Category Archives: History

Of Doctors and Hustlers — Alabama’s Greatest #12


When Joe Willie Namath showed up in Tuscaloosa in 1961, he had raccoon eyes, a watch with a chain, and a shaggy head of Hungarian hair beneath a blue straw hat.  He was there because he could not go to the school he wanted.  Instead of studying for the SAT the summer between high school and college, the cool-kicking Namath drank whiskeys with the hustlers of his West Pennsylvania town, some of whose shoes he’d grown up shining.  So he couldn’t achieve the score to get into Maryland, his first choice.   The opportunist Paul Bryant came hard at the amazing Yankee athlete.

In Mark Kriegel’s biographical saga, Namath, Bryant’s secretary says nearly 50 years later she still remembers exactly what the shadowy kid, whose grandparents were full-blood Hungarian and floated on a boat to the States, was wearing the day he showed up in the Alabama coach’s office.  ”He had long hair, blue jeans, z-ring zipper boots, and a men’s undershirt with the sleeves rolled up.  I thought, My goodness.  We are scraping the bottom of the barrel.”  Joe Willie was a fish out of water, less than comfortable, and it would take him a good while to feel welcome.

Four years earlier, when Pat Trammell stepped onto campus, he was not such the oddity.  He sported crew cut hair and dripped confidence.  Former Tide defensive back “Brother” Bill Oliver told Richard Scott, author of Legends of Alabama Football, that on a recruiting weekend before the ‘58 school year, he overheard the bold kid from Scottsboro, Ala., talking with some other recruits about what positions they may play in college.  ”Well,” Trammell told them.  ”Y’all can just forget about quarterback.  I’m going to be the quarterback.”

As a quarterback, Pat had no ability.  He was not a great runner, but he could score touchdowns.  He didn’t pass with great style, but he completed passes.  All he could do was beat you.”

Paul Bryant

Where he lacked the raw talent wizardry to run the ‘Bama offense, as Namath would later, Trammell made up for it by being a pure-natural  leader with the brains and the guts.  ”I’ve never known of a smarter player,” UA assistant Jimmy Sharpe once said.  Teammate Billy Neighbors (’59-’61) said his QB being the “smartest” made him the “best football player [he’d] ever played with — and I played with some great players, like Bob Griese and Babe Parelli.  Pat Trammell was still the smartest football player I ever played with.  It was just the way he ran the team, the offense.”

A doctor’s son, he was elite in the classroom as well and planned to attend medical school if he didn’t go pro.  Namath’s old man worked in a Pennsylvania steel mill and was praying his son soaked up whatever education he could in Tuscaloosa, or else play his way into the big leagues — ’cause if not, the SAT flunky would be right back in Beaver Falls, busting it in the mill alongside his father.

A member of Bryant’s first signing class at UA and the leader he needed to win that first national title in 1961, Trammell was the Bear’s favorite player, a fact obvious to the other players by the way the two interacted.  They weren’t just player and coach, they were the best friends.  So when Joe Namath, a phenomenal athlete who seemed like the type the coach would despise for slacking, came to ‘Bama as heir apparent to the lead role, it might seem a little strange how much Coach Bryant liked him.

In high school, the rebel Namath did have a hero.  Johnny Unitas, pro football’s golden arm in those days, was from Pittsburgh, about 45 minutes from Beaver Falls.  Along with most football kids, Joe wanted to be the next Johnny U.  In fact, he wore Unitas’s #19 jersey for home games and #29 away (that was the closest away jersey number his school had in stock).  People around town even called him “Joey U” for a while.  So in 1961,  #12 Trammell’s senior year as the Alabama varsity conductor, Namath geared up to lead the freshman team (back then freshmen had to play on their own squad before graduating to the varsity as sophomores).  He casually told the team manager he’d like to wear #19, not expecting  issue on the matter.  Carney Laslie, the assistant athletic director, quickly denied that modest request:

Laslie… didn’t care what number Joe wanted or Johnny Unitas or any of that. The University didn’t have a number 19 jersey, and Laslie was too damn stingy to buy one. The boy would get number 12.

“I think Coach Bryant had something to do with that,” says [former Tide assistant] Clem Gryska.

Unitas might have been a great quarterback, but he wasn’t Pat Trammell.  A shining exemplar of Southern virtue, [the Tide’s senior QB] seemed to have little in common with the young Yankee wearing 12 for the freshman team.  But they shared a talent for victory, and in Bryant’s scheme of the world, victory was virtue.

