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“When I think about a home field, I don’t think about the structure, the concrete and steel, even though they create. There are places where you can feel that. We have a great stadium, but the greatest thing about

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I have coached in some impressive stadiums. To me, a home field is about the people—the atmosphere it is that atmosphere.”

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t would be possible to describe the University of Alabama “game day experience” in raw numbers. You can quantify the number of Crimson Tide fans who sit in the stands—more than 90,000 on seven or eight Saturdays in the fall. At some of those games, there are thousands more outside the stadium as well, immersing themselves in the moment even if they can’t get through the gates. There are totals for the number of hot dogs consumed, or soft drinks purchased, or the number of times the fans sing along with “Sweet Home Alabama” or break into a joyful rendition of the Rammer Jammer. Most importantly, perhaps, you can look at a scoreboard for the day’s outcome, or in a history book for the record number of Alabama victories. All those things are concrete, quantifiable, trackable. But as Nick Saban observed, it’s not just about the things that are concrete. At Alabama, it’s about an atmosphere. An atmosphere isn’t inert. It’s a living thing, a system made up of various elements. Some of those elements were already in place before the Tide became big; in the case of Alabama football, let’s call that “tradition.” But on any given Saturday in autumn, each person—coach, player, fan—contributes their own element to that atmosphere. It’s a cliché, really: “He just lives and breathes Alabama football,” you’ll hear someone say in describing a devout fan. On gridiron Saturdays, though, that is exactly what is happening. The atmosphere, indeed, the sacredness of college football, envelops and draws in the Alabama fan, not just when he or she enters the stadium but even as they cross the state line and approach the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Here the players on the field don’t perform in a vacuum. They are part of a mutual covenant of loyalty and love for the game and this school—linked to the fans in the stands that day, and to the echoes of their forebears that still reverberate from the past. When college football is at its best, it’s hard to separate the emotions on the field from the emotions in the stands and on campus. And for 100 years now, Alabama has represented college football at its best.

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hat happens on the grounds of this southern football shrine each fall is not always something that is easy for someone who comes from outside the state of Alabama to understand. For it goes far beyond a game. Sure, a visitor can walk the campus. He or she can socialize at the tailgate parties, and cheer wildly in the stands, and celebrate when it’s over. But it takes time to understand exactly what Alabama football means in the social context of the state. To those who do not comprehend its essence, Alabama football is just a big event—a great, fun event to be sure, but “just” an event.           But for the faithful, it’s more than that.


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In this state, college football—Alabama football in particular—is a crucial bridge across the boundaries imposed by culture and time. Crimson Tide football is to Alabama what the Kentucky Derby is to Louisville, or what Broadway is to New York City. In the narrowest and simplest sense, it’s a performance—horses running a race, actors performing a play, crimson-clad college students playing a game. But the meaning runs far deeper than meets the eye.

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Not every single football fan in the state of Alabama is a Crimson Tide fan. Not every single person in the state is a college football fan. But their lives are touched by what transpires in Tuscaloosa, in ways they may not even realize. It doesn’t even have to be football season for it to happen. The rhythm of an Alabama year can be measured as follows: anticipation of the upcoming football season, the season itself, and discussion of the just-concluded season, which gradually and naturally flows into anticipation once again. That rhythm resounds all over the state, from the boardrooms in the Birmingham skyline to the narrow valleys in the north of the state, from the still waters of the Mobile Delta bayous and back to Tuscaloosa, the center of it all. Families plan vacations around the football schedule. Brides make sure their wedding date doesn’t conflict with the Alabama-Tennessee game.

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In order to fully grasp the extent to which Crimson Tide football permeates the consciousness of the state—and thus to understand the atmosphere that exists on game day—it takes a historical perspective. It requires going back beyond the living memory of all but a few Alabamians, beyond the glory days of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (although his achievements, clearly, are a large part of the story). Some might argue that it goes back to a time before there even was college football . . . to a time when the nation was torn apart by war and the campus on which Bryant-Denny Stadium stands was, for the most part, put to the torch and burned to the ground.

f the Civil War seems a bit weighty for an essay about crisp football afternoons in the Alabama autumn, consider the aftermath. For at least two generations, the state—and its University—struggled to recuperate, to undergo the slow psychic healing it needed. Times were difficult. Memories were painful. In many ways, by the kind of concrete measurements discussed earlier, the South was considered backwards and vanquished. The citizens of Alabama remained proud, but the perception of defeat was difficult to overcome as the years rolled past. With that in mind, try to imagine a different game day in a different world. The date was November 4, 1922. The place was Philadelphia. The game was college football, still young—but not a novelty on campuses anymore. The players for the Alabama Crimson Tide probably didn’t remember everything that had happened in the past, but their fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers certainly did. Imagine hearing and reading for so long that you couldn’t compare to institutions outside the South—particularly Ivy League schools like the University of Pennsylvania. Imagine what it meant to compete against such a school in a sport that demands toughness and strength as well as intelligence and discipline.          T

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had attended the University—a tiny, tiny percentage of the state in those days; it meant something to nearly everyone in Alabama. Success didn’t just happen once, either. It continued, and the bonds that had been forged between the football team, the school, and the state grew stronger as Alabama kept on winning. The Crimson Tide traveled to California and won the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1925 season. Again and again, through more Rose Bowls, the Crimson Tide brought positive national recognition to a state and a region that needed it badly. And it wasn’t just that Alabama had a football team that was as good as everyone else’s. It was better . . . In fact, as times got tougher, it seemed that Alabama football just got better. As the Great Depression gripped the nation in the 1930s, the Crimson Tide dominated on the football field, returning to the Rose Bowl in 1930 and again in 1934 with a team that many experts still consider one of the greatest of all time. The supreme national effort required to win World War II superceded all other national concerns, including college football, but the Crimson Tide bookended the three-season wartime hiatus (1942, 1943, 1944) with an outstanding team in 1941 and, as soon as the war was won and football resumed, another in 1945. Though the results slipped in the 1950s, opponents at the time did not realize that it was, in their case, merely the calm before the storm. page 15 — Page 35


