Reconstruction and the Rose Bowl

Email Print

War Between the States and the pillaging by General William Tecumseh
Sherman’s Union troops left the South devastated. Most properties
as well as systems of production and transportation were destroyed.
Livestock were slaughtered and crops burned. For most Southerners,
survival became a matter of clawing and scraping.

The years of radical Reconstruction following the war further
demoralized the South. The region was placed under military rule
and an inept attempt was made to redistribute land and resources.
But those in charge of Reconstruction didn’t understand basic
human nature. Nor did they realize, until it was too late, how
easily their programs were being exploited and undermined by corrupt

So, within a few years, this social experiment lost its momentum
and was phased out, officially ending in 1877. At that point the
South began rebuilding efforts but the struggle to regain some
semblance of stability continued for decades. Indeed, millions
of Black as well as White Southerners migrated to the North in
the decades following the War because they were unable to earn
a living in the South.

But one form of Reconstruction was simply replaced with another
form that, for decades, kept Southern states in a continuous struggle
against poverty. Historian A.B. Moore examined this phenomenon
in his 1940s paper,  “One Hundred Years of Reconstruction
of the South.” Moore describes the harsh measures the government
imposed on the South following the War. The region was not allowed
to collect debts it was owed; however it had to pay its debts
in full. Discriminatory tariffs continued to place an unfair advantage
on the South while filling Northern coffers. Freight-rates were
skewed in favor of the North who could ship its goods southward
at cheaper rates than the South could ship its goods to the North.
Also, the inequitable rate structure allowed the North to ship
its goods to Southern cities cheaper than Southern cities could
ship goods to their own Southern neighbors.

Another inequity was the patent subsidy that allowed the North
to own almost 90 percent of “the effective money-producing patents.”
Of the government pensions paid for the War Between the States
and World War One, 7 billion dollars went to the North while only
1 billion dollars went to the other regions of the country. Southern
companies and farmers were compelled to finance their ventures
using Northern lenders and were charged much higher interest rates
than those assessed Northern borrowers. It is estimated that the
North controlled ninety percent of the nation’s wealth primarily
because of these government differentials that kept the South
in “colonial bondage.”

It has been said that, after the war, “tongues and pens” replaced
“bullets and bayonets.” The North owned the publishing businesses,
agencies of public instruction, news gathering agencies, newspapers,
magazines and radio systems. Northern conglomerates also owned
most newspapers in the South. In Moore’s words, “This gave the
North a tremendous advantage in the shaping of public opinion.”
Media became the instrument used “to make the northern way of
life the national way.” The North had “the conviction that it
was not a section but the whole United States and that, therefore,
its pattern of life must prevail throughout the country.When the
South failed to conform it was stigmatized as backward, provincial,
and sectional.” Southern culture was not simply different, it
was boorish. Northern journalists described the South in increasingly
unflattering ways although most had never traveled to the region.

By the early 1900s, the South had changed dramatically. It was
moving away from an agrarian economy. Although poverty was still
a problem, the South had a multiplicity of commercial enterprises
and metropolitan centers. Southern universities were incubating
a group of writers who would profoundly impact American literature.
And the Southern Belle had become a Flapper, influenced by the
female need for independence that was sweeping the country. But
the northern press continued to portray the South as a rural backwater
that could not compete with the hardworking and industrialized

Not surprisingly, the immense power of the media was even influencing
the way Southerners viewed themselves. So it is understandable
that, in the 1920s, the South was a region devoid of regional
pride. But, finally, an incident occurred that marked the beginning
of a change in the South’s image. Oddly enough, it was a football
game: the 1926 Rose Bowl. This game pitted the University of Washington
against the University of Alabama, the first Southern team in
history to be invited to a bowl game. This contest would always
be remembered as “The football game that changed the South.”

It has been called the Rose Bowl’s most spectacular game and many
believe it was the most exciting college football game ever played.
A few years ago the University of Alabama Center for Public Television
& Radio produced a documentary on this celebrated game. Film
footage from the University’s archives contains events leading
up to the game as well as scenes from the game and its aftermath.
The archives also contained portions of interviews with some of
the crusty old players who, with their Southern accents, recall
events from the game as though they happened yesterday.

Football, America’s version of soccer, had caught the nation’s
fancy in the late 1800s. In its beginning years, there were no
stadiums, no marching bands or cheerleaders and students handled
coaching and officiating. Anyone who wanted to watch the contest
had to stand along the sidelines throughout the entire game.

