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THE FOOTBALL GAME THAT CHANGED THE SOUTH

1926 Rose BowlIt was more than a football game. It was the chance to avenge the South, to reclaim the valor and honor of the Lost Cause. No longer would this land be known for its hookworm and illiteracy. It would be the home of the best damn football in the nation!

"The 1926 Rose Bowl was without a doubt the most important game before or since in Southern football history," says Birmingham News sportswriter Clyde Bolton.

The story of the game that shaped the South is told in Roses of Crimson, a documentary that airs as part of The Alabama Experience series at 8 p.m., Thursday, November 18, on Alabama Public Television.

For the first 50 years of college football the game was dominated by powerhouses in the North, Midwest, and West. Princeton. Yale. Harvard. Washington. Southern boys can’t compete, the experts said. In fact, the prevailing sentiment was that the South wasn’t good for much of anything.

"H.L. Mencken at the Baltimore Sun was writing very critical and satiric editorials about the brain cavity size of the typical Southerner and it was not at all uplifting or complementary to the South," said Wayne Flynt, history professor at Auburn University.

But in 1925 the University of Alabama had its first undefeated season and gave up only seven points. Still, no Southern team—Alabama included—had earned enough respect to get an invitation to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Schools back east, reeling from criticism that they were sacrificing academics at the expense of athletics, declined to play in the game. So bowl officials reluctantly booked a game everyone knew would be a blow-out: a weak Alabama team against the mighty Washington Huskies.

Roses of Crimson shows how the team made its way west on a four day train trip dealing poker and studying their playbooks. Once in California, Alabama coach Wallace Wade feared that his team was being distracted by the photo opportunities that had been arranged by Hollywood press moguls. So he sequestered his players and put them through some of the toughest practices of the season.

Meanwhile, Champ Pickens, a tireless Alabama promoter, began predicting an upset and constantly reminded the players about their obligation to history.

"He wired all the presidents of the civic clubs in Tuscaloosa and told them to send telegrams out to the Alabama players that the honor of the Confederacy was on their shoulders. They had to avenge losing the Civil War by beating these Washington Yankees," Bolton explained.

No matter that the Yankees in the state of Washington had nothing to do with the South’s defeat in 1865. Even Wade played on loyalty to the region when Alabama went into the locker room at the half trailing 12-0. "And they told me Southern boys would fight," was all he told his team.

Game ActionIn the second half the unbelievable happened. Quarterback Pooley Hubert, the seasoned and mature team leader, kept running straight into the Washington line until he scored. Johnny Mack Brown, the dashing running back who would become a matinee idol, caught a fifty yard pass in full stride and made a touchdown.

Everyone at the Rose Bowl was stunned. Hubert sensed Alabama could deliver a knockout blow and called an audacious play.

"Pooley told me to run upfield as fast as I could," recalled Brown. "When I reached the three yard line, I looked back and sure enough the ball was coming over my shoulder. I took it in stride and went over carrying somebody. The place was really in an uproar."

Roses of Crimson shows how the uproar continued after the game. In nearly every town the team’s train passed through on the trip back to Tuscaloosa Southerners struck up brass bands and hailed the conquering heroes. In New Orleans nearly one thousand Tulane students rallied when the train pulled into the station. And back at the University of Alabama campus, the entire student body and most of the town turned out for a raucous parade that ended with speeches and tributes on the Quad.

"The documentary has some wonderful scenes from a great game, but it’s about more than that," said Tom Rieland, who produced the documentary for The University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio. "It also shows why Southerners were ready for something that would unite them, that would give them a reason to say they were proud to be from Dixie. Roses of Crimson explains why it was football that accomplished that."

Now it’s hard to imagine a time in the South when a Monday post-mortem of the game didn’t dominate conversation at the office water cooler, or when weekend events in the fall didn’t revolve around attending a game or at least watching one on TV.

"You can look at the 1926 Rose Bowl as the most significant event in Southern football history," said Andrew Doyle, a history professor at Winthrop University who has written about the sport. "What had come before was almost like a buildup, a preparation for this grand coming out party. And it was a sublime tonic for Southerners who were buffeted by a legacy of defeat, military defeat, a legacy of poverty, and a legacy of isolation from the American political and cultural mainstream."

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