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Alabama-Tennessee: A Southern Tradition



Oct. 23, 2008

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Paul Bryant played with a broken leg. W.T. "Bully" Vandegraff almost lost his right ear. So, just how important is the Alabama-Tennessee game? Just ask anyone who has been involved in the rivalry and they will tell you.

"I think everyone knows the rivalry and the history that goes along with playing Tennessee," Alabama senior quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "It's the same with Auburn. It's kind of like the same atmosphere. People around here take this game seriously. It's a big game and it's definitely a big game for us. We know that and they know that."

"The Alabama-Tennessee game is a great rivalry and there have been some great games over the years," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said.

So what makes it so special?

Alabama and Tennessee are two of Southern football's giants. The Tide and Vols have combined to win 14 national championships 32 SEC Championships.  The Crimson Tide alone has won 12 national titles and 21 SEC crowns, more than any team in league history.
In 1913, Alabama All-American W.T. "Bully" Vandegraff nearly lost his ear when he got tangled up with Tennessee's S.D. "Bull" Beyer, a native of Eutaw, Ala.  Beyer explains the incident.

"What really happened is his ear got a nasty cut at its top," Beyer told Al Browning in the book Third Saturday in October, a comprehensive history of the Alabama-Tennessee series. "It was dangling from his head a bit, bleeding a lot.  He got his ear caught in the leg of my pants a play or two later, and he got so made about it that he jumped to his feet, grabbed his ear and tried to yank it from his head."
His teammates stopped him, a manager put a bandage on it, and "Bully" stayed in the game. 

"Boy, he was a tough something!" Beyer added.  "He wanted to throw away his ear so he could keep playing. In all my days of football, I never saw anything like that again."

Alabama won the game 6-0 and cars parked around the field made it possible to illuminate the playing field when it became impossible to see well.

The Bull and Bully story says a lot about this series, which began in 1901; nine years after the Crimson Tide began playing football.  From 1901-14, Alabama took an 8-2-1 series lead.  The rivals took a 13-year break before resuming the series in 1928.

Alabama won back-to-back national championships in 1925 and 1926 under legendary Coach Wallace Wade just as Major Robert Neyland, who later became a General, arrived as the Tennessee football coach. Neyland wanted Alabama back on the schedule to help secure national stature. 

The series resumed in 1928 and has been going strong ever since. Tennessee beat Alabama 15-13 behind the play of sophomores Gene McEver and Bobby Dodd. The 1928 game was the last game ever played at Denny Field and was one of only two losses by Alabama at Denny Field.

In 1930, Alabama pulled out one of the program's greatest wins, beating Tennessee 18-6 on Nov. 18 in Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.  Alabama had a coach under fire before the start of the 1930 regular season. After a series of arguments with school president George Denny and an uprising among fans who were upset over back-to-back 6-3 records that included narrow losses to Tennessee, Wallace Wade submitted his resignation on April 30. It was accepted contingent on him leading the Crimson Tide through one more year.



"Coach Wade was boiling mad," John Henry Suther, Alabama's tailback, once recalled. "He was like a blood-thirsty drill sergeant anyway, and those critics made him more fiery ... He challenged us to help him shut up the loudmouths that were making his life miserable." 

By the time the Tennessee game arrived, Alabama was unbeaten and untied and its fans had regained spirit. With every ticket sold, 8,000 temporary seats were constructed so 20,000 fans could pack themselves into Denny Stadium. 

The Volunteers were no match for the Crimson Tide, which won the national title that year. Wade still left to go to Duke. The 1930 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa would be the only loss by a Tennessee football team over a period of 64 games from 1926-1933.  During that stretch, Coach Robert Neyland's Vol squads compiled an impressive 57-1-6 record, making this one of the great wins in Crimson Tide lore.

In 1935 Alabama end Paul Bryant played in the game with a broken leg.

"A few minutes before the game, Coach (Frank) Thomas was making his pep talk to the squad," Bryant recalled.  "He asked Coach Hank Crisp if he had anything to say.  Coach Hank said he did and he got up to talk to us.  He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he said "I'll tell you gentlemen one thing.  I don't know about the rest of you, you or you or you, but I know old 34 will be after them today.'

"In those days they changed players' numbers almost every week, so Coach Hank could sell a lot of game programs.  So, he's up talking about old 34.  I looked down to see what my jersey number was.  There it was, plain as day, old 34.

"Cold chills were running up my spine.  Coach Thomas asked me if I could play.  What could I have said?  I just ran out there."

Bryant was instrumental in the Tide's 25-0 win, setting up two first half touchdowns. 

A few days later Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution wrote a story that said in part, "As far as this is concerned, Paul Bryant has first place in the courage league. There was no bear story about Bear Bryant.  He played football with a crack through one of his leg bones. Bryant displayed true courage and determination.  Putting aside all thoughts of pain, he went on to play what is thought to be one of the best games of his career."

Bryant later became the Crimson Tide's head coach and quickly turned things back in UA's favor.

In the four years preceding his arrival, Alabama lost four straight games by a combined 72-7, including three straight shutouts from 1954-56.  In 1958, Bryant's team tied the Volunteers 7-7.

In 1961, the Tide ended a six-game winless streak with a 31-3 win and started its own period of dominance. Alabama went on to win 18 of the next 23 meetings in the series, including a series-record 11-game winning streak (1971-81) sparked by a man who played this game with a broken leg.

It really is that important.