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n the sixty years prior to Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s arrival at the University of Alabama, a strong historical foundation—the strongest in the South, and one of the strongest in the nation—had already been built. It is part of the remarkable symmetry of Crimson Tide football that Bryant himself was part of that legacy, having played on the 1934 team as the “other end,” opposite the great Don Hutson. Bryant didn’t merely wander into the legacy left by Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas; he was its legitimate heir. But he didn’t simply live off that inheritance. He expanded it beyond anyone’s expectations. The Crimson Tide’s success on the field during Bryant’s 25 years has been well documented. He won 6 national championships between 1961 and 1979. He coached 12 Southeastern Conference championship teams. But perhaps his most enduring legacy is in creating the spirit of Crimson Tide football: it was in the Bryant years that the modern game day experience was forged, but not simply because his teams won (although that helped). It was the way in which they won, and the way in which the iconic Bryant shaped his image, and that of his teams, while they were winning.

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Historical context is important. The early 1960s, when Bryant’s teams rose to greatness, were a tumultuous time in America, and nowhere was that tumult felt more deeply than in Alabama. The state—and often the University itself— was a battleground of the civil rights era. It’s become almost commonplace to fix part of Bryant’s appeal against the sociological backdrop of Alabama in the 1960s. The theory has been espoused many times, but it is worth repeating: one reason why Bryant was so revered within the state, and the South, was that he provided one of the few shining lights that the region had at the time. The state of Alabama was a national pariah in the realm of civil rights. The economy lagged far behind other states in other regions. Yet, in one endeavor—college football—Alabama could proclaim itself not just “as good as” everyone else, but “better” than everyone else. There is some truth to that theory, but it goes deeper. Consider one of Mal Moore’s observations about Bryant’s ways and character. Moore, now Alabama’s athletic director, noticed how Bryant handled his role as Alabama’s athletic director while concurrently serving as the Crimson Tide’s head coach. “Coach Bryant would never come into a meeting and say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ or ‘I’m going to do that,’” Moore recalled. “He would always say, ‘If the president approves, then I would like to do this.’ He was respectful of the president of the University, always aware of the chain of command.”

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There was some of the Bryant guile at work there. When his subordinates saw Bryant honoring the chain of command, it reinforced the assistant coach’s sense of where he stood in that chain. Bryant’s loyalty engendered loyalty in others. But his persona echoed in other ways. Bryant’s story was, in some regards, the classic rags-to-riches tale of a poor Arkansas boy who arose to the pinnacle of his profession and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bob Hope and John F. Kennedy and other men of renown in his era. But Bryant never tried to distance himself from his humble beginnings. Unlike so many driven individuals who make that climb, he never repudiated his roots. In fact, he embraced them. That’s why people in this region embraced him. It was more than just the winning. He never spurned his background or saw it as something of which to be ashamed. When he talked about the importance of “good mommas and daddies” in molding young men, he wasn’t just speaking an abstraction. He was talking about his own mother and father, and he did so with genuine affection. His words were powerful, not because they were cleverly composed, but because they were spoken from the heart. Page 48


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For a young man who grew up in a small, rural town—for Mal Moore growing up in Dozier, for instance, or for a young Gene Stallings growing up in Paris, Texas—no message could be clearer. It was clear to thousands and thousands of others who never played for Bryant but merely listened to his Alabama teams play on autumn afternoons. Here was the best coach anywhere— ever—and yet he shared their humble beginnings. He knew where they came from. He personified their down-home virtues, and perhaps a few of their downhome vices as well, and he never sought to posture himself as anything other than what he was and always had been. That’s a rare ability. Arrogance isn’t the right word for it. Call it self-esteem, or self-confidence. Bryant had it—and he had the rare gift of being able to instill it in others. His speeches about working harder than the other guy, and being tougher, and doing that with dignity, were easy to believe because he was the living embodiment of doing just that and coming out, in his words, as “nothing but a winner.”

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ryant was sui generis, unique among his peers. Attempts to analyze precisely why aren’t likely to meet with much success. “Others abide our question,” as Matthew Arnold said of Shakespeare.

“Thou art free.” That’s not meant to criticize some of the attempts to explain the Bryant mystique. It’s not an easy thing to put into words. Moore, who spent more than twenty years with Bryant as a player and an assistant coach, uses the word “aura.” That’s probably as good a way to approach the man as any other. He had an aura. Few people do. Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden have subsequently won more football games than Bryant did. They are great coaches, and they deserve respect. They’re both recognizable—the affable Bowden, the venerable Paterno with the thick-lens spectacles. But neither one has an “aura.” That aura remains an inescapable part of the game experience at Alabama. No one could miss the point. After all, the crowds who come to Tuscaloosa on a Saturday drive down Bryant Drive. For many, their afternoon includes a stop at

he had an aura. the Bryant Museum even before they make their way past Paul Bryant Hall (if they walk to The Quad, which many fans do) and into Bryant-Denny Stadium. It would be easy to view this as a ritual, reverent loyalists paying homage to a vanished past, but that misses the point in at least two ways. First, Bryant’s legacy (despite his famous quote) wasn’t simply that he was “nothing but a winner.” He was also an innovator. He changed with the times. During Bryant’s years, the Crimson Tide ceased to represent merely one segment of the state’s population— it expanded to include players of all races. Ozzie Newsome and Tony Nathan are just as important to the legacy of the Bryant years as Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. That, along with Bryant’s innate populism, helped further the cause of Crimson Tide football as it permeated the different layers of southern society.

