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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Fields of Battle

Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, and the Boys Who Went to War

Brian Curtis

Flatiron Books




TRENTON, GIBSON COUNTY, TENNESSEE, lies in the western part of the state, maybe forty-five miles from the Mississippi River, and it has seen its share of history. It was a farming community until cotton mills took over in the late nineteenth century. In the last decades of that century and the first few of the twentieth, on a 2,500-acre farm in the confines of Trenton, Robert Bruce Wade and Sallie Ann Wade raised nine children, including William Wallace, born in 1892. (Robert Bruce and William Wallace were names taken from their descendants, the well-known Scottish freedom fighters of the late thirteenth century.) Robert rose in darkness before dawn and returned to the house well after sunset after overseeing the fields, with little time for his children. He was not especially close with his offspring, yet his actions spoke volumes to his sons, including young Wallace. Keep your mouth shut, put your head down, and work hard. Wallace and his siblings rarely stood up to their father, even when their own moral compass told them they should. Maybe they were afraid of the beatings, or maybe they simply understood it wasn’t a child’s role to challenge authority.

Robert impressed upon his sons the importance of education. Sons Mark and Isham would become successful businessmen who would one day own one of the country’s largest apple orchards; Bruce would earn degrees at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins and would become a leading geologist.

Wallace was quite close with Mark, who was three years his senior, and followed him in school and in football, first suiting up at Peabody High School in 1909—just five years after the game of football reached Trenton—to play for coach Tuck Faucett. Wallace was a scrappy player, a fighter, who routinely pushed aside players who were bigger than he was. The 150-pounder never seemed to tire. He was the underdog who got more out of his talent simply through determination. After one season at Peabody, Wallace matriculated to Fitzgerald-Clarke School to learn the game under W. A. Bridges, who coached a more modern version of the game (though still nothing like what would come) and under whom Wallace played tackle and guard, just like Mark.

In two seasons at Fitzgerald-Clarke, Wallace lost just two football games. In 1912, Mark graduated from Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, and sure enough, young Wallace arrived that same year to play for the great Amos Alonzo Stagg, who would go on to fame at the University of Chicago. But Stagg replaced himself with John Anderson as head coach the season Wallace arrived, showing up only at the occasional practice, and only to mentor Anderson through the transition.

Feeling a bit let down by the experience—Wallace insisted in earnest that he sold a pig in Tennessee to pay for his travel to Chicago to play for Stagg—he played one season at Morgan Park, also playing baseball, before graduating and again following Mark, this time to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He played on the freshman team in 1913 and earned a spot on the varsity team his sophomore year under coach Edward Robinson. Though out of his geographical element, Wallace Wade embraced Brown, the northeast, and the rigors of college work. He immersed himself—by choice—in classes on Latin, Greek, Spanish, and French and challenged himself with difficult mathematics courses. He was also working his way through school, running errands for wealthy families, assisting in a laundry service, and landscaping and shoveling snow when needed.

In 1915, Wade and his offensive line mates welcomed a new teammate, running back Fritz Pollard, one of two black students at the entire university and a phenomenal athlete who earned the job of starting back. When Robert Wade learned that his son would be playing alongside a Negro, he traveled to Providence and demanded that his son withdraw from Brown. But the young Wade was no longer simply the obedient young child fearful of standing up to his father. He was a man in every sense of the word who had moved away from home years ago, and when his father threatened to pull him out of Brown, the son stood his ground, chastised his father for his antiquated views, and remained at Brown as a teammate—and friend—of Pollard’s.

Behind Pollard’s record-setting on-field achievements his first year in a Bears uniform, Brown went 5–3–1, including wins over Yale and Carlisle. Despite the three losses, the Bears were selected as the eastern representative in the Tournament East-West Football Game, later known as the Rose Bowl.

*   *   *

The Valley Hunt Club in Pasadena in the late 1800s was the gathering place for the wealthy elite, who arrived in horse-pulled carriages and spent their time smoking cigars, drinking bourbon, hunting foxes, and talking politics. In the winter of 1889, club member Dr. Charles Holder, who had moved to the warmth of California from New York City, laughed at reports of the bitter cold and snow in the East and suggested that the Valley Hunt Club hold a festival. Fellow member Dr. Francis Rowland volunteered that his wife had visited the Bataille de Fleurs in Nice, France, and suggested the Battle of Roses for Pasadena.

