Heisman Winner John David Crow Dies

Paul Bryant played in the first football game he ever saw, lining up with the Fordyce (Ark.) Redbugs in his only pair of shoes, which a cobbler had outfitted with cleats. John David Crow, who would play for Bryant at Texas A&M and coach under Bryant at Alabama, won the first Heisman Trophy he ever heard of.

John David Crow won the Heisman Trophy in 1957, played pro football, and then went into coaching, including coaching at Alabama, 1969-71. He was the running backs coach as the Crimson Tide made the important transformation to the wishbone in 1971.

Crow died Wednesday night at age 79 in College Station. He had served in the administration, including being director of athletics, at Texas A&M before retiring in 2001.

I joined the Alabama sports information staff in the summer of 1970 and was informed that at lunch the football coaches and others in the athletics department played basketball in Memorial (now Coleman) Coliseum. I had played high school basketball and felt that qualified me for these games. I learned that was like saying I had been in a few schoolyard fights in my life and that qualified me to be a gladiator. In fact, the lunchtime basketball games were more suited to the ancient Roman entertainment than to civilized basketball.

Rule one was that John David Crow and Richard Williamson, who coached wide receivers, had to be on opposite sides as the primary enforcers. Rule two was that one attempted a layup at his peril. No one could foul out, so it was extraordinarily physical around the basket.

In 1971, Alabama went to the wishbone offense. It suited Crow’s mindset perfectly. The first game was in the Los Angeles Coliseum against a heavily-favored USC team. Alabama threw only a handful of passes for a paltry 38 yards, but ran for 302 and upset the Trojans, 17-10.

Late after the Friday night game we returned to the hotel. We had a small suite and sat up late, until about daylight, rejoicing in the victory. I had brought along the official statistics and John David read them aloud several times – “Johnny Musso, 5.3 yards per carry; Joe LaBue, 9.9 yards per carry; Ellis Beck, 3.1 yards per carry. I’m a helluva coach!”

It may have been the most important Alabama victory in my lifetime. Bama had won only six games in both 1969 and 1970 and many believed that Coach Bryant was nearing the end of his storied career. I believe that changing to the wishbone – and particularly the win in that first game at Southern Cal – extended his career. From that first wishbone game in 1971 until the end of his career in 1982, the Bryant/Alabama record was 124-19-1 and included nine Southeastern Conference and three national championships.

Crow’s son, Johnny, would play halfback for Bryant after John David left the Tide staff. Johnny was tragically killed in a freak accident in Birmingham after being graduated from Alabama.

Crow was Bryant’s only Heisman Trophy winner, claiming the award in 1957. Although Bryant was quoted in later years as saying they should do away with the award if Crow didn’t win it, among those who had never heard of the Heisman Trophy in 1957 was John David Crow.

He said that he kept the trophy in various places in his moves with wife Carolyn, including using it as a doorstop at one time.

Following the opening of the Bryant Museum, Crow donated his trophy to the museum. A few years ago when Alabama hosted Texas A&M, The University hosted a group of former Aggies and Crow was among those attending, as was his former teammate Gene Stallings.

In addition to being a powerful running back for the Aggies, Crow was an outstanding defensive player. He was a first round draft choice of the Chicago Cardinals in 1958 and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Paul Bryant was the manliest man I have ever known. I’m not sure who was the toughest, but John David Crow would certainly be in a very small group of contenders. And he was also one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known, and I am very sad to hear of his death.

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