A controversial call. A mob. A halted game. How Tennessee vs. Alabama football series began

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

The first football game played between Alabama and Tennessee had just ended in shame, and a prominent Birmingham city official pondered whether the sport itself had a future in his city.

A gorgeous Thanksgiving afternoon on Nov. 28, 1901, at West End Park in Birmingham turned ugly when fans stormed the field during the second half in protest of a controversial offsides call against the home team.

Police were unable to restore order, and the game concluded prematurely in a 6-6 tie.

The 1901 Tennessee football team played Alabama for the first time. The game was played on Thanksgiving -- Nov. 28, 1901 -- in Birmingham. The game ended in a 6-6 tie after Alabama fans stormed the field to protest an offsides call, and darkness descended before order could be restored.

“With such mismanagement, there is no chance to have clean sport, and it will eventually break up football in Birmingham,” the unnamed city official told the Birmingham Age-Herald newspaper in a story that published the following day.

Today, the Alabama-Tennessee series ranks as one of the SEC’s most storied rivalries, and the teams have faced off 103 times. But that inaugural installment in the series was dubbed “disgraceful” no fewer than three times in the Age-Herald account.

The Tuskaloosa Daily Gazette offered a gentler interpretation, saying the game “ended in an unpleasant controversy.”

The Knoxville Journal and Tribune didn’t mince words.

“TENNESSEE BOYS ROBBED OF VICTORY WELL EARNED,” blared the headline in the next day’s newspaper.

The Knoxville Journal and Tribune didn't mince words with its headline after Tennessee's game against Alabama ended prematurely in a 6-6 tie on Nov. 28, 1901, in Birmingham after Alabama fans stormed the field in protest of an offsides call.

The lead-up to the first Alabama vs. Tennessee game

The game served as each team’s season finale. Tennessee entered with a 3-3-1 record, on the heels of back-to-back shutout victories over Georgetown (Ky.) College and Kentucky State College. Alabama was 2-1-1.

The Birmingham News reported that Tennessee was a 5-to-4 betting favorite.

UT enjoyed a size advantage, with an average weight of 160 pounds throughout the roster, giving its squad “a powerful line,” the Age-Herald reported in a preview of the game. Comparatively, Alabama’s squad barely averaged 155 pounds and seemed “a trifle weak.”

Nonetheless, Alabama had a speed advantage, and its coach, M.S. Harvey, felt confident.

“We expect to win,” Harvey told the Age-Herald, before predicting a “clean, snappy game.”

How wrong he was.

Tennessee takes early lead, Alabama rallies

Thanksgiving 1901 brought a perfect day for football in Birmingham. The fine weather ensured that “many of the fair sex” were on hand for the game, as the Montgomery Advertiser reported.

Players had strutted along the city streets before kickoff, surrounded by admirers, while ladies in the city wore streamers that illustrated their team of preference.

By kickoff, an estimated crowd of at least 2,500 – and perhaps as many as 3,000 or more – had turned up at West End Park.

“It was by far the largest crowd ever at a football game in Alabama,” the Advertiser reported.

Tennessee quickly asserted its will behind the running of Nash Buckingham, a fullback from Memphis who went on to become a sports and outdoors writer and author of the book "De Shootinest Gent'man."

Buckingham’s ability to hurdle the line dazzled the crowd.

“Rooters looked on in amazement as the doughty Tennessean jumped the line for eight and ten yard gains,” Bozeman C. Bulger wrote in his game story for the Age-Herald.

Buckingham’s running and leaping helped Tennessee march down the field, and John Luther Brong plunged through the line for a touchdown after Alabama’s defense had made stops near the goal line on the previous two plays.

Alabama evened the score late in the first half. James Forman raced for a 40-yard run that was only stopped thanks to Buckingham’s flying tackle. A.W. Stewart followed with a 10-yard touchdown run.

The score remained 6-6 at halftime.

Already, though, there were signs of trouble.

A controversial penalty, and an angry crowd

Police and game officials had no way of keeping fans off the field. Bulger wrote in the Age-Herald that for an expense of “five or six dollars,” a rope or wire could have been installed around the field to give police officers a chance at keeping spectators at bay.

“A disgraceful spectacle might have been turned into a clean, sportsmanlike game of football,” he wrote.

As it stood, fans frequently surged into the playing area.

The Birmingham Age-Herald used the word "disgraceful" three times in describing Alabama fans' protest of a controversial call in a Nov. 28, 1901, game against Tennessee, causing the game to end prematurely in a 6-6 tie.

During the first half, spectators held back Tennessee quarterback Saxton Crawford during a run, thwarting what otherwise would have been a touchdown, according to the Journal and Tribune’s account. UT coach George Kelley claimed that had his team received a fair shake from the crowd, it would have scored three first-half touchdowns.

Alabama fans didn’t just take the field in frustration. They also rushed the field after Forman’s long first-half run, surrounding the players in jubilation, even though the Alabama fullback didn’t score. It took 10 minutes to clear the field.

Making the scene murkier, according to the Age-Herald, were about 50 fans who masqueraded as officials and reporters and claimed a right to be on the field. No press badges had been issued, making it impossible for police to tell who was there in a working capacity and who was simply a fan.

The Journal and Tribune described the game as being played amid a “mob which the Alabama management allowed to congregate on the field.”

Finally, in the second half, disorder reigned.

Offsides penalties cost the defense 10 yards in those days.

The umpire for the game hailed from Knoxville. His surname was Payne, although the newspapers didn’t supply his first name.

He twice flagged Alabama for offsides penalties during a Tennessee drive. The second penalty advanced the ball to the 5-yard line. Payne claimed that three Alabama defenders had been on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, giving him no choice but to throw a flag.

Alabama fans saw it differently and believed that Payne had erred.

About 2,000 fans swarmed the field in protest, thronging the players and preventing Tennessee from snapping another play.

The fans gesticulated wildly.

“Rotten!” they yelled. “Robber!”

Payne wouldn’t relent. Neither would the angry Alabama fans. Police were powerless to clear the field.

Darkness descended, and a referee stopped the contest and declared it a tie – the outcome decided, but football’s future in Birmingham unclear.

“People here appreciate good athletic games and are not disorderly as a rule,” the Birmingham city official told the Age-Herald, “but without anything to govern them any crowd will become boisterous.”

Bulger, the Age-Herald reporter, predicted that despite the “the most disgraceful scenes ever witnessed on a Birmingham field for sports,” the teams would play again the following year.

In fact, it took two years before they met again.

According to the Journal and Tribune account, there “was no doubt” that Tennessee was the better team in that 1901 installment and would have won the game had Alabama fans not interfered.

Still, not all was lost. No one was hurt, and each team cleared $350 in profit.

Two days later, Tennessee’s players gathered with their coaches and university brass for a banquet to celebrate the season.

“The sinews of war,” UT President Charles W. Dabney said, as he raised a toast.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.