“Alabama Football Tales: More Than a Century of Crimson Tide Glory”
Author: Lewis Bowling
Publisher: The History Press
Price: $16.99 (paper)
Since the University of Alabama had the most revered football coach ever in Paul “Bear” Bryant, often has the best football team in the country and is supported by millions of devoted fans and alums, it is no surprise that there is a huge demand for books about the Crimson Tide. Sports writers are well aware of this demand and do their best to meet it.
The very newest among, literally, dozens of books about Alabama football is “Alabama Football Tales,” published in 2012, by Lewis Bowling.
This is a thin book of 31 short chapters, heavily illustrated with photos of players, in action and posed, on and off the field. There are photos of coaches, cheerleaders, even pictures of crowds at the Tuscaloosa train station, assembled to welcome home triumphant teams from road victories.
Many of these images are part of the American culture of fame, and would be known nationwide. There are few Americans who are not familiar with the visages of Coach Bryant leaning against the goalpost, say, or Joe Namath, with the ball held back, ready to throw.
The more interesting photos are of players of an earlier generation, usually as young men: Don Hutson, who played at the other end from Paul Bryant on the 1934 championship team, and Dixie Howell, their quarterback, who went on to be a Hollywood actor like Johnny Mack Brown of the 1926 Rose Bowl championship team.
Older photos show close-ups of handsome Bully Vandegraaf, All-American in 1915, part of a big win over Sewanee, then a football powerhouse, and the teams of 1896, 1915, 1921, 1925 and others.
Vandegraaf provides the author with a tale I had not heard before. During the Tennessee game, Bowling quotes Tennessee tackle Bull Bayer as saying that Bully “had a real nasty cut, and the ear was dangling from his head, bleeding badly. He grabbed his ear and tried to yank it from his head. His teammates stopped him, and his managers bandaged him. He wanted to tear off his own ear so he could keep playing.”
Bowling also writes of the series against Marion Military Institute from 1902-1922. UA racked up 482 points, Marion never scored, and the 1903 loss of 81-0 looked like a squeaker compared to the final match, 1922, 110-0.
Why we played Marion nine years in a row is not stated.
There is a good deal in this book about Alabama coach Wallace Wade, the coach to whom everyone gives credit for putting Alabama football on the national map with the 1926 Rose Bowl win. Wade moved on to coach with great success at Duke, a basketball power and a private school, very different from Alabama.
Those wanting to learn more about Coach Wallace Wade might read Bowling’s very fine biography. Clearly, Wade is Bowling’s No. 1 subject.
There are many bits and anecdotes here about Coach Bryant and, if these arouse curiosity, the place to go is Allen Barra’s definitive biography of Bryant, “The Last Coach.”
Bowling includes a page on Hugh Miller, the Alabama football player who, wounded and cast up on Arundel Island in the Pacific after his ship went down, survived in the jungle from July 8 to August 16, evaded capture, and killed 15 Japanese soldiers along the way.
Miller’s story should send readers to “When Winning Was Everything,” by Delbert Reed. Reed covers Miller and a score of other Alabama football players, fit young men who served with distinction in WWII in all branches of the service, in all theatres. Reed’s book is thorough and gracefully written.
Bowling’s short tales of Alabama football are appetizers, best for neophytes. Those who want a comprehensive treatment should go to Winston Groom’s “The Crimson Tide.” Groom’s work, updated in 2010, covers the entire spread of football history, is richly illustrated, and even has a number of sidebars by other commentators such as Gay Talese and Phil Beidler.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”