But by 1900, the game had become so popular that astute college
presidents realized that football could be a big money maker for
their institutions. They implemented football programs, hired
coaching staffs, built stadiums and formed marching bands.

As early as 1869, the National Collegiate Athletic Association
began awarding a national championship to the most deserving college
team. The NCAA, as well as national sportswriters, didn’t believe
Southern teams could compete with other regions of the country.
So, for it first 56 years, the NCAA only awarded its coveted national
championship to two Southern teams, and one of these had to share
the honor with a Northern team.

In 1902, the city of Pasadena added the Rose Bowl football game
to its annual Tournament of Roses. The Rose Bowl was the college
football event of the year and, until the mid 1930s, it was the
only bowl game in the country. Prior to January 1, 1926, no Southern
team had ever been invited to the prestigious Rose Bowl.

In the 1920s, many Ivy League as well as other colleges felt that
football had become too popular and might interfere with academics.
Some schools decided that the regular season games were enough
and they would no longer accept Rose Bowl invitations. Coach Enoch
Bagshaw’s Washington team had won all its regular season games
in 1925 but, because of a grudge with Southern California, it
shunned the Rose Bowl.

So, reluctantly, the Rose Bowl committee decided to consider Southern
teams. The University of Alabama had been undefeated in 1925.
In fact it had only given up seven points during the entire season.
Bowl officials extended an invitation to Alabama and it accepted
without hesitation. At this point, Washington reversed its earlier
decision and decided to accept the Rose Bowl’s invitation.

There was widespread disappointment expressed over the committee’s
selection of Alabama. National sportswriters vented their peevish
annoyance in their columns. Although most had never seen the Alabama
team play, they predicted a lopsided victory for Washington and
castigated bowl officials for their decision. One sportswriter
picked Washington over Alabama by a margin of 51 points!

The 1925 Washington Huskies were indeed a football power. And
its team had a physical advantage over Alabama with taller, more
muscular players, many over 6 feet tall and averaging 190 pounds
each. They were difficult to move against and Washington’s burly
halfback, George Wilson, could run roughshod over other teams,
often dragging tacklers with him.

If Alabama had an advantage; it was its coach, Wallace Wade, probably
the youngest and certainly the most underrated coach of that era.
Wade had been an outstanding player for Brown University and had
only been out of school for seven years, years spent as an assistant
coach at Vanderbilt. Today, we can’t imagine Brown University
fielding a football team but, in the early 1900s, it did, along
with Harvard, Yale and other Eastern colleges.

Alabama’s Quarterback Pooley Hubert, a veteran of World War One,
was 21 years old when he entered Alabama as a freshman. The largest
and oldest team member; he took football very seriously and often
played without a helmet. Halfback Johnny Mack Brown was definitely
not a typical football player. His extra curricular activities
included theater and he had acted in many campus plays. He was
playful and fun loving and his handsome good looks made him popular
with the coeds. Brown was the fastest man on the team and Coach
Wade designed the game’s first pair of low cut, lightweight football
shoes to increase his speed.

The 1926 Rose Bowl was eagerly anticipated all around the country
and pregame publicity made the headlines of newspapers. Also,
bowl game tension was heightened when the NCAA voted to wait until
after the game to award its national championship for 1925. With
the dour Calvin Coolidge in the White House, the nation craved
some kind of excitement.

This was the first Rose Bowl to be broadcast on radio. But most
families in America didn’t own radios. So, throughout the South,
theaters and public buildings had telegraph wires connected to
their facilities so they could be rented to large groups who could
follow the game on tickertape. Imagine this scenario if you can:
an announcer would read play activity from tickertape and move
a picture of a football across a large billboard marked off like
a football gridiron. Southerners in the audience would actually
cheer each time Alabama made a big play.

The Alabama team received a big send off at the Tuscaloosa train
station and began its four-day trip to the West Coast. Most of
the players were from small towns and Coach Wade was concerned
that they would be too distracted by pregame events that included
trips to various Hollywood studios and photo-ops with famous Hollywood
film stars. After a couple of days of this hoopla, Wade confined
his players to the hotel. From now on they would concentrate on

In the days preceding the game, northern sportswriters attended
Alabama’s practice sessions and got their first look at the team.
Now, as they watched the Crimson Tide’s scrimmages, they began
to narrow the odds, worried that the game might not be as one-sided
has they had once thought.

