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Sean Gallup/Getty Images/Banner Society illustration




Bet he feels like an elephant

Shaking his big grey trunk for the hell of it

Alabama had an elephant on campus once. They had it in the 1940s, long after having elephants was a thing for extravagant Americans looking for an easy spectacle.

For instance, P.T. Barnum had bought Jumbo off the London Zoo six decades earlier, making millions off the animal even after Jumbo was hit by a train and killed in 1885. (Barnum had Jumbo’s remains divided between his different circuses.) Jumbo’s hide burned in a fire at Tufts University in 1975, but the remaining ashes sit in a peanut butter jar in the Tufts athletic director’s office. Players sometimes rub it for good luck before games.

According to myth, the person overseeing the execution of Topsy the Elephant in 1903 was Thomas Edison, allegedly as an advertisement for his method of conducting electricity. The proposed method of executing Topsy — hanging — was vetoed for its cruelty by the ASPCA. The ASPCA did not object to executing an elephant in public, only to how it was done.

The ASPCA was less present in East Tennessee, where an elephant named Mary was actually hanged in Erwin in 1916 for killing its completely unqualified trainer during a show. Recite with me one of the most horrifying phrases in the history of rural Tennessee: “The hanging went poorly.”

Alamite — the name given to any elephant who showed up on Alabama’s campus and played the part of the mascot — was relatively lucky given how most rural elephant experiences ended. One Alamite lived full-time on campus for a few years in humble but comfortable circumstances. The homecoming queen even rode into the game on their backs. In retrospect, handling an animal of that size and power around a bunch of extremely drunk rednecks seems like daring death to make a swift and public appearance, but this was about football. For Alabama football, insanity in the pursuit of spectacle has only rarely been constrained by sense, budget, or reality.

Which is why it’s doubly strange that the university actually rehomed Alamite after a few years due to budget constraints. That logic seems baffling now. Alabama pays Nick Saban $8 million a year in salary — and that’s before considering every other little extra Alabama gives him. Alabama boosters bought his $3.1 million house for him outright in 2014. Given his obsessively tight schedule — Saban has complained about playing in postseason game because it cuts into recruiting time — it’s hard to imagine the Crimson Tide illuminati didn’t give him ample help in setting up Saban’s retirement plan, too.

A Nick Saban Signature Series Sprinter van features conference seating for seven, three LED TVs, and a cooler capable of chilling several bottles of champagne or beer, depending on your class security that day. There are massage chairs to relax in “after a round of golf,” LED accent lighting, and DirecTV. The black leather seats have Nick Saban’s signature hand-stitched in red into each headrest. There are only 15 of them. Each cost $200,000 and is available at the Hoover or the Irondale location of Mercedes-Benz Birmingham.

It goes past the coach and his generous, sprawling compensation package. Alabama just announced a $600 million initiative to renovate and luxurify their athletic facilities. They already has $143 million pledged towards the project from donors for a plan that even by NFL standards seems luridly ambitious. There are luxury boxes that definitely don’t look like rooms from Eyes Wide Shut, and an entry tunnel for the players that resembles a crimson- and white-toned portal cut from one of the access bays on the Death Star.

The players’ walk to the stadium and into the locker room will even be built into the plans. The minor inconvenience of a crowded walk to the locker rooms will be shortened. Someone with a passing familiarity of the layout around Bryant-Denny Stadium would ask: How? There isn’t any room around there. They’d have to do something insane like build a tunnel under the stadium. No one would do that to cut a few hundred yards off a walk.

Alabama’s proposal is to tunnel under the stadium, to cut a few hundred yards off a walk.

They will do it, too. I have no doubt in my mind that they will do it. Alabama has 17 claimed national titles in football. Under Nick Saban, they have won five of the last 10 titles, including last year’s, the 2017 championship won against Georgia. They did that by putting a freshman in at quarterback at the half, a suicidal move for any other team, but what for Alabama was simply replacing a misfiring part in an otherwise humming engine. Since 2007, Alabama has only lost 20 games — and that was with a 7-6 record in Saban’s first year.

Alabama got there by writing checks, but checks are only part of it. If Alamite still remained on campus, I have no doubt that in the middle of Tuscaloosa today there would be an elephant habitat the size of the Quad. There would be a dedicated veterinary staff and a breeding program. There would be special days when donors would get to feed the animals for the low price of several hundred thousand dollars.

There would be rural squalor within easy driving distance of the stadium, sure. Alabama might have an insolvent and/or hopelessly corrupt government, a skyrocketing murder rate, the second worst quality of living in the United States, and galling income inequality. It might have the worst infant mortality of any state in the country — yes, even worse than Alabama’s perennial safety valve, Mississippi — but there would be an elephant habitat, probably with its own connecting passage to the stadium so the elephant could be cajoled into standing in its own glassed-in box in the end zone.

