The Alabama Crimson Tide fields one of the most historically-steeped, wildly-successful sporting programs in the nation, a collegiate program with national championships and a lore that is unrivaled among its competitors. A component of that lofty, long-running on-field reputation is the battlefield upon which the Tide plies its wares on Saturdays in the fall, Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Though Alabama plays all its home games in those familiar stomping grounds these days, entertaining 100,000-plus spectators in Tuscaloosa when the Tide is in town for the weekend, there was a time in the not too distant past that Bama called other fields in the state home. Of course, everyone knows of Alabama’s affiliation with legendary Legion Field in Birmingham. Up until 2000, Alabama and Auburn regularly met there in a heated rivalry game that came to be known as “The Iron Bowl,” named so because of the native fixation on Birmingham’s historic affiliation with the steel industry. However, since 2000, Alabama has ceased play at the iconic Birmingham landmark, rather using its own home digs to accommodate the ravenous demand for live football seating and luxury-box amenities not afforded by the smaller, older stadium.
But there’s a lesser known stadium to the south in Mobile that the Alabama Crimson Tide once considered a home of sorts: Ladd Stadium. It’s much smaller than the likes of Bryant-Denny, a throwback to a simpler time when stadiums were privately-funded venues for sports and entertainment that were devoid of the jumbotrons and luxury boxes that are commonplace in modern sports entertainment. Mobile’s Ladd-Peebles Memorial Stadium was the Tide’s second home-away-from-home for nearly two decades in the middle of the 20th century, and was the site of several milestones in the history of the program.
A little history
Ladd-Peebles Memorial Stadium (previously simply called Ladd Stadium) was originally constructed in 1948 (though it has been renovated and upgraded in recent years) using local private funding. That funding was largely spear-headed by Ernest F. Ladd, a Mobile banker of some repute who at the time was head of Merchants National Bank. Ladd had a vision to create a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment arena just west of downtown Mobile, and he obtained a large parcel of land between Michigan Avenue and Houston Street to bring that dream to fruition.
Immediately after it was constructed, the stadium was put to good use. It hosted its first big-time college football game in 1948, when the Crimson Tide traveled to Mobile for the first of 19 subsequent engagements, to play its Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt. In the years from 1948 to 1974, Alabama (19 games from 1948 through 1968 with the exception of 1960 and 1962), Auburn (eight games from 1948 through 55), and the University of Southern Mississippi (17 games from 1950 through 1974) played numerous games in the friendly confines of Ladd. Since 2009, the stadium has been the home of the upstart University of South Alabama Jaguar football team, keeping its proud history as a host of collegiate football alive.
Though Ladd Stadium began its life as a high school and college venue, it soon inherited the event that provides its name recognition for most people in the country familiar with the arena. After one year in Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl, the Senior Bowl (a live-fire audition for college seniors who hope to play in the professional ranks) elected to move its entire operation to Mobile’s Ladd Stadium, where the game has been played each January from 1951 through the present day. During that time, some of the NFL’s (and AFL’s) greatest players have started their path to the pros on Ladd’s hallowed ground. Players such as Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Bo Jackson, Joe Namath, Frank Gifford, Ozzie Newsome, and Mean Joe Green played at Ladd during the Senior Bowl. Other pro luminaries graced the field between 1955 and 1978, when NFL and AFL teams played exhibitions at Ladd. Noted names in those games include George Blanda, Night Train Lane, Doak Walker, and Don Maynard.
Because Ladd is also used for high school games on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays during the fall, many local prep legends cut their teeth on the field turf at Ladd as well. Mobile area standouts such as Kenny Stabler, Paul Crane, Robert Brazile, Scott Hunter, Richard Todd, Willie Anderson, Chris Samuels, Julio Jones, and Nick Fairley all played in Mobile’s chief sporting venue at some time during their prep careers.
Ladd’s impact on Mobile hasn’t been all about sports, however. In the early days, the stadium hosted celebrities such as The Carter Sisters (featuring June Carter, aka Mrs. Johnny Cash), Ed Sullivan, and a young unknown Tupelo-area entertainer named Elvis Presley who did a two-night stand in Mobile in the early days of his career. In 2016, the venue hosted a rally for (and attended by) U.S. President Donald Trump, drawing new attention to the 60-year-old stadium.
The Alabama history of Ladd-Peebles
The history of Ladd Stadium runs a criss-crossing course with Alabama’s rise to prominence as a southern football powerhouse, at least regarding the Tide’s initial dynasty under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Aside from the stadium’s current resident (the University of South Alabama), no other major university has played as many games at Ladd-Peebles as the Crimson Tide. Though the Tide hasn’t played in Mobile in decades, the histories of the venue and the team are intertwined, twisting together like scuppernong vines through the years of shared legend.
