Alabama, if you haven’t heard, is supposed to steamroll Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
The Crimson Tide are perceived as bigger, stronger, faster and meaner, unbeaten through 13 games and favored by three scores in some Las Vegas sports books. UW, in some ways, is being treated as if it should simply be happy to have been invited to play in this game. Few expect the Huskies to win.
So would it surprise you to know that Alabama, preparing for a bowl game against Washington some 91 years ago, felt something like how the Huskies feel now?
UW and Alabama do not have an extensive history with one another. The programs have met four times. But each of those matchups was marked by some sort of historical significance. That is especially true of their first-ever meeting, the 1926 Rose Bowl game, which Alabama won, 20-19, in what is now commonly known in Tuscaloosa as “the football game that changed the South.”
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“If you look at the history of Alabama football through the eyes of an Alabama curator, they would say the 1926 Rose Bowl and the 1978 game in Seattle were two of the most important games they ever played,” said David Torrell, curator of the Husky Hall of Fame.
Hard as it might be to believe, there was a time when Southern football programs were deemed inferior to those on the east and west coasts. The Southeastern Conference might be college football’s premier conference now, but when Alabama accepted its invitation to the 1926 Rose Bowl — college football’s only bowl game at that time — it became the first team from the South to ever participate.
As such, public sentiment at that time indicated little belief the Crimson Tide could compete with the Huskies, who carried a 10-0-1 record into the game and were considered heavy favorites. According to a story published by Sports Illustrated in 1964, the Rose Bowl originally invited Dartmouth, which declined due to the length of the coast-to-coast trip; Alabama, according to reports at the time, needed four days to make the journey by train. (Other reports indicate that Princeton, Colgate and Tulane were each considered to varying degrees.)
Coached by Wallace Wade, the Crimson Tide had cruised to a 9-0 record during the 1925 regular season, allowing only seven points all season and piling up 30.8 points per game. Quarterback Pooley Hubert and star running back Johnny Mack Brown, eventual College Football Hall of Fame entrants, led the offense. Brown also went on to star in Western films as an actor. Plus, as Torrell points out, he had a pretty sweet nickname: “the Dothan Antelope,” a nod to his hometown of Dothan, Alabama.
But the Huskies had George “Wildcat” Wilson, himself an All-American halfback, and popular opinion at that time was that UW would roll. Sports Illustrated described the Huskies’ players approaching workouts with a casual attitude, while Wade put his players through far more strenuous preparations. Alabama wanted to win the game for the entire South, still reeling at that time from the Civil War and still looked down upon by the rest of the country.
Wayne Flynt, a Southern historian and Auburn University professor, said in “Roses of Crimson,” a documentary about the 1926 Rose Bowl: “By the time they get there, they are not just the University of Alabama football team. They are the South’s football team. And they’re actually, in my opinion, sort of reliving the sectionalism of 100 years of competition between the North and South.”
When the game began, it seemed as if the Huskies would indeed run away with it. Washington scored a pair of touchdowns in the first half, one in the first quarter and one in the second, to lead 12-0 at halftime.
But Wilson, who rushed for 134 yards on 15 carries and threw two touchdown passes, had to sit for much of the second half due to injury. That was the opening Alabama needed to mount the most important comeback in the history of Southern college football.
Hubert scored on a 1-yard run. Brown caught a 59-yard touchdown pass, then a 30-yard touchdown pass from Hubert to give Alabama a 20-12 lead before the fourth quarter began. And while the Huskies scored in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 20-19, the Crimson Tide held on for the upset.
The train ride back to Tuscaloosa featured mini-parades at each stop, culminating with a celebratory gathering when the team returned to campus. Alabama was retroactively deemed the 1925 national champion by the NCAA, and the Crimson Tide returned to the Rose Bowl the following year.
Their victory over Washington was so significant that it merited inclusion in the lyrics of the school’s fight song, “Yea Alabama,” which features the line: “Fight on, fight on, fight on, men! Remember the Rose Bowl, we’ll win then!”
1978: ANOTHER CLOSE LOSS
Torrell notes that UW’s third game against Alabama, a 20-17 Crimson Tide victory at Husky Stadium in 1978, is also among the most memorable in Huskies history.
UW didn’t win, but could have — Spider Gaines caught two long touchdown passes but dropped another when wide open, and running back Joe Steele fumbled in the fourth quarter — but coming within three points of the Tide, who went on to win the national title that year after defeating Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, still rated as something of an achievement. Alabama, after all, had beaten the Huskies, 52-0, in 1975.
Local author Derek Johnson wrote in his 2007 book, “Husky Football in the Don James Era,” that Alabama coach Bear Bryant told James he had never seen such an impressive three-year turnaround.
1986: SUN BOWL BLOWOUT
The most recent game between the schools came in the 1986 Sun Bowl, another Alabama victory, that one by a score of 28-6 thanks to three touchdowns by Alabama’s Bobby Humphrey.
The Crimson Tide used elite speed to expose the plodding Huskies, which led to coach James changing his recruiting philosophy, pursuing faster players in hopes of competing with programs like Alabama.
Five years later, Washington went 12-0 and won a share of the 1991 national championship.
“They went from the giant, bulky guys to the fast guys, and that kind of resulted in the national championship, in part because of Alabama beating them,” Torrell said.
The programs will meet again Dec. 31 for the first time in 30 years, a spot in the national championship game on the line.
And no, a UW victory won’t mean nearly as much as Alabama’s win in the 1926 Rose Bowl. Civic and cultural pride are not at stake. This is about football and little else.
But the Peach Bowl is still about Washington trying to prove it belongs among college football’s elite, and Alabama trying to maintain its status as the nation’s most fearsome juggernaut.
Funny what can change in 91 years, isn’t it?