A lot of people have asked me about this, so I thought I’d pop it onto here rather than have to keep re-telling the tale:
It is understandable for one to feel confused when catching a glimpse at the red elephant mascot at the University of Alabama. With a nickname like the “Crimson Tide,” one can’t help but conjure up images of a more aquatic, perhaps crustaceous creature as opposed to a 5-ton circus animal to represent the school’s athletic spirit.
So why does a red elephant prance up and down the Tide sidelines, revving up the Tuscaloosa faithful on game day? Well, no one can really say for sure. School historians verify that the red elephants have been associated with ‘Bama football since 1930, however, theories on the tradition’s origin have varied over the years.
One account of the mascot’s derivation began in 1930, when Rosenberger’s Birmingham Trunk Company, whose trademark is a red elephant standing on a trunk to signify the luggage’s durability, presented red elephant good luck charms to members of Rose Bowl-bound Alabama.
When the team, composed of predominantly large men, emerged from the train in Pasadena with red elephant trinkets suspending from their luggage, reporters were awed by the players’ mass and quickly seized upon the insignias on their baggage. Thus, the connection was born.
But perhaps the most widely recognized story of the red elephants’ origin at Bama is that of the field official and part-time sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal, Everett Strupper.
This adaptation also goes back to the 1930 season when Tide head coach Wallace Wade had assembled a powerhouse of a football team that would eventually post an overall 10-0 record, win the Rose Bowl and the National Championship.
On Oct. 8 of that year, Strupper wrote a story on the Alabama-Mississippi game he had witnessed in Tuscaloosa four days earlier. In that article, Strupper marveled over the sheer mass and power of the Bama juggernaut:
“That Alabama team of 1930 is a typical Wade machine, powerful, big, tough, fast, aggressive, well-schooled in fundamentals, and the best blocking team for this early in the season that I have ever seen. When those big brutes hit you I mean you go down and stay down, often for an additional two minutes.
“Coach Wade started his second team that was plenty big and they went right to their knitting scoring a touchdown in the first quarter against one of the best fighting small lines that I have seen. For Ole Miss was truly battling the big boys for every inch of ground.
“At the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow. Some excited fan in the stands bellowed, ‘Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,’ and out stamped this Alabama varsity.
“It was the first time that I had seen it and the size of the entire eleven nearly knocked me cold, men that I had seen play last year looking like they had nearly doubled in size.”
Strupper and other Atlanta newspapers grasped onto the term, and continued to refer to the Alabama linemen as “red elephants,” the color referring to the crimson jerseys.
The 1930 team posted an overall 10-0 record. It shut out eight opponents and allowed only 13 points all season while scoring 217. The “Red Elephants” rolled over Washington State 24-0 in the Rose Bowl and were declared National Champions.
In following years, various fight song lyrics and fan chants featured the reference to the red elephants. While attempts to establish other team mascots such as the mythical god, Trident, and a giant wave crashed miserably, the mysterious elephant fetish somehow stuck firmly.
The school still refused, however, to acknowledge the elephant as an official mascot. In order to clear up the Bama faculty and staff’s curiosity over the origin of the ever-present pachyderm, director emeritus of alumni affairs at the time, Jefferson Coleman, wrote a memo to legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1977. In that memo, Coleman confirmed the authenticity of the “recently uncovered documentation” that supported the Strupper theory.
Hence, in 1979, the Alabama Student Government Association asked the University to legitimatize the elephant as an official school mascot and give him a name. Thus was born Big Al, the instantly recognizable sideline icon of the Crimson Tide.
Coleman has since maintained his obsession with the “Strupper Commission,” most recently in June of 1993, when he “uncovered” that Strupper was actually an “insurance agent-salesman” who only “wrote one story a week about the football game he had officiated in during the past Saturday.” Coleman also insists that it was a man named Borden Burr, who was holding the chain for Alabama, and not fans, who yelled, “Hold your horses, here comes the elephants.”
While the elephant lore that has surrounded Crimson Tide football has generated a little more controversy than it has deserved over the years, it has certainly provided Bama faithful with an amusing anecdote about the mysterious land creature that has symbolized a team with an aquatic moniker.