Good morning, Tide Nation, it’s game day!
Season openers have been quite kind to the Crimson Tide over the past 129 years. During this span, Alabama is 103-21-3 in openers (with no teams being fielded in 1898 and 1943). Our home record is a sparkling 73-11-2. The road record for openers is 18-10-1, while the Tide is a perfect 12-0 in neutral site openers.
Utah State, you’re next.
Thankfully, for you and me both (especially you), my blog recalling a few memories from my 40-year journey at the University of Alabama is coming to a merciful end. Today’s entry is the fifth and final part.
I’ll continue to post a monthly blog/newsletter, but future content will be much shorter and far more relevant. I look forward to the days and months ahead as I spread the good word about Crimson Tide Athletics, its history, its significance, and its people.
“Forty Years, Forty Memories” has thus far covered my Alumni Office days in the early & mid-1980s through Bryant-Denny Stadium’s 2010 south end zone expansion, when we added 36 new skyboxes, the South Zone, the Stadium Club hospitality area, and new offices for the Crimson Tide Foundation (my office for nine years).
Today the journey continues to the Tide’s second game of the 2010 season when Coach Joe Paterno and his Penn State Nittany Lions rolled into town.
Not only was it the day I almost killed Bobby Bowden, but it would become my classic Forrest Gump moment.
#29 – Almost killing Bobby Bowden & my epic Forrest Gump moment
Mal Moore, our Athletic Director, had quite an idea. With Coach Paterno coming to Tuscaloosa for the second game of the 2010 season, two of the greatest coaches in college football history – Coach Paterno and Coach Saban – would obviously be sharing the field during pre-game warmups. So, why not make it the perfect coaching trifecta by inviting the newly retired Bobby Bowden to join in the fun? Coach Moore did just that, and Coach Bowden gladly accepted the invitation.
Dave Hart, our Executive Director of Athletics at the time, had been Coach Bowden’s boss for many years at Florida State. Because of the pair’s previous relationship, Dave was asked to coordinate Coach Bowden’s visit.
That’s where I came in.
Dave asked me to be Coach Bowden’s “host” for the game, a task that I gladly accepted. I’d met Coach a couple times at FCA Camp in Black Mountain, N.C., and I’d been good friends with his son Tommy since the late 1980s.
First on Coach Bowden’s schedule that day was a guest appearance on ESPN’s GameDay, where he picked Alabama to beat the Nittany Lions, followed by a trip to the Bryant Museum to sign copies of his new book, “Called to Coach.”
At a press conference in the north end zone media suite a couple hours before kickoff, in Coach’s home-spun way he answered all sorts of questions, including those about his love of the Crimson Tide while growing up in Birmingham, his admiration of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, his days at Florida State, and his two near-misses to become Alabama’s head football coach.
Following the press conference, Coach and I took the elevator down to the ground level to gate 3, where a gas golf cart awaited. I’d driven golf carts all my life, so what could possibly go wrong?
We hopped in the cart and I pressed the gas pedal, but nothing happened. The engine revved a bit, but we weren’t going anywhere. What I didn’t realize was that the brake was firmly pressed down and locked, similar to a parking brake in a car. Rather than pressing the brake to release it, I pressed the gas pedal again, but this time all the way to the floor.
Boy, that was a big mistake.
The brake released, and with the “pedal to the metal” the golf cart rared up like a bucking bronco. As the front tire ascended (it had to have been three feet off the ground), the further back Coach and I descended. In just a split second, my thoughts turned to the next day’s headlines: “Bowden severely injured in golf cart mishap” or something similar. In that same split second, I suppose my instincts kicked in and my foot came off the pedal. The front of the cart came crashing down with a thud.
“Dadgum, son, what’re you trying to do?” the clearly rattled coach said.
But he said it with a smile on his face, so I knew he was fine. Shaken up, but fine. (I had no such smile.)
