Remembering When Bear Bryant Came To Tennessee – As A Player

Sunday, September 15, 2013 - by John Shearer

On the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday last Wednesday, many sports fans were recalling the successful coaching career of Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama and several other schools.

Although he always downplayed his playing career, he also made modest contributions to the Crimson Tide program as an end.

And that was definitely true during his senior season in 1935, when he and Alabama came to Knoxville to play the Vols on Oct. 19 at what was then Shields-Watkins Field, later to be named Neyland Stadium.

Although it was the traditional third Saturday of October for the two schools to meet, it was actually only the fourth game for each team, as college football season in those days usually did not begin until the last Saturday in September.

The two teams were already becoming big rivals because they had developed into the finest two programs in the South over the previous 10 years. And at that time, Alabama and Auburn did not meet.

From 1926-32, Coach Robert Neyland had led Tennessee to no worse than one loss a season, while Alabama had enjoyed some strong seasons since shortly after World War I under coaches Xen Scott, Wallace Wade and former University of Chattanooga coach Frank Thomas.

The Crimson Tide had played in the Rose Bowl -- the marquee post-season game for all teams during that era -- after the 1925, 1926, 1930 and 1934 seasons.

However, in 1935 both squads were apparently in rebuilding or transitional phases. Alabama, which was also assisted by former UC head coach Harold “Red” Drew, would finish 6-2-1 – disappointing for the Crimson Tide at the time – while Tennessee would have an uncharacteristic 4-5 record.

Alabama had already tied smaller Howard (later Samford) in the first game of the year, and lost to Mississippi State at home the week before the Tennessee game. The Vols, meanwhile, were soundly beaten by North Carolina, a traditional opponent at the time, in the second game of the season.

Alabama had graduated stars Dixie Howell and Don Hutson off the 1934 team, while Coach Neyland was performing military duty that season, and his longtime assistant and former West Point pal Bill Britton was filling in as head coach.

Rumors were circulating that Coach Neyland might be attending the Tennessee-Alabama game during a military break, but he was evidently in Texas.

However, close to 20,000 fans would be at the stadium for what was homecoming weekend for Tennessee. Yes, apparently in those days tough opponents were scheduled for homecoming.

Hundreds of University of Tennessee alumni had gathered on campus Friday night to yell at the pep rally, slide down chutes, admire and cheer the homecoming queen, and “slap each other on the back and exchange greetings with friends of years ago,” the news reports said.

Noted Hollywood director and Class of 1910 UT alum Clarence Brown was hoping to attend the homecoming festivities, but work kept him away.

The still-standing Austin Peay administration building a few feet west of Ayres Hall on “the Hill” was dedicated at 10 a.m. that Saturday, four hours before the game, with Chattanooga News publisher George Fort Milton the featured speaker.

Chattanoogan Paul Kruesi was chairman of the building committee and also attended.

Some UT alumni were also expected to spend part of Sunday visiting a couple of new attractions – the TVA Norris Dam and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

But the game was obviously the featured event. A newspaper ad promoting the contest said that reserved seats on the West grandstand of Shields-Watkins Field were on sale for $3, while reserved seats on the East grandstand were $2.75. General admission tickets were being sold for $1.50.

Tickets could be purchased up until noon on the day of the game at the UT athletic office and the L&N city ticket office, or at the stadium after the gates opened at noon.

Spectators were also reminded that a play-by-play announcement would be done over the loudspeaker. It is not known if the announcer yelled, “It’s football time in Tennessee,” as Bobby Denton has done for the last few decades at Neyland Stadium.

While in town, the Alabama team spent Friday night at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in downtown Knoxville, a building that is still standing on Gay Street and is now used primarily by the Knox County Schools for administrative offices.

Among those in the starting lineup for Alabama were Paul “Bear” Bryant at left end, future Georgia baseball coach James Whatley at left tackle, William Peters at left guard, Kavanaugh Francis at center, Tarzan White at right guard, William Young at right tackle, Hilman Walker at right end, Riley Smith at quarterback, Charles Stapp at left halfback, James Angelich at right halfback, and James Nisbet at fullback.

A key substitute for the Crimson Tide – and star of the game -- would be Rudy Rohrdanz, who many Chattanoogans remember as the later head football coach at Chattanooga High beginning in 1959 and the father of 1969 Brainerd High quarterback Freddy Rohrdanz.

Coach Rohrdanz, who lived until 1995, would also bring with him to City from the state of Virginia Ray Bussard, who would go on to become the successful swimming coach at Tennessee.