As Bryant’s feelings toward Trammell were well known, Namath’s new number evoked the greatest of expectations. “Word spread,” remembers Clyde Bolton of The Birmingham News. “It was kind of like a beautiful girl had moved to town.”

by Mark Kriegel

Trammell certainly wasn’t the type to be jealous by all the attention this new kid on the block got from his coach or anyone else.  Beside, he was ‘Bama’s undisputed field general, and a fierce one at that, having led the Tide in passing, rushing, and scoring as a sophomore in 1959 and rushing and scoring in 1960.

Bryant was maturing as a coach, and he knew a great football team needs not only a strong leader on the sidelines but also someone to call shots, roll heads, on the field.  His valiant and vocal – now veteran – quarterback fit the role from the first day he strapped on a crimson helmet.

“With the intense future doctor in the huddle,” writes Allen Barra, author of The Missing Ring, the Bear didn’t have to worry about kicking [butt], because Trammell’s footprints could often be seen on the other players’ pants.”

Somehow the cocksure Tide QB, a genius of both school and football, even managed to blur the distinction on who, in fact, was the squad’s ranking shotcaller, him or Bryant.  “He was the only guy I knew that could talk back to Coach Bryant,” says Billy Neighbors. ”They’d send in plays and he wouldn’t run ‘em because he knew more about what was going on than the dang coaches.  And Coach Bryant never would say anything to him about it, because he knew Pat was right.  Every time I can ever recall, he was right.”

Pat Trammell was the model quarterback for a championship-caliber football program.  Such natural leadership instinct is rare, and Bryant knew finding a replacement for following seasons would be tough.

He also knew — before he even met Joe Willie Namath face-to-face — that the hustler prince of West Pennsylvania could be one of the greatest players he’d ever put behind center.  Namath once told a man photographing him for his high school football media guide that either he’d have sunglasses on for the snapshots or the man could sit on a tack, so to speak.  So, as of 1961 and with the bulldog Trammell still barking signals for the Crimson Tide, the team’s future quarterback fell short of the standards for leaders or role models the senior #12 had established.  And the other players sure didn’t seem to respect this woppy young greaseball when he showed up looking like S.E. Hinton’s Muse.

Maybe that’s why Bryant shocked to the bone every ‘Bama player and coach when, on Namath’s first day in Tuscaloosa, he invited the 18-year-old into the pit of his practice Tower, where only a governor, a university president, and a comedian whom Bryant enjoyed, had previously been — and nobody to this day can confirm those other invitees.  But all at practice that day remember the time Joe Namath joined Bear Bryant in the Tower.  When the Tide rookie, quite clearly per coach’s orders, was more-or-less commanded to wear #12, every person in the program, whether they realized it or not at the time, began to recognize their next field leader.

That season Trammell flawlessly guided the varsity to 11 wins, zero losses, and both the SEC and national titles while Namath wowed crowds on the freshman team.  As the elder studied medicine instead of playing professional football (his decision to do so was heavily influenced by his former coach and confidant), the younger lived up to expectations, becoming “the greatest athlete I ever coached,” as Bryant would later say, and reeling in All-conference and All-America honors and piles of victories over the next three seasons, which included the ‘62 Orange Bowl, the ‘63 Sugar Bowl,* and the SEC and national crowns in ‘64.

Broadway Joe was the coolest kid in America, an object of affection for girls and gangsters, a source of bafflement for bookmakers everywhere. He made a debonair comedy of most likelihoods. He walked off with Jagger’s girls. He spilled drinks on Sinatra. He grinned his way through it all.

The Raiders broke his face, and he caught a flight to Vegas, came back the next week, and set a single-season passing record. Namath had a concussion when he hit Maynard  in the AFL Championship Game. He was still drunk the day he threw three touchdown passes against the Patriots in ‘66.


Namath could dunk a basketball reverseways, sideways, or just plain in-your-face-ways, and he bragged about giving up the sport when his high school coach attempted to get him and his four black co-starters to play slow-tempo offense.  When he saw signs for “colored water” during his first trip to Tuscaloosa, writes Kriegel in Namath, he wondered what made the water colored.  His first year was full of all kinds of adjustments to the ’60s South, and he nearly skipped town.  Namath stuck to it, however, and was right as rain in 1962 when he finally took the varsity field, the one place he could never be an outcast.

“Nothing came easier to him than football,” said Bryant.

His very first collegiate pass, the second play of the Tide’s opener vs. Georgia, Namath delivered an artistic stroke over the shoulder of receiver Richard Williamson, who never broke stride on his way to a 52-yard score.  “Pat Trammell couldn’t throw it like that,” Williamson says in Namath.  “We’d hadn’t seen anybody who could throw it like that.”

The sophomore finished that debut with a total of three passing touchdowns and another on the ground.  By air, he had 179 yards, and it was obvious he would be shattering Trammell’s single-season school record, set the previous year.  A couple weeks later, a Vanderbilt defender picked at the young QB after popping him one play.  “Hey number 12,” the Vandy player taunted.  “What’s your name?”