In the time since the paths of the Tide and Ladd Stadium first mingled, many things have changed. Alabama has become one of the most storied collegiate programs in the history of the game. Sports entertainment has emerged from a pastime to a big business. Bryant went from upstart head coach to legend. Southeastern Conference members have come and gone. In other words, the two institutions have covered a lot of ground since 1948.
Alabama wasn’t absolutely new to Mobile before that first game at Ladd in 1948. The Tide had played an exhibition game against current NAIA member school Spring Hill College in Mobile in 1940. Though the Badgers put up a fight, they fell to the Tide by a score of 27-7 in that game, as Alabama held them to a mere 23 yards of total offense (which is still the third-lowest total yards allowed mark in Alabama program history).
But it was in 1948 when the Tide made an appearance in Mobile an annual event, partially to get the team in front of more fans and promote the university and the game. And with a shiny new stadium on the Alabama Gulf Coast, the Crimson Tide made it a point to take advantage of the facility and local fanbase.
The Crimson Tide christened Mobile’s new flagship venue in 1948 by playing its Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt at the new stadium in Mobile, and in a heated battle with the Commodores, the Tide didn’t disappoint. The game began with an early 7-0 by Vandy on a Herb Rich touchdown run. The lead held through the fourth quarter, when Alabama quarterback Ed Salem scored on a 10-yard run for a touchdown. The Dores volleyed back to retake the lead on a three-yard run by Dean Davidson, but on the last play of regulation Salem cemented himself in Alabama history with a touchdown strike to Jack Brown to tie the game at 14-14 and prevent what would have been a sure loss.
Alabama lost the first of what would be a run of bad juju losses in Mobile, as the Tulane Green Wave pounded the Tide by a score of 28-14 to open the season dubiously. After a scoreless first quarter, Tulane took a 7-0 lead on a George Kinek TD run, then scored again on an 11-yard Eddie Price touchdown scamper to give the Green Wave a 14-0 halftime lead. Bill Svoboda took it to the Tide in the second half with a touchdown run in the third followed by an 85-yard kickoff return in the fourth to put Tulane well ahead of the Tide. Bama fought back late with two touchdown passes, a 78-yard pass from Salem to Bill Abston followed by a 23-yard strike from Butch Avinger to Tom Calvin, but it was too little, too late as the Tide fell 28-14.
Bama was off to a 2-0 start for the season, but the bad luck at Ladd continued as the Tide suffered its first loss to Vanderbilt by a score of 27-22. Vandy took an early 14-0 lead on two Bill Wade touchdown passes (an 85-yarder to Ernest Curtis and a 15-yarder to Sybert Cook). Salem ran one in from 15 yards out to trim the score to 14-7 at the end of the first. In the second, the two teams traded scores, with Vandy’s Mac Robinson running for a TD and Bama’s Avinger hitting Al Lary for a touchdown to run the score to 21-13 in favor of the Dores at the half. In the second half, Wade found Curtis for another touchdown, and Alabama scored nine in the final quarter to leave the score at 27-22.
Alabama fought a hard battle against a game LSU squad at Ladd, ultimately falling by a score of 13-7. After a scoreless first, LSU went up 6-0 when James Barton threw a touchdown pass to Warren Virgets. Bama took the lead in the third quarter on a Bobby Marlow run, putting the Tide ahead by a point 7-6. However, the Tide defense couldn’t hold, as Leroy Labat broke through for the game-winner, an 18-yard run, to clinch a 13-7 victory for the Tigers.
In what was the biggest game to be played in the short history of Ladd Stadium, the Crimson Tide faced off against the eighth-ranked Maryland Terrapins. The Tide was a decided underdog, but they rose to the challenge, hammering the Terps by a score of 27-7. Alabama scored TDs in all found quarters, with Bart Starr hitting Bobby Luna for an 11-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give the Tide a 7-0 lead. Tommy Lewis followed up with a one-yard touchdown run in the second to give Alabama a 13-0 halftime lead. Maryland broke through in the third on a Jack Scarbath TD pass to Lou Weidensaul, but the Tide rolled back with a Marlow touchdown run in the third and a Hootie Ingram interception return for a touchdown to close out the scoring in the fourth in the victory.
Alabama opened conference play in Mobile against LSU, and the result was a 7-7 tie. Both teams scored their touchdowns in the first quarter then sputtered offensively. Alabama scored on a Tommy Lewis two-yard run, followed by an LSU touchdown run by George Brancato on the ensuing drive.