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Second, the Bryant era also coincided with another era that helped define college football: the era of television. As more people were able to witness Alabama football for themselves, more people wanted to become a part of it. Television, at first, could merely portray a portion of the spectacle. Gradually it got better at capturing the drama and pageantry of game day. Ultimately it became an integral part of the experience. Fans could watch other games on television, participating in a sort of shared national ritual. Or they could view small-screen replays of what they’d just watched on the field. And at many games, fans actually became a part of the televised experience themselves, via the atmosphere they created within the stadium or before they even entered its gates. These developments, and the aura of Bryant himself, ushered the experience of football game day at Alabama to another level. It also was a portent of things to come in another, very practical realm.

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or the first 60 years or so of Alabama football, the idea that the Crimson Tide was “the state’s team” was taken literally. In those pretelevision days, the only way fans could see the team was to see it in

person. That didn’t just mean sitting back and waiting for the faithful to make the pilgrimage to the Mecca of campus. It meant taking the show on the road.

The schedule for the 1953 SEC championship team provides a typical

example. In its first four “home” games, the Crimson Tide played in four different locations. The first contest, against Southern Mississippi, was fought in Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl. The second game, against conference rival LSU, was played in Mobile’s Ladd Stadium. The first game at what was then Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa was played on October 10, when Tulsa came to town. The next week, Alabama “hosted” the first of its “Big Three” games in Birmingham’s Legion Field, battling powerful Tennessee to a 0–0 tie. The other two major rivals of the time—Georgia Tech and Auburn—also traveled to Legion Field. The Tuscaloosa schedule was comprised of only three on-campus games, and they were hardly the marquee matchups on the schedule: in addition to Tulsa, Alabama’s campus hosted Mississippi State and Tennessee-Chattanooga.

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“The big games were all in Birmingham,” recalled Cecil “Hootie” Ingram, a star defensive back on that 1953 team and, later in life, director of athletics at Alabama. “The big deal in Tuscaloosa was the homecoming game, but even then, you would try to play someone you could beat for homecoming. But the Tennessee game, the Auburn game, the Georgia Tech game—those were always in Birmingham.” Gradually, the annual trips to Montgomery and, eventually, Mobile came to an end. The last Montgomery game was in 1954, although the annual appearance in Mobile, usually against either Tulane or Southern Mississippi, remained on the schedule until 1968. Even after those games faded into history, the next 30 years were, in a very real sense, the Birmingham years. With the biggest games played in Birmingham— when Georgia Tech bolted from the SEC (and off the Alabama schedule) in the mid-1960s, the LSU game became a biannual Birmingham event as well—that was where Alabama’s game day identity was centered. Birmingham had the biggest stadium in the state and, at close to 80,000 capacity, one of the largest in the South. It was centrally located. It was the financial and cultural hub of Alabama. The town was largely proAlabama, and the Crimson Tide did benefit from its presence there. But, as Alabama dominated the college football scene in the 1960s and 1970s, Birmingham benefited as well—tremendously. Once more, it was a time when the entire state needed some sort of positive public image, and there was no city that needed it more than Birmingham. Alabama football gave it that chance. Birmingham’s claim to be the “Football Capital of the South” was credible even though there was no professional football in town. College football was king, and Alabama was the king of college football.

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The Saturday atmosphere in Birmingham in those earlier days was far different than the current experience. Instead of a campus setting, Legion Field was a gritty, urban facility. That’s not to say that people couldn’t or didn’t spend time around the stadium socializing. They could, and they did. But particularly in the 1960s, the social life in Birmingham centered around the downtown area several blocks from Legion Field, at hotels like the Cabana, or the Parliament House, or the Tutwiler, and the restaurants and other establishments around those hotels. For students, a Legion Field game meant a drive from Tuscaloosa—more than an hour’s distance at the time. There was no sense of reconnection for alumni except at the two or three Tuscaloosa games each season. Still, Birmingham was the big city with the big stadium. It was Alabama’s “second home.” Inevitably, more and more of the biggest games were played there to take advantage of the larger stadium capacity. As Alabama won more and more of those games, the ties between the school and the city, which were deeply rooted in history—in the first season of Crimson Tide football (1892) all games were played in Birmingham—grew stronger. “I remember when I was a freshman, Denny Stadium still didn’t have permanent seats in the end zones, just bleachers,” recalled Mal Moore, who was a young quarterback in 1960. “They could move the bleachers and we’d practice in what was the north end zone. It was open in the spring.”

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Denny Stadium did grow, gradually. It expanded from a cozy 31,000 seats to 46,000 in 1961, then went to 60,000 in 1966—expansions reflecting the on-field success of the program. But after that, the stadium (which was renamed BryantDenny Stadium in 1975) stayed the same size, and in the shadow of Birmingham, for the next 22 years. It was a golden era for Legion Field, with memories stretching from Ken Stabler’s “Run in the Mud” against Auburn in 1967 to Cornelius Bennett’s bonejarring sack of Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein in 1986 in what remains the only Crimson Tide win over the Fighting Irish. It was the scene of Bryant’s record-breaking 315th career win in 1981, of Wayne Wheeler’s game-opening touchdown against Tennessee in 1973, the site of heroics by stars from Lee Roy Jordan to Derrick Thomas. In 1987, every one of Alabama’s home games was held in Legion Field. That occurrence, however, was the beginning of a time of change—one that would eventually see Alabama football leave Birmingham and come back to campus.

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he initial, unintended effect of the schedule that put the Crimson Tide’s biggest games in Birmingham was to make the Crimson Tide nearly unbeatable in Tuscaloosa. For almost two decades, stretching from a loss to Florida in 1963 to a loss to Southern Miss in 1982, Alabama did not lose a single Tuscaloosa game. It created a mystique around the stadium, an air of invincibility. Gradually, a few marquee games were moved to campus: LSU in 1980, Ole Miss in 1982, and Penn State in 1984, with Alabama scoring a memorable 6–0 upset over the Nittany Lions. Fans liked the experience on campus. So, in 1987, the decision was made to expand Bryant-Denny Stadium once more. An upper deck was added, raising capacity to 70,123. Legion Field was still larger, but the capacity gap had been narrowed. The move to campus was on.