“You’ll see it in the headlines tomorrow,” Namath responded.  And then he threw a touchdown on the very next play.

He not only exhibited swagger on the field, but he also executed it with finesse.  His supreme talent-backed confidence was different than Trammell’s who used his head to both outwit his opponents and smash in their facemasks.  Both so different but both so great.

In 1968, when Bryant’s favorite player and person told him he had cancer, the Bear’s heart skipped a beat.  When Trammell died on December 10, 1968, it broke.  One month later, almost to the day, Namath guaranteed his New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts, led by his childhood hero, Johnny Unitas.  Meanwhile down in Alabama, Paul Bryant was about to enter one of the toughest periods of his career, wishing he had a Trammel or a Namath to help him.


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Filed under Alabama, College Football, History, SEC

One Year Makes a Difference

Before the most recent season, it had been so long since Alabama was a good football program. Sure, there was the flukiest 10-win season in history under Shula (2005) and another 10-win year under Fran (2002). And the SEC Championship under Dubose (1999).

But when’s the last time ‘Bama fans celebrated a good season and didn’t just hope the future was bright? Back when the Dallas Cowboys ruled the professional gridiron, Bill Clinton was in his first term, and Miley Cyrus was in kindergarten. That’s when.

After back-to-back stellar recruiting classes, an SEC title game appearance and a Sugar Bowl berth, the Crimson Tide Nation knows the future is bright this offseason. It’s been a rough run, but take a look at the SEC four-year standings before the 2008 season compared to the SEC four-year standings after the 2008 season below. Significant difference, and this time it feels like it’s gonna get even better in the years to come.

From Picture Me Rollin’:

Four-Year Period Ending in ’07-’08
After 07

Four-Year Period Ending in ’08-’09
After 08

Note: M = Major Bowls (BCS); B = Bowls

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Filed under 2009 College Football, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, College Football, Florida, Georgia, Happy Thoughts, History, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Saban, SEC, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt

ESPN “Prestige” Rankings

ESPN has finalized its countdown of the most “prestigious” programs in college football history. Based on a questionable point system, the results are interesting. Not a single SEC team in the top-5:

Bob Stoops

Despite losing five of its last six bowl games (all BCS bowls), Bob Stoops's Oklahoma is the #1 most "prestigious" college football program since 1936 according to ESPN.

ESPN Prestige Top 5

Here’s how SEC teams fared:

SEC ESPN Prestige

DCT Comments:

Ok, there’s little argument that Alabama should be ranked higher than #6 because the last decade of Crimson Tide football has been horrible. Furthermore, the Tide has not won a “major” bowl since the ’92 Sugar Bowl! In fact, based on ESPN’s point system, if this list had been compiled at the end of the 20th century, Alabama would be ranked between in the top-4, possibly as high as #2. Of course, the past ten years is just as important (arguably more important) than the many years before. So Alabama’s ranking is fairly accurate.

UA Team

But something smells about this list.

– Sure, Oklahoma (#1) and USC (#2) are probably two of the greatest programs in college football history. But both schools racked up dozens and dozens of points based on “weeks ranked #1 in the AP,” which awards two points each week as the top-ranked team. Well, sure (and this applies to USC more than Oklahoma), when the sportswriters, most of whom vote based on image rather than logic, pick a squad to be #1 at the beginning of a season, and that team plays a joke of a schedule, then it will accumulate many points just for being the sexiest pick at the beginning of a season.

Due to domination of college football before 1970, Notre Dame made #4 on ESPN's list.

Due to domination of college football before 1970, Notre Dame made #4 on ESPN's list.

Notre Dame somehow sneaks in at #4 mostly based on everything it accomplished before 1970. Not too much argument against this…the program in South Bend was pretty damn successful so long ago. Hell, Alabama racked up a lot of points that way too.

– How. In. The Hell. Is Florida only ranked #15??? Notably, the Gators were bad before Steve Spurrier stepped onto campus in the early ’60’s and mediocre between his exit and the late ’80’s when Emmit Smith began his college career. But ESPN’s point system gives little credit for Florida’s successful run in the ’90’s.

In fact, based on decade, UF is the #20 school from 1988-1998! WHAT??? Numerous weeks at #1, 10-win seasons, SEC Championships, SEC title game berths, a national title in ’96. A Heisman Trophy winner (Danny Wuerffel in ’96).

Based on the last three years and the Spurrier era, Florida should be higher than #15.

Based on the last three years and the Spurrier era, Florida should be higher than #15.

For the Gators to be only #20 from ’88 to ’98 is absurd, even based on this shady point scale.

