Wade was arguably the second most important figure in the school’s baseball history too. While coaching the Tide baseball team, all Wade did was recruit MLB hall-of-famer and program legend Joe Sewell.