November 15, 1924 The Undefeated Alabama "Tide" and Centre
Alabama was next. Two down. Two to go.
Centre ( Central University, see chapter 126 ) and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide had played twice before with 'Bama winning a 1905 game in Tuscaloosa, 21-0, and 12-0, at Birmingham's Fairgrounds in 1907.
Once again, Centre was taking on a much larger school. The Alabama student newspaper, the "Crimson White," reported in its September 19, 1924 issue that there were 2,250 students on campus. Centre had less than 300 enrolled.
Centre loved to play in Birmingham. The Tutwiler Hotel was glamorous. The alumni of the school bent over backwards to make each year's journey to the city pleasurable, and the fans had treated the Colonels wonderfully in the last three games against Auburn at Rickwood Field.
Birmingham's Rickwood Field built in 1910 for the Barons, a Southern Association minor league baseball team. It also later became the home field of the Birmingham Black Barons in 1925.
Centre would have played Auburn again except that the Tigers had committed to a game with Georgia in Columbus, Georgia on November 15, and there was no way to switch dates. It was perhaps fortunate, because Auburn wasn't having a great season, and Alabama was. A win over the Tide would gain more recognition than one over Auburn.
Alabama was on a roll. After Uncle Charlie had turned down the 1923 offer to coach in Tuscaloosa, Wallace Wade had come in from Vanderbilt where he was an assistant coach and done a great job. His 1923 team was 7-2-1 with the losses being to an 8-1 Syracuse, and to Florida, which had an excellent 6-1- 2 record. The tie was with always tough Georgia Tech.
The Tide was undefeated in 1924 with 7 straight victories to give Wade a record of 14-2-1 thus far at the helm of the program with 2 games left.
Alabama. 55 Union. 0
Alabama. 20 Furman 0
Alabama. 55 Mississippi College 0
Alabama. 14 Sewanee 0
Alabama. 14 Georgia Tech 0
Alabama 61 Mississippi 0
Alabama 42 Kentucky 7
Obviously, Alabama had a powerful defense, only giving up 7 points all season, but the team's offense was just as formidable, having scored 261 points for an average of over 37 points per game.
The Kentucky game stood out when comparing Alabama and Centre. Even though the Colonels won statistically by a greater margin than the 7-0 score in Lexington would indicate, everyone had to think that 'Bama would be the big favorite as it had rolled over the Wildcats, 42-7.
"Centre could only score once against Kentucky? Look what our boys did!"
There were 3 excellent backs who led the Tide's attack. "Rosey" Rosenfeld, "Pooley" Hubert, and Mack Brown, who had a big game against Kentucky, were considered by many to be the best backfield combination in the South. They would be running behind a line which outweighed Centre's front wall by 15 pounds per man.
1924 Alabama team with a backfield that many considered the best in the South
( Mack Brown led Alabama to an undefeated season in 1925 and a Rose Bowl win over Washington. His play earned him a spot on a "Wheaties" box, and propelled him to a 40-year career in the movies, beginning in 1927. He was best known as Johnny Mack Brown and became a household name appearing in "B" movies as a cowboy, being right up there with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, also "B" stars, in the 1940's and 50's.)
Alabama planned to wrap up the title as the best Southern team. Even though Centre was a member of the small college S.I.A.A and couldn't influence the official standings of the Southern Conference, it followed that if the Tide lost to the Colonels, it would diminish any claim of 'Bama as being the premiere squad in the South.
"They claim to be the best Southern team and couldn't even beat little Centre?"
However if Alabama beat both Centre and Georgia, it would finish 9-0 and have a legitimate shot at being declared not only the Southern champs, but the national champions as well, plus a possible slot in the January 1, 1925 Rose Bowl if the Southern Conference would allow it. A lot was riding on the game for the boys from Tuscaloosa.
The "Crimson White" ran weekly predictions by the newspaper's resident prognosticator, "The Campus Prophet," in which the "Prophet" picked not only the winner of the upcoming football game, but the score. He had "divined" Alabama as the winner every week, and since the Tide was undefeated, he was looking to be infallible.
For the Centre game, it was an easy 20-0 win for 'Bama, or so said the "Prof."
The "Crimson White," besides printing the prediction, began a drive to get the entire student body to Birmingham, certainly a familiar venue for Alabama. In the last 25 years, the college had played 60 games in the friendly atmosphere of the city. It was actually a stretch to consider playing in Birmingham to be a road game. In the current season, Alabama was playing 3 games at home in Tuscaloosa and 3 in Birmingham, 1 in Montgomery, and 2 truly on the road, at Furman and Georgia Tech.
