Two blogs in, and I’ve only covered 11 “memories” over a five-year span (1982-1986).
I guess I’d better get movin’, so here goes.
#12 – From the Alumni Office to the Athletic Department
In my case, change was good, altering my life in ways of which I could’ve only dreamed.
In a rather bizarre chain of events in late 1986, Coach Ray Perkins’ abrupt departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put into motion multiple moves by Alabama assistant coaches and staff members.
However, it was a simultaneous move – Coach Perkins’ exit as Athletic Director – that set the wheels in motion for my transition from the Alumni Office to the Athletic Department. On Jan. 4, 1987, the same day that Coach Bill Curry was hired as the Tide’s new head football coach, former Alabama All-American quarterback Steve Sloan was brought in as our new Athletic Director.
A childhood hero of mine, Coach Sloan helped lead the Tide to the 1964 and 1965 national championships. During his playing days, for this 10-year-old Bama fan I ranked him right up there with all the Alabama greats. I even had (and still have) a copy of his book, “Calling Life’s Signals,” that he wrote shortly after finishing Alabama.
So, when it was announced that Coach Sloan would be the Tide’s new Athletic Director, I was just hoping that my Alumni Office job would give me an opportunity to be around him occasionally. Little did I know that four or so months later, he’d be my boss.
Coach Sloan’s right-hand man in Alabama Athletics was Tommy Limbaugh, a former Crimson Tide baseball player. The pair had been great friends since college, especially through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Tommy had been an assistant coach on Coach Sloan’s staffs since the mid-1970s. So, when “Mama” called Coach Sloan to come back to Tuscaloosa, Tommy joined him as Assistant Athletic Director.
I was able to be around Coach Sloan and Tommy a few times at the Alumni Association’s “Crimson Pride” rallies in March and April, when Coach Curry traveled around the state to meet the fans. (That’s when we carried with us the huge “Crimson Pride” neon sign that had been unveiled the previous November at the “World’s Largest Pep Rally and Chapter Meeting” in Birmingham.)
In March, I caught wind of an Assistant Ticket Manager job coming open in the Ticket Office. I applied, interviewed with Tommy Limbaugh and Coach Sloan, got the job, and began my duties on May 1, 1987. I had to pinch myself, because back in the early- and mid-1960s, my dream was just to go to college at Alabama, and I ended up doing that. Now, 20 years later, I was working for the Alabama Athletic Department. Embarking on this new journey changed my life.
When I began the job, the first thing Tommy told me was, “We have four months to create this new football ticket priority program. It’ll launch this fall (1987) for the 1988 football season. Let’s get to work.”
#13 – TIDE PRIDE kicks off in September 1987 for the 1988 football season
With marching orders in hand, the Ticket Office staff had a monumental assignment ahead. We had to start a new football ticket priority program from scratch, one that would end up being a bit controversial, yet one that would provide much-needed revenue for the Athletic Department. And, it would provide fairness and a cut-and-dried plan to obtain Alabama football season tickets. Plus, we had to prepare as usual for the football and basketball seasons.
In my June, July, and August blogs in summer 2021, I penned a very detailed history of TIDE PRIDE, titled “From P.O.T.T. to TIDE PRIDE.” You can read them here:
Folks ask me when I became white-headed, and I’m pretty sure it began in 1987 and 1988, when TIDE PRIDE was created and implemented. Our staff put endless hours into a plan that was fair and equitable to everyone. Our “faithful, loyal, firm, and true” Bama fans responded, and for the past 34 years have made TIDE PRIDE the most successful football ticket priority program in college football. I was honored to be a small part of its beginning.
In a little less than a year after joining the Ticket Office staff, I was promoted to Athletic Ticket Manager. I’ll forever be grateful to Coach Sloan and Tommy Limbaugh for their confidence in me.
#14 – Sun Bowl, 1988
I can’t let this one slide, because it’s a memory I still kid Tommy Bowden about.
Following a roller coaster 1988 season that included a bizarre cancellation of a road game at Texas A&M due to the threat of Hurricane Gilbert (the weather was sunny and breezy at game time) and the game’s subsequent rescheduling for a Thursday night in early December (a game in which Derrick Thomas recorded five sacks and a recovered fumble in the Tide’s 30-10 win) and a shocking 22-12 homecoming loss to Ole Miss when Alabama didn’t complete a pass (and after which a brick sailed through Coach Bill Curry’s office window), Alabama accepted its third bowl invitation of the 1980s to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Previous trips there in 1983 and 1986 had resulted in big wins for the Tide.
