In Part One of my “Forty Years, Forty Memories” blog, which is available on my www.tommyfordrealestate.com website, I took a journey through 1982, which was my first year working for UA’s National Alumni Association.
I reminisced about hauling the 16-millimeter “Nothin’ But A Winner” film around to alumni chapter meetings, traveling with Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to “Benny Perrin Day” in Decatur, the popular Bama Blasts during homecoming weekends, writing my first book about different families of Alabama football, Coach Bryant’s retirement, and my trip with Coach Wimp Sanderson and the basketball team to the UCLA game in Los Angeles.
Today I continue those memories, starting with a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., in June of 1983 for the re-organization meeting of the Jacksonville alumni chapter. The speaker? New Alabama head football coach and athletic director Ray Perkins.
#7 – Dinner with Robert & Dixie Fraley
Not long after Coach Ray Perkins was hired in late 1982, we reached out to gauge his availability to speak to a few of our alumni chapters. His answer, understandably, was short and swift: Only after Signing Day and spring practice would he be able to hit the road with us. And his decision, especially regarding Signing Day, proved fruitful as he hauled in one of the finest classes in Alabama history. Signees included future three-time All-American Cornelius Bennett and eventual All-SEC performers Curt Jarvis, Wayne Davis, Randy Rockwell, and Mike Shula. Others inking with the Tide in early 1983 included Larry Abney, Jeff Bentley, Phillip Brown, Thornton Chandler, Britton Cooper, Craig Epps, Andrew Gilder, Kerry Goode, Marvin Humphries, Lydell Mitchell, Greg Richardson, Carlos Robinson, Angelo Stafford, and Ricky Thomas.
Once spring practice was over, Coach Perkins hit the trail over the ensuing few weeks, speaking to several alumni chapters, including those in Montgomery, Geneva, Tuscaloosa, Jacksonville, Dothan, Atlanta, and Gadsden.
As alumni field representative I attended most of those meetings, but the one that stood out the most was my trip to Jacksonville, where I had the chance to dine with Robert and Dixie Fraley the previous evening. I had never met Robert until then, but I was certainly aware of his playing days for Alabama in the mid-1970s. I knew that he was a successful sports agent, and that Coach Perkins was one of his clients. As I discovered that night, Robert’s wife Dixie (whose maiden name is Johnston of Auburn’s Johnston & Malone Bookstore fame) and my fiancé (now wife) Robin had both been Alpha Gams at Auburn, although several years apart. It didn’t take me long to realize that Robert would one day become a superstar in the sports agency business. And that’s certainly what happened.
Less than four years later, as head coach Bill Curry’s agent, Robert was a frequent visitor to the Athletics Department, coming often to meet with Associate Athletics Director Tommy Limbaugh, who handled all the coaches’ contracts.
Sadly, in 1999 Robert, PGA golfer Payne Stewart, agent Van Ardan, and two pilots died in a plane crash. It was a sad day for all.
#8 – The 1983 season: Wacky weather and intriguing story lines
Despite the Tide’s average (by Alabama standards) 8-4 record, the 1983 football season will always be one of my most memorable. Here’s why.
- For the first time since 1958, Coach Bryant – the winningest coach in college football history – was not roaming the Crimson Tide sidelines. The program was now in Ray Perkins’ hands.
- In near 100-degree temperatures, Alabama opened the season in Legion Field against Georgia Tech with a hard-fought 20-7 victory. The stands had plenty of action as well; fans were dropping left and right due to heat exhaustion. I remember the Birmingham EMTs announcing after the game that it was their busiest football game ever.
- In College Station, Pa., Penn State – leading 34-7 going into the final stanza – held off a furious Tide rally to win, 34-28. The final seconds were not without controversy, however, as the field judge ruled that Tide tight end Preston Gothard did not have full possession of Walter Lewis’ fourth-down pass, despite television replays proving otherwise. Fortunately for the Tide, the Nittany Lions were offside, giving the offense one more crack. With one second remaining, Tide freshman tailback Kerry Goode took a pitch to the right and, despite a valiant effort, was stopped short at the 2-yard line. In defeat, though, a star was born.
- Against Boston College and Doug Flutie in Foxboro, Mass., cold winds, sleet, hail, and temperatures in the 20s contributed to the Tide’s 20-13 loss. (More on this game below.)
- In the annual Iron Bowl, despite torrential downpours and a tornado warning in the fourth quarter, not one fan left their seat in Auburn’s 23-20 victory.
- In what was expected to be a Christmas Eve day Sun Bowl game played in mild mid-50s temperatures, Old Man Winter made a surprise appearance, sending bone-chilling 20s temps and brisk 30-mph winds to the El Paso, Texas, area. Despite the bitter conditions, Alabama coasted to a 28-7 win over the Mustangs. The cold weather wasn’t confined to El Paso; temperatures in the low single digits welcomed us back to Tuscaloosa late that night.
