Recently I “celebrated,” if you will, my 40-year anniversary of being hired at the University of Alabama.
To me, there’s just something special about the number 40. Because it’s used 146 times in Scripture? Perhaps. Because it’s the number of years most folks work before reaching the magic Social Security “retirement age” of 62? Maybe.
The fact that I didn’t quite make it to 40 years at the University (totally my choice) doesn’t diminish my Alabama memories during these last four decades. I think of them often, but never have I written them down. Until now, at least.
And for most of you, these memories are yours as well. Very few recollections that I share in this blog are mine and mine alone. Many of them will invoke similar remembrances from you, whether it be a ball game, an alumni chapter meeting, a TIDE PRIDE or ticket issue, or the celebrations of our many multi-sport national championships.
Before I begin, I’d like to share just how I wound up back at the University in January 1982. Then, I invite you to go on a near 40-year journey with me.
Some background: Gadsden, Alabama is my hometown, and I’m proud to say I’m from there. I loved growing up in Gadsden. I even went back to the “City of Champions” following my graduation from Alabama in spring 1978 and had every intention to stay there.
Having majored in Finance, I began my “real world” career at Gadsden’s American National Bank, a solid local bank that would eventually be gobbled up by AmSouth, then later Regions.
After 18 months at the bank, I transitioned over to the Gadsden Chamber of Commerce, where I coordinated your typical Chamber-type events – business breakfasts and luncheons, Christmas parades, job fairs, business recruitment, etc.
All this time back in Gadsden, though, there was always a big Roll Tide tug at my coattails. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about my memorable days as a UA student. My freshman dorm, Somerville Hall (which just three years ago finally succumbed to the University’s ongoing building program), is where I had made lifelong friends. (Rex, Kelley, Jay, Butch, Buddy, Keith, and Bill, you know who you are.) My Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers, many of whom I stay in regular contact today, had been instrumental in my growth as a young man, especially during the tragic death of my father during my freshman year. My days as sports editor of The Crimson White during the 1977-1978 school year had been the greatest time of my life. Just getting the chance to cover Crimson Tide athletics daily – including occasional chats with Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant – had been a dream come true.
As much as I loved – and still love – the folks in Gadsden, I felt the Lord’s calling to head back to Tuscaloosa. And in ways that only God can work, He used my friend Fred Sington Jr. to be the vessel, the conduit, to clear the path for my return to campus.
First, a note about Fred, who along with his family moved to Gadsden in 1965 to open a Fred Sington Sporting Goods store. Fred’s dad, Fred Sr., had been an All-American tackle for the Tide in 1927-30 and later played professional baseball for the Washington Senators, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Louisville Colonels. Finally realizing a dream that had been interrupted by World War II, Fred Sr. opened the first Fred Sington Sporting Goods store in Birmingham in 1947. Several stores would follow, including the new store in Gadsden.
The Sington name was magic in the sports world, so for me growing up in Gadsden, Sington’s was my go-to spot for sporting goods equipment. Thanks to my frequent trips to Sington’s, as well as family friendships through Gadsden’s First Methodist Church, Fred and I became friends, although he was 20 years my senior.
Fred was instrumental in my being hired at the Gadsden Chamber of Commerce in 1979, and because he was on the Chamber’s board of directors, we worked closely together on many projects. And, although I didn’t realize it at the time, Fred was also becoming very active in the University of Alabama’s National Alumni Association.
At some point in fall 1981, Fred learned that my fraternity brother Dean Nix, who for a couple of years since graduation had been working in the Alumni Office, was vacating his job. I’m convinced that the Lord used Fred to not only put a bug in my ear about the job, but to help me get hired by the new director of alumni affairs, Robert H. Kirksey. So, on Jan. 15, 1982, slightly more than 40 years ago, I began my new job as field representative for the University of Alabama National Alumni Association. That earlier-mentioned Roll Tide tug at my coattails had, thankfully, pulled me under. And so it began.