The newspaper pointed out that there were multiple trains running between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, a mere 60 mile, hour and a quarter run. There were late afternoon and night trains on Friday, and two were regularly scheduled on Saturday morning at 4:55 and 8:50, but most students planned on coming over on a specially designated "Special" consisting of day coaches, leaving at 8:30 AM, which would include no stops, and carried a roundtrip tariff of $2.20.
Alabama planned on having a big parade through downtown Birmingham as soon as the "Special" arrived at 9:45. The school's "Million Dollar Band" would travel on the train and after unloading would assemble at 20th Street and the student body would fall in behind.
The Alabama "Million Dollar Band" traveled from Tuscaloosa to away games by train, dressed in uniforms and ready to march when it arrived, as it did in Birmingham.
The throng would wind through the main downtown thoroughfares. After marching and cheering, they would scatter to various restaurants and then head to Rickwood Field.
Centre had its usual chartered Pullman and hooked onto a Southern train for the overnight ride to Birmingham, arriving at 11:30 A.M. on Friday. The trip and reception were mirrors of what the Colonels had experienced the past three years. There was a big reception at the station as usual.
Birmingham Terminal where the Colonels disembarked
Once again, for the 4th straight year, the Colonels and their fans stayed at the Tutwiler. There was lunch and a workout at the Birmingham Country Club, again organized by S.L. Yerkes.
Birmingham Country Club where the Colonels not only had a workout but meals
Friday night, there was a dinner at the Club, and then the team took in the second performance of a vaudeville show before turning in for the evening.
Hennie Lemon and I were talking one night some years later when he was visiting me in Paducah. We were sitting out on our porch swing, shooting the breeze, listening to the Cardinals and Harry Carey on the radio, and as always, Centre football came up.
I asked Hennie about the Alabama game, and did the team feel it could win against what was obviously a heavily favored team. Hennie always called me "Red Robbie," and he said, "Red Robbie, we never considered that we'd lose in the 4 years that I was on the team. We felt it was an upset if we lost, not that it was ever an upset if we won."
Hennie said that the team entered the Alabama game with that attitude. They were going to win, no matter that Alabama was favored. He said Centre was Centre, and Centre never went onto the field without the feeling that it would walk off that field with a victory.
Herb Covington and George Joplin were talking on the trip down. Covey told Jop that Centre planned to come out with all guns firing from the onset and jump into the lead. He said that since Alabama had never trailed all season, he was confidant that an initial score would "unnerve" the Tide, and the Colonels could win if they drew first blood.
It was a measure of the little quarterback's confidence that he was planning to take his team in for "an initial score" against a much bigger team that had given up only one touchdown in 7 games.
Birmingham had been in a dry spell. There had been a little rain the night before the game, but the field was in good shape, and a "fast" field favored the speedy Colonels more than their heavier foes.
However, last minute bets found Alabama fans having to give 14 points. The Colonels' backers found plenty of takers, such was the certainty of the Tide's superiority.
A conference in the dressing room at Rickwood ended with the agreement that Frank Rubarth would start.
"I have only 2 games! Let me start. If I can't get the job done, take me out."
Centre ran out onto the field first. Writers in the press box agreed that the Colonels seemed small when compared to the Alabama team which jogged out shortly afterward. Several commented that giving 14 points seemed like a sure thing. After all, the Tide was undefeated, they were virtually playing a home game, they clearly outweighed Centre, and they had killed a Kentucky Wildcats' team which Centre had beaten by just 7-0.
"It should be a long afternoon for the Kentuckians," one writer said. None disagreed, and the capacity crowd of 17,000 sat back, confidant that they would see Alabama roll to its 8th straight win.
Meanwhile, in the packed Boyle-Humphrey Gymnasium, hundreds thought differently as they sat in the bleachers and awaited the start of the game which they would "watch" on the "Grid-Graph."
An example of the "Grid-Graph" set up in Boyle-Humphrey Gymnasium at Centre for the game
The time in Chapel on the Monday after the Colonels had returned from Birmingham was turned over to the Chief and members of the team.
Chief Myers wasn't one to hand out praise unless it was earned, but on this day, praise was all he could offer.
"There were no outstanding stars because there were eleven men who starred. There were no long, breathtaking gains. Every man did his part to help make the consistent, short, telling gains count when they were needed most. The game Saturday was as perfect a football game as I have ever witnessed. This is a great confession on my part, because as you all know, something has to be done awfully well before I'll say it was perfect."