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It didn’t happen overnight. There were well-publicized and occasionally rancorous negotiations over which games would be played in which stadium. Alabama wanted to maintain its presence in Birmingham precisely because of stories like the one told by Bobby Humphrey. “I sold soft drinks at Legion Field when I was growing up,” Humphrey said. “The stadium was in my neighborhood. So that made Alabama my team. I grew up watching them, so when it was time to decide where I wanted to play, I already knew. I was an Alabama fan.” Humphrey went on from Birmingham’s Glenn High School to become Alabama’s all-time leading rusher, at least until Shaun Alexander broke his records. His story was a typical one. It was important to maintain a presence in Birmingham for recruiting reasons, according to conventional wisdom. But, more and more, television was replacing in-person attendance in shaping the minds of future recruits. And, more and more, fans wanted games in Tuscaloosa.


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The first sign was the shift of nearly all Southeastern Conference games from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa. The lone exception came once a year: the Tennessee game or the Auburn game, depending on the schedule, was still at Legion Field, partly because of tradition and partly because Legion was still larger and better able to accommodate ticket demand. As a result, there were still Legion Field memories being forged. They included the 1992 victory over Auburn that clinched a perfect regular season and set the stage for postseason wins over Florida and Miami en route to the national championship, and David Palmer’s dramatic gametying 2-point conversion against Tennessee in 1993. But the die had been cast and the Tide was receding from Birmingham. By 1998, Bryant-Denny Stadium had decisively surpassed Legion Field as a venue. The completion of another expansion pushed the seating capacity over 83,000. Skyboxes, the newest national trend in luxury amenities, were added as well.

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The Tennessee game was moved to Tuscaloosa in 1998. Two years later, the Auburn game was moved onto campus as well. On August 30, 2003, one era began as Mike Shula, a former Crimson Tide quarterback, appeared in his first game as the University of Alabama’s head coach. But, perhaps of more historic significance, that game—a 40–17 blowout of South Florida—was the last regularseason appearance for Alabama in Birmingham. It is almost certain that the Tide will never play in Legion Field again. Perhaps in the future, in some other venue, Alabama football may yet return to Birmingham for an appearance—but Birmingham will never again be Alabama’s “second home.” But that doesn’t mean that there is no nostalgia for Birmingham in the modern game day experience. Without a doubt, what occurs in Tuscaloosa today is shaped by the sights and sounds of Tuscaloosa. Yet the birthplace and the glories of a 112-year tradition do not simply disappear from people’s hearts, even when the new has been established. What has been influences what is, and so Birmingham as the Tide’s first real home away from home will never be forgotten.

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hile history has its place in the annals of any football program, at Alabama there is a subtle but critical distinction to be made between its “history” and its “tradition.” The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “tradition” as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior.” Many definitions stress that “tradition” is not explicitly written down in books but passed along instead from person to person, either by speech or by behavioral example. Thus, each person who inherits the tradition—in this case, each and every fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide—will ultimately pass it along, slightly modified by his or her own experiences in the same culture. While history increases, in that it adds new data from each season’s results and the statistics of the latest players, tradition doesn’t simply grow. It evolves. History can be reinterpreted, sometimes even misinterpreted, but it can’t really be changed. What happened in the past has happened. There are final scores and lists of lettermen. There are newspaper accounts that recap the highlights of those long-ago battles. But technology, such as the video archives that preserve every play of every game, has made game day at Alabama evolve into more than just history. It has led to an exponential increase in the number of people who have experienced Alabama football “firsthand”—who have tasted its essence—and who will bear witness to the next generation, ensuring the ongoing tradition of this vaunted program.

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The difference between history and tradition plays out, for example, in the “greatest catch” debate. It’s a simple question—what was the best catch ever made by a receiver in University of Alabama football history? Was it made by Don Hutson in the 1930s? No one will ever know for sure. There are some first-hand reports of Hutson doing amazing things. By many accounts, he was the best receiver in college football in the long era from 1900 until 1950. An authority—Paul “Bear” Bryant—always contended that Hutson was “the best football player he ever saw,” and there is enough corroborating evidence to make that more than just the nostalgic reminiscence of a veteran coach about his old college teammate. But was there ever a single catch that defined Hutson? There have been so many adjectives applied to him—“graceful,” “gazelle-like”—that he must have done amazing things on the field. But there are only a tiny handful of Alabama fans today who ever saw Hutson play. Before long, his legacy will exist only in the history, the still-life archives: the newspaper articles and game stats and photographs— none of which can capture Hutson’s talents or qualities the way eyewitness memories can. Certainly he did make catches that inspired awe or defied belief. But there is no way a current Alabama fan can envision it.

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On the other hand, consider Tyrone Prothro’s catch at the end of the first half of the Crimson Tide’s game against Southern Mississippi in 2005. It’s hard to imagine any Alabama fan who hasn’t seen it, even if he or she wasn’t among the crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium that day or within the television viewing audience. There have been countless replays of that catch, and it is available on the Internet at a second’s notice. It can be replayed in an endless loop, or analyzed in detailed stopaction. No one has to rely on a faulty memory to fix the image in the mind. It can be constantly refreshed. Any of the discrepancies of memory (or any of the typical human tendency to exaggerate such events) can be measured against the record. Even if Don Hutson had made such an amazing catch, the only people who would know for sure would have been those in attendance—several thousand, perhaps. Tyrone Prothro’s catch, on the other hand, was “seen” by several million, and will continue to be seen for as long as there is an interest in Alabama football. It doesn’t automatically mean that Prothro was a greater receiver than Hutson, although Prothro certainly was great (and the story of his career, which came to a crashing halt a few weeks after that catch, has the poignancy of Greek tragedy). But it does illustrate how “tradition” comes into being in the modern era, and how it gets passed on and gains a life of its own.