In a Christmas Eve day shootout against Army, Alabama quarterback David Smith – who we now see on Saturdays as an SEC official – completed 33 passes (a school record until Mac Jones threw 36 in the 2021 CFP National Championship Game) of 52 attempts for 412 yards. Definitely a great end to a 9-3 season.
OK, back to Tommy Bowden, who was our wide receivers coach on the 1988 team. El Paso is known for its superb steakhouses, and there’s nothing I like more than a great steak. I’d heard about one called the Great American Land and Cattle Company, and was really looking forward to dining there. For days leading up to the trip, Tommy kept telling me that we’d have to visit one of these fine establishments. I was all in.
So, one night Tommy, his wife Linda, kids Ryan and Lauren, and I hopped into his courtesy car and headed to eat what I was certain would be a steak to remember. And I was 100 percent correct – it was a steak to remember.
Our destination? A Western Sizzlin’ Steakhouse. Featuring a buffet, no less. At least the yeast rolls were tasty.
Thanks, Tommy, for the memory. Thirty-three years later, you still owe me one.
#15 – The wild and wacky 1989 season
For me, the 1989 season was similar to the 1983 season (as described in my previous blog), especially regarding its subplots, side stories, and surprises.
Take, for instance:
- In mid-August, citing a “difference of opinion about the management of the program,” my childhood hero and boss, Steve Sloan, was relieved of his duties by new University of Alabama president Dr. Roger Sayers. Within a few weeks, Coach Cecil “Hootie” Ingram, an Alabama player in the early 1950s and then Athletic Director at Florida State, was named the Tide’s new Athletic Director. Also related just a few weeks later was the departure of Tommy Limbaugh. I was saddened to see Coach Sloan and Tommy leave, and I thank them today for launching my career in athletic administration.
- After a relatively easy win over Memphis State, the Tide football squad lost its starting quarterback Jeff Dunn in a tough win over Kentucky. The struggles continued the next week with backup quarterback Gary Hollingsworth in a narrow victory over Vanderbilt. The woes continued the following week in Jackson versus Ole Miss as Alabama fell behind the Rebels, 21-0, midway through the first quarter. I remember being in a concessions line and overhearing a couple of Bama fans calling for the immediate firing of Bill Curry. Then it happened: SIXTY-TWO UNANSWERED POINTS by the Crimson Tide, on its way to a 62-27 win. I’d never seen anything like it in my life, and probably won’t ever again. Gary Hollingsworth, who’d struggled in the previous week’s game, became a star that day on his way to All-SEC honors by the end of the season.
- Our trip to State College, Pa., was my fourth time to visit Beaver Stadium. We had won in 1981 and 1987, while losing in 1983 and 1985. I have two distinct memories from that game: First, in the final seconds, after Thomas Rayam’s big paw dashed all Nittany Lion hopes of making the winning field goal, one of our prominent VIP donors who’d joined us on the trip and was watching from the sidelines literally danced out onto the field in excitement. (Well, I guess we probably all did.) He had to be restrained by our coaches! And second, a close friend of mine (whose name won’t be mentioned to protect the guilty) and his wife left the game during Penn State’s last drive. They just couldn’t stomach watching the Nittany Lions win in the last few seconds. He and I still talk about their “unbelief” to this day.
- Must I bring up our trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time in history? Well, it is a memory, although for me, not a good one. Time and space prevent sharing all my thoughts, but I will go on record by saying that Auburn had every right to bring the game to the Plains. Coach Sloan unfairly took the hit for allowing the move (especially after Coach Perkins said he would never take an Alabama team to Auburn), although it was totally Auburn’s call. Not many folks realized it at the time, but from an Alabama standpoint, the implementation and success of the new TIDE PRIDE program hinged upon having a true home-and-home series with Auburn, not a 50-50 split of the tickets in Legion Field. Emotions aside, it was the best move for both schools.
