It was always easy to spot Harry Gilmer in the Alabama football press box. The longtime scout for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals was spiffy in his western-cut suits and Stetson hat. And when you looked at him up close, even into his 80s, it was obvious that this man had been an athlete.
Those who remember his exploits at Alabama (1944-47) speak of him the way later generations would be enthralled by the likes of Joe Namath or Kenny Stabler or Johnny Musso, perhaps the way they’ll one day speak of Jalen Hurts. If Alabama replica jerseys had been available in the 1940s, they wouldn’t have been able to keep the crimson and white number 52s in stock.
Harry Gilmer was 90 years old when he died of cancer Saturday morning at his ranch outside St. Louis. He had lived in St. Louis after his professional career, which included playing (he is the only Alabama player to be selected first overall in the NFL draft), coaching, and scouting.
He was born April 14, 1926, in Birmingham and starred at Woodlawn High School.
And he was a regular visitor to Tuscaloosa in both official and personal capacities. It was never a surprise to walk into the Bryant Museum and see Harry (he didn’t want to be called Mr. Gilmer or Coach Gilmer, but Harry) looking around to see what had been added since his last visit. Or perhaps something had been on his mind, so he’d get into his car and drive and from St. Louis to Alabama to do the research at the museum.
Harry Gilmer was the left halfback in Alabama’s Notre Dame box offense under Coach Frank Thomas. Left halfback was something like a wildcat or tailback/quarterback hybrid. He was the primary runner and passer, and a lot more.
He was notable for his signature jump pass. In our book, “What It Means To Be Crimson Tide,” Harry explained:
“The best way to throw a pass is not a jump pass, and in my years of coaching I never taught the jump pass. But it worked for me. Sometimes we’d have younger people around practice, and if they saw me throw a jump pass they would try to do it. Coach Thomas would tell them to stop, to do it the correct way.
“I started throwing the jump pass when I played on the sand lots. At Woodlawn High School I kept doing it because I could start out on an end run and then turn it into a pass. If the receiver wasn’t open, I kept running.
“If you throw on the run, you’re usually running towards the sideline, and you’re going to throw at a right angle to that. So you need to get your body and your hips turned downfield. You either have to stop running to do it, or you jump. If you jump, you can turn your hips around. I just naturally did that.”
He was an All-America and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 1945 and was MVP of the 1946 Rose Bowl when Alabama decimated Southern Cal, 34-14, a game that was not nearly as close as the final score. It was 27-0 in the third quarter when Bama took out its starters and USC made its initial first down. Alabama outgained the Trojans 351 yards to 41 with Southern Cal held to 6 total rushing yards. Not only did the game end USC’s eight-game winning streak in the Rose Bowl, following the game the Pac-8 (then) decided that it would close its shop, that only the Big Ten champion would be invited to play the Pac-8 representative. Alabama’s Rose Bowl record was stuck at 4-1-1.
Gilmer had come to the attention of the nation as a freshman in 1944, one of the War Babies (college football teams made up of freshmen too young for the draft of World War II or unable to be in service due to physical limitations). In the 1945 Sugar Bowl, Alabama lost to heavily-favored Duke, which was a team of veteran players who were Naval trainees. Duke won one of the most exciting Sugar Bowls in history, 29-26. On the final play of the game, Gilmer completed a pass for 33 yards to Ralph Jones, who was tripped up on a shoestring tackle at the 25.
In his career, Gilmer accounted for 52 touchdowns (matching his uniform number), which was an Alabama record for over 60 years and is still third all-time. A two-way player, he ranks second all-time at Alabama in interceptions in a season (8 in 1946) and in a career (16).
In 1946 he led Alabama in rushing, passing, interceptions, punt returns, and kickoff returns.
He played nine years as a quarterback in the NFL with Washington and Detroit. He coached in the NFL (including head coach at Detroit) for 27 years. He was scout for St. Louis for 11 years.
“Add it up and it’s 47 years in pro football,” he said. “You can tell where I coached by where we left our children – one in Detroit, one in Atlanta, and two in St. Louis.”
Gilmer was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993.