In this blog I’ll share a few memories of my time at the Capstone, and in the next couple of blogs, I’ll share a few more. In all, it’ll be 40 memories over 40 years.
I hope you enjoy.
#1 – “Nothin’ But A Winner”
Alumni chapters are the heart and soul of any national alumni association, and for two years my boss, former Tide baseball player Larry Keenum, and I traveled to more meetings than we could count. Long before email, cell phones, and GPS, we used landline telephones to plan the meetings with chapter officers, and old-fashioned maps to get to our destinations.
One of the highlights of these chapter meetings during 1982 and 1983 was our showing of “Nothin’ But A Winner,” a 30-minute film in which Coach Bryant discussed his philosophies of football and life. Highlights from Coach’s record-setting 315th victory over Auburn in 1981 helped illustrate these philosophies in action.
I’ll never forget hauling that large reel-to-reel projector and a huge screen to all these meetings … and praying that the projector didn’t gobble up the film. Bruce Arians, an assistant on Coach Bryant’s staff in 1981 and 1982 and one of the coaches featured in the film, accompanied us on several of these trips. Who could have imagined that almost 40 years later, Bruce would be an NFL Super Bowl-winning head coach!
#2 – “Benny Perrin Day” in Decatur: “Well, somebody do sumpin’.”
Back in the day, it was common for a town to honor their successful college athletes upon completion of their eligibility. And usually, the local alumni chapter would be in charge. During my days in chapter development, I helped plan several of these, but none are more memorable than “Benny Perrin Day” in Decatur on April 6, 1982. Why, you say?
Well, the guest of honor that night (besides Benny) was none other than Coach Bryant, and I had the honor to fly with him to Decatur on the University plane. Keep in mind that I had been around Coach some during my student days as Crimson White sports editor, and a couple of years after I finished school, I had found out that Coach Bryant and Charley Thornton – his long-time sports information director – had considered offering me a job in the Sports Information office upon my graduation. (They didn’t follow through since they knew I was planning to go back to Gadsden to work in a bank.) So, Coach at least knew who I was and had always been very cordial to me.
But in this crowded, stuffy plane, and sitting with the winningest college football coach of all time, I was all in a dither. Nervous doesn’t adequately describe my emotions. After some small talk with Coach and the others on the plane, we landed in Decatur. As soon as the pilots opened the door, all of us just froze, giving Coach the opportunity to exit first. But he didn’t budge. Nor did we. Finally, Coach broke the ice by saying, “Well, somebody do sumpin’.”
We couldn’t get out of that plane fast enough. Coach was the last to depart, and as he ambled down the steps, I thought, I’m gonna remember “Well, somebody do sumpin’” the rest of my life. And sure enough, I have.
#3 — “Bama Blasts” start fast, end with a thud
In 1981, prior to my returning to campus, the University celebrated its 150th birthday or, in fancy speak, a sesquicentennial. Included in the festivities was the first-ever Bama Blast on the night before the Crimson Tide’s homecoming game against Rutgers. More than 37,000 attended the pep rally/concert in Bryant-Denny Stadium, highlighted by appearances from Crystal Gayle and the Statler Brothers.
My aforementioned friend, Fred Sington, had a huge part in planning this first Bama Blast, and boy, did he have quite an idea. What better way to open Bama Blast than to have a live elephant come out on the field? Sounded great, but Fred knew the obvious: Coach Bryant would have to approve it. And if anyone could go to Coach to ask for permission, it was Fred. After all, the Sington name was one with which Coach was very familiar. Fred Sr. had played at Alabama just a couple of years prior to Coach’s playing days in the early 1930s. And Fred and his brother David had been on Coach’s first Alabama team in 1958. (Fred will forever be in the Alabama record book as scoring the first points of the Bryant era, on a 25-yard field goal against LSU in 1958.)
Fred always told the story much better than I could ever write it, but Coach eventually gave Fred permission, but told him, in so many words, “Sington, that $#%*# elephant had better not tear up my field!” Believe me, no one in Bryant-Denny Stadium that night was more nervous that Fred Sington. (I wish Fred were still around to tell the story; he passed away in December 2017 at the age of 82.)
