Daily Dose of Crimson Tide: The Controversial 1941 National Champions

Christopher Walsh

When the Crimson Tide began the 1941 season, it had won only one Southeastern Conference title since the 1934 national championship season. However,  the program was clearly on an upswing despite a 13–0 loss to Mississippi State to finish the previous season 7–2.

Back Jimmy Nelson and end Holt Rast would lead Alabama, and both were unanimous All-America selections, yet another setback against the Bulldogs, this time early in the season, seemed to end any chance of a conference title.

Nevertheless, the Crimson Tide recorded impressive victories against Tennessee (9–2), Georgia (27–14), and Georgia Tech (20–0) to hover near the top of the rankings, even with a late-season 7–0 loss at Vanderbilt.

Alabama concluded the regular season by defeating the Miami Hurricanes 21–7 in the first meeting between the schools (and second-ever night game for the Crimson Tide) and accepted an invitation to play Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

In scouting the Aggies, assistant coach Harold “Red” Drew said they had “the greatest passing team I have ever seen,” and head coach Frank Thomas, who almost never slept well the night before a big game, complained that studying the dynamic offense gave him headaches. Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, the game was played in poor weather conditions, making it harder for the Aggies to pass.

Alabama, in its first postseason appearance other than the Rose Bowl, created 12 turnovers, including seven interceptions, in a 29–21 victory that was nowhere near as close as the score indicated. Even though Texas A&M had a 13–1 advantage in first downs, the Tide still scored four touchdowns and attempted just seven passes, and all 41 players who made the trip got into the game (in part leading to two late touchdowns by the Aggies).

Rast returned an interception for a touchdown, halfback Russ Craft twice reached the end zone, and Nelson returned a punt 72 yards for one touchdown and added a second on a 21-yard run. Nelson, Rast, and guard Don Whitmire shared game MVP honors.

“The boys really turned in some defensive work,” Thomas told The Dallas Morning News. “It was the lifesaver for us. Our boys played a good, aggressive game—the best of the season.”

Although the majority of polls had Minnesota No. 1 at season’s end, Alabama and Texas, neither of which clinched a conference title, were able to claim a share of the national championship thanks to the Houlgate System (1927–58), a mathematical rating system developed by Dale Houlgate of Los Angeles, which was syndicated in newspapers and published in Illustrated Football and Football Thesaurus.

It wasn’t picturesque, but Alabama decided years later to count it. Besides, the Cotton Bowl victory came less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into World War II. It was hardly the time to complain about football. Many players enlisted and eventually headed overseas.

1941

9-2, national champions

Date, Opponent, Location, Outcome

Sept. 27 SW Louisiana Tuscaloosa W 47-6

Oct. 4 Mississippi State Tuscaloosa L 0-14

Oct. 11 Howard Birmingham W 61-0

Oct. 18 Tennessee Knoxville W 9-2

Oct. 25 Georgia Birmingham W 27-14

Nov. 1 Kentucky Tuscaloosa W 30-0

Nov. 8 Tulane New Orleans W 19-14

Nov. 15 Georgia Tech Birmingham W 20-0

Nov. 22 Vanderbilt Nashville L 0-7

Nov. 28 Miami (Fla.) Miami W 21-7

Jan. 1, 1942 Texas A&M Cotton Bowl W 29-21

Coach Frank Thomas 

Points: 263-85

Captain: John Wyhonic

Ranking (AP): Preseason NR; Postseason No. 20.

All-American: First team _ Holt Rast, End. Second team _ Jimmy Nelson, halfback.

All-SEC (first team): Jimmy Nelson, back; Holt Rast, back; John Wyhonic, guard.

Leaders: Rushing _ Jimmy Nelson (361 yards, 109 carries); Passing _ Jimmy Nelson (25 of 54, 394); Receiving _ Holt Rast (13 catches, 207 yards).

Some of this post originated from "100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die," published by Triumph Books

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