Finally the big day arrived and the Rose Bowl stadium was packed.
There were basically three groups of spectators; Alabama fans,
Washington fans, and, by far the largest group, Californians with
no particular allegiance to either team. Sportswriters and journalists
from all around the nation, including Damon Runyon and Grantland
Rice, were at the Pasadena stadium to cover the game. Throughout
the contest they continually relayed Teletype reports to their
bureaus and nothing was too insignificant to mention.

Washington, relying mostly on its powerful halfback, George Wilson,
dominated the first half, but was only able to score 12 points.
The Crimson Tide was, to put it mildly, not playing inspired football.
But late in the second quarter, Wilson became overzealous when
tackling Johnny Mack Brown. He hurled Brown to the ground and
then viciously twisted his leg. Apparently officials didn’t see
this infraction of the rules but the Bama squad did and they were
enraged. Inadvertently, Wilson had motivated the Tide players
far beyond what any coach’s pep talk could have done.

It may have been a coincidence but, a few plays later, Wilson
was knocked unconscious. However, during a time out Washington
trainers revived him and he was able to continue playing –
but not for long. Next, Wilson went down with a hip injury and
had to be assisted off the field. This injury kept him out of
the game for the entire third quarter. Now, the fired up Crimson
Tide began moving the ball but the quarter ended before they could
put any points on the board.

The first half of the game didn’t satisfy anyone. Although Washington
led by a score of twelve to nothing, its fans were not pleased.
Neither were those sportswriters who had predicted that Washington
would blow Alabama off the field. Alabama fans couldn’t believe
that their boys didn’t score a single point in two quarters of
play. And the Californians had to sit through a first half that
would only appeal to defensive coaches.

It was a punishing first half because at that time the same players
were required to play both offense and defense. These bedraggled
young men made their way to their respective dressing rooms to
rest and listen to any halftime adjustments their coaches might
make. But Wallace Wade knew that the problem wasn’t his game plan.
He had only one comment for his players, “And they told me boys
from the South would fight.” With that he left the room.

We don’t know what effect Wade’s strange halftime behavior made
on the players. However, it didn’t seem to bother Johnny Mack
Brown who left the dressing room and casually strolled into the
stadium to socialize. The University’s documentary has a wonderful
shot of Johnny during halftime, sitting between two attractive
Flappers, flashing his impish grin at the camera.

In the third quarter, Alabama decided to alter its game plan and
improvise. In the opening series of downs, Quarterback Hubert
called his own number 5 times in a row, running for 27 yards on
his first carry. Four plays later he scrambled over the goal line
for Alabama’s first touchdown. The point after was good and Washington’s
lead was narrowed to 5 points.

After recovering a Washington fumble at midfield, the Crimson
Tide took off again. This time Hubert flipped the ball to his
other halfback, Grant Gillis, who promptly completed a 40-yard
pass to Brown, who was finally brought down on Washington’s 5-yard
line. On the next play, Johnny Mack Brown scampered into the end
zone for the touchdown. The point after put Alabama ahead by a
score of 14 to 12.

The defensive unit held Washington and Alabama again took possession.
Pooley Hubert had his Bama squad huddled on its own 39 yard line;
61 yards away from the Washington end zone. Years later Johnny
Mack Brown recalled what happened on the next play. “Pooley told
me to run upfield as fast as I could. When I reached the three-yard
line, I looked back and the ball was coming over my shoulder.
I took it in stride and went over carrying somebody. The place
was really in an uproar.” The point after attempt failed but the
Crimson Tide was ahead by 8 points. In the first seven minutes
of the third quarter, Alabama had scored three times to take a
20 to 12 lead.

Alabama fans were giddy. They hooted and hollered. Washington
fans were as still and silent as the figures on Mount Rushmore.
Also, they were extremely perturbed at the Californians who were
now cheering for the boys from the South.

But Coach Wade was not smiling. He knew there was another quarter
left to play and an eight-point lead was not enough against a
powerhouse like Washington. In the fourth quarter George Wilson
returned to the game. Alabama drove the ball to the Huskies’ 12-yard
line. But Washington stopped the Tide on a fourth and one play.
Then the Huskies started to move with Wilson picking up 17 yards
on first down. A few plays later Wilson caught a short pass for
a crucial first down and then threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to
quarterback George Guttormsen. The point after cut Alabama’s lead
to one point.

