Books
2:57 pm
Mon November 30, 2009

"Twelve and Counting: The National Championships of Alabama Football" edited by Kenneth Gaddy

As the Alabama football team moves to the end of a so-far undefeated season and hopes are very high for a national championship, this seems like a perfectly reasonable time to take a look at "Twelve and Counting."

As the Alabama football team moves to the end of a so-far undefeated season and hopes are very high for a national championship, this seems like a perfectly reasonable time to take a look at "Twelve and Counting."

It is probably impossible to say how many books there have been about Alabama football. It would take a strength coach to carry them all, I am sure. But this one is a little different in that Kenneth Gaddy, Director of the Bryant Museum, has assembled 13 writers, not counting the Foreword by Mal Moore, to tell the stories of Alabama's 12 championship seasons and, less well-known, Alabama's five other seasons, seasons where the Tide perhaps deserved the title, but didn't get it.

Andrew Doyle, a scholar of early southern football, writes the entry of the 1925 season, which culminated in the Rose Bowl win, under coach Wallace Wade, an early believer in the forward pass, over the University of Washington. Alabama was 9 and 0, and the outcomes of the games, as with 90 percent of the games discussed in this book, are well-known, but there are some intriguing bits in this chapter.

I did not remember, for example, that Alabama got the invitation only after Dartmouth, Colgate, Princeton and Michigan had rejected invitations, so strong was the bias against southern football. I did not know that "coaching from the sidelines," that is, coaching by the coach, was against the rules. The quarterback in theory ran the game. I did not know that stamina was truly crucial in early football because if a player left the game, he could not return until the next quarter. Only much later with the advent of the two-platoon system did linemen become giants. The linemen until the sixties averaged under 200 pounds.

One thing that does seem clear, however, is the huge boost to regional morale the Rose Bowl win gave to the South. The momentum from that boost, for better or worse, seems to be with us still, and it is a commonplace to call football a religion in the South.

Winston Groom, author of "Forrest Gump," yes, but also author of "The Crimson Tide: An Illustrated History of Football at the University of Alabama," wrote the chapter on the 1961 season which is entitled, no joke, "The Resurrection." By 1957, Alabama had won only four games in the previous three seasons. When Coach Bryant was hired, he promised that in four years there would be another national championship, and lo, it came to pass. Groom writes wittily of the high expectations: "The fans had expected a Moses to lead the Crimson Tide out of the wilderness. What they got instead was God."

Groom is a splendid storyteller having a good time.

The 1966 season is written up by Keith Dunnavant and has a couple of unusual elements. For one thing, Coach Bryant took quarterback Steve Sloan aside before the bowl game and told him he could pass all he wanted, anytime from anywhere. That was not how the Tide normally operated, but the Nebraska Cornhuskers were exceptionally large and strong and might have stopped the Alabama running game.

Dunnavant also explains the extraordinary upsets which Bryant predicted and that had to happen in other bowl games in order for Alabama to end up No. 1. And it came to pass that UCLA defeated Michigan State, and LSU defeated Arkansas, and Alabama beat Nebraska, 39-28. Voila!

Perhaps the trickiest chapter to write is "The Other Five," by Allen Barra, author of the definitive Bryant biography and the life of Yogi Berra, a kinsman.

Barra discusses the five near misses, the seasons Alabama had a claim to the title but didn't get it. Sometimes, Barra reasons, the voters, coaches or sportswriters or others, just plain thought another team was better. Other times though, it may have been sentiment for favorites like Army or Notre Dame, or in 1966, perhaps resentment that the Tide was not yet integrated and, as Barra says was commonly thought at the time, "we lost the national championship?because George Wallace was governor."

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