As spectacular as was the first Bama Blast in 1981, the second one in 1982 topped it. On the night before the Tide’s homecoming game against Cincinnati, more than 44,000 gathered in the stadium to hear country rock sensation Alabama. In the pep rally portion of the evening, Coach Bryant – slightly more than two months from coaching his final game – told the crowd, “I never thought I’d see a pep rally this big, but I knew if I ever did, it’d be at Alabama.”
(Looking to the next year, the 1983 Bama Blast – featuring country music stars Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams Jr. – lost $70,000. The concert drew mostly hardcore country music fans and very few students, hence the students’ nickname for it, the “Bama Bust.” From that point on, the short-lived Bama Blasts were no more.)
#4 – My first book: “Bama Under Bear: Alabama’s Family Tides” starts it all
From the day I strolled across the Memorial Coliseum stage and graduated in May 1978, the thought of writing a book on Alabama football had continuously lingered in my mind. With a football tradition as rich as the Tide’s, I just knew there was some angle, some unique idea that had never been attempted. Then in early 1980, it hit me: How about a book on different families of Alabama football, either father-son or brother combinations? Being from Gadsden, I’d been quite familiar with the Hannahs from nearby Albertville, and I had gotten to know the youngest, David, at the Capstone. And I had become friends with Jeff Rutledge during my time with The Crimson White and was quite aware that his older brother Gary had been an important cog on the Tide’s 1973 championship team. Of course, I was aware of the Singtons, and the kicking Davises, and even Johnny Mack Brown and his brothers from the 1920s.
So, with help from Charley Thornton in the Sports Information Office and Betty Morrison in the Alumni Office, I began researching just how many families of Alabama football there were, and I was surprised to find more than 80. I knew I had a lot of work to do and tough choices to make in narrowing down who would be included in the book.
Through Clyde Bolton, sportswriter for The Birmingham News (and whose son, Mike, was a friend in college), I met David Strode Akens of Strode Publishers in Huntsville. Strode had published Clyde’s classic book, “The Crimson Tide: A Story of Alabama Football,” in 1972, so I knew the company was favorable to Alabama football books. So, I pitched my idea to Mr. Akens, knowing the chances of any publisher actually accepting a manuscript were miniscule, given the financial risks.
Fortunately, Mr. Akens liked the concept. Strode published my first book, “Bama Under Bear: Alabama’s Family Tides,” in fall 1982. His only caveat was that he only wanted to include family members who’d played under Coach Bryant (or at least one of the family members). He wanted to take advantage of Coach Bryant’s twilight days, hence the name “Bama Under Bear.” (I never liked that title, by the way.)
In keeping with Mr. Akens’ wishes, we included nine families in the book: Neighbors (Sid and Billy); Stephens (Gerald, Charlie and Bruce); Ford (Mike and Steve); Wade (Tommy and Steve); Grammer (Richard and Jimmy); Hobson (Clell and Butch); Hannah (Herb, Bill, John, Charley and David); Rutledge (Gary and Jeff); and Lowe (Woodrow and Eddie).
“Bama Under Bear: Alabama’s Family Tides” came out during what turned out to be Coach Bryant’s last season. Sales were good, thanks to the topic and the uniqueness of the book. And, in including these nine families, every year of Coach Bryant’s tenure at Alabama was included.
Since so many families had been left on the cutting room floor, our intention was to do a Part II book a couple years later, but for whatever reason – and I don’t remember why – it never happened. Not then, at least. Around 1990, two years prior to Alabama football’s Centennial celebration in 1992, Kirk Wood, general manager of the Alabama Sports Network and vice president of Host Communications, came to me with an offer to publish Part II.