Despite what ended up being a lackluster season, Bama beat Vandy by a score of 28-14 in Mobile in 1954. The Dores opened the scoring on a Charley Horton touchdown run, but Bama came back on the arm of the multi-talented Hootie Ingram, who threw a 30-yard scoring pass to Thomas Tharp to tie the game in the second quarter. Vandy took a halftime lead on a 28-yard run by Horton. Alabama set themselves up well in the third after the Tide blocked a punt and got the ball on the Vanderbilt 16, then William Stone scored four plays later to give the Tide a lead. Bama scored twice in the fourth to salt the game away, a seven-yard pass from Albert Elmore to Bobby Luna and a 10-yard run by Tharp.
With new coach J.B. “Ears” Whitworth at the helm following the resignation of Howard Drew following the Tide’s 4-5-2 season in ‘54, hopes were high. Those hopes were dashed rather early on, however, as evidenced by Tulane’s manhandling of the Tide in Ladd. In the worst season in the history of Alabama football, the Tide went winless in ’55, including a 27-7 debacle of a loss in Ladd Stadium to Tulane. The game was tied at the half before Alabama imploded. Tulane scored on an Al Cottrell in the first, followed immediately by a Tide score on a Billy Lumpkin run. In the third, the defense relented for Alabama, as Tulane’s Ronald Quillian ran for scores from one yard out and five yards out, followed by a 17-yard interception return for a TD by Cottrell. (It’s interesting to note the historical nature of the 1955 season…Alabama has only gone winless three times since football commenced at the Capstone in 1892, and the other two winless campaigns came before 1900 during four-game seasons.)
Vanderbilt won 32-7 in the Tide’s conference opener in Whitworth’s second campaign as Crimson Tide head coach. After a scoreless first quarter, Vanderbilt rode to a 13-0 halftime lead thanks to a touchdown pass from Donald Orr to Gerald Hudson and a Danny McCall scoring run. Hudson tacked on his own run in the third to push the score to 19-0. Alabama finally got on the board later that quarter on a Daniel Comstock touchdown run, but the Tide was whipped. Vanderbilt scored twice more in the fourth quarter on a 25-yard run by Phil King and a three-yard run by William Smith.
The Ears Whitworth Era continued the following year as the Tide suffered an embarrassing shutout loss to Tulane by a score of 7-0. The only points of the game were scored on a Richie Petitbon (no, not THAT Richie Petitbon) touchdown run of four yards in the first quarter, and neither team could muster much offence the remainder of the game.
After three years of mediocrity, the Alabama football program sought out a man who would go on to walk into legend as head coach of the Crimson Tide. Paul Bryant was hired as the Tide’s head coach, and it’s a little-known fact that his first game as head coach of the Tide was not played in Tuscaloosa, nor even in Bama’s home-away-from-home at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Bryant began his head coaching tenure at Alabama on the field at Ladd Stadium as the Tide took on eventual national champion LSU in Mobile. The game was hard-fought but ended up going the way of the Bayou Bengals by a score of 13-3 thanks to late heroics from LSU’s Heisman winner Billy Cannon. The game was scoreless after the first quarter until Tide kicker Fred Sington Jr. hit an eight-yard field goal to put the Tide up 3-0. (In an interesting historical footnote, the game was halted midway through the first half when the north end zone bleacher collapsed, reportedly injuring some 60 people, none of them seriously.) When play resumed after the half, LSU fought back with a touchdown on a Warren Rabb pass to Johnny Robinson to cap off a 67-yard drive. With the game still very much in the balance, Cannon broke loose in the fourth on a 12-yard touchdown run to put the final score at 13-3. (In another interesting footnote, LSU was coached by Paul Dietzel, who had been a Bryant assistant during the coaching legend’s time at Kentucky.)
Alabama met a familiar (then) SEC foe in Mobile as the Tide played Tulane in Ladd in Bryant’s second season. The Tide weathered an uncharacteristic five turnovers to win 19-7. After a scoreless first, Alabama drew first blood on a Marlin Dyess touchdown run. Tulane came back to tie the game on a touchdown pass from Phil Nugent to Pete Abadie before the half. In the third, Alabama got a 22-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Skelton to Tommy Brooker followed by a fourth quarter TD run by W.E. Richardson. In terms of historical significance, the win over Tulane (which left the SEC in 1966) marked Alabama 100th SEC victory, and the 100th win for Bryant as a head coach.