Centre had taken the fight to Alabama from the opening play. The Colonels started "The Seven Immortals" who were joined by Elmer Rabenstein and Reginald "Mutt" Wilson in the backfield, and Alex Bush and Walter Skidmore in the line.
The Gold and White had come out of the dressing room wiping away tears after the pre-game prayer. They were literally the "Crying, Praying Colonels" on November 15, 1924.
Herb Covington received the opening kickoff, and from that moment, the Colonels absolutely dominated Alabama.
Centre achieved control of the line of scrimmage from the first. The smaller Colonels began to knock the heavier Tide linemen back on every play, going in low and literally driving the 'Bama defenders up and then back. The smacking of leather could be heard all over Rickwood Field, as well as the grunts and groans of the players as they made contact.
"Pooley" didn't smack much as Centre held him in check during the whole game. The Colonels wore their gold jerseys without numbers as shown in this photo.
Case Thomasson and Hennie Lemon drew a line in the sand and dared Alabama to try to sweep their end positions. That line was impregnable. On 15 end sweeps, the Tide had a net loss of 19 yards.
Ed Kubale played with intensity, as did Howard Lynch. Frank Rubarth, who acted like he'd never suffered a recent fracture of his collar bone, was in the middle of every play that came anywhere near his position. Walter Skidmore and Alex Bush, despite being considerably outweighed, always seemed able to break through the Tide's line when on defense and smother any effort of Alabama to get its offense going.
To understand how magnificently Centre played, and how totally it controlled the game, one statistic speaks volumes.
Alabama only got into Centre's territory once, and that was just to the Colonels' 48! No one in the stands could believe what they were watching. A team that had averaged over 37 points a game could do absolutely nothing against Centre's spirited play.
"Pooley" Hubert, who many considered the best back in the South, was totally shut down.
Allison Thomas Stanislaus "Pooley" Hubert
Centre ran 84 plays and picked up 15 first downs.
Alabama ran 54 plays and picked up 6 first downs.
Centre gained 155 yards on the ground and completed 6 of 8 passes for 100 yards, good for a total yardage of 255, averaging just slightly over 3 yards per play.
Elmer Rabenstein, junior halfback, an integral part of Centre's offense
Alabama got just 42 yards rushing and 36 passing. The Tide's total for the afternoon was a meager 78 yards in 54 plays, for an average of less that 1 1/2 yards per effort. If you run 3 plays and pick up less than 5 yards- then what?
You punt, which is what Alabama did all afternoon.
Herb Covington and Minos Gordy led the ground attack for the Colonels. Each nearly equaled the whole afternoon's offensive total for 'Bama. Covey gained 68 yards, and the hard charging Gordy, running out of the fullback position, picked up 67.
Herb Covington, who led the attack, returning one of many Alabama punts
Hennie Lemon, besides his great defensive play preventing Alabama to pick up any yardage around his end position, recovered 2 Tide fumbles and intercepted a pass, and the big-handed Mayfield, Kentucky native caught 5 of the 6 completed passes for 85 yards, one for a TD. He also kicked a field goal and converted 2 extra points.
Hennie Lemon, one of "The Immortals"
Centre scored in the 2nd quarter on a short run by Covington. The Colonels lined up and everybody broke left. Alabama followed the direction that the play appeared to be headed. Covey went the other way, around his right end, and scored unmolested.
After Lemon's kick, the half ended, 7-0.
The Colonels had so completely outclassed the Crimson Tide that the score would have been greater had Centre been able to convert on field goal attempts. Two relatively short tries were missed in the initial half, but it was indicative of how the game was going that at least Centre was able to get within field goal range.
Alabama never got close enough to even consider a kick.
Centre finally did get a field goal in the 3rd quarter when Lemon booted true from 30 yards out. The quarter ended, 10-0.
Coach Wallace kept running in replacements in the second half trying to get something started. He subbed twice in the backfield, and 5 times in the line, but nothing he did made any difference in his team's level of play, or perhaps more accurately, in Centre's.
Centre missed a field goal attempt early in the 4th quarter. The 38 yarder was long enough, but just wide.
The Chief stayed with his starting lineup until there were 2 minutes left. Walter Skidmore ended up limping after running down the field and had to reluctantly come out. Jim Priest replaced him and was in the game when Herb Covington hit Hennie Lemon on a beautiful 20 yard pass for a score. Lemon's kick was good.
