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Why Is the University of Alabama’s Football Team Called the Crimson Tide?

In the world of college football, few names are bigger than the University of Alabama. No matter what happens in a given season, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll see the Crimson Tide have a handful of NFL prospects on the roster, win plenty of games, and make a run at the national title.

Alabama also stands out for another reason, though; in a world full of generic team names, there’s something cool about the Crimson Tide. But how did the program get that unique name?

Why is Alabama called the Crimson Tide?

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The University of Alabama has been playing organized football since 1892. While their team wasn’t always known as the Crimson Tide, the name did come about relatively early in their history.

According to the school’s official website, the team was initially called either ‘the Varsity’ or ‘the Crimson White.’ They later became known as ‘the Thin Red Line, stemming from the school’s military history. Everything changed in 1907, though.

As the story goes, underdog Alabama gutted out a muddy 6-6 tie against the Auburn; Birmingham Age-Herald sports editor Hugh “Doc” Roberts described the team as a ‘crimson tide,’ presumably due to the red mud staining their uniforms. There is a problem, however, with that story.

In a September 2020 story that ran on NCAA.com, Andy Wittry tried to get to the bottom of the Crimson Tide’s origin. In the online version of Roberts’ original report, however, he didn’t find any mention of a Crimson Tide. Taylor Watson, the curator of the Paul W. Bryant Museum, also explained that the 1907 Alabama-Auburn game took place on a clear day. That seems to contradict the accepted story about how the Crimson Tide’s names stemmed from a muddy field.

Rain or not, the Crimson Tide name simply stuck

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Based on Wittry’s work, it’s not exactly clear why Alabama became known as the Crimson Tide; if nothing else, there seem to be some holes in the widely accepted story. At some point, though, the name did end up sticking.

According to Watson, the Crimson Tide name simply became accepted over time; at least in the early days, it was used by fans and writers, rather than anyone affiliated with the program. “The university never really probably until the ’20s, maybe, officially used that,” he explained.

One thing that does seem accurate, though, is that Henry Harden “Zipp” Newman, sports editor of The Birmingham News, started using the Crimson Tide. His writing popularized the name and, it eventually became part of Alabama football.

Why does Alabama have an elephant as its mascot?

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No matter what inspired the initial use of the phrase, Alabama’s football team became known as the Crimson Tide, thanks to local newspaper coverage. Journalists are also responsible for the school’s use of an elephant mascot.

As explained on the University of Alabama athletics website, sports writer Everett Strupper of the Atlanta Journal wrote a story of the Alabama-Mississippi game he had witnessed in Tuscaloosa four days earlier [in October 1930].” Head coach Wallace Wade started his second-unit; when his starters took the field, Strupper was stuck by their sheer size.

“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,” he explained. “It was the first time that I had seen it and the size of the entire eleven nearly knocked me cold, men that I had seen play last year looking like they had nearly doubled in size.”

As with the Crimson Tide name, his description stuck. Writers kept referring to Alabama’s linemen as ‘crimson elephants,’ and over time, the pachyderm became part of the team’s identity.