- Despite the loss to Auburn, our fan base was starved for a return trip to the Sugar Bowl. Ticket demand for our game against Miami was unprecedented, so much so that hundreds of our TIDE PRIDE members’ ticket orders had to be refunded. (We quickly learned that for future bowl games, we would need to provide further disclaimers about most of our patrons not being guaranteed bowl tickets.) Believe me, we heard about it. And speaking of tickets, rather than the Sugar Bowl shipping our allotment to us, we arranged a clandestine meeting in, of all places, Hattiesburg, Miss. So, I hopped in a state car, drove down I-59 to Hattiesburg, met the Sugar Bowl ticket manager, made the pickup, and returned to Tuscaloosa with, I think, around 20,000 Alabama-Miami Sugar Bowl tickets in my trunk. About 30 minutes away from Tuscaloosa, I stopped to call the University Police Department and asked them to have a couple officers meet me in the front of Coleman Coliseum. Within just a few minutes after I arrived, we had the tickets safely tucked into our vault. My final memory from the trip, other than Miami’s 33-25 victory, is playing in the annual Sugar Bowl golf tournament. A few weeks earlier, I had indicated to Sugar Bowl president Larry Ditoro, an Alabama alumnus, that I’d like to play. So, I arrived at English Turn Golf & Country Club and was shocked to see who my playing partners were – Archie Manning, Frank Broyles, and Keith Jackson. Whoa, Nellie! I was so pumped to play with three such legends. About three or four holes into the round, a thunderstorm like no other rolled in and ended up cancelling the event. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the hole where they were taking group photos, so I have no proof whatsoever of my playing with them. Other than, of course, from Archie Manning, who still admits that he owes me for a rain jacket that I let him borrow. Photo or not, it’s a life memory for me.
#16 – Bill Curry out; Gene Stallings in
While in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, I recall having breakfast one morning at the team hotel with a few of my Athletic Department co-workers. Rumors had begun to swirl about Coach Curry possibly wanting out of his contract, and naturally our topic of discussion was If he were to leave, who would we hire? (For Alabama fans across the spectrum – all the way back to December of 1957 – that’s always been the supreme question.) Would our Athletic Director Hootie Ingram be successful in luring Bobby Bowden away from Florida State? What about a former Coach Bryant players Danny Ford (at Alabama), Richard Williamson (at Alabama), Howard Schnellenberger (at Kentucky), or Gene Stallings (at Texas A&M)?
Within a day or two following Alabama’s 33-25 loss to the Hurricanes, Coach Curry – despite having been offered a three-year extension to his Alabama contract – traveled to Lexington, Ky., for an interview with Kentucky Athletic Director (and former Alabama head basketball coach) C.M. Newton. In just a few days, on Sunday, Jan. 7, 1990, Coach Curry announced his departure for the University of Kentucky.
Coach Curry’s time at Alabama had been quite a roller coaster ride. Some of his problems were self-inflicted (staffing issues, player discipline), while at the same time he caught undeserved flak for things beyond his control. Yes, he was 0-3 against Auburn, but two of those three losses were to Tiger teams at the height of the Pat Dye era that were, quite simply, better than us. I do believe Alabama had the better squad in 1989 but having to play in Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time was just too much to overcome. He was, though, 3-0 against Tennessee and 3-0 against Penn State, and his recruiting classes in 1988 and 1989 became the foundation of the Tide’s 1992 national championship team.
Three or so days after Coach Curry’s departure to Lexington, all signs pointed toward Richard Williamson, who was then an assistant for Coach Perkins at Tampa Bay, being named the Crimson Tide’s new head coach. On Thursday, Jan. 11, in a packed media room in the Alabama Football Facility, UA President Roger Sayers and Athletic Director Hootie Ingram announced that Gene Stallings (and not Richard Williamson) would take over the reins of the Alabama football program.
I guess the oddsmakers would’ve considered this hire an “upset.” Three seasons later, though, “upset” was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
#17 – Wimp Sanderson’s “Plaid & Parquet” rules the SEC
Ranking right up there with my involvement in the startup of TIDE PRIDE in 1987 and 1988 and the thrills of being “inside the ropes” for the Tide’s 1992 national championship season are my days working with Alabama head basketball coach Wimp Sanderson in his unprecedented run during the 1988-89 to 1991-92 basketball seasons.
I’ll have to hand it to Tommy Limbaugh in helping make Coach Sanderson the fan darling that he became. Sure, everyone knew that Wimp’s trademark was his plaid coats and famous scowl. But could we market that? Sure, we could.
So, prior to the 1987-88 season a parquet floor was installed in Coleman Coliseum and the following year the “Plaid & Parquet” campaign was launched with “Wimp-alike” and “Wear Your Plaid” nights. The 1988-89 season closed out with an unprecedented six straight sellouts. No question, Coleman Coliseum – also known as the “Plaid Palace” – was the place to be when Wimp prowled the sidelines.
