Alabama has dominated football across eras with 16 national championships from the 1920s to the most recent in 2020.
They also have one of the best nicknames in sports. But where did the nickname "Crimson Tide" come from? It's complicated.
Who is created the nickname 'Crimson Tide'?
Former Birmingham Age-Herald sports editor Hugh "Doc" Roberts is credited with giving Alabama its nickname, according to the University of Alabama athletics website. After watching Alabama and rival Auburn play to a 6-6 tie in Birmingham in November 1907, Roberts reportedly described the game as a "crimson tide" after Auburn was expected to win but Alabama played its rival to a draw in muddy conditions. The phrase "crimson tide" was a fairly common descriptor back then in regards to life or blood, often in the context of war or poetry.
While I was unable to locate a digital copy of the Birmingham Age-Herald after the Alabama-Auburn game, I found a portion of his recap that was published in The Tuscaloosa News on the Tuesday following the game, published on Nov. 19, 1907.
Where things get interesting, however, is that neither the words "crimson" nor "tide" appear in the story, which means either The Tuscaloosa News didn't publish Roberts' entire story (remember, Roberts worked for the Birmingham Age-Herald, not The Tuscaloosa News), which meant the newspaper unknowingly left out the portion where Alabama would get its future nickname, or perhaps through the passage of time, the origin of "Crimson Tide" was credited to the wrong newspaper, writer, year or game recap.
If you look online about where the nickname came from, virtually every news outlet or resource recites the same story.
But it may not be true.
Here's what Hugh Roberts did have to say about the low-scoring tie back in 1907:
"For these reasons the following of Alabama accepted the verdict as a virtual victory and Auburn admitted a virtual defeat," Roberts wrote. "There can be no dispute of the statement that the magnificent resistance and fierce aggressiveness of Alabama surprised none more than the Auburn team itself. On the offensive, Alabama could not be checked, and on the defensive, save for one spot in the line, Alabama was Auburn's equal. It is true, taking the game as a whole, that Alabama covered more ground during the scrimmage. Alabama had a greater diversity of formations and kept the point of combat in opposing territory."
Prior to the adoption of the nickname of "Crimson Tide," newspaper accounts from the early 1900s called Alabama simply the "Alabama football team," "Crimson," "Crimson and White," or "the Alabama football eleven," with "eleven" being a common refrain a century ago in reference to the number of players on the field for each team. Alabama's first nickname was the "Thin Red Line," another war reference which was used to describe Alabama teams, according to Alabama's website.
The following graph shows the popularity of the term "Alabama Crimson Tide," according to the newspapers.com database.
The following paragraph comes from a game recap after Alabama's 3-0 win over Clemson in October 1909, when Alabama scored the game's only points on a 50-yard field goal. "The thin red line finally worked its way far enough to their opponents goal posts to try for a placement goal," reported The Tuscaloosa Times-Gazette.
Using the database of newspapers.com, the earliest reference we could find of the phrase "Alabama Crimson Tide" was published on November 24, 1914 in the Jackson State Tribune (Jackson, Mississippi), when the paper reported "the Mississippians swamped State Teachers College, held Alabama's Crimson Tide to a 0-0 tie...," which is shown below.
Most of the early newspaper references to the Crimson Tide referred to the nickname as "Alabama's" Crimson Tide, often with "Crimson Tide" in parentheses or at least one of "crimson" or "tide" spelled in lowercase. That's all part of the evolution and popularization of a nickname.
Who popularized the nickname 'Crimson Tide'?
The newspapers.com database doesn't have another reference of the phrase "Alabama's Crimson Tide" until 1919, the year in which Henry Harden "Zipp" Newman became sports editor of The Birmingham News. Newman is credited with making the nickname mainstream as he "probably popularized the name more than any other writer," according to Alabama's website. He was the youngest sports editor in the South when he began working in the role in 1919, according to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Part of his inductee bio reads, "Newman was the prime motivator behind the establishment of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame."
So, there's not a lot of clarity behind who, when, how or why one of the best football programs in the country got its nickname, but that's just part of Alabama's story. Believe what you want.