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Paul Bryant Jr., the son of the legendary coach and a member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, made a similar point a few years ago. He was discussing the video that was played before games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, one that featured his father but also highlighted all of Alabama’s championship teams. The younger Bryant noted that, while there were cheers from the crowd at each image as it flashed across the giant video screen, the roars grew progressively louder, not when Bear Bryant’s voice was heard, but as the chronology grew more recent. “You would hear more cheers for the 1992 Sugar Bowl than you would for the 1961 championship because more people remember it,” Bryant Jr. said. “That is human nature. When we came back to Tuscaloosa with Papa in 1958, all people talked about was the Rose Bowl, or Frank Thomas. Now, you don’t hear people talk about that. People respond to the things that they remember.” In other words, they remember and bear witness to what they have seen with their own eyes. And what each generation of fans remembers is the sights and sounds that accompanied their experience of, and their exposure to, Alabama football.

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here is no single factor—not human memory, not history, not even geography—that can contain tradition. It’s part of the atmosphere, and the atmosphere—especially at Alabama—is never really contained in one place. The memories that were forged in Birmingham in a previous generation provide a framework for the current structure of tradition, just as the steel that was forged in Birmingham turned into the girders that support Bryant-Denny Stadium to this day. The stadium is the epicenter of that tradition. But when you talk about “home,” in the context of “home games,” it means more than just the stadium. The entire experience incorporates more than the football field, more than the stands, more than the stadium grounds. It spreads out across the entire campus of the University of Alabama. It takes in large areas of the city of Tuscaloosa. For many fans, the Saturday morning journey, or the hours of tailgating before kickoff (or after), the walks down Sorority Row, the visits to the Bryant Museum, make up a part of the experience. It doesn’t just include the feats of football players and coaches. It includes other performers—the Million Dollar Band, the majorettes, the cheerleaders—and, not to be underestimated, the entertainment provided by one’s fellow fans. It isn’t even confined to Saturday, necessarily. The rush for available tailgating spaces on the Quad or the other various (and gradually vanishing) open spaces that still surround the stadium is a modern-day reenactment of the Yukon Gold Rush, with beverage coolers and beach umbrellas replacing picks and pans. “We used to get up at 5 o’clock on Saturday morning to get our spot. Now it’s long gone if you wait until Saturday. We get there on Friday afternoon,” said Alabama fan Andrea Carver of Birmingham. “It’s a tradition for us.”

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n the dawning days of Alabama football, there was no distinction between going to a football game and partying on the Quad. That’s

because the football games were actually played on the Quad. With no stadium in Tuscaloosa from 1893 until 1915, the only thing that prevented the arrangement from being the perfect tailgating environment was that tailgates hadn’t been invented either. From 1915 through 1928 the games were played at Denny Field, located a couple of blocks east of the current stadium site. (The old Denny Field site is primarily a parking lot now, although a few dormitories occupy what was the north end zone.) Even though it wasn’t a stadium, Denny Field must have been a daunting place for opposing teams to play, since in Alabama’s first five years of competition there, it went 21–0 and outscored its opposition 861–7. (Mississippi College scored the lone touchdown, in 1916.) In the 15 years that Denny Field was in use, Alabama won 46 games in Tuscaloosa and lost only two.

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Admittedly, there were times when Alabama took such opposition lightly. In 1930, for instance, Alabama smashed its first two Tuscaloosa opponents (Howard College and Ole Miss) by a combined score of 107–0. After that auspicious start, Crimson Tide head coach Wallace Wade decided that instead of coaching the team against its upcoming opponent, a weak Sewanee team, he would turn the game day coaching duties over to assistant coach Hank Crisp. In the meantime, Wade himself would travel to Atlanta to scout the Crimson Tide’s fierce rival, Georgia Tech, for a game to be played two weeks later. The only catch was that Alabama, expecting another easy victory, didn’t play very well when Sewanee came to town. The game was scoreless at the end of the first quarter. Alabama led only 6–0 at the half. It took a special half-time speech from Crisp—a fixture as an Alabama assistant coach for some 30 years—to bring results. “Coach Crisp was a master at the use of profanity,” former Tide player Elliott Speed remembered, not without some fondness. “He cursed a man named Richard Yank for at least five minutes, and the amazing part of it all was that he never used any curse word more than once.” Chastened, the Crimson Tide went on to win the game 25–0. Wade’s strategy worked as well; Alabama went on to defeat Georgia Tech 7–0 in Atlanta the next week for the key win in an undefeated national championship season. The point is that almost from the dawn of Crimson Tide football history, winning games in Tuscaloosa was a foregone conclusion. It was great for the peace of mind of a fan base that rarely had to worry about the outcome of a game. But it created an aura of entitlement, not excitement, at many of the Tuscaloosa games—and this was before the stadium had even been built.

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uccess had attracted spectators, naturally. As football became more and more popular, the University felt that a permanent home for the team was necessary. Denny Stadium—named for the president of

the University, Dr. George H. Denny—was the result. It was originally modeled after one of the famous venues of Ivy League football, the Yale Bowl. At its dedication, however, it wasn’t a bowl. The stands, which seated just over 12,000 Crimson Tide fans, were located only on the east side. The original plans called for more seats on the opposite side of the field, but the timing for that construction was decidedly not fortuitous. The official dedication of the stadium came on October 5, 1929, with Alabama defeating Ole Miss 22–7 in what was also the homecoming game for the Crimson Tide. Twenty-three days after the dedication ceremony—on October 28, 1929—the New York Stock Exchange crashed on “Black Monday.” The nation plunged into the Great Depression, and the immediate need for football seats, even for fans who were about to witness a golden era in Alabama football, was suddenly not so pressing. Yet even in hard times, the sport was a unifying force in the state of Alabama. By 1936, the stadium had been expanded with the addition of 6,000 seats on the west side. It continued to grow, but for the next fifty years, its growth didn’t keep pace with the rapid expansion of Alabama’s “other home” at Legion Field.

