The Crimson Tide won the de facto national title game against the heavily favored Huskies, a win that gave birth to the program as a national power.
To hear the historians tell the story, Alabama wouldn’t be the most dominant college football program in the country if not for Washington.
“Yeah, it’s true,” said David Torrell, curator of the Husky Hall of Fame. “There’s not a lot of history between Washington and Alabama, but when they did play those were some memorable games.
“And many say the first one gave birth to Alabama, the SEC and southern football as we know it today. And that’s not an overstatement.”
No. 4 Washington and No. 1 Alabama, who will square off for just the fifth time in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, first met in the 1926 Rose Bowl when their roles were reversed.
Back then, the Huskies were the headliners and heavy favorites against the upstart Crimson Tide, who were saddled with the responsibility of restoring honor and prestige to the Deep South that was still recovering from Reconstruction.
Those were turbulent times and an assortment of economic, racial and political issues divided the country that concluded the Civil War in 1865.
By the 1920s, the Rose Bowl was the first bowl game — hence the nickname the “Granddaddy of them all” — that paired the best football teams from both sides of the country and had become the de facto national championship game.
The popularity of the postseason game prompted organizers to build the largest stadium in the country in 1922 — the then 45,000-seat Rose Bowl.
The first 11 Rose Bowls featured West Coast teams, including Washington, which played Navy to a 14-14 tie in 1924.
In 1925 the Huskies, who were nicknamed the “Purple Tornado” by the media, began the season with a 108-0 win over Willamette before running roughshod toward a Pacific Coast Conference title.
Led by fifth-year coach Enoch Bagshaw and All-American halfback George “Wildcat” Wilson, the Huskies posted a record of 10-0-1 while outscoring opponents 461-39.
Tasked with finding Washington an opponent, various reports at the time indicate the Rose Bowl committee originally invited Dartmouth, Yale and Colgate, which declined citing a need to focus on academics and/or the length of the coast-to-coast trip.
Another report suggested the Rose Bowl committee then chose undefeated Tulane (9-0-1), which also refused because administrators felt the Green Wave were too small to compete with Washington.
Alabama certainly wasn’t the Rose Bowl committee’s first choice even though the Crimson Tide, led by coach Wallace Wade, rolled through its first undefeated season at 9-0, outscoring opponents 277-7.
Still, their accomplishments were scrutinized and downplayed by the rest of the country because of the assertion that their southern competition was inferior to teams in the Northeast, Midwest and West where college football had been more popular.
Inviting Alabama to the Rose Bowl marked the first time a southern team played for the national championship, which led to Civil War comparisons during the pregame hype.
Wayne Flynt, a southern historian and Auburn University professor, said in “Roses of Crimson,” a documentary about the 1926 Rose Bowl: “By the time they get there, they are not just the University of Alabama football team. They are the South’s football team. And they’re actually, in my opinion, sort of reliving the sectionalism of 100 years of competition between the North and South.
“What (Alabama players are) really thinking is this is just like Chancellorsville, this is just like Gettysburg. Now we got one more chance for Southerners to show them what we’re made of.”
The Crimson Tide endured a four-day, 2,000-mile train trek from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to California punctuated by Wade directing wind sprints and drills on daily stops.
The Huskies held most of their practices on campus and made a relatively short trip from Seattle.
One sports writer picked Washington, which had a considerable size advantage over Alabama, to win by 50 points.
Upon seeing the Alabama players, Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter William Leiser wrote: “Sometimes members of football squads look like football players and sometimes they don’t look that way at all, but never was a group of newspaper men more surprised with the general fitness of a group of young grinders than were the observers who greeted Alabama early this morning.
“These are twenty-two pairs of the stockiest legs any coach ever had under his control. They’ll fill out their clothes, those Southerners, and they look like business.”
The 1926 Rose Bowl was the first postseason game that was nationally covered via broadcast radio. In Alabama, theaters were set up with a special news wire so audiences could follow the play-by-play of the New Year’s Day game, which reportedly drew a capacity crowd to the horseshoe-shaped stadium.
The game went as scripted early. The first half belonged to Washington, which received a strong performance from Wilson, who set up two short scores. UW led 12-0 at half.
Alabama roared back in the third quarter behind the efforts of Allison “Pooley” Hubert, an All-American quarterback, and star running back Johnny Mack Brown, dubbed the “Dothan Antelope,” who later starred in Hollywood western movies and was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame.
The Crimson Tide momentarily knocked Wilson out of the game and scored three times in the third to take a 20-12 lead. Wilson returned in the fourth quarter and the two-way standout — who also played linebacker — helped the Huskies with a fourth-and-one stop at the UW 12-yard line.
Wilson capped the ensuing drive with a 27-yard touchdown pass that cut Alabama’s lead to 1.
The Crimson Tide intercepted Washington on the final drive to hold on to a 20-19 victory dubbed “the Game that Changed the South.”
Wilson finished with 134 yards on 15 carries, five completions for 77 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing and passing). He accounted for 211 of Washington’s 317 total yards and Alabama was unable to reach the end zone when he was on the field.
“We certainly would have won the game had George been in there the whole time,” Torrell said. “He was such a fantastic player.”
Meanwhile, the team chided as the “Tusca-losers” during the pregame buildup was celebrated by adoring crowds and big marching bands at train stops all the way back home.
An Alabama music student submitted the winning lyrics to the school newspaper, which held a contest after the Rose Bowl win to compose the Crimson Tides’ fight song ‘Yea, Alabama.”
The last lines immortalizes the big win over the Huskies:
“Fight on, fight on, fight on, men!
Remember the Rose Bowl we’ll win then!
Go, roll to victory, Hit your stride,
You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide!”
Ninety-one years later, Alabama meets Washington again.