Once I regained what little composure I ever had, I began our golf cart journey down Wallace Wade Avenue to Gate 26 in the stadium’s southwest corner. Normally, we could’ve made the trip in less than a minute. But I was chauffeuring the legendary Bobby Bowden, one of the greatest college football coaches in history, and every passerby who saw him wanted to say hello. And of course, he obliged, never turning down a request for an autograph or a photo. We finally made it to the gate, got out of the golf cart (safely … and thankfully), and walked down the tunnel and onto the west sideline.
Being around Coach Bowden on the sideline was anything but boring. A true rock star, he hammed it up with everyone in sight. We still had an hour or so before kickoff, so the teams hadn’t even come out for pre-game warmups. Alabama running back Mark Ingram, who was injured and not dressed out for the game, came by and introduced himself to the legendary coach (like the Heisman Trophy winner really needed to introduce himself). Many others came over to chit-chat and for photographs.
Then came the moment everyone was anticipating. Once the teams started their pre-game warmups, Coach Moore and I slowly escorted Coach Bowden out to midfield. And before you knew it, there they were – Coach Bowden, Coach Paterno, and Coach Saban, three of the most legendary college football coaches of all time, shaking hands and embracing like life-long friends.
Photographers crowded around the trio for this once-in-a-lifetime moment. I stood about three feet away, taking my own photographs with my little Minolta camera. After a minute or two of small talk, Coach Saban and Coach Paterno returned to their duties, and Coach Moore and I took Coach Bowden back to the west sideline. The whole experience was so surreal.
By kickoff, Coach Bowden was safely seated in one of our skyboxes, where he continued to hold court throughout the game with everyone who popped in.
Following the Tide’s 24-3 victory, I assumed my “Bobby Bowden Day” was over. But later that night, into the night, and especially the next morning, my phone and Facebook feed started blowing up with texts and messages.
Turns out that my ugly mug was in the background of many of the magical trio photos that went out that night, including one from the Associated Press that went nationwide. Even the Wall Street Journal had a small version of it on the front page of its Monday issue.
I have the photo hanging in my home office. There they are – three of the greatest coaches in sports history – and behind them is, well, me. It was my finest Forrest Gump moment.
#30 – “Bear Bryant on Leadership”
In the words of my friend and mentor, Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, “I don’t like to write. I like to have written.” Most, if not all, writers would agree.
At this point in my life – around 2009-2010 – writing-wise there was no way to know what was in store for me down the road. I’d written two books on families of Alabama football in 1982 and 1992. And I’d penned a couple of the coffee table style Vault books on Alabama football. But I had no idea if there would be other opportunities for writing projects.
How was I supposed to foresee Coach Nick Saban’s monumental success as Alabama’s head football coach, leading me to pen five books (so far) on those national championships? How could I have even dreamed up my assisting Carson Tinker to write what would become a powerful story of tragedy, bravery, discipline, and perseverance?
In early 2010, I was approached by leadership guru Pat Williams through our mutual friend John Merrill to gauge my interest in co-writing with him “Bear Bryant on Leadership.” Pat, co-founder of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, had spoken in Tuscaloosa a couple of times and was intrigued by the Bryant name still being such a huge part of the Tuscaloosa landscape. Pat was about to kick off a series of leadership books on coaches and he wanted Coach Bryant to be his first subject.
After agreeing to help with the project, in June of 2010 I traveled to Orlando, Fla., to spend a few days with Pat brainstorming this book. His well-established “Seven Sides of Leadership” – Vision, Communication Skills, People Skills, Character, Competence, Boldness, and Serving Heart – would be the outline used.
Over the next few months, we interviewed more than 220 people, mostly in four primary categories – those who had played for Coach Bryant, those who had coached under him, those who had coached against him, and the media that had covered his career.
While Pat did most of the interviewing, I did all the writing. In his unique old-school way, he’d fax me his hand-written interviews with notations designating the leadership category into which the quotes fell, e.g., Vision, Character, Serving Heart, etc. It was my job to organize these hundreds of quotes into readable, sensible copy. Chaotic can’t even describe the next few months. (Oh, and job-wise, we were opening the new south end zone expansion, which kept all of us quite busy.)