Apologies: end zones. They’d need two elephant passages, on account of the teams switching sides. They would build them. Alabama does not lose when it comes to football, even in a hypothetical mascot arms race against no one.

Alabama does have some minor confusion here. The elephant is the official mascot, but not the team name. The team name — the Crimson Tide — comes from a 1907 article by Hugh Roberts of the Birmingham Age-Herald about the Iron Bowl, a bloody tied game in the red mud of the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham.

It wasn’t the only reason for this — the two schools were locked in a bitter funding dispute in the state legislature, with Auburn on the short end of the stick — but a disagreement over player per diems made things worse. A difference of $34 ended the Iron Bowl for 41 years.

The elephant appears as the symbol of Alabama football in one of two ways. Both are possible, but only one is easily documented.

The first comes from the 1926 Rose Bowl. The undefeated Crimson Tide traveled to the Rose Bowl by train to play the University of Washington. Alabama fan and local luggage store owner J.D. Rosenberger gifted the team some luggage for their trip, all with the Rosenbergers’ store logo emblazoned on it. The press sees the red elephant as Alabama disembarks, and the rest is mascot history.

The other reference to Alabama and elephants comes from a 1930 newspaper account of an Alabama game against Mississippi. Everett Strupper wrote this:

At the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow. Some excited fan in the stands bellowed, ‘Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,’ and out stamped this Alabama varsity.

Sportswriters kept using it. The name got downright adhesive. Seventeen years later, the homecoming queen rode in on the back of an elephant in Tuscaloosa.

I will cheat and say this: I want the trunk story to be the truer of the two. Like most things in early college football, it is accidental and tied to an idiot sportswriter making the assumption that any of this happened by design or simply not caring whether it was true. Because it was Grantland Rice who called them “The Red Elephants of Alabama” first, it was probably the latter.

Like college football’s best things, it’s a specifically local story. Rosenberger’s wasn’t a chain, but a Birmingham Thing. Like a lot of the businesses in the game program at college — see or preferably smell the official sausage of Aggie football at Slovacek’s Sausage at Texas A&M, made in Snook, Texas a short drive outside College Station — it lets someone place Alabama in a unique spot on the map.

Like mascots, it’s symbolic and layered whether it wants to be or not. The elephant logo for a luggage company is the cheapest joke. For any football team, it matters, but for Alabama it became an outright debate, with the students overruling coaches every time because … something about it fit.

Something about it fit even if Bear Bryant didn’t want it. For him, the elephant was too slow, too ponderous. Football was played by fast, nimble animals, not bulldozers. He’d argue, but he’d lose when someone pointed out the elephant on his desk. The elephant stayed.

Mississippi v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There are things in the room when we talk about Alabama football — huge, ugly, unavoidable things.

For a lot of its history, the Crimson Tide have been the one verifiably good thing the state does — the one thing in the state semi-immune from segregation, from endemic poverty, from the embarrassments of George Wallace and Roy Moore and any other demagogue trying to row atop a relentless tide of racism, from being the state where students can’t do yoga as a physical activity in public schools for fear of Hindu indoctrination, from being the place where anyone who wants to buy a sex toy still needs to sign a document stating that the toy is being used for therapeutic purposes, from being the place where as recently as 2017 the heads of all three branches of state government were under indictment for various corruption-related crimes.

There is a spot in the list for the shadow of football success — the obsession with a sport that does not pay its labor, the contrast of all this money pouring into something in a state that desperately needs the money elsewhere. That there may not be money for a thousand other things in Alabama, but somehow there is always room to pay a coach more, or build a tunnel under the stadium, or build a bigger video board than Auburn.

Race gets its own spot, even for the most admired people in that room, and maybe specifically for them. Bear Bryant might have wielded immense power at the University of Alabama. He might have been the person so immense that even some black Alabamans liked Alabama football, bizarre as that might seem. Imagine it: Alabama would bring all-white teams into the heart of a black neighborhood in Birmingham to play at Legion Field, always without thinking of the people surrounding them who wanted Alabama — against all odds, expectations, and justified anger — as their people, too. These people wanted nothing more than to be at the game and on the field, a part of the one good thing the state had.

Bryant helped let it happen. Even Bryant — the only person with the force to try facing off against George Wallace — wilted when confronted with segregation. He was reportedly asked by Bobby Kennedy to intervene during the pivotal demonstrations in 1963, when Bull Connor tried to shut black Birmingham out of the city’s life so completely that he went as far as filling the holes on the city’s golf courses with cement so no one could play them. Bryant declined.