Football is called a contact sport and there was a surplus of
contact in the remaining minutes of this epic game. In fact, the
fourth quarter of the 1926 Rose Bowl might rank as one of the
most brutally physical quarters in football history. These young
athletes had played three and a half quarters of backbreaking
football. But neither side could allow the other to score. There
was simply too much at stake. Old timers, remembering the game,
claim that in the minutes remaining, no spectators were seated.
Everyone was standing perfectly still and watching in total silence.
It was so quiet, they said, that even in the top rows of the stadium,
you could actually hear the blocking and tackling, the slapping
of leather and the groans of the players.

The grueling minutes seemed to drag by. The Bama squad knew that
in the time remaining Washington would rely on its best player,
George Wilson, hoping he could make the big play. The outcome
of the game depended on Alabama’s ability to contain the brawny
halfback. But even though Alabama players swarmed him on every
play, Wilson eventually managed to struggle free and break loose
into the open field headed for the end zone.

Many consider what happened next to be the biggest play of the
game and it was certainly the most spectacular. As Washington
fans watched in astonishment, Johnny Mack Brown caught up with
Wilson and made an open-field tackle that put Washington’s strapping
halfback on the ground. Alabama had risen to the occasion and
it would not let Wilson break loose again.

As the final minute ticked away, Washington tried one last desperation
pass. Alabama intercepted it, time ran out and the final whistle
blew. The underdogs from Alabama had upset the Washington Huskies
and won the 1926 Rose Bowl by a score of 20 to 19. And, in the
process, they captured the NCAA’s coveted national championship
for 1925.

Alabama fans were delirious and emotionally drained. The Californians
were whooping it up. They had seen one hell of a football game.
Washington’s coach left the field in a huff, refusing to congratulate
Wallace Wade.

In cities throughout the South, streets were mobbed with celebrating
fans. Bars and lounges did a brisk business and police made no
attempt to restore order. It was a long overdue celebration. For
a while at least, Gettysburg and Appomattox were forgotten.

The long trip home was made even longer because the train had
to make frequent stops at towns throughout the South. As brass
bands played, the team would assemble on station platforms to
be cheered by local citizens waving red and white bunting. Finally
the train arrived at the Tuscaloosa station and the players were
greeted by thousands of fans who had been waiting for hours. The
Mayor proclaimed the day as an official holiday and schools and
businesses were closed

Two players in this legendary game were actually signed to Hollywood
contracts and had long film careers: Washington’s Herman Brix
and Alabama’s Johnny Mack Brown. Herman Brix, primarily because
of his physique, began by playing Tarzan. His name was eventually
changed to Bruce Bennett and he played several important roles
over the years including parts in at least two Academy Award winning
films, “Mildred Pierce” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

Johnny Mack Brown appeared with many of the famous actresses of
the time including Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford.
He also made comedies with Mae West. In 1930, MGM gave Brown the
lead role in “Billy The Kid” with Wallace Beery as Sheriff Pat
Garrett. This led to years of Westerns and Brown became one of
Hollywood’s top cowboy stars.

But the outcome of one high-profile football game could not transform
the nation’s conduct toward the South. The inequitable government
policies continued to restrain the South’s economy and the northern
press persisted in its ridicule of Southerners. However, for discerning
northerners, the 1926 Rose Bowl raised a troubling question: If
reporters had so completely misjudged Southern football teams,
shouldn’t their other reports about the South be suspect? And
Southerners certainly began to wonder why they were allowing another
region of the country to sit in judgement of their culture.

Andrew Doyle, a history professor at Winthrop University said
of the game: “You can look at the 1926 Rose Bowl as the most significant
event in Southern football history. 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

When professors catalogue history-altering events, they usually
refer to political upheavals, military campaigns, scientific discoveries
and new inventions. But the impact of other cultural phenomena
should not be discounted. This famous game should be a discussion
topic in textbooks and Southern history classes. The 1926 Rose
Bowl was at least a spark, the genesis of a new regional pride
for the South, and it marked the beginning of the end of the South’s
exclusion from the rest of the nation.

3, 2002

Jarvis [send
him mail
] is a CPA living in
Beaufort, SC, an unreconstructed Southerner, and an opponent of
big government.
needs your help. Please donate.

Email Print