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he unusual status of the Tuscaloosa stadium— Alabama’s “home” field and yet, for six decades, not the site of the team’s “marquee” games—has already been reviewed. For most of that time, except for the rare down periods like the late 1950s, the Tuscaloosa games were viewed almost as diversions, nearly certain wins that rarely compared with the bigger games in Birmingham. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t excitement, starting with the very first year that the stadium was in existence and Tennessee came to town. From that first season, there were great, memorable games in Tuscaloosa. There was the 7–7 tie with Howard College in 1935, one of the most stunning upsets in state history. If one measure of greatness is the respect received from opponents, consider this: Howard College (now Samford University) still lists the 7–7 tie as the greatest “victory” in the school’s football history. There was a 31–3 thrashing of Georgia to open the 1964 season, yet another national championship year for the Crimson Tide. Later that year, there was a memorable Crimson Tide moment of a different sort. Alabama defeated North Carolina State 21–0 (the game was, after all, in Tuscaloosa), but senior quarterback Joe Namath injured his knee on a running play. Namath continued to play that season, hastily returning to action two weeks later, but his running ability was never the same after that injury. The twin themes—victory and injury—were to play out in the stadium in poignant ways in the future. For its first 60 years or so, the atmosphere in Tuscaloosa was unique—but for a town that was considered a “hotbed” of college football, it wasn’t really frenzied or frenetic. Recent history has changed that . . .

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ver the course of the 40 years of Legion Field’s ascendancy as

Alabama’s “home” stadium, there were still important—even historic—games played in Tuscaloosa. Consider these games from the tenure of head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. His first win as the Alabama head coach (after a loss in his debut at his

alma mater and a tie after that) came at Bryant-Denny Stadium, a 29–6 victory over Furman. In 1963 the Crimson Tide made history without even knowing it by beating Houston 21–13. Two weeks earlier, Alabama had fallen 10–6 to Florida in Denny Stadium. The Houston game started a winning streak in Tuscaloosa that would last for 19 years (although it almost did not get off the ground, as Alabama had to squeak past Mississippi State 20–19 in Tuscaloosa in the very next week). Not every moment over the next two Tuscaloosa decades was enjoyable, even though all the games were wins. There was the 21–0 victory over North Carolina State in 1964, for instance. The win came easily enough, but during the game, Tide quarterback Joe Namath—untouched by an opposing defender—went down with a knee injury that affected the rest of his Alabama career. Not all of the wins were easy in that stretch either, although most came by comfortable margins. There were a few scares, the most notable of which came

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in 1974. Florida State came to town with the nation’s longest losing streak—sixteen games without a win—but had Alabama on the ropes until a late safety and a 36yard field goal by Bucky Berrey saved the Crimson Tide. “I heard (Coach Bryant) yelling, ‘Bucky, come here,’” Berrey recalled in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser years later. “I go over and he drapes his arm across my shoulder and says again, ‘Son, it’s just like practice.’ I’m thinking the whole time, This ain’t nothing like practice! If I miss this, I’ll have to leave the state of Alabama!” Berrey didn’t miss, though. Somehow it seemed that Alabama always found a way to do something right and win . . . if the game was in Tuscaloosa. (To be fair, the Crimson Tide teams of the 1960s and 1970s won most of the time in other venues as well.) The point isn’t to list all of the wins in that streak, which eventually reached 57 consecutive victories. It is, however, important to understand the mind-set of those years, in order to trace the evolution of the modern game day experience. For much of that time, the Tuscaloosa games were a formality, a foregone conclusion in which the audience might respond more or less favorably to the panorama or the skill of the performers. Rarely was there real drama. The outcome seemed inevitable, so the fans were content to sit back and watch it unfold. When did that attitude change? It’s impossible to date the shift precisely, of course. There were hints of a new approach even in the latter days of the Bryant era. The big games were still in Birmingham, but the Tuscaloosa games started to have a little more edge to them.

“SON, IT’S JUST L I K E P R A C T I C E .”


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Take the 1981 Alabama-Mississippi State game, for instance. There was a compelling subplot, for one thing. A year earlier, Mississippi State had beaten Alabama 6–3 in one of the great upsets in SEC football history. That stirred the crowd. The game itself wasn’t exactly played crisply, but it was compelling—and extremely physical. The two teams fumbled a combined eighteen times—eleven by Alabama. Alabama didn’t win by sheer dominance of the opponent, as was so often the case at Bryant-Denny Stadium (as it had already been renamed). It took a late interception by Tommy Wilcox to seal the win—and a vocal crowd to motivate the team. The win also helped push Bryant close to the all-time win record for college coaches. He tied Amos Alonzo Stagg with his 314th win a week later against Penn State and became college football’s winningest coach with 315 victories when Alabama closed out the regular season with a victory over Auburn. The times were changing, though. In 1982, Bryant’s final season, the long Tuscaloosa winning streak came to an end with a loss to Southern Mississippi. Writers can easily overreach when looking for symbolic “end of an era” metaphors, but the loss was the last Tuscaloosa game of Bryant’s legendary career. The retirement (and, in a matter of months, the death) of college football’s greatest coach didn’t entirely change the atmosphere surrounding the games on campus— but seismic changes were on the way.