The game ended with Centre up, 17-0.
"Getting The Jump On Crimson Squad From Outset," as Herb Covington had forecast
Frank Rubarth played the full 60 minutes, broken collar bone and all!
Sports writers from all over the South, nearly all of whom had come to Birmingham to be part of the coronation of Alabama on the throne of Southern football, tried to convey to their readers just how Centre had so totally outplayed what was supposed to be a superior team. There were terms like Centre, "outcharged them," Centre, "outfought Alabama," Covington, "outgeneraled 'Bama," the Colonels, "outkicked," they, "out tackled" their opponent.
Finally, it was up to reporter Charles Brown, formerly the head coach at Birmingham Southern, to come up with an adequate description of the game.
You might say that Centre simply, totally, "outouted" Alabama.
The "Mentally Sick" comment by Charles Brown referred to his story about everyone, including Alabama's alumni, students, and team members, being so certain of the Tide's superiority that it clouded their judgment going into the game.
Reporters came to the conclusion that Centre was actually the premiere team in the South after Centre had soundly beaten the team which was considered the best of the Southern Conference.
The Alabama "Crimson-White" paid homage to the Colonels' play.
The Centre team was fast, the backs being very quick on their line bucks. Their passes were also executed very rapidly, as well as their end plays. They had a dash and zip, never letting down in the least.
The Centre linemen were in fast on every play, leaving the 'Bama backs bewildered.
Alabama was whipped and whipped good, by a fast, hard running, brainy team from Centre College.
The Colonels deserved their victory.
"The Campus Prophet" who had predicted a 20-0 win for Alabama was not mentioned in the story.
The "Advocate" reported that as soon as the game was over, "bedlam broke out in Danville as the student body burst forth from the Grid-Graph at the Boyle-Humphrey Gymnasium with a shirttail parade up and down Main Street, with the clear peel of the Court House bell telling the outlying districts that something had broken loose in Danville, or Birmingham. They didn't know which, but they soon found out."
Centre had once again established itself as being in the upper tier of college football teams. The Valpo tie and close loss to West Virginia now seemed in the distant past. The dominating win over Alabama had surprised the sporting world, but not the Colonels.
They felt they were a team of destiny, and indeed they were.
Now it was only Georgia between "The Seven Immortals" and their supporting cast to be called the "Champions of the Southland."
I missed the Alabama game because Red took the freshmen team to Knoxville that day to play the Tennessee freshmen and as Red's manager, my first responsibility was to him, of course. However, that game was one that I really wished I'd been able to attend. It may have been been as big as the win over Harvard when I think back on how Centre totally dominated what was supposed to be the best team in the South and maybe in the nation.
The Alabama game changed what would have been a good season to a very special one.
The guys on the team had never really been down after the less than successful start of the season, but following the Alabama game, there was a different way that they acted.
They weren't conceited or went around bragging. It was something different.
I guess it could best be described as being that they had this almost supernatural air of confidence about themselves. They were now like a machine, and each man knew that he could count on his teammates to play to win, or to literally nearly die trying.
I've said it before. I think that the play of the 1924 team, my senior year, was the most inspired of any group which had ever represented our college.
Incidentally, the Lieutenants lost to the Junior Volunteers when we gave up a last second TD and went down, 20-19, after it seemed we had the game won. Red was pretty upset. but hearing about the win over Alabama, he was all smiles on the train trip back to Danville from Knoxville.
Freshmen game attended by team manager, Red Robertson
Later, the Colonels returned to one of the wildest celebrations of all the wild celebrations which had ever been seen in Danville. It wasn't planned like those following the Harvard games. This one was simply a spontaneous outpouring of pure joy. There was such a crowd at the station that many didn't even try to get down to the tracks but waited up on Walnut across from Breck Hall. When the train steamed in from the south and braked, even those who were hundreds of yards away could hear the cheering from all around the little brick station.
The students from Centre and K.C.W., with the cheerleaders out front holding the great gold and white banner, led the team up the street toward the campus and into the town, clasping hands and weaving back and forth in a snake dance which marched to the rhythm of the town's brass band, blowing as hard as cheeks could blow.
There were no formal speeches, just hugs, kisses, pats on the back, shaking of hands, arms wrapped around shoulders, fists pumped, jumping, whistling, clapping, laughing, crying tears of pure joy, and above all, there was a great pride in this wonderful group of young men who were truly living up to the Chief's designation of them as-"The Immortals."