So, for the 1992 edition of “Alabama’s Family Tides,” (we dropped the “Bama Under Bear” name) I added seven more families and updated the previous nine chapters from 10 years earlier. New families included the Browns (Johnny Mack, Tolbert “Red,” Billy and Fred); the Davises (Alvin “Pig,” Tim, Steve, Bill and Mike); the Goodes (Chris, Kerry, Pierre and Clyde III); the Larys (Ed and Al); the Salems (Ed, George, Jimbo and George); the Singtons (Fred Sr., Fred Jr. and David); and the Wilsons (Butch and George).
It would be 17 years before my next book, “The University of Alabama All-Access Football Vault,” ® would come out. From that point on (2009) – and thanks to Coach Nick Saban for providing quite the subject – I’ve had the honor to write nine more. The latest, “HISTORY MADE,” is the story of Alabama’s 2020 national championship team. I still think fondly of that first one some 40 years ago, and I appreciate David Strode Akens for giving me that first shot.
Now, let’s get back to those memories from the early 1980s.
#5 – Coach Bryant’s retirement and final game
Admit it, we all thought Coach Bryant was immortal. In our dreams, he would be the Crimson Tide’s coach forever. But deep down, as much as we hated to admit, we knew that he would soon be stepping down. All dreaded the day that would happen.
Coach Bryant’s 1982 team, which in the pre-season had been dubbed a national championship contender by the school’s own media guide, started 5-0 (including a 42-21 thrashing of eventual national champion Penn State), but faded in the end by losing four of its next six games against Tennessee, LSU, Southern Miss and Auburn.
I remember suspecting his time was near when, following Alabama’s 20-10 loss to LSU in Legion Field, he stated that “some changes ought to be made at the top and I’m at the top.” When asked by a reporter if this meant he was considering retirement, he replied, “I’ll do anything it takes to get something done, to improve, to get better.”
If the LSU loss left Coach Bryant with thoughts of retiring, then the Southern Mississippi game was perhaps the final straw. The Golden Eagles, led by elusive quarterback Reggie Collier, rolled into Tuscaloosa and broke the Tide’s 57-game winning streak in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Two weeks later, Bryant disciple Pat Dye led his Auburn Tigers to a 23-22 win over the Tide.
Eighteen days after the Auburn loss, on Wednesday, Dec. 15, the winningest coach in college football history did indeed announce his retirement after 25 seasons at the Tide helm. Citing a need for “better coaching from someone else,” Coach Bryant officially passed the torch to former Alabama All-American Ray Perkins, who was simultaneously holding a press conference in New York announcing his resignation as the New York Giants head coach. The unflappable, iconic Coach Bryant had been bigger than life, and watching his exit from college football was tough for all of us.
“Win one for the Bear” became the theme of his last game, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis against Illinois. Twenty-four years after beginning his bowl career at Philadelphia’s Liberty Bowl, Coach Bryant was coincidentally returning to the same bowl (since moved to Memphis) to end his celebrated journey. What would have normally been a routine bowl game turned into the most important sports event of the year. Many were calling it “the biggest story in Memphis since Elvis died.”
Vowing to end the season on a positive note, make up for three straight losses, and of course “win one for the Bear,” the Tide fought off several Illinois charges in the game’s waning moments to capture a thrilling 21-15 victory. I was at the game with my friend Gregory Payne, an Illinois graduate, and boy, was it COLD that night, I’d guess mid-twenties. But despite the frigid temps (and my breaking a tooth on a popcorn kernel), it was quite special to witness Coach Bryant go out a winner.
Even though Coach had passed the Alabama football reins over to Coach Perkins, he announced his staying on as the school’s athletic director. In Memphis during the week of the Liberty Bowl, he hinted he would probably leave the athletic director’s position before the 1983 football season so he “wouldn’t interfere.” Coach Perkins was very much looking forward to working with Coach Bryant and calling on him for advice. Unfortunately, he never really got the chance.
