Powerful Duke

The news that Alabama might play Duke in 2006, the first year in which NCAA teams will be allowed to play a 12th regular season football game on an annual basis, has brought mixed reviews, at best. Although Steve Spurrier may give the Blue Devils some respect, not many others do. But once upon a time Duke was a powerhouse, too much for Alabama.

Spurrier, now the coach at South Carolina, got his head coaching start at Duke before going on to fame with the Florida Gators and flop with the Washington Redskins. When Spurrier was at Florida and a voter in the Coaches‚ Poll, he always gave Duke a vote in the top 25 in the pre-season rankings.

Although there has been no official announcement, it is believed that Duke will play Alabama in Tuscaloosa next year and that Bama will return the game at a future date, perhaps not in 2007.

In 1944 with World War II having taken most of the able-bodied men for military service, the Alabama football team of Coach Frank Thomas was made up primarily of freshmen (the "War Babies"). One of those freshmen was Harry Gilmer, one of the greatest to play the game of football. Gilmer, the left halfback in Bama‚s Notre Dame box offense, was famous for his jump pass.

In 1945, he would lead Alabama to an undefeated season, including a 34-14 romp over Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, a game that caused the Pac-8 (later the Pac 10) to shut the door to Bama and other Southern teams, making a deal to play the Big Ten champion each year. Ten members of that 1945 team, including Gilmer, had a 60th reunion in Tuscaloosa last weekend.

But Alabama also had a remarkable 1944 season.

Alabama‚s regular season of record of 5-1-2 was less than outstanding. It included a loss to Georgia and ties with LSU and Tennessee. But it was good enough to get the Crimson Tide an invitation to a relatively new bowl, the Sugar Bowl.

That was the good news. The bad news is that the opponent was Duke, which was not made up of freshmen. The Blue Devils had a roster full of experienced college players enrolled at Duke as Navy trainees.

Duke was heavily favored when the teams met on January 1, 1945. It turned out to be the most dramatic Sugar Bowl game until Alabama and Notre Dame played at the end of the 1973 season.

Rice also called the freshman Gilmer, "the greatest college passer I ever saw."

In the new book, "What It Means To Be Crimson Tide," Gilmer said:

"I probably gained some attention when we went to play Duke in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1944 season. T‚hat game meant a lot to me because we threw only eight passes, but we completed all eight of them. The last play of the game was a pass I threw to Ralph Jones. He was out long, and the pass was a little short, so he was able to adjust and make the catch. But that also allowed the last Duke defender to get him. The guy who was covering him dove and slapped Ralph‚s foot and tripped him up. He was the only guy who could have caught him."

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame, he was an All-America and SEC Player of the Year and accounted for an Alabama record 52 touchdowns in 1946.He still ranks first all-time in punt returns and second all-time in interceptions as a defensive back. In 1946 he led Alabama in rushing, passing, interceptions, punt returns, and kickoff returns.

"What It Means To Be Crimson Tide," the 300-plus page, oversized book featuring some 62 former Alabama players plus former Coach Gene Stallings, is now available. Order by VISA or MasterCard by calling 1-205-345-5074. It is $27.95 plus tax (if applicable) and shipping and handling. You may request an autograph by the author, for which there is no charge.

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