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hen Bryant retired, Birmingham was still the main venue for Alabama football—but its grip was slipping. In the first years under Ray Perkins, Alabama continued to play occasionally on campus, and there were still memorable games, including two in 1984. In the first, Alabama lost to Vanderbilt for the only time in a stretch that now extends for a half-century. Two weeks later, the Crimson Tide won a rousing defensive struggle, shutting out Penn State 6–0 in a game that matched the 1981 Mississippi State contest in terms of intensity. The biggest developments were taking place off the field, however. A decision was made to expand Bryant-Denny Stadium by adding an upper deck, pushing capacity to more than 70,000. In the short run, that meant more Alabama football than ever was played in Birmingham. In 1987, for the first time since 1894, there was no Alabama football at all played on the UA campus. Even the A-Day game that year was moved to Legion Field to accommodate construction. But in the long run, the expansion was the first in a series of moves that would culminate, over the next decade, in Tuscaloosa being the one and only home of Alabama football. The change was gradual. The larger stadium didn’t translate into immediate wins. In 1988—the first year with the new upper deck—Alabama lost twice in Bryant-Denny Stadium, something which had not happened in more than 30 seasons. There seemed to be a period of transition for fans as they grew accustomed to considering games in Tuscaloosa as “big-time.” Even after the hiring of Gene Stallings in 1990, and the undefeated national championship season of 1992, there had not been a watershed game—one in which the atmosphere on campus had received that ineffable electric spark. That didn’t happen until 1994.

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or the early part of the 1990s, Bryant-Denny Stadium was bigger but the fans still seemed to be learning how to make it better. The Crimson Tide still won most of the time in Tuscaloosa, but that was

part of the story. Electricity sometimes requires a spark, or a bolt of lightning. The Alabama-Georgia game in 1994 crackled with it. In many ways it was reminiscent of the Alabama-Ole Miss game of 1969, a watershed contest from a quarter-century before. Like that game, it was played under the lights—an unusual, although not unprecedented, occurrence in Tuscaloosa at the time. The nationwide audience (on ESPN this time) got to see two quarterbacks at the top of their form: Jay Barker dueling against Eric Zeier, just the way Scott Hunter had parried against Archie Manning 25 years earlier. But the audience—especially the fans on hand for game day—experienced something different on this day. For most of their lives, Alabama football had been expected to win in Tuscaloosa. Rarely if ever did the team need the 12th man—the fans—to push them to victory. It isn’t that the crowds didn’t have fun before the games, or appreciate the marching band, or stroll down Sorority Row on the way to the contest. Obviously, all those traditions were in place, revered by generations of Alabama fans. Football was the largest part of the day, but it rarely seemed to require active participation by the fans, at least in the on-campus games. There was rarely the “12th man” atmosphere. On that night, though, it was different. Georgia was a big-time opponent— not quite as high on the rivalry scale as some of the other Southeastern Conference opponents, but only because the two teams didn’t meet annually. It was a big game—and i57fifty-seven seconds remaining in the first half, Georgia had shocked the Crimson Tide defense and built a 21–7 lead. Michael Proctor kicked a field goal just before halftime to make the score 21–10, but the outlook

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for Alabama was still grim. Gene Stallings’ Crimson Tide teams were known for great defense, not for explosive offensive comebacks. This time, things were different. And, as Barker led the Alabama comeback, the crowd was different, too—louder, more involved. When offensive coordinator Homer Smith spoke about the game in the locker room, he was talking about the efforts on the field—but he could have been talking about the fans as well: “You can’t always play like you are behind when you are ahead. You would like to do that, but it is difficult. Tonight, it was a matter of necessity.” With Barker throwing the football as he had never thrown before (or, as events transpired, since), completing 34 of 55 passes for 396 yards, Alabama came back. The Crimson Tide took the lead with the crowd in full-throated roar. The team fell behind but the crowd, instead of faltering, grew louder. Finally, with UA trailing 28–6, Barker passed the team down the field and into position for a gamewinning field goal by Proctor. The Alabama defense held Georgia for the final minute to seal the win. The Bulldogs were stunned. “I do not know how we lost this game,” Zeier said. The Crimson Tide was elated. “It had the emotions of a championship game,” Stallings said. “It was

“it had the emotions of a c h a m p i o n s h i p g a m e .”


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somewhat like the locker room after the Miami game. I liked that.” Yet the coach’s statement reflected more than just the joy of the players. Their exuberance was a reflection—or, more precisely an extension—of the excitement generated in the stadium that day, a happiness that spilled out onto the streets of Tuscaloosa. University Boulevard was closed down along the Strip because the celebration was so extensive. For the first time perhaps in Alabama football’s long history, Bryant-Denny Stadium was the biggest, loudest place to be—the only logical place to be—if you were a fan. Over the next five years, the stadium got even bigger. A $50 million expansion in 1998 pushed capacity over 80,000 and brought a new dimension to the game day experience for some fans. Eighty-five luxury skyboxes were part of the expansion. Watching the game and enjoying the full spectrum of entertainment—a gourmet meal, a wide-screen television—were combined for the first time ever (or at least the first time since 1915, when the football games were moved off the Quad and into a stadium). Even for those without a skybox, the game day experience changed profoundly. With the new expansion, all of the Crimson Tide’s biggest games were played in Tuscaloosa. The Tennessee game was moved there in 1999 and the Auburn game, which had been at neutral Legion Field for fifty years, followed in 2000.

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or a variety of reasons, the success on the field didn’t match the explosive growth in the surrounding game day atmosphere. For a decade, coaching changes and NCAA problems bedeviled Alabama

and infringed on its on-the-field dominance. Yet there were some memorable moments too, such as the first “new stadium” game against Brigham Young, which brought the first glimpse of the possibilities (and size) of the new crowds. There were near misses as well, moments in which the din in Bryant-Denny became deafening. The fans gave their all during the 2002 Georgia game, a 27–25 loss, and the 2003 game against No. 1-ranked Oklahoma. But

no game day is perfect without a win.

In the 2005 season, there were two of those days—triumphs that combined the team and the crowd in victory and offered a glimpse of what the game day tradition will become in the future. First came Florida, a team that Alabama had not beaten inside the state of Alabama for more than twenty years. Led by Brodie Croyle and Tyrone Prothro, Alabama jumped to a 17–0 lead, firing the crowd into a frenzy that lasted until the fourth quarter. Alabama cruised to victory (and onto the cover of Sports Illustrated) with that win. In the following month Tennessee came to town. It was an entirely different game than the earlier win over Florida. Defenses dominated. At the end, Alabama appeared to be in trouble, with Tennessee driving for what appeared to be a game-winning score. But late in the fourth quarter, Alabama’s Roman Harper forced a Tennessee fumble. Croyle led Alabama on a game-winning drive, and when Jamie Christensen kicked the game-winning field goal, Alabama had beaten Tennessee in Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time, inspiring what may have been the loudest, most emotional “Rammer Jammer” cheer ever in postgame elation.