Fortunately, Pat had used Advantage Media in Charleston, S.C., to publish many of his books, so by mid-November, within two weeks or so of my submitting the final manuscript, the book was out and available in bookstores. Incredibly, “Bear Bryant on Leadership” is still selling a few copies today; sometimes you’ll see it in the sports section of a bookstore and other times in the business/leadership area.
In a future blog, I plan to share some of my favorite stories from the book.
#31 – Tornado to National Title #14
If those words sound familiar, it’s because that’s the name of my book that came out following the Crimson Tide’s 2011 national championship. The story of Tuscaloosa’s April 27, 2011, tornado has been written many times over, and I certainly won’t attempt it here.
During the months following the storm, I saw how hearts were changed, and how hearts were healed. I witnessed the Alabama football team’s spirit, resolve, and dedication to the Tuscaloosa community by going out and winning the 2011 national title. I saw Crimson Tide student-athletes from every sport pitch in all year long with service projects, clothing drives, tutoring sessions for kids, and fundraisers for tornado victims. I attended a workday (led by former head football coach Gene Stallings) at SOMA Church in Holt, where more than 150 A-Club members worked tirelessly to clean up one of the hardest hit areas.
With the help of my friend Thom Rainer, then the CEO and president of LifeWay Christian Resources, I was able to partner with Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker to write his amazing story of faith and perseverance following the tornado and his contributions to Alabama’s 2011 and 2012 national title teams. Carson’s book, “A Season to Remember: Faith in the Midst of the Storm,” was published in April of 2014 by Broadman & Holman Publishing Group.
#32 – Coach Bryant’s iconic 1961 team returns for its 50-year reunion
Of all the things in which I was involved during my 33 years in UA Athletics, planning and overseeing championship team reunions was perhaps my favorite. I love Alabama football history and the former players from these teams are the ones who make up that history.
It’s one thing to read about the Goal Line Stand, but quite different to hear about it from the perspectives of, say, Don McNeal, or Barry Krauss, or Rich Wingo. I’ve watched video of Van Tiffin’s kick to beat Auburn a million times, but to listen to him talk about it takes it to a new level.
Of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s six national titles, the 1961 team – his first championship squad – always held a special spot in his heart. So as the 2011 season approached, I wanted to make this team’s 50-year reunion truly one to remember. (And to be honest I wanted to please and honor my boss Mal Moore, a member of that 1961 team.)
Three weeks prior to the 2011 season starting, we brought these guys in for a celebration, which included a Tide football practice and a nice dinner in the South Zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Stories, some true and others quite embellished, were flying. (We also honored them at the 2011 season opener vs. Kent State.)
For decades, we’ve seen their 1961 color team photo, made in Denny Stadium and with all the players wearing ties, white shirts, red blazers, and dark pants. (There’s also a version of that photo with all of them wearing white socks, but that story is for another day.) Of course, we provided copies of that photo to everyone, but as a bonus I arranged for a “re-creation” of that iconic photo to be made in the same exact spot on the field. And we lined up the guys on the same rows and in the same exact order as they were in the 1961 photo. There were 49 players in the original photo; 31 are in the “re-creation” photo. (You can see both photos on the first page of my September real estate newsletter at www.tommyfordrealestate.com.)
Sadly, within a couple years of the reunion, around 10-12 of these guys had passed away, including Coach Moore.
Last season during the Ole Miss weekend, we celebrated this team’s 60-year reunion. I can’t wait for their 70th!
#33 – The magical run between April 2012 & June 2013: FIVE national championships
Speaking of books, an entire novel could be written about the 14-month stretch when the Crimson Tide won national titles in five sports – Gymnastics, Women’s Golf, Softball, Football, and Men’s Golf. I was blessed to be at two of these championship events – the Alabama-Notre Dame game in Miami Gardens, Fla., in early 2013 and the NCAA Men’s Golf Championships at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course near Atlanta, Ga., in early June of 2013.
