Alabama has won five of the last 11 national championships in college football (as of 2020) and the Crimson Tide claims 15 national championships in its history. The school’s performance on the gridiron in the last decade-plus has matched the force of its nickname as Alabama has gone 157-23 under coach Nick Saban through the 2019 season.
But where did the nickname “Crimson Tide” come from? It’s complicated.
Who is created the nickname ‘Crimson Tide’?
Former Birmingham Age-Herald sports editor Hugh “Doc” Roberts is credited with giving Alabama its nickname, according to the University of Alabama athletics website. After watching Alabama and rival Auburn play to a 6-6 tie in Birmingham in November 1907, Roberts reportedly described the game as a “crimson tide” after Auburn was expected to win but Alabama played its rival to a draw in muddy conditions. The phrase “crimson tide” was a fairly common descriptor back then in regards to life or blood, often in the context of war or poetry.
While I was unable to locate a digital copy of the Birmingham Age-Herald after the Alabama-Auburn game, I found a portion of his recap that was published in The Tuscaloosa News on the Tuesday following the game, published on Nov. 19, 1907.
Where things get interesting, however, is that neither the words “crimson” nor “tide” appear in the story, which means either The Tuscaloosa News didn’t publish Roberts’ entire story (remember, Roberts worked for the Birmingham Age-Herald, not The Tuscaloosa News), which meant the newspaper unknowingly left out the portion where Alabama would get its future nickname, or perhaps through the passage of time, the origin of “Crimson Tide” was credited to the wrong newspaper, writer, year or game recap.
If you look online about where the nickname came from, virtually every news outlet or resource recites the same story.
But it may not be true.
Taylor Watson, curator of the Paul W. Bryant Museum, has worked for the museum for 28 years and for the last 15, he’s been working on a book about things Alabama fans think they know but actually don’t.
“One of them is that story,” Watson said. “But you know, anything like that is never — there’s never a clear-cut (story). The interesting thing about that game, the ’07 Alabama-Auburn game, was the last game they played for 41 years and if you read the accounts from other newspapers, it was a clear, cool day.
“There was no rain, no mud. I’m pretty sure that’s not the first time (Crimson Tide) was ever used but this is how it goes.”
Here’s what Hugh Roberts did have to say about the low-scoring tieback in 1907:
“For these reasons the following of Alabama accepted the verdict as a virtual victory and Auburn admitted a virtual defeat,” Roberts wrote. “There can be no dispute of the statement that the magnificent resistance and fierce aggressiveness of Alabama surprised none more than the Auburn team itself. On the offensive, Alabama could not be checked, and on the defensive, save for one spot in the line, Alabama was Auburn’s equal. It is true, taking the game as a whole, that Alabama covered more ground during the scrimmage. Alabama had a greater diversity of formations and kept the point of combat in opposing territory.”
Prior to the adoption of the nickname of “Crimson Tide,” newspaper accounts from the early 1900s called Alabama simply the “Alabama football team,” “Crimson,” “Crimson and White,” or “the Alabama football eleven,” with “eleven” being a common refrain a century ago in reference to the number of players on the field for each team. Alabama’s first nickname was the “Thin Red Line,” another war reference which was used to describe Alabama teams, according to Alabama’s website.
The following graph shows the popularity of the term “Alabama Crimson Tide,” according to the newspapers.com database.
The following paragraph comes from a game recap after Alabama’s 3-0 win over Clemson in October 1909, when Alabama scored the game’s only points on a 50-yard field goal. “The thin red line finally worked its way far enough to their opponents goal posts to try for a placement goal,” reported The Tuscaloosa Times-Gazette.
Watson, the Bryant Museum curator, said before the “thin red line,” Alabama’s informal nickname used to be the cadets because the university was a military school “and then newspapers, they called them the warriors,” he said. “There was no official, ‘OK, we like Crimson tide, let’s just’ — it just kind of stuck.
“The university never really probably until the ’20s, maybe, officially used that. The only thing I’ve ever seen is in the ’20s, that’s when the university kind of started using it if they were putting something out, they would use Crimson Tide and I’ve been trying to find – and I haven’t found it – the first use of ‘Roll Tide.’ The first one I’ve been able to find is in 1929 but you gotta think it goes back further than that.”
Using the database of newspapers.com, the earliest reference we could find of the phrase “Alabama Crimson Tide” was published on November 24, 1914 in the Jackson State Tribune (Jackson, Mississippi), when the paper reported “the Mississippians swamped State Teachers College, held Alabama’s Crimson Tide to a 0-0 tie…,” which is shown below.
Most of the early newspaper references to the Crimson Tide referred to the nickname as “Alabama’s” Crimson Tide, often with “Crimson Tide” in parentheses or at least one of “crimson” or “tide” spelled in lowercase. That’s all part of the evolution and popularization of a nickname.
Who popularized the nickname ‘Crimson Tide’?
The newspapers.com database doesn’t have another reference of the phrase “Alabama’s Crimson Tide” until 1919, the year in which Henry Harden “Zipp” Newman became sports editor of The Birmingham News. Newman is credited with making the nickname mainstream as he “probably popularized the name more than any other writer,” according to Alabama’s website. He was the youngest sports editor in the South when he began working in the role in 1919, according to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Part of his inductee bio reads, “Newman was the prime motivator behind the establishment of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.”
“Zipp, who was by the way a great writer,” Watson said, “He was in World War I. He said Alabama reminded him of the sea pounding the sea shore and that’s from a quote from him, another great Birmingham writer, Clyde Bolton, who interviewed him, but yeah, Zipp Newman probably popularized (Crimson Tide). He was kind of the big writer at the time for this area. (Hugh) Roberts was probably a little bit before him.”
So, there’s not a lot of clarity behind who, when, how or why one of the best football programs in the country got its nickname, but that’s just part of Alabama’s story. Believe what you want.
“Again,” Watson said, “they’re all myths, in a way.”