#6 – The death of a legend, a trip to UCLA, and a game program cover I thought I’d never see again
There are those “moments” in our lives that we remember exactly where we were when notable happenings occur. For me, it’s the Kennedy assassination (in the second grade), the Apollo 11 moon landing (at the 1969 National Boy Scout Jamboree in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho), the assassination attempt of President Reagan (at the Gadsden Chamber of Commerce office), the Challenger explosion (in Alumni Hall on the UA campus), and 9-11 (at Rama Jama’s following Bible study).
And, of course, there’s Coach Bryant’s death on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 1983.
I was in the HARCO drugstore across the street from Druid City Hospital when I heard the news. Buying some last-minute items just an hour or so before I was to leave with the Alabama basketball team to Los Angeles to play No. 1 UCLA, I noticed the cashier in tears. I asked what was wrong, and she simply said, “Coach Bryant just died.” My heart sank.
So, you say, why was I on that trip to Los Angeles? Well, the Southern California alumni chapter hosted the Alabama players and staff on the night prior to the basketball game, and I was there representing the Alumni Office. (Tough assignment, I know.) I can’t thank Coach Wimp Sanderson enough for allowing me to join them on what turned out to be a fantastic trip and a 70-67 upset of the nation’s top-ranked squad.
I have many memories from that trip. At our practice on the day before the game, before the players got onto the court, I grabbed a basketball and made my one and only shot in iconic Pauley Pavilion. So, for the record, I’m 100 % at one of most famous arenas in college basketball history.
At the game on Friday night, sitting about six to eight rows behind me was 10-time UCLA national champion coach John Wooden. (If I’d had a camera, I’d have proof today.) Just watching him, I was taken aback by his graciousness and kindness to all the Bruin fans that talked to him.
In remarks prior to the game, UCLA head football coach Terry Donahue asked the Pauley Pavilion crowd and a CBS national television audience for a moment of silence in memory of Coach Bryant, whose funeral had been earlier that day in Tuscaloosa. Such a classy touch.
The game itself was a classic. The Tide, whose players wore black shoulder patches in Coach Bryant’s memory, held a comfortable lead most of the game (as many as 16 points at one time), but the Bruins crawled back late to tie the game. Clutch free throws by Alabama’s Mike Davis and Buck Johnson sealed our victory. Seldom-used Tide center Mark Farmer neutralized UCLA center Stuart Gray the entire game and was our unsung hero.
As I close this month’s blog, I want to tell you of an interesting side story regarding Coach Bryant. Within a couple weeks following the Liberty Bowl, I set up an appointment to see him. In hand were three items I asked him to sign – the Sept. 29, 1980, cover of Time magazine; the Nov. 23, 1981, cover of Sports Illustrated; and the Liberty Bowl game program cover. We chatted just a few minutes, and he signed all three.
All three covers are displayed in my home right now, but the Liberty Bowl game program has the most interesting story. A few days after I acquired Coach’s signature, I mailed the program to Illinois head coach Mike White and asked that he, too, sign the cover. A couple weeks later, Coach Bryant passed away, and I immediately thought, Well, somebody up there in Champaign, Illinois, has a nice souvenir from Coach Bryant’s final game, and autographed by him, no less. I’m never gonna see that program again.
Time went on and still no Liberty Bowl program. It’s a goner, I thought. Then, and I don’t remember exactly when – maybe April or so – it came in the mail, along with a nice note from Coach Mike White. He wrote how honored he and his team had been to play Alabama in Coach Bryant’s last game.
In a way, this kind gesture closed my personal chapter on Coach Bryant. I’d been around him when I was Crimson White sports editor (including several hours in October 1977 on the set of “The Bear Bryant Show”), I’d traveled with him to “Benny Perrin Day,” I’d been around him at a few alumni functions, and I’d been in his office a few times, swallowed up by that infamous sofa. I’m thankful I had a chance to spend a few minutes with him just a couple of weeks before he passed away.
And every time I walk by those signed covers on my wall, I realize how blessed and honored I was to have had just a small brush with true greatness.
© 2022 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved
(Next month: Part Two of “40 Years, 40 Memories”)