I’d like to revisit my excursion to Boston, one of my most memorable road trips during my entire time at the University. In our traveling party were alumni president Fred Sington Jr. and director of alumni affairs Robert H. Kirksey and his wife Millie. Due to the game being on the Friday after Thanksgiving, we arrived in Boston on Wednesday. No question, there was just something special about being in Boston during Thanksgiving.
We did some sightseeing on Thanksgiving Day, but my favorite memory is attending a dinner that night hosted by CBS Sports. The name of the venue escapes me, but I distinctly remember it being in an antebellum style old home. There I met CBS’s Brent Musburger, who was about as personable a celebrity as I’d ever been around.
We awoke on game day to bitter cold, gusting winds, and sleet. For the first time as an Alabama fan, I was dreading sitting in that weather to watch my Tide. Then, as I was about to go into the stadium, I ran into Doug Segrest, Crimson White sports editor (the same position I’d held six years earlier).
“Hey Tommy,” he said. “You want a press pass for the game?”
Manna from heaven had never tasted better. “Are you kidding?” I replied.
“They gave The Crimson White two passes, and I’m the only one here,” Doug explained. “You can have this one.”
So, while my traveling companions – along with several thousand Alabama fans who’d made the trip – were suffering through perhaps the worst weather ever for an Alabama football game, I was enjoying clam chowder in a warm press box. (After the game, when I returned to our bus dry as a bone, let’s just say that if looks could kill …)
Despite the horrific game conditions, it was ultimately four lost fumbles – including two in the fourth quarter that led to two Boston College scores – that doomed the Tide in the 20-13 loss.
Oddly enough, Alabama almost won the game without ever having to play the final quarter. While both teams were thawing out in their respective locker rooms at halftime, a nearby transformer blew, blacking out the entire town of Foxboro, including Sullivan Stadium. The second half started on time, but with no power to light the stadium, the game officials were prepared to call the game if it became too dark to play.
Approximately 15 minutes before the game would have been stopped, the 43-minute power outage ended. If the power had not been restored and the game had ended at the pre-determined point, the Tide would have jetted back to Tuscaloosa with a 13-6 victory under its belt. Instead, the power – and with it Boston College – came alive.
#9 – “Travelin’ With the Tide” is launched
After I’d served two years (1982 & 1983) burning up the highways in alumni chapter development, Mr. Kirksey reorganized the Alumni Office staff in early 1984 and created a new position for me – “Assistant to the Director.” I won’t bore you with the full job description, but I would like to mention one assignment: He wanted me to create an athletic travel program for our alumni.
During the 1983 season, we had loosely partnered with Collegiate Athletic Tours of State College, Pa., to offer an alumni travel package to the Penn State game, and that trip had proven to be very popular. So, shortly following the season, in a new partnership with All Seasons Travel in Birmingham, we began working on a football travel program for the 1984 season.
The program needed a catchy name, and I recall it not taking long to come up with the name “Travelin’ With the Tide.” We launched the program in 1984 with trips to the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta, the Tennessee game in Knoxville, the Mississippi State game in Jackson, and the Cincinnati game in Cincinnati. (We would’ve customarily offered a bowl game travel package that season, but the final 5-6 record kept the Tide home for the holidays.)
Almost 40 years later, partnering at different times with Collegiate Athletic Tours, All Seasons Travel, and Total Sports/Fairwinds Travel, “Travelin’ With the Tide” is still going strong.
#10 – A Week in the Big Apple for the 1986 “Kickoff Classic” vs. Ohio State
With responsibility comes, well, perks. And one of my most memorable while working in the Alumni Office was spending an entire week in New York City for the Crimson Tide’s game vs. Ohio State in the 1986 Kickoff Classic.
Working with Grantland Rice and his staff at All Seasons Travel in Birmingham, we hosted hundreds of Alabama fans that week through our “Travelin’ With the Tide” program. Memories from that week are plentiful.
- Spending some time in Grantland’s penthouse suite on the top floor of the New York Hilton, where the New York City skyline could be seen in all four directions. (From that point on, I coined a new nickname for Grantland: “Mr. Big.”)
- Going to a Yankees game in the original Yankee Stadium. (From the moment I sat down in my seat, I realized why Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had been campaigning for a new stadium.)
- Growing a friendship with Frank Nix, our alumni president that year, and his sweet family – Marjorie Kay, Melissa, Melody, and Chris. Melissa and Melody were teenagers at the time, and Chris was just a little kid. Today, more than 35 years later, probably not a week goes by that I don’t hear from or talk to one of them or their family members. Tragically, Frank, with whom I thoroughly enjoyed working, was killed in a December 1996 plane crash. Every time I see Marjorie Kay or any of the family, I think of Frank.
- Attending an alumni luncheon on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center. Little did we know that almost 15 years later…
For the Alabama squad, fall practice leading up to the Ohio State game had been an emotional roller coaster ride. Earlier in the spring, Tide running back George Scruggs had been killed in an automobile accident in Huntsville. In the same accident, cornerback Vernon Wilkinson sustained career-ending injuries.