Tennessee’s starting lineup included Cecil “Sonny” Humphreys at left end, Baylor School graduate Doe Silberman at left tackle, future Texas Tech football coach DeWitt Weaver at left guard, Herbert Tade at center, Harrison Bourkard at right guard, Frank Crawford at right tackle, Roy E. Rose at right end, Fred Moses at quarterback, Thomas “Red” Harp, at left halfback, captain Edwin “Toby” Palmer at right halfback, and fullback William Lippe, the son of New York Supreme Court justice Vincent Lippe.

Starting quarterback Henry Krouse had been out since the first game.

One of the Tennessee reserves was Marion Perkins, who later became the football coach at Red Bank High.

And Silberman was the father of Toby Silberman of Lookout Mountain, who went on to become an SEC official.

When the game began, the Vols were apparently sporting white jerseys, a tradition that never occurred when Coach Neyland was at the helm. They had worn them against Southwestern at the start of the season in a victory, but then wore orange in the loss to North Carolina. The following week, they wore white in the victory over Auburn.

Unfortunately, the main colors the Vols saw on that day of long ago against Alabama were black and blue. Despite some optimistic pre-game hopes by Tennessee supporters, the Crimson Tide – or Red Elephants as the Knoxville Journal called them – pounded the Vols for a 25-0 win.

“It was the most humiliating loss the Orange and White has suffered at the hands of Alabama since their annual battle was resumed in 1928 and one of the worst since 1924,” wrote Barney Ballard of the Knoxville Journal.

“There was never any doubt of the outcome after the first two periods, except among the most optimistic of Tennessee fans.”

The key to the victory was apparently plenty of penetration by Alabama into the unusually porous Tennessee defense, particularly through passing.

“Riley Smith’s running and passing, Charlie Stapp’s passing, Rudy Rohrdanz’ sensational broken field jaunts and Joe Riley’s slashing slants gave the Crimson Tide an offense diversified enough to beat almost any opponent yesterday,” Mr. Ballard added.

And yes, helping with this passing attack was also a player named Paul “Bear” Bryant. On the first Alabama touchdown drive, Stapp made a key pass to Bryant for first down.

As Mr. Ballard wrote, “Once he (Stapp) passed to Paul “Bear” Bryant, whose leg was supposed to have been broken in the Mississippi State game last week, for 21 yards, placing the ball on Tennessee’s 21.

Coach Bryant’s picture during the catch was shown in the next day’s Journal. He appeared to be wearing a jersey number that ended in 6, possibly 26. The caption called him “an Alabama wingman who played a stellar game despite a leg injury.”

While reports were that he had a slightly broken leg at the time and was limping during the game and not even supposed to play, he apparently did not have a broken heart, as he had secretly married that summer Mary Harmon Black from Birmingham.

Later in the drive, Riley Smith, the Tide’s lone consensus all-American that year, sneaked over for Alabama’s first touchdown.

In the second quarter, Alabama built a 12-0 lead on a short Joe Riley touchdown run.

The third quarter touchdown came following several impressive runs by the substitute Rohrdanz, including one for the score.

Riley Smith scored the final touchdown in the fourth quarter to make the result 25-0 in favor of Alabama.

After the game, Mr. Ballard praised the play of Coach Bryant at end along with several others.

Some information on the Paul W. Bryant Museum website calls the 1935 Tennessee game Coach Bryant’s best game of his playing career, despite his injured leg. It said he caught several passes on multiple drives and even lateralled to Smith after one catch as Alabama piled up around 265 total yards.

For Tennessee, Gene “Kid” Rose was mentioned in the Knoxville Journal for his play at end on defense, along with Doe Silberman, DeWitt Weaver and Herbie Tade. Tade was later injured and had to be helped off the field and examined by Tennessee team doctor R.G. Brashear.

Tade would unfortunately suffer an even more serious injury at the end of the year in the loss against Kentucky and would be crippled for life until his death in 1970.

The year 1935 was not overly memorable for Tennessee or even Alabama, but better days were ahead for both team’s programs.

But the year would be significant for college football in general, as it marked the year that the first Heisman Trophy was presented – to Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago.

However, the college player from 1935 with the most lasting name in the game would be Paul “Bear” Bryant, who would go on to enjoy legendary status.

And along his journey up the 323-win mountain, he would make many trips back to Shields-Watkins Field/Neyland Stadium as a coach both of Kentucky and later Alabama.

What other future coaching legends might have been playing this weekend on college gridirons around the country as modest-but-contributing players?

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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