Duke and Alabama had more in common than just being opponents in the 2019 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. The programs share some close historical connections, going back almost 90 years to the 1930s when Wallace Wade came to Duke from Alabama to ignite the Blue Devil program.
Simply put, the future Duke football coach put Alabama football on the national map by leading the Crimson Tide to three national titles in 1925, 1926 and 1930 before departing for Durham after the 1930 season. He took three of his former ‘Bama players and coaches with him to Duke in Dumpy Hagler, Fred Sington and Herschel Caldwell (whose wife Anita, also an Alabama grad, attended every Duke home game from 1933 to 2010). Wade then led Duke to national prominence in the 1930s and 40s, with 85 wins and two Rose Bowls in his first 11 seasons.
Not only did Wade establish Alabama as a football power, he left the program with two men who would go on to win eight more national titles. He chose Frank Thomas to succeed him, and Thomas won two national titles at Bama. But even more important, a young man named Paul (Bear) Bryant came to Alabama to play football for the legendary Wade. The 1926 Rose Bowl game between Alabama and Washington was the first football game Bryant had ever listened to on the radio. The Crimson Tide remained in young Bryant’s heart from that moment on. He would go on to lead Alabama to six national titles.
“I never imagined anything could be that exciting,” Bryant once said of hearing that Rose Bowl at the age of 13. “I still didn’t have much of an idea what football was. But after listening to that game, I had it in my mind that what I wanted to do with my life was to go to Alabama and play in the Rose Bowl for Coach Wade.”
Wade and Bryant remained friends for the rest of their lives. Bryant invited Wade back to Tuscaloosa several times and always got Wade to talk to his teams. Bryant would introduce Wade: “Men, I’d like you to meet Coach Wallace Wade, the man who is most responsible for the University of Alabama football tradition.” Bryant would quite often call Wade in Durham, where Wade had retired to a cattle farm. There is a statue of Wade in the plaza outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
In 1945, Duke and Alabama played each other in the Sugar Bowl in what is regarded as one of the most exciting bowl games ever. Duke won the game, 29-26. Frank Thomas was still coaching Alabama, but Wade had resigned in 1942 to enter the Army and fight in World War II. He became a Lieutenant Colonel and led the 272nd Field Artillery Battalion in many battles in France and Germany. Eddie Cameron took over as Duke football coach in 1942 and led Duke in that 1945 Sugar Bowl win over Bama.
Behind the brilliant passing of Harry Gilmer, Alabama jumped out to a 19-7 lead. Duke scored before halftime to make it 19-13. In the third period, Tom Davis of Duke carried the ball 11 times on a 12-play, 64-yard touchdown drive to put Duke up 20-19. Hugh Morrow of the Crimson Tide then intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown to make the score 26-20 in favor of Alabama. Duke got the ball back and drove to Alabama’s one-yard line, but the Tide defense kept Duke out of the end zone. Only three minutes remained in the game. Alabama coach Frank Thomas called for a safety to get a free kick from the 20, and now the score was 26-22 in favor of Bama.
But Duke took possession as George Clark caught Alabama’s punt on the Duke 40 and returned it to the Tide 39. Jim Larue carried the ball for Duke for 19 yards on a reverse. Then Clark went over right tackle for the remaining 20 yards, and Duke led 29-26 to secure the first bowl victory in Duke football history.
Wade always remained friends with his hand-picked successor Thomas. After Thomas got sick with high blood pressure in the 1940s, Wade convinced him to come to Durham and go to Duke Hospital for treatment. While in Durham, Thomas stayed at the Wade home several nights and attended several Duke football practices and talked to the Duke players.
There is another connection between Alabama and Duke football. Steve Sloan, quarterback for Alabama in the 1960s playing for Bear Bryant, became Duke’s head football coach in 1983 and stayed four seasons, then returned to Alabama as athletics director.
A real connection between Duke and Alabama today is that the Blue Devils’ head coach is an Alabama graduate. David Cutcliffe was born in Birmingham, keeps a bust of Wallace Wade in his office and credits Bear Bryant for much of his football knowledge.
“I was a student assistant to the football program at Alabama,” he once said.
“Quite frankly, I spent more time studying football than academics. The influence of Coach Bryant was enormous. I really studied how he did things, how he managed his staff and squad. What an opportunity I had, learning from the coaches at Alabama. I still have a notebook today full of things I wrote down at Alabama, and I refer to those notes today. Good things to hang your hat on.
“I owe the University of Alabama so much. Alabama has always been about excellence in football, about excellence in a lot of areas, but the one that appealed to me the most was football. I have so much respect for Coach Bryant, learned so much from him. Coach Saban has built upon that excellence and carries on the great tradition there. I think he understands football as well, probably better, than anybody out there. His attention to detail is second to none. As an offensive-minded coach, and Nick is defensive-minded, I’ve always been amazed at what his players understand and how they perform.”
Referring to the bust of Wade in his office overlooking Wallace Wade Stadium, Cutcliffe said, “There are times around here, when I’m working late and may just have a lamp on in the office, when I think Coach Wade is telling me something. I’ll look over at the bust of him and it makes the hair on my neck stand up. And you better believe I listen. I’m very proud to follow in his footsteps here at Duke, and the fact that he has an Alabama heritage, as I do, I’m very proud of that.”
The 2019 season-opener was not the first time Cutcliffe and Saban have coached against each other. “I have had a great relationship with Nick Saban, a great respect for what he’s done,” Cutcliffe said. “Boy we had tremendous games when I was at Ole Miss and he was at LSU. There is the history between Alabama and Duke, the Wallace Wade connection, along with my ties to both universities… I know Coach Wade would have enjoyed that game with Alabama, looking at the two football programs he built.”
Lewis Bowling is the author of Wallace Wade: Championship Years at Alabama and Duke, published in 2006 by Carolina Academic Press.
Duke-Alabama Head to Head
Season Result Site Attend Notes
1944 Duke 29, Alabama 26 New Orleans 73,000 Sugar Bowl Jan. 1, 1945
1972 Alabama 35, Duke 12 Birmingham 71,281 Halftime Alabama up 14-12
2006 Alabama 30, Duke 14 Tuscaloosa 92,138 Halftime Duke up 14-10
2010 Alabama 62, Duke 13 Durham 39,042 Alabama ranked #1
2019 Alabama 42, Duke 3 Atlanta 71,916 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game/Alabama ranked #2