In somewhat of a reciprocal way, Wimp and his Alabama basketball program –paced by the likes of Michael Ansley, Keith Askins, David Benoit, Melvin Cheatum, Robert Horry, Gary Waites, James “Hollywood” Robinson, Latrell Sprewell, Jason Caffey, Roy Rogers, and others – responded with an amazing four-season run:
1988-89 – 23-8 (12-6 SEC), SEC Tournament Champions, NCAA
1989-90 – 26-9 (12-6 SEC), SEC Tournament Champions, NCAA Sweet 16
1990-91 – 23-10 (12-6 SEC), SEC Tournament Champions, NCAA Sweet 16
1991-92 – 26-9 (10-6 SEC), SEC Tournament Runner-up, NCAA Sweet 16
I’ve been attending Alabama basketball games for almost 50 years, and in terms of fan engagement and student participation, that four-season stretch is still the most electric I’ve ever seen.
#18 – Tide wins 1991 NCAA Gymnastics Championships in T-Town
Alongside the success of Wimp Sanderson’s run in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the Alabama gymnastics program’s ascension as one of the nation’s finest. Led by coaches Sarah and David Patterson, the Tide captured its first national championship in 1988. Three years later in 1991, in the friendly confines of Coleman Coliseum, Alabama won its second title.
As the host school in 1991, our ticket office was responsible for the distribution of all tickets, which may seem like a simple job. But dealing with 12 different schools’ fans (including four other SEC schools), as well as all the Alabama season ticket holders wanting the same seat locations they had throughout the season was, to say the least, challenging. And then there were the NCAA folks there, making sure that everything was done according to the championship manual.
But all went well, and the Tide came out victorious. As we know, there’s nothing quite like seeing Alabama win a national championship in anything, and witnessing it in front of a rabid Coleman Coliseum crowd made it just that more special. (Who would’ve guessed that one of our gymnasts that year, sophomore Dana Dobransky, would 23 years later replace her mentor Sarah Patterson as head coach?)
#19 – Bama brings home the 1992 National Championship
It was just a simple, friendly bet. Actually, more of a promise.
In the early 1990s, folks around the Alabama football weight room used to marvel watching assistant coaches Jeff Rouzie and Mike DuBose duel it out on the StairMaster. I mean, they’d go at a breakneck pace and seemingly never tire.
In the summer of 1992, back in my days of healthy knees, I was on a StairMaster next to Jeff (going about half his speed) and casually mentioned that if Alabama won the national championship in the upcoming season, I’d get a crewcut like his. Well, it was more than a casual mention; it was a downright promise.
Speed ahead five months to mid-January of 1993, and there I am, sitting in the barber chair of Joel Williams (who, interestingly, was Coach Bryant’s barber) getting the most satisfying haircut of my life. My hair hadn’t been cut that short since the first grade.
Memories of that magical undefeated 1992 campaign often flood my mind. A defense like no other. A ground-oriented offense that simply did what it had to do to win every game. Gutting out relatively close games against Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech (thank you, David Palmer), Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Auburn (0-0 at the half; thank you, Antonio Langham). The heart-stopping SEC Championship Game (again, thank you Antonio Langham). And finally, revenge against what many believed was the greatest of great Miami teams.
No question, Alabama got a break when the SEC put its first-ever championship game in our second home stadium, Legion Field. Oddly, tickets were quite plentiful for that contest, and the Ticket Office did a great job in getting out the tickets in time for the game.
Ticket demand for the Sugar Bowl game against Miami, though, was another story. (And we just thought the Sugar Bowl three years earlier had been a hot ticket.) With unprecedented demand, other than during the frantic days of starting TIDE PRIDE from scratch, I’d never been prouder of the Ticket Office staff than during the weeks leading up to the game.
In closing, there’s one lasting memory from the post-game locker room celebration that I want to share. Following the Lord’s Prayer, a word of congratulations from Coach Stallings, and the donning of the national champions T-shirts, I wandered over to see defensive back Willie Gaston stretched out on a training table getting an IV. Up walked his position coach, Bill “Brother” Oliver – the mastermind behind the Tide’s defensive performance against the Hurricanes – and with a huge grin he said, “Willie, we did it.”
I felt exactly the same way. We did do it. The players. The coaches. The support staff. The athletic administrators. The Ticket Office and TIDE PRIDE staffs. The student managers and trainers. The field maintenance crew. The administrative assistants and secretaries. The academic staff and counselors. The Bryant Hall workers and dining hall staff. The media relations folks. The athletic business office. The equipment staff. The strength coaches. The marketing office.
And, especially, the Alabama fans.
No question, the 1992 natty was truly a team effort.
© 2022 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved
(Next month: Part Four of “Forty Years, Forty Memories”)