Alabama's first All-American and the first ever produced in the South, William T. VandeGraaf, known as Bully during his 1912-15 Bama career, dies in Colorado Springs, Colo. After serving as an assistant at Alabama, VandeGraaf went to Colorado College, where he was head coach from 1926-39.
Coach Frank Thomas set the stage for long-term wins for the Crimson Tide
University of Alabama football coaches have had the difficult task of working in the shadow of the late Paul “Bear” Bryant for the last quarter of a century, and will likely continue to do so for decades more.
Such formidable tasks did not begin with Bryant, however. The same was true for Frank Thomas when he took over as Crimson Tide head coach in 1931 following the eight-year reign of Wallace Wade.
Wade had put Alabama football on the national map during his tenure by leading the Tide to an overall record of 61-13-3, including its first three national championships, three Rose Bowl appearances and four Southern Conference titles.
Wade’s teams had become notorious for playing defense by shutting out 47 of the 77 opponents during those eight seasons, including allowing only 13 points while scoring 271 during his final season (1930). That season included a 10-0 record capped by a 24-0 victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl as Wade proudly walked away from Alabama to become head coach at Duke University.
Thomas, who was recommended as his successor by Wade, stepped into one of the longest shadows in college football at the time, but if he was bothered by the challenge he never let it show.
Thomas was an experienced coach with four years as head coach at Chattanooga and four years as backfield coach at Georgia behind him. And he was certainly not new to big-time college football, having been a starting quarterback for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame 1921-22.
The hiring of Thomas by then University president Dr. George Denny didn’t appear to be a gamble, based on Thomas’ credentials, but it was far from a sure thing, and asking anyone to match Wade’s record was a tall order.
Thomas came as close to the Wade standard as anyone could have hoped in his 15 years as Crimson Tide head coach. He posted an overall record of 115-24-7 with two national championships, four Southeastern Conference titles, two Rose Bowl wins in three appearances, and additional appearances in the Cotton, Orange and Sugar Bowls.
Alabama was 10-0 in 1934 and 1945 with Rose Bowl wins over Stanford 29-13 and Southern Cal 34-14, respectively, to cap the seasons and went 9-0 during the 1937 regular season before losing to California 13-0 in the Rose Bowl to finish 9-1.
The Thomas teams maintained the Alabama tradition of scoring defense under Thomas, thanks to Tide defensive coach Hank Crisp, who had joined the Alabama staff in 1922 during Xen Scott’s last season as head coach. Crisp became widely known as a defensive genius, and he coached the Tide defense for approximately 30 seasons between 1922-1957, taking time out only to help the military during World War II and to briefly try other coaching jobs.
With Crisp handling the defense (which allowed an average of 6.3 points a game during the 15-year Thomas reign) and Thomas teaching the tricky Notre Dame “Box” offense, Alabama remained among the nation’s top football programs throughout the Thomas era, which was cut short when health problems forced him to resign after the 1946 season. He continued as UA athletic director until his death on May 10, 1954, at age 55.
Having played at Notre Dame, Thomas also had the Rockne shadow to contend with as a head coach. Rockne coached at Notre Dame for 13 seasons, posting a record of 105-12-5, claiming five national championships with five unbeaten seasons and one Rose Bowl victory before he was killed in a plane crash on March 31, 1931. Thomas’ record of 115-24-7 at Alabama and 141-32-9 overall (counting his 26-8-2 mark at Chattanooga) certainly did not pale in comparison.
Rockne’s winning percentage of 88.1 remains the best in Division I football 80 years after his death. Thomas is 29th on the list at 79.5 percent while Bryant is 38th at 78 percent.
Thomas added to his legacy as the Alabama head coach in ways other than simple football wins, however. He also started the first free coaching clinic in the South in his second year (1932) at Alabama, helping to improve coaching techniques and improve the overall game of football in the state. He likely got the idea from Rockne, who had set up summer coaching clinics around the country in the early 1920s.
“There were no free coaching clinics in the South in the early thirties and I felt that such a school in Alabama would be welcomed,” Thomas said in recalling the start of the clinics in 1949. “The Depression was very much with us and I knew many of the state’s coaches could not afford to go to a school which required a fee,” Thomas added.
Thomas had several motives for setting up the clinic, of course. First of all, he wanted to get to know the Alabama high school coaches better for recruiting purposes and he knew that a free coaching clinic would help accomplish that. Secondly, Thomas had brought the Notre Dame offense to Alabama and he naturally wanted more Alabama high school coaches to adopt the formation (which Rockne had introduced) to help prepare high school prospects for possible play at Alabama.
“There were other important reasons why I thought a free school was a necessity,” Thomas said. “I wanted to improve the high school coaching in Alabama and also to bring the coaches together. I wanted them to talk over their mutual problems and to create a fraternal feeling in their ranks.
“I recall the first clinic had something like 90 coaches enrolled, and most of them were from within the state,” Thomas said. “But pretty soon word got around and out of state coaches began to visit Tuscaloosa for the clinics.”