Alabama’s 2012 football championship was chronicled in my and Mark Mayfield’s book, “Crimson Domination.”
The women’s gymnastics team defended its national title in April of 2012, while Women’s Golf (in May of 2012) and Softball (in June of 2012) each won their first championships.
Has there ever been a better stretch in Alabama Athletics history? I don’t think so.
#34 – The 1964 team 50-year reunion: A roomful of legends
On national championship football team reunion weekends, we usually host for the team a reception at the Bryant Museum on Friday night, in addition to honoring them on game day. In 2014, during the Alabama-Florida weekend, quite a collection of Alabama legends gathered for the reception, so many so that it was, well, daunting, even intimidating. Coach Howard Schnellenberger. Ray Perkins. Coach Gene Stallings. Joe Namath. And on and on.
As always, Joe stole the show that night. Even his teammates, who played with him for three or four years, gravitated to him like kids meeting a childhood hero for the first time. It was truly a sight to behold.
As always, though, Joe was so accommodating. I’ve been around him many times through the years and he’s simply the best.
#35 – Alabama-Clemson, Part 1: Shootout in the desert & “Crimson Mission”
Fans of Alabama and Clemson have always known of the many ties between the schools’ football programs, even to the point of calling them “cousins.” An exhaustive examination, though, puts the two programs even closer than cousins, perhaps even siblings. (There’s a reason Clemson is sometimes called “The Clemson Tide.”)
Case in point: At least 20 coaches have played and/or coached at both schools, including five Clemson head coaches who played at Alabama.
Clemson head coaches who played for the Tide (and years coached at Clemson): Frank Howard (1940-69), Cecil “Hootie” Ingram (1970-72), Charley Pell (1977-78), Danny Ford (1978-1989), and Dabo Swinney (2008-present). These Alabama-bred coaches’ Clemson teams account for more than half the wins in Clemson football history.
Twelve coaches have served at various times as assistants at both schools, and two others – Jess Neely and Tommy Bowden – were each assistant coaches at Alabama before later becoming head coaches at Clemson.
The connections go on and on and on.
I’ve seen hundreds of Alabama football games in my life, but few rival the 2016 CFP Championship Game between the Tide and Tigers. Alabama’s 45-40 win will forever go down as one of the greatest in CFP history.
Following the season, I once again partnered with Whitman Publishers to write “Crimson Mission,” the start-to-finish story of the 2015 season. I feel it’s one of my best pieces of work, and Alabama staff photographer Kent Gidley’s photos are outstanding.
You can get them at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet for about 5 bucks. 😊
#36 – The 1992 national champions, 25 years later
Of all the national championships won by the Crimson Tide, the 1992 title is my favorite. Through my duties as Athletic Ticket Manager, I got to know all these guys and many of their parents. I’d seen many of them come in as kids in 1988 and 1989 and leave as men following the 1992 season. I’d witnessed Coach Gene Stallings start 0-3 in 1990 but recover to beat Auburn late in the season, Alabama’s first win over the Tigers in four years. I was in that downtrodden post-game locker room at The Swamp after a 35-0 loss early in the 1991 season, then watched with amazement as the Tide didn’t lose over the next 31 games, including the perfect 13-0 record in 1992.
I mentioned earlier in this blog my love for planning reunions for these championship teams. So, in 2017 we went all out to host the 1992 team’s 25-year reunion. For the Alabama-Arkansas game, 108 players, coaches, managers, and trainers from the 1992 squad walked out on the field during pre-game ceremonies to a thunderous ovation from the packed Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd.
Leading the way was the immortal Coach Gene Stallings, who’d suffered a stroke and a heart attack just a couple of weeks earlier. The fact he was there was a testimony to his love for the University of Alabama, and especially for this group of players and coaches.
It was my favorite reunion for my favorite team.
#37 – All I need to say: 2nd & 26
I can’t possibly write any more about Tua-to-DeVonta than has already been written. It’s the greatest play in Alabama football history, bar none. Many great plays have occurred through our rich history, but until Jan. 8, 2018, none have been walk-offs to win a national championship.
