Duke and Alabama have an interesting football history. Three of Duke’s head coaches had strong Alabama connections. Wallace Wade came from Alabama to Duke a legend and remained a legend. David Cutcliffe is a Birmingham native and Alabama alum who had some SEC ports-of-call before ending up at Duke. Steve Sloan was an Alabama great at quarterback but a mediocre coach at three stops before ending his coaching career at Duke, 13-31 in four seasons. He later became AD at his alma mater.
As Meatloaf taught us, two of of three ain’t bad.
I should also mention that Wade brought Ellis “Dumpy” Hagler and Herschel Caldwell with him, both star players at ‘Bama before becoming coaches.
But as important as Alabama has been to the Duke program the two schools have only met four times going into Saturday’s game.
Duke has won only the first one back in 1945 but it was on a large stage and was touted as one of the greatest college bowl games of its era.
It goes without saying that 1944 was no ordinary college football season. Duke was a Navy V-12 school, turning out Navy and Marine officers. Their 1944 schedule included losses to North Carolina Pre Flight, sixth-ranked Navy and second-ranked Army, along with Pennsylvania. This was the famous Army team with Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, respectively the 1945 and 1946 Heisman Trophy winners.
Army ended the 1944 season as the national champions.
But Duke went undefeated in the Southern Conference, earning an invitation to New Orleans and the 1945 Sugar Bowl.
Remember that Eddie Cameron was Duke’s head football coach in 1944. Wade was an artillery office in Europe. Cameron gave up the head-basketball position to take over from Wade, an accurate reflection of the relative significance of the two programs at that time.
It was even more chaotic at Alabama. Alabama wasn’t a military school and didn’t even field a team in 1943. But head coach Frank Thomas convinced administrators that he could blend military vets whose enrollment was up, freshmen too young to be drafted--freshmen were eligible due to the war and men with physical conditions that kept them out of the military. That latter category included passer Harry Gilmer (stomach issues) and center Vaughan Mancha (flat feet), two of the best players in Alabama history.
The 5-10 Gilmer was one of the first to popularize the jump pass. He would go on to a long career in the NFL, as a player and then coach.
Alabama ended the regular season 5-1-2, the loss to Georgia.
Frank Thomas isn’t as well known today as Wade before him or Bear Bryant after him. But he coached the Crimson Tide to three undefeated seasons in 13 years, including the consensus 1934 national title.
Players played both ways in those days but special war rules allowed unlimited substitutions.
Duke’s best players included backs George Clark, Tom Davis and Gordon Carver and linemen Ernie Knotts and Frank Irwin.
Duke drew first blood. Clark ran for 52 yards on the first play from scrimmage, to the Alabama 13. A few players later he scrambled into the end zone for the game’s first score. The PAT made it 7-0.
Clark lost a fumble on Duke’s next possession and Alabama took it in from 36 yards out. However they missed the extra point.
Gilmer completed his signature jump pass on Alabama’s next possession, a third-and-28 completion to Ralph Jones to the Duke two. They scored on the next play but again missed the PAT, leaving them up 12-7.
Gilmer and Jones set up another Alabama score, connecting on a 42-yard third and-three bomb to the Duke nine. After losing yards on consecutive plays Gilmer hit Jones from 13 yards out and it was 19-7, still in the second quarter.
Backup Cliff Lewis took to the air, 13 and 18-yard completions followed by a 26-yard run to the Alabama one. Davis took it in, Duke missed the extra point and Duke went into halftime trailing 19-13.
Duke went back-to-the-basics in the third quarter. Tom Davis was a rugged fullback from Wilson, NC, one of three brothers to play at Duke during the 1940s. Duke gave him the ball 10 straight plays and he finally punched it in from a yard out, culminating a time-consuming, defense-depleting drive. Harold Raether’s extra point put Duke back on top, 20-19.
Duke recovered a fumble deep in Alabama territory early in the fourth period. But the Devils couldn’t convert on fourth down inside the 10 and lost the ball on downs.
Duke got a stop and drove to the ‘Bama 24. But Hugh Morrow picked off a Lewis pass and streaked 78 untouched yards for the score.
The extra point was good. Despite completely dominating the second half, Duke found itself down 26-20.
Again Duke moved the ball and again came up empty. Davis was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the three.
Football was a different game back then and few batted an eye when Alabama took a safety on first down, allowing Gilmer a free kick with a 26-22 lead.
The move backfired.
Clark returned the punt 31 yards to the Alabama 39. Jim LaRue picked up 19 yards on a reverse and Clark got the rest on the next play, going wide on the ‘Bama defense.
A minute or so left. Contemporary accounts are vague on the time. Gilmer picked up one first down. Time for one more play.
Duke pressured Gilmer and he under threw a jump pass. But Jones came back for the ball, turned the corner and had only one man to beat for the score and the win.
But that man was Carver, who had run a 9.7-100 yard dash for the Duke track team. Carver tripped up Jones at the Duke 24 as time expired with Duke up 29-26.
This was Duke’s first bowl victory.
The Blue Devils ended the game with a 383 to 249 advantage in total offense, led by Clark’s 123 rushing yards and Davis’ 101 yards. Gilmer was eight-for-eight passing, for 142 yards, 136 of those to Jones.
Grantland Rice was the nation’s most famous sportswriter and he hailed the game as “one of the greatest thrillers of all time.”