Alabama steamrolled their way to a national championship in Bryant’s third year, and they shutout Tulane in Ladd that season by a score of 9-0. The only touchdown was scored in the first quarter on a 22-yard Pat Trammel pass to Tommy Brooker, and Tim Davis capped the scoring with a 25-yard field goal.
Alabama came into their annual game at Ladd Stadium ranked second nationally and once again shut out Tulane by a score of 28-0. Alabama took a 7-0 lead on a Joe Namath touchdown run, and the score went to 21-0 by halftime thanks to a 33-yard run by Benny Nelson and a 51-yard interception return from Billy Piper. The scoring was capped by a 20-yard touchdown run by Hudson Harris on the third quarter to put the score at 28-0.
While Alabama did allow Tulane a score in their next meeting in Mobile, the result was still the same as the Tide rolled to a 36-6 victory. The first quarter was scoreless, but Alabama went up 10-0 on a David Ray 22-yard field goal and a touchdown run from Namath. In the third, Ray hit a 33-yard field goal and caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Namath to put the score at 24-0. Frank Canterbury added a five-yard touchdown run in the fourth, and Tulane got its only points of the game on a touchdown pass from David East to Lanis O’Steen. Namath put a cap on the scoring in the fourth with a one-yard run in a 36-6 victory.
After losing the SEC opener to Georgia, Alabama took out its frustrations on the Green Wave in Ladd Stadium. In what became a recurring theme, the Tide washed out the Green Wave, shutting Tulane out by a score of 27-0. Alabama took an early 10-0 lead on a Ray 37-yarder and a one-yard TD run by Leslie Kelley. In the second, the score was pushed to 17-0 on a 29-yard pass from Steve Sloan to Tommy Tolleson. Sloan hit Richard Thompson in the third with a 15-yard pass for a touchdown, followed by another Ray field goal from 25 yards out to put the score at 27-0.
Alabama defeated all comers in ’66 (despite being ultimately shafted in the national championship race), including a shutout of Southern Miss at Ladd by a score of 34-0. Kenny Stabler, who had played at Ladd as a prep star at Foley High School just across Mobile Bay, put on a show for the home crowd. Following a scoreless opening stanza, the Tide went on a tear. Stabler threw two touchdown passes (a 25-yarder to Ray Perkins and a one-yard toss to Wayne Cook) to put Alabama up 12-0 at the half. In the third, David Chatwood ripped off a 13-yard touchdown run, followed by a fourth quarter that saw the Tide score two more touchdowns and two two-point conversions (a 55-yard pass from Stabler to Dennis Homan and a one-yard run by Joe Kelley).
Southern Miss was once again a victim of a high-powered Tide assault, as Alabama beat them in Ladd in ’67 by a score of 25-3. Both teams started slowly, but Stabler ignited with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Homan. USM scored next on a 30-yard Ihor Kondrat field goal, but that would be all the points the Golden Eagles would muster against a stingy Tide defense. Stabler once again displayed his brilliance in front of a local crowd, throwing touchdown passes of six yards and 33 yards to his favorite target Homan in the second half. Steve Davis capped the scoring in the fourth with a 30-yard field goal.
In what would be the last game the Tide would play in the friendly confines of Mobile’s Ladd Stadium, Alabama came from behind to pluck a game Golden Eagles squad by a score of 17-14. Alabama scored first on an Ed Morgan nine-yard touchdown run, but the offense went cold. USM scored in the second on a short pass from Tommy Boutwell to Toby Vance to tie it up, and the Eagles surged ahead in the third on a Larry Moulton TD run to put the score at 14-7. Alabama’s defense stopped the bleeding however, as Donnie Sutton recovered a USM fumble in Golden Eagle territory, and Oran Buck his a 19-yard field goal to put the score at 14-10 with Bama trailing. Another local product, Bama quarterback Scott Hunter, pulled off some late-game heroics in the fourth quarter as he found George Ranager with a 34-yard touchdown pass to give Alabama a hard-fought 17-14 win.
Though Alabama hasn’t played in Mobile since the 1968 season, Ladd Stadium remains an important part of Crimson Tide lore. Several Tide legends have led Alabama on Ladd’s field, including the likes of Namath, Stabler, Marlow, Starr, Sloan, and Hunter. The game’s greatest coach, Paul Bryant, coached his first game at the helm of the Alabama program at Ladd, and he got his 100th win on those hallowed grounds. Alabama, too, has historical waypoints marked indelibly on Mobile’s flagship sporting venue, as the Tide claimed it’s 100th conference victory at Ladd, and claimed victories in Mobile during multiple national championship campaigns.