By Chris Mahr
Nothing about No. 1 Alabama’s nickname of “Crimson Tide” brings to mind the school’s costumed elephant mascot, Big Al, no matter how hard you try.
So how did one of college football’s blue bloods on the path to win its third national title in four years come to be represented by an animal most often associated with the circus, Dumbo and the Republican Party?
“It’s a pretty common question,” said Ken Gaddy, Director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa. “We get it a lot from people not familiar with Alabama. It’s not an obvious type of thing.”
Especially considering that “Crimson Tide” entered the pantheon of Alabama traditions long before elephants did.
After originally going by “varsity,” “Crimson White” (the school colors) and “The Thin Red Line,” Birmingham Age-Herald sports editor Hugh Roberts coined the term “Crimson Tide” to describe ‘Bama’s heroic effort in holding heavily favored Auburn to a 6–6 tie in a mud-soaked game in 1907 that had the ‘Bama players looking like a red tidal wave. The nickname stuck.
You have to fast-forward 23 years to come upon the first mention of elephants to describe Alabama football. Like the team’s nickname, it was the brainchild of a sports writer.
“At the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow,” wrote Everett Strupper of the Atlanta Journal when describing the Tide’s domination of Ole Miss on Oct. 8, 1930. “Some excited fan in the stands bellowed, ‘Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,’ and out stamped this Alabama varsity.”
Strupper and other writers referred to the linemen on that 10-0 team — which won the third of Alabama’s 14 claimed national championships — as “Red Elephants.”
But it would be nearly five decades until Alabama recognized the animal as its official mascot. Which isn’t to say that elephants didn’t factor in prominently to gameday tradition.
During the 1940s, the school kept a live elephant mascot named “Alamite.” It was a regular on gamedays, and for several years it would bear that year’s homecoming queen onto the field prior to the game.
By the 1950s, keeping a live elephant year round proved to be too expensive for the university. Instead, the school’s “Spirit Planning Committee” started hiring elephants — often from traveling circuses passing through or by Tuscaloosa — for every homecoming.
And in the early 1960s, Alabama student Melford Espey went the extra mile and dressed up as the animal to cheer on his beloved team.
It was clear that Crimson Tide Nation’s obsession with the pachyderm would not cease. So what took so long for the Alabama administration to adopt the animal as the school’s official mascot?
“Coach (Bear) Bryant thought it was not representative of football players,” Gaddy said. “He thought that elephants were big, slow and clumsy. That was not the image of his players he wanted to portray.”
Bryant was Alabama’s football coach and athletic director, not to mention a legendary figure that Crimson Tide fans would never cross. When Bryant shot down the elephant mascot idea, that was that. But the same students who worshipped the Bear persisted, and he finally relented in the late 1970s.
“He said, ‘If that’s what students want, that’s what it should be,’ ” Gaddy said. The man who Bryant tasked with spearheading Big Al’s creation was none other than Espey, who by that time was working as an Alabama administrator.
Big Al’s game debut was one to remember: The 1979 Sugar Bowl against top-ranked and undefeated Penn State, when a fourth-quarter goal line stand delivered No. 2 Alabama the national title. And Big Al’s been an omnipresent fixture on the Crimson Tide sidelines ever since.
He’s still one of the most unique mascots in college football. Compared to its more fearsome mascot counterparts around the country like LSU’s live tiger, Mike, Big Al looks like a big stuffed animal. Crimson Tide fans are okay with that.
“It’s special to the kids that relate to him,” Gaddy said. “Some of the mascots they’re afraid of, but they’re just drawn to Big Al.”
Needless to say, Alabama opponents in the SEC aren’t nearly as fond of seeing the Crimson Tide’s elephant mascot. More often than not, it means they are about to get trampled.
Second Photo Credit: SB Nation/Roll ‘Bama Roll