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ryant-Denny Stadium has hosted many great moments. The current era, however, is a unique crossroads in Crimson Tide history. It presents a rare, perhaps unprecedented, opportunity for Alabama fans to participate in the evolution of one of the great traditions in college football history. Outside the stadium, that transformation is already well on its way to completion. A simple Saturday morning walk around the campus shows just how complete that synthesis has been. In the shadow of the stately oaks and the antebellum structures, crimson-clad fans are congregating. Some, on the eastern side of campus, are sitting outside their recreational vehicles, the mobilized wing of the army of Crimson Tide fans that follow the team to every outpost in the Southeastern Conference and beyond. Others are under elaborate tents on the Quad, or simply in a parking lot, enjoying refreshments that they’ve packed in the trunk of their car.

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ome will stay with their tailgate parties until just before kickoff. A few will even linger after kickoff, watching the game on

television. Many will crowd into the Plaza of Champions to watch the arrival of the team. Some will come early to stroll among the statues of the Crimson Tide’s national championship coaches. Some will visit their old fraternity or sorority house. Many will take in the exhibits at the Bryant Museum, starting their day by soaking up the history of the Crimson Tide program. Some will arrive early to sit in their skybox, or in The Zone, luxurious accommodations with catered meals. Others will be content to munch on a hot dog or cruise down the Strip and stop in a restaurant. Camaraderie will be the order of the day, a renewal of bonds with those who share the same aspirations and the love of Alabama football. Those traditions won’t change much over time, even as the stadium grows.

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There is a chance for a new tradition to be forged, however, once the game begins. The team and the coaches will play the largest part in that, but so will the fans. That’s what is unique. That’s why this story doesn’t really have a conclusion. There have been great days at Bryant-Denny Stadium, but it’s fair to say that it hasn’t yet seen its greatest day. Even though the history stretches back more than 100 years, the most memorable Alabama victories have frequently taken place somewhere else. The historic winning streak of the 1960s and 1970s might never be replicated. That’s not to say, though, that it can’t be surpassed. There have been glimpses that show what the future might be like, in wins over Tennessee and Georgia and LSU and Penn State. But imagine the game day experience to come . . .

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Imagine being a part of the largest crowd ever to witness college football in the state of Alabama. Imagine being a part of the crowd as Alabama—on its own campus—takes a victory that clinches a Southeastern Conference championship, or another national title. So far, all of those elements—the game day experience on the beautiful campus, the sheer volume of noise generated by the giant crowd, the victory that culminates a championship season—have yet to combine on the same day. But in due time, they will.

Imagi Imagine being able to say that you were there on that day.

Imagine being present as the old tradition is carried on and simultaneously a

new tradition is born.

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ine . . .

t h o s e a r e t h e d ay s t o c o m e at B r ya n t - D e n n y S ta d i u m . t h at ’ s w h y g a m e d ay — e v e r y s i n g l e g a m e d ay — i s i m p o r ta n t .


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© 2008 by The Booksmith Group All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without prior written permission from the publisher. Published in the United States of America by

an imprint of

2451 Atrium Way Nashville, TN 37214 1-800-358-0560 www.thebooksmithgroup.com ISBN (Standard): 978-1-934892-03-9 ISBN (Premium): 978-1-934892-04-6 Publisher: Stephen D. Giddens Publishing Consultant: Rob Holder Managing Editor: Jennifer Dawn Day Associate Editor: Heidi L. T. Tuey Text: Cecil Hurt Book Design: Jay Smith-Juicebox Designs | www.juiceboxdesigns.com P h o t o gr a ph y C r e dits Many thanks to Kent Gidley and his team for the new photography taken as well as the archives selected for this project. kent gidley:

Pages 4–5; 8–9; 10–11; 14–15; 18 bottom left; 23; 50; 54–55; 56–57; 60–61; 64–65; 69; 80–81, bottom left, bottom center; 84; 88–89, top left, Coach Saban talking to players; 98–99; 100–101; 112; 116; 117; 118; 120–121; 123; 124–125, top row, bottom center; 128; 129; 132–133; 134; 136–137; 138; 140; 141; 142–143, top row, bottom left; 146; 148; 152 cory johnson: Pages 2–3, background, far left; 16–17; 18–19, top left, top right, bottom right; 24, top left; 28–29; 31, middle; 37, top right; 45; 46–47; 62–63; 71; 72–73; 74–75; 80–81, top left, top center; 88, bottom left, bottom middle; 89, top, bottom right; 90; 102– 103; 108–109; 124, bottom left, bottom right; 125; 135; 149 jessica smith:

Pages 3, far right two photos; 6–7; 12–13; 20; 24–25, bottom row, top right; 26–27; 32, left, top; 36–37, top left, top center, bottom center, bottom right; 66–67; 77; 86; 87; 96; 114; 119; 139; 147; 150; 156–157

porfirio solorzano:

Pages 2–3, woman cheering, man with young girl on shoulders; 18– 19, top center, bottom center; 21, small inset photo; 30; 31, top, bottom; 32, middle right, bottom right; 33; 36, bottom left; 38–39; 41, small inset photo; 44; 58–59; 68; 76; 81, top right, bottom right; 82–83; 91, top, bottom; 93; 94–95; 97; 104; 105; 106–107; 111; 113; 130–131; 142–143, bottom center, bottom right; 144–145; 153 kaka gidley:

Pages 91, center; 92; 110

Printed in the United States of America First printing 2008

Tradition: The Pride of Bryant-Denny  

The official commemorative book of Alabama football at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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