But perhaps there is one tidbit from that game that you may not have read about. In my book “Alabama: 2017 National Champions,” we include an Xs & Os diagram of the actual play that won the game. Called “Train Right Off Jill Seattle,” it’s a four-vertical play where three receivers line up to the right and one to the left. On Alabama’s game-winner, Irv Smith (as the tight end), Jerry Jeudy, and Calvin Ridley were to the right, while DeVonta Smith was split left. Running back Damien Harris was the lone back in the slot.
You know the rest. Upon receiving the snap Tua Tagovailoa locked in on Jeudy and Ridley streaking down the right side. In doing so, he baited the Georgia strong safety, who gravitated toward the two receivers.
Then, in a seemingly supernatural way, Tagovailoa sense something so rare for a true freshman quarterback: His weak side receiver, Smith, had a substantial lead on his defender down the left sideline. In a split second, as Tagovailoa’s eyes and arm simultaneously turned left, he let fly the pass heard and seen around the college football world.
I didn’t have to think too long whether that play would make my “Forty Memories” list!
#38 – That’s all, folks
For many years, I would always ask recent retirees, “How do you know when it’s time to retire?” Universally, their answers were the same: “You’ll know.”
On Saturday evening, Oct. 13, 2018, following the Alabama-Missouri homecoming game, I found out. The Good Lord put on my heart the answer to my long-asked question: “It’s time.”
I told my wife Robin, who supported my decision 100 percent, and eight or so months later, on Aug. 1, 2019, I hung it up after almost 38 years at the University. At my retirement gathering, here’s how I summed up my time in UA Athletics.
“As you know, Athletics can be a high-turnover business. Many folks work at multiple schools as they progress up the ladder to better jobs and opportunities. But I always had the feeling that if I couldn’t work for the best – the University of Alabama – then anything else would be a step down.
“So, with that rather narrow-minded philosophy, I’d like to thank Steve Sloan, Hootie Ingram, Glen Tuckett, Bob Bockrath, Mal Moore, Bill Battle, and Greg Byrne for allowing me to stay and have a front-row seat to so many great moments in Alabama Athletics and University of Alabama history.”
#39 – The 2020 team: HISTORY MADE
Despite my retiring, Whitman Publishers still had me on their radar to write a national championship book if the Crimson Tide were to win another one. And fortunately, Greg Byrne and the UA Athletics Department approved my doing so.
No doubt, the 2020 team was loaded with talent. But with COVID-19 bearing down and college football as a whole being on shaky ground, would we even have a season? And if so, would we have enough healthy players to do the job? Would our opponents be as proactive as we were in keeping their players COVID-free?
You know the story. Behind Mac Jones, Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, and a host of other stalwarts, Alabama rolled through an all-SEC schedule undefeated, beat Florida in the SEC Championship game, whipped Notre Dame in the CFP semifinal, and took apart Ohio State in the title game.
Coming out of that historic season was HISTORY MADE, our book on this incredible Tide team. Unfortunately, shipping and supply chain issues prevented the book from being available until early November of 2021, so sales lagged. Without a doubt, it’s my favorite of all the championship books I’ve written.
#40 – There’s a reason we call them “honorary” captains
Right alongside planning and hosting championship reunions, coordinating the Honorary Captains program for the last few years (even after my retirement) has been such a joy. At every home game, we honor a couple of iconic players from the past, and I’ve had the pleasure of helping select the captains, planning their weekend, and, beginning in 2019, escorting them around on game days. The highlight of their day is going out with Alabama’s team captains for the coin toss.
It’s quite an honor for them to serve as honorary captains, and it’s always been the Athletic Department’s pleasure to host them. Honorary captain duties are now in the hands of B.J. Stabler, a former Tide player who took my spot overseeing the A-Club and the Red Elephant Clubs.
So, today, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, will be the first time in 40 years – all the way back to my Alumni Office days – that I won’t have any game day responsibilities.
I can’t wait.
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