It’s an excruciating thing to imagine in any case, but especially for those who loved a team that represented a state incapable of loving them back.

Think about Fred Shuttlesworth, the firebrand preacher who led the civil rights movement in Birmingham who should have been killed a hundred times over the course of 10 years. Shuttlesworth was bombed. He was beaten by a mob in front of his kids while he tried to register them for public school. He narrowly avoided being kidnapped or killed on multiple occasions. He endured constant death threats. He was at one point blown into the front doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by firehoses.

On Christmas night, 1956, Shuttlesworth lay on his bed, going over plans with a deacon. His son was out in the living room of their house, wearing a shirt he’d gotten for Christmas. An explosion ripped through the house, collapsing the back half toward Shuttlesworth’s bedroom. Using dynamite as a form of social control was horrifyingly common in Alabama — partly going back to U.S. Steel and mining companies using convict labor to work the mines in Birmingham until 1928, then fighting attempts to unionize those workers with brutal tactics. The men who knew how to use that dynamite sometimes put it in close proximity to union organizers, at the behest of their employers.

Using dynamite to threaten black families who moved into white neighborhoods or who otherwise threatened white order in Birmingham became especially common. There were over 50 different bombings during the Civil Rights Era in Birmingham, with one neighborhood earning the grim nickname “Dynamite Hill.” Most involved a few sticks of dynamite, but Shuttlesworth had led the push to desegregate buses in Birmingham.

The bomber placed 16 explosives outside his bedroom window. The explosion knocked out windows a mile away, caved in the back of the house, and knocked a hole in the basement. Shuttlesworth emerged from the wreckage nearly naked, wearing only a raincoat someone tossed to him in the rubble, but somehow unharmed. A cop advised him to leave town. Shuttlesworth says he replied, “Officer, you are not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration.”

His son came out with minor injuries, wearing one of his Christmas gifts: a brand new University of Alabama Crimson Tide football uniform.

All that, and it can still be the most beautiful thing in the world on a fall day.

There is something alchemical to Alabama football that does not change or waver. There is a timing and an ability to rise to the occasion and elevate the entire thing to a level of hammer-fisted Wagnerian grapple-opera. Playing Alabama means starting every game in the clinch with an animal, ungodly, immovable strength. Their center of gravity does not exist; their density, seemingly infinite. They will show up and be punishingly heavy from the word go.

That is part of every overwrought Athenian cliche ever written about the team, but it is real. Strip every hackneyed cliche about the team, its coaches, and its dark magic, and there is still the thing itself waiting with a two by four and ready to fight and — in all likelihood — to win by the most skull-knuckle, desperate, and brutal means imaginable. Nothing strips away how they win when they win.

Alabama did not win the 1979 Sugar Bowl 14-7 by running the ball in to give Bear Bryant his fifth national championship. They were on defense, and took the full brunt of Penn State’s offense in the face on third-and-inches and then fourth-and-inches.

Alabama did not beat Auburn in 1984 with dazzling offense. They won a nailbiting, airless 17-15 game when Rory Turner tackled demigod Bo Jackson on a play where Bo went the wrong way off a bad playcall. Then, after the game, Turner was asked about it. He said: I waxed the dude.

Alabama beat the brakes off Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl after Miami spent the better part of the week living up to their heel image. Lamar Thomas talked exquisite shit about Alabama’s secondary, and then on gameday watched as Alabama safety George Teague ruined Miami’s passing game so thoroughly that bystanders wondered out loud if Gino Toretta should give his Heisman Trophy back. Thomas got pickpocketed and humiliated by Teague so badly that the play became worthy of a Daniel Moore painting despite being nullified by a penalty.

Alabama QB Jay Barker had 18 yards passing for the game. Alabama won by 21 points.

Nick Saban’s era is a mountain range of lofty asskickings. But even within it, there is an Everest above the others. It has its own weather, mass, and gravity. It is in a range of unreachables the most unreachable for scale, size, and ferocity.

Discover BCS National Championship - Notre Dame v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2013 BCS Championship Game found Alabama facing Notre Dame for the national title in Miami. Take Alabama and invert most of the settings but keep the legacy, wins, and a few of the national titles. That is Notre Dame, a private school embraced by the national media when Alabama was shunned for … well, for being Alabama. A university that since Knute Rockne had let Hollywood and a long chain of gullible sportswriters construct a wholesome myth fusing church, football, and ambient Midwestern values into The Notre Dame Experience.

