Let’s be clear: Alabama’s team nickname and mascot are completely incongruous to the state as a whole. Crimson Tide, Al the Elephant—there may be some occasional red tide down in ’Bama, but the state isn’t exactly crawling with wild elephants. And the team isn’t named after the algal bloom, though there is some aquatic origin.
Alabama football has been around since 1892, and back then it was usually known as the Crimson White, a not very imaginative take on the team’s uniform colors. The other nickname, “The Thin Red Line,” seemed less than flattering, despite how awesome the ensemble cast may be.
Given how synonymous Alabama is with winning, it should come as no surprise that the Crimson White was still pretty good at football when Teddy Roosevelt was president. And even a century ago, Alabama fans did not particularly care for in-state rival Auburn.
In 1907, Alabama met hated Auburn in Birmingham in one of the early editions of the Iron Bowl. Auburn had taken seven of the first nine meetings and was the favorite entering the game, though ’Bama was riding a two-game winning streak in the series. Amid a sea of mud, colored red from the signature soil of the South, Alabama and Auburn battled to a 6-6 tie. ’Bama’s white uniforms were stained crimson, and Hugh Roberts, the sports editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald at the time, described the muddy quagmire as a “crimson tide.”
The name stuck, and the “Roll Tide” cheer was born shortly thereafter, apparently as a way to describe the way the football team ran out onto the field. As for the elephant? That explanation is a little muddier.
Officially, the school says the mascot came from the Atlanta Journal in 1930. Alabama had just laid a smackdown on Ole Miss (how things have changed!), and writer Everett Strupper took great glee in describing the scene. Wallace Wade, the Alabama coach at the time, had started his B-squad against Mississippi, which had managed just one touchdown by the end of the first quarter. That’s when the varsity came out. Wrote Strupper:
"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.”
The prodigious size of ’Bama’s squad was on full display in a 64-0 rout, and the elephant imagery stuck. As with most college football origin stories, there are other theories. The most convincing is that the Tide got their pachyderm logo from a local luggage company, Rosenberger’s Birmingham Trunk Company.
The company logo is a red elephant standing on a suitcase, and when the team stepped off the train at the 1931 Rose Bowl, reporters spotted the logos on the player’s bags. The team stomped Washington State 24-0, and given the size of the Alabama players, the elephant thing just seemed to fit.