Why is Alabama Crimson Tide’s mascot an elephant?

Why is Alabama Crimson Tide’s mascot an elephant?
Big Al and cheerleaders run out onto the field, Oct. 20, 2007. (Paul W. Bryant Museum / The University of Alabama)

You would think if coach Paul “Bear” Bryant refused to let an elephant mascot roam the sidelines, that would be the end of the story, and University of Alabama fans would have gone along.

But Big Al is on the football field this fall, as he has been for almost four decades.

What happened?

Not only is it an intriguing story about why Bryant objected but eventually gave in, but just as interesting is how the school mascot evolved from live elephants to a costumed Big Al, and how an elephant became the mascot to begin with.

There are two conflicting stories of the latter, according to multiple published sources.

Explanation No. 1 revolves around Rosenberger’s Birmingham Trunk store, which closed in 2016. Decades ago, owner J.D. Rosenberger was a big Crimson Tide fan and provided each player a complimentary suitcase for the cross-country train trip to the Rose Bowl in California.

It’s uncertain if it was the Wallace Wade-coached 1926, 1927 or 1931 appearance – or all of them – but in any case, each suitcase came with a tag showing the red Rosenberger elephant logo (large suitcases then were called “trunks”). Reporters meeting the team at the Pasadena train station, so the story goes, concluded it was obvious an elephant was the team mascot, and was written as such in The Atlanta Journal newspaper by Hall of Fame sportswriter Grantland Rice.

Hugh Dye talks about being the first Big Al at the University of Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Explanation No. 2 revolves around another Atlanta Journal sportswriter, Everett Strupper, and his article on the 1930 Alabama vs. Ole Miss game.

Strupper wrote: “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.”

In either case, the nickname took, and an elephant became the Tide’s unofficial mascot hot on the heels of the school becoming a national football power for its two wins over Washington and Washington State and a tie with coach Pop Warner’s Stanford squad in those early Rose Bowls.

Soon after, live elephants showed up at the Capstone as mascots. Records are fuzzy and at times contradictory on how it unfolded. One often-reported story is the university owned and boarded an elephant named Alamite that was eventually sold because it cost too much to feed and carry on a train for away games.

Perhaps the earliest documented evidence was homecoming for the 1947 Alabama-LSU game. The front page of The Tuscaloosa News shows Babe and Hattie, two elephants borrowed from the Clyde Beatty Circus. The university’s Hoole Special Collections Library shows homecoming queen Sue Donegan the same weekend riding an elephant named Alamite into Denny Stadium.

Were three elephants on campus?

Just as any plane officially becomes “Air Force One” when the president of the United States is on board, any elephant on campus for a football game officially became “Alamite,” according to university sources. Thus, either Babe’s or Hattie’s name defaulted to “Alamite” for the trip inside Denny Stadium.

On a side note, Babe and Hattie were joined in the homecoming parade down University Boulevard by Mike, LSU’s live Bengal tiger, who rolled through in his cage-on-wheels.

Published reports at the time say former head coach and then-athletic director Frank Thomas thought an elephant portrayed the team as slow afoot and didn’t relish the idea, but he reluctantly gave in.

Years later, an elephant named Mem was shown on the quad during a football weekend in the 1960 edition of UA’s yearbook, the Corolla. The practice for some reason was phased out, with live elephants making only impromptu rare appearances on campus.

For example, elephants took kids and students for rides on the quad during homecoming festivities in 1982, Bryant’s last season. A man was injured crawling in the animals’ enclosure, according to rollbamaroll.com.

As for the costumed variety, UA students got a cold shoulder from Bryant – who was also athletic director – when they lobbied him early in his 1958-1982 tenure for an elephant mascot. Bryant, like Thomas – who incidentally was his head coach at Alabama 1933-35 – thought an elephant depicted plodding slowness instead of athletic prowess.

But he allowed student, and later UA administrator, Mel Espey to don an elephant outfit with a large cumbersome head, with the warning “never to let that big rat get anywhere near me” on the sidelines, according to published reports. Bryant fondly referred to Espey thereafter as “elephant” throughout his administrative career, recalls former cheerleader coordinator Kathleen Cramer.

Espey’s uniformed appearances were discontinued, according to one story, after he got into it with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket mascot – when tensions were high between the two schools in the early-to-mid-1960s after a series of on-field incidents – and the tussle was deemed unsportsmanlike.

Roughly two decades later, Bryant was again reticent when students in 1979 passed a Senate resolution calling for a mascot. A student delegation met with Bryant to seek his approval.

“His response was, ‘Alabama doesn’t have a mascot. Elephants are slow and clumsy, and if we had one, we would want it to be fierce, athletic and fast, like our team,’” Cramer said. “The students asked him politely, ‘Sir, if that’s true, why are there red elephants on our tickets and why do you have an elephant lamp on your desk?’ He laughed and said, ‘Well, you’re right. We’ve probably already embraced the elephant mascot.’”

The counterpoint won the day and Bryant conceded. As Cramer recalled, “He always cared about the students’ opinions and valued them very highly.” But she said his approval came with the same warning he had given Espey.

“He called after they left and said, ‘The students really want a mascot and let’s go ahead with it. But keep that elephant off my field.’”

The school hired the Walt Disney Co. in New York to design Big Al, who was named by a student contest at homecoming 1979.

Student Hugh Dye debuted Big Al at Alabama’s win over Arkansas in the 1980 Sugar Bowl, which delivered Bryant’s last national championship.

Dye had tried out for cheerleader the spring before and hurt his knee. When talk of a costumed mascot gained steam, officials convinced Dye to try out and he ended up being the first to don the new costume with the name “Big Al.”

“I just didn’t realize how heavy it was going to be and how difficult it was going to be to move around in there,” Dye said of the costume. In addition to being made of a thick material and liner, the original costume included a heavy wool red sweater with a white “A” on the front.

“The big thing that I wanted to establish was just having a relationship with the fans. It started out with the children and it evolved with the parents.”

There are multiple Big Als at any given time. Men and women have played the role but all have kept their identity secret – at least during their tenure.

Dye said previous Big Als got together at the 25th anniversary of the mascot and he would like to see a reunion next year to mark the 40th anniversary.

“I was really glad to see just the numbers of people that have been Big Al since I left,” Dye said. “It’s kind of heartwarming as you get a little bit older.”

If this year’s preseason predictions ring true, Big Al will be around in January as Nick Saban attempts to tie Bryant’s record of six national titles at Alabama.

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