The early clinics featured only University of Alabama coaches as instructors, but Thomas soon added the state’s top high school coaches and brought in outstanding college coaches and trainers from around the country in several sports.
“Football was the only sport covered at the early clinics, but the rapid growth of basketball in Alabama soon put it on our agenda,” Thomas said. By mid-1940s, attendees numbered over 200 and brought coaches in football and basketball from practically every high school in Alabama and scores from surrounding states. The clinics continued through the coaching tenures of Red Drew (1947-53), J. B. Whitworth (1954-57), Paul “Bear” Bryant (1958-82) and are still held today.
The annual Alabama High School Athletic Association All-Star football game was started and held in Denny Stadium in conjunction with the clinic in 1948, mainly behind the push of Tuscaloosa High School coach Frank Kendall, who was president of the High School Coaches Association in 1947. (One of Kendall’s THS players, quarterback Clell Hobson, led the North to a 7-6 win in the second game in 1949 and later playedatAlabama, as many of the All-Stars did.)
Even beyond his outstanding coaching record and starting the free coaching at the University of Alabama, Thomas had an unprecedented long-term impact on football in general, in the state of Alabama and especially Crimson Tide football by turning out scores of college and high school coaches. At least 23 of Thomas’ former players and/or assistant coaches went on to become head coaches at the college or professional level, including Drew, Whitworth and Bryant at Alabama. Harry Gilmer (Detroit Lions), Don Salls (Jacksonville State), Vaughn Mancha (Livingston State), Jim Grantham (Troy State), Riley Smith (Washington & Lee), Frank Moseley (Virginia Tech), Hal Self (Florence State), John Cain (Southwest Louisiana), Hilman Walker (Arizona State), Dixie Howell (Mexico, Arizona State and Idaho) and Tilden “Happy” Campbell (Alabama baseball) are among the other Thomas protégés who went on to become head coaches.
Bryant, of course, would rank as Thomas’ star pupil in the coaching profession, thanks to his record of 323 wins, 85 losses and 17 wins overall and his 232-46-9 mark at Alabama with six national championships in 25 seasons. Bryant also had a great influence in the area of producing college and/or professional head coaches. At last count, Bryant has had 54 former players or assistants go on to head coaching jobs at the college or professional level, which ranks him first in that category by all known accounts.
In addition to the college and professional coaches, at least 62 former Thomas players went on to become high school coaches, most of them in the state of Alabama, and many of those coaches produced players who later playedatAlabama. No doubt Thomas had that idea in mind as he helped many of his former players land coaching positions.
Thomas-produced high school coaches paid dividends for the Crimson Tide for years. An example of some of those who sent players to Alabama include Norman “Monk” Mosley at Talladega (Dan Kearley, Buddy Wesley, Tommy Tolleson and Sammy Smith); D. Joe Gambrell at Walker County (Gene Raburn, Arthur Scott and Billy Richardson); Alvin “Pig” Davis at Columbus, Georgia, (Tim, Steve, Mike and Bill Davis); Wheeler Leeth of Bradenton, Florida, (Bob Pettee); Clem Gryska of Huntsville (Benny Nelson, Mike Hopper and Milton Frank); Hubert Grantham of Greenville (Tommy Lewis); Gri Cashio of Shades Valley (Dave Sington and Lauren Stapp); Ferman Elmore of Athens (Charles Allen, Baxter Booth and Steve Allen); Jack Brown of Selma (Elliott Moseley and Butch Henry), and Carney Laslie and Joe Dildy of Blytheville, Arkansas, (Herky Mosley, Russ Mosley, Gene Blackwell and Norman “Monk” Mosley).
Thomas had played football and baseball at Notre Dame 1920-22 and was the starting quarterback 1921-22. He graduated in 1923 with a law degree and turned down a professional baseball offer from the Detroit Tigers to install the Notre Dame offense at Georgia. Rockne had recommended Thomas for the job, calling him “a great team man, a man able to handle boys and a splendid student of detail and of the strategy of football.”
“Coach Thomas was a very detailed coach,” said former Tide player Clem Gryska (1944-48) of his former coach. “With him, everything was precision.” Atlanta sports writer Ralph McGill once called Thomas “the little Napoleon of football.”
Thomas arrived on the Alabama scene in the long shadow of Wallace Wade, but he left one of his own, and it took Bryant—Thomas’ own star student—to cast a longer one.
Frank Thomas college and professional head coaches:
Name *Association Head coaching assignment
Bryant, Paul “Bear” (P, Asst) Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama
Cain, John (P) Southwest Louisiana
Campbell, Tilden (P, Asst) Alabama (Baseball)
Drew, Harold “Red” (Asst) Chattanooga, Ole Miss, Alabama
Gilmer, Harry (P) Detroit Lions
Grantham, Jim (P) Troy State
Hause, Orvil R. (P) North Georgia College (Baseball)