They also won football games like everyone else, and did it the same way everyone else had for years: by letting football players be football players first, and everything else second. They’d done that since the days of George Gipp, who — played by Ronald Reagan in Knute Rockne, All-American — represented the schlockiest, hammiest image of the Notre Dame knight until Rudy came out in 1993. Gipp in the film is a vaguely depicted saint who urges his teammates to win for him from his deathbed. The real Gipp made his living shooting pool and playing cards in South Bend and didn’t attend class for an entire year when he was a star.

Alabama had a locally horseshit legend. Notre Dame’s horseshit legend went national early. It later floated them into places they might not have gotten, even amid sometimes gradual, sometimes precipitous decline. At Notre Dame’s best over the last couple decades, they can legitimately compete with 90% of college football. At their worst, they are the sport’s worst example of an underqualified legacy admission.

It is so hard to tell where the 2012 team lands between those two. On one hand, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish really did finish with a 12-0 record, post impressive defensive stats, and play like one of the nation’s best teams. Then again, they only played three teams that finished ranked, were pedestrian on offense, nearly lost to several mediocre teams, and made it hard to say Oregon or even Florida wouldn’t have been a better opponent.

There is a reason for that: hindsight. And also the unholiest asskicking in the history of Saban-era asskickings. It might have been over at the first snap, when Eddie Lacy took the ball and looked a full scale-level bigger than Notre Dame’s players, like he was made of different material or lived on a planet with a heavier gravity. It might have been over when Alabama’s defensive line walked out and looked like dads preparing to school their children in a backyard game.

It was definitely over by the half, when Alabama was up 28-0 and the only proper response was laughter. The rest was management, save for Alabama players fighting each other out of boredom. This is not a joke: center Barrett Jones and quarterback AJ McCarron got into a yelling match on the field in the second half. It was easily the biggest challenge Alabama faced all day.

Imagine an aristocrat being beaten by peasants with pavers in hand for three solid hours. That was the 2013 BCS Championship Game. Damned, purgatorial Alabama gave that to all of us on the biggest stage in its sport. It was unfair, cruel, lopsided, and ghastly, brutality incarnate. It was everything you expect from Alabama, but somehow in the best way imaginable.

It was art — like a Francis Bacon painting.

Alabama remains strange to me on a level approaching that of an alien culture — the kind where, in order to understand it, someone has to back out and look at the basic cultural touchstones to even get a handle on what is going on here.

I have to do that. I’ve been to four continents, 16 countries, and places where I could not speak more than five words of the language. And yet after watching football for a decade straight, the place I understand least is two hours from my front door. I don’t understand why anything in Alabama happens, why people believe what they believe, or why — when given all of life’s distractions — a group of people opt for something so singular, violent, huge, and self-contained. Alabama football is its own arcology. It needs little else other than itself to thrive, for reasons that might have been explicable 50 years ago, but which make zero sense today.

The only conclusion I’ve come to that I know is 100% true is that its highest art is football, and its best-funded display is permanent in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

I understand that much. I don’t understand why parts of this feel stuck in 1982, or the nagging feeling that when handed the future, Alabama vetoes it by section or alters it completely. There are still debutante balls in Alabama. The people who were rich in Alabama in 1982 have made bigger, richer children. The people who were poor in Alabama in 1982 are probably still poor, and definitely further from the rich.

They’re not alone in this. It might seem like moving backward, in a time when football is losing numbers at the youth level and fewer people watch it, to double and triple down. The future does not feel like this game at these numbers. The future, broadly speaking, does not look like it has football in it at all, much less Alabama football.

But that might just be that this is how the future really works. There is this naive idea that there is a great curve we all ride toward progress.

Some places simply replicate ever more massive versions of themselves. Alabama keeps spitting out begrudgingly improved, maniacally overfed, more intense Alabamas. The football team and the stadium will only become larger and richer unto infinity.

That might not be limited to the football team. That’s just the part of the landscape I know, and maybe the only part I want to see. The gun stores, prisons, churches, towers of condos along Orange Beach to the south, all the stereotypical things dotting the landscape — they only keep swelling, not improving, to fill the space between the weeds and the woods. They will swell until they have become the largest possible version of themselves before collapsing under their own weight.

The future will not be a journey to better. It will be one long ride off the edge of the cliff of “more” for everything. The idea that I can’t shake is that Alabama might be not be the past, but the future — not just for football, but for everything.

There is a limit to how far this can go. Size catches up to everyone, one way or another. For animals, the limit varies. Blue whales are huge, but float a lot of their mass. For football players, the limit depends on position, but Alabama’s offensive and defensive line sit at around the max: around 300 pounds for power positions. Dinosaurs might have weighed over 80 tons at their heaviest, but that’s a guess at best.

The biggest land animal on earth right now, the closest anyone can get to being the most massive thing there can possibly be, is the elephant.

An African Safari Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images