Did the ESPN research team miscalculate? Florida’s two national championships and Heisman Trophy winner (Tim Tebow in ’07) during the last three years didn’t help any?

Even stranger, in the all-time rankings, Georgia is one slot ahead of Florida! Take away Hershel Walker and the Bulldogs are an overall mediocre program with some success based on 10-win seasons in the last few years!

Vandy is #119. Dead last. In all of college football. Nobody can argue the ‘Dores deserve to breach the top-100 of most “prestigious” programs of all-time, but Arkansas State, U-La-La, Louisiana Monroe, and Idaho are better???

Something went wrong with these rankings. Nice try by ESPN to base it upon numbers, but if they’re not the right ones even numbers can lie. See the BCS.

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Filed under Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, BCS, BCS BS, College Football, Defiance of Logic, ESPN, Florida, Georgia, History, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Polls, Rankings, SEC, South Carolina, Tennessee, USC, Vanderbilt

Pour Some Sugar on Me

For the first time since the ’93 choke slamming of Gino Torretta, Lamar Thomas, and the rest of the Miami Hurricanes, ‘Bama is back to where it belongs.  The Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. 

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Filed under Alabama, College Football, History, Sugar Bowl, Utah

On This Day: Sports Illustrated Vault

The Sports Illustrated Vault feature on SI’s website is an Internet gem.  Any article from the magazine since its first print year, 1954, is available in the Vault.

ON THIS DAY: DEC. 10th, 1979

The Bad-Neighbor Policy

Douglas S. Looney

SI Dec 10 1979








Looney recaps Alabama’s 25-18 victory over Auburn the week before.  On its way to another national championship, The Tide struggled to put away the stubborn Tigers until late.  

An Alabama official says, ‘All you need to understand is that if you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, you go to Alabama. If you want to be a farmer or a county agent, you go to Auburn.’ Which is, of course, unfair.

A sign in Tuscaloosa last week said, AUBURN SHUCKS. When Fob James, a former Auburn running back who is now governor, announced his intention to improve education in the state, calling it a War on Illiteracy, it inspired one of those snooty Tuscaloosa types to sneer, ‘The war was canceled because Auburn surrendered.’

Click here to read the full article.


ON THIS DAY: DEC. 10th, 1962

A Modest All-America Who Sits on the Highest Bench

Alfred Wright

Whizzer WhiteIn the spring of ’62, President John F. Kennedy appointed his first Supreme Court Justice.  

His choice was a 44-year-old deputy-attorney general most of the nation only recognized in a football uniform.  Byron “Whizzer” White, a standout at Colorado and all-pro back in Pittsburgh and Detroit, would serve on the country’s highest bench for 31 years until he was replaced by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993.

He’s remembered for his elusiveness on the football field as well as for his harsh criticism of the Court’s “substantive due process” doctrine.  

White was one of only two Justices to dissent in the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, and White’s icy opinion lashed out against the majority’s “exercise in raw judicial power.”  

Click here to read the full article.


Letters to SI


SI Nov 26 1962








Some American Ways are the same, no matter the decade.  In this issue, the magazine publishes several letters from readers.  Three of them are from ‘Bama fans, who are disgruntled that a previous issue’s article on the Alabama-Georgia Tech game, which Tech won, 7-6, wrongly accused UA head coach Bear Bryant of teaching his players to play dirty.  

One of the letters is from a GT fan, who is disgruntled because the article focused more on Bryant than the actual game.  

Sounds exactly like the tune today: ‘Bama fans hollerin’ that the national media is hard on their school…while other fans are whining that the national media is in love with The University of Alabama and its coach.  



Your article is not only an insult to Alabama and Bryant but to college football as such. It is pertinent, I think, that you realize this game is not ring-around-the-rosy. Football is a man’s game; it was before Paul Bryant began coaching, and it will still be after he has gone. The only difference between Bryant and other coaches is that he wins more games.

After anxiously waiting for it, I was indeed disappointed in your coverage of the Tech-Alabama game. I did expect a slightly prejudiced viewpoint, but I was disgusted that such a story would be only a tribute to Coach Bryant.

From your article one would conclude that Alabama lost because the team played a clean game. (Perhaps such a change did contribute slightly to Alabama’s difficulties.) One would further conclude that the Tide’s loss was due to ‘bad breaks’ and ‘gambles.’ These two assumptions merely underlie the real reason: Georgia Tech rightfully won the game through inspiration, effort and spirit unprecedented in Tech’s recent football history.

To Tech fans the game was a battle of principles. And Georgia Tech deserved the victory—regardless of the national standing of the teams involved. 


Click here to read the full article.


Filed under College Football, History, Politics, SI Vault