Then, on August 18, just a week or so before the team journeyed to New York, sophomore defensive line starter Willie Ryles collapsed during half-speed drills. He underwent surgery that night for a blood clot on his brain, but never regained consciousness. Five days later, Ryles passed away.
Wearing black decals on their helmets in memory of Scruggs and Ryles, the Tide squad overcame four turnovers, a 10-6 fourth quarter deficit, and two pass interference calls in the closing seconds to nip the Buckeyes, 16-10.
From that point, the Tide would win six straight (including its first ever victory over Notre Dame) before losing to eventual national champ Penn State, 23-3, in Tuscaloosa. The 10-3 season ended with a 28-6 win over Washington in the Sun Bowl in the school’s only Christmas Day bowl appearance.
#11 – Joe Namath and Sela Ward host the “World’s Largest Pep Rally and Chapter Meeting”
It was more than just a pep rally, where a few hundred Bama fans might usually gather to cheer on their team.
It was more than just watching the Alabama cheerleaders and Big Al crank up the fans’ emotions on the night before a big game.
It was more than listening to the Million Dollar Band play “Yea, Alabama,” stirring emotions from Tide fans of all ages.
Borrowing the current phrase “It Just Means More” from the Southeastern Conference, this pep rally most assuredly was more.
I mean, what else could attract Joe Namath, Sela Ward, Walter Lewis, John Hannah, Bart Starr, Richard Todd, Scott Hunter, Major Ogilvie, Billy Neighbors, Alabama head football coach Ray Perkins, and University of Alabama president Joab Thomas to the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham on the night before the Iron Bowl?
The “World’s Largest Pep Rally and Chapter Meeting,” that’s what.
The genesis of this unique event began in the summer of 1986 over lunch at Tuscaloosa’s Horne’s Barbecue. Thinking out of the box on how to make a splash with the annual Iron Bowl pep rally, Mike Ellis, director of University Relations, and Tom Stipe, director of University Relations’ broadcast services, came up with the outlandish idea of broadcasting the event worldwide. Using, of course, “satellite technology,” which back then was more associated with the Star Wars movies than an Alabama pep rally.
Following some brainstorming, Mike and Tom approached Harry Knopke, who’d been named interim alumni director following Mr. Kirksey’s retirement, and told him of their idea. Having already announced a National Alumni Association membership drive, Harry jumped on the opportunity, along with alumni president Frank Nix and incoming alumni director Don Hays.
In my position as Assistant to the Director, I served as the primary point of contact for the Alumni Association. With little time to put it together, we hit the ground running.
As the show’s executive producers, Mike and Tom handled the technical part, i.e., satellite links, equipment, production, and soliciting television stations around the state to broadcast the event. WVTM-13 in Birmingham served as the flagship station for the broadcast and loaned out Steve Phillips and Tom Roberts to assist with the production.
Our chapter development team worked to ensure that every alumni chapter across the nation would hold a gathering that night to watch the live broadcast. I helped with the logistics of the event, primarily publicity, ticket sales, facility securement, and celebrity acquisitions.
After months of preparation, it was showtime. On Nov. 28, 1986 – the night before the annual Iron Bowl – hundreds of fans packed the Wynfrey Hotel ballroom. With a huge “Crimson Pride” neon sign (which we would take around the state in 1987 to various “Crimson Pride” rallies) as a backdrop, emcee Tony Giles introduced the many celebrities present, as well as video messages from Alabama alums Douglas Edwards of CBS News, John Cochran of NBC News, Dr. Pepper CEO Foots Clements, Texaco CEO John McKinley, and Tide football legends Kenny Stabler, Lee Roy Jordan, Dwight Stephenson, Bob Baumhower, Tony Nathan, and Don McNeal. The Million Dollar Band, the Crimsonettes, the Alabama cheerleaders, and Big Al kept the crowd fired up all evening.
The real stars of the show, though, were Alabama and NFL icon Joe Namath and actress and former Tide cheerleader Sela Ward. Throughout the hour-long show, they threw out one-liners and quips, all with one goal in mind: Support the National Alumni Association. “Broadway Joe” gave a passionate message about “Crimson Pride” and the importance of joining the Association.
And join it people did. With a crew of Alumni Office volunteers staffing the phones back in Tuscaloosa, some 1,800 new members signed up. The event, beamed not only to several other television stations in the state but to many alumni chapters all over the country, was considered a smashing success.
The “World’s Largest Pep Rally and Chapter Meeting” was a once in a lifetime event, and I was honored to have had such a small part in it.
Just a few months later, not long after the hiring of new head football coach Bill Curry and Athletic Director Steve Sloan, I made the transition over to the Athletic Ticket Office.
Little did I know at the time, but my world was about to change.
© 2022 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved
(Next month: Part Three of “40 Years, 40 Memories”)