The first Tournament of Roses was set for January 1, 1890, and close to five thousand participants enjoyed “tilting at the rings” (a medieval competition where riders on horseback try to insert lances into small rings) as well as burro and bicycle races. But the highlight was a parade of horse-drawn carriages covered with picture-perfect flowers grown in California and Mexico. The event became an annual rite in Pasadena, and each year, it attracted larger and larger crowds, which pleased the real estate men out West looking for sales. A marching band was added to the parade in 1891; a reviewing stand in 1894; and floats, a queen, and a marshal became staples in 1895. In 1902, twelve years after its founding, the Tournament added a football game, a matchup between powerful Michigan and Stanford. Of course, football was a much different game at the turn of the century, with no passing, a different scoring system, and two thirty-five-minute halves.

The inaugural game drew a crowd of 8,500, who shuffled in through one gate, some atop farm wagons. Michigan led 49–0 when Stanford mercifully suggested the game end. The Tournament would not be able to convince a West Coast team to participate in another football game again—fearful of a beatdown—until Washington State in 1916, so in lieu of football, the Tournament held chariot races.

Washington State’s opponent in 1916 would be Wallace Wade’s Brown team, selected over other candidates, including Michigan and Syracuse, to whom Brown had lost during the regular season. At the time, though traveling to California seemed exotic, the game itself was little more than another road game, with little national attention or meaning. It was an exhibition for a festival. Wade even considered staying behind in Providence over Christmas break to earn extra cash for the upcoming semester instead of playing in the game. Ultimately, he decided to go, making a little money along the way by writing a diary for the Providence Journal during the trip.

Brown used line plunges out of a double-wing formation against Washington State, a formation which had outscored Brown’s opponents 167–32 during the regular season. With seven thousand fans in attendance, Brown was shut out 14–0, with Pollard limited to just forty-seven yards rushing. Perhaps more disappointed than Wade and his teammates were the Tournament’s organizers and financial backers, who had to step in to cover costs left in the game’s wake.

In the fall of 1916, Pollard, Wade, Ray Ward, and Josh Weeks returned to anchor the team and led Brown to an 8–0 record heading into the season finale against Colgate. A 28–0 loss took them out of national title discussions. Brown went 18–7–3 during Wade’s three years on the team, with Wade even making All-Eastern teams in his final season. He earned his degree in 1917, married Frances Bell on July 1, and enlisted in the military.

On April 6, 1917, the United States formally entered World War I, and young men signed up from around the country. Wade first enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard back home but later shifted to the army cavalry—believing, as many military officers did prior to the war, that the cavalry would play a critical role in the upcoming conflict—and became a captain by August. Of course, the advent of tanks and machine guns mitigated the importance of cavalry during the war.

Wade was sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma and then to Camp Sevier in South Carolina, Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and Camp Gordon in Georgia. But to his disappointment, he never saw a day of war. His regiment was en route to France when the armistice was signed, and he was discharged in 1919. In the meantime, in 1918 as Frances and Wade moved from military camp to military camp, Wade’s son was born in Layton, Oklahoma, named William Wallace Wade Jr.

A college graduate, a veteran (officially), and an accomplished football player, Wade returned to Tennessee after his discharge to begin a career doing something. Anything. So committed was he to the war effort that he hadn’t given any real thought to a life after his service. But when William Fitzgerald, the founder of Fitzgerald-Clarke—which Wade had briefly attended—and a mentor to Wade, offered him a chance to coach at the now military academy, Wade accepted.

In two seasons as the head football coach, Wade’s teams went 16–3, going undefeated in 1920 and winning the Tennessee State prep championship, which led to an opportunity as a defensive coach at Vanderbilt under Dan McGugin, a winner of ten Southern Conference titles. In 1921, Vanderbilt demolished the University of Texas 20–0, stopping their twelve-game winning streak and proving that Wade’s aggressive defensive approach was working. In seventeen games over two seasons, Wade’s defense yielded just thirty-seven points, all of them allowed in just four of the games! Wade demanded excellence from his players but nothing he did not demand of himself. Like he had done as an undersized player himself, Wade coaxed every ounce of talent from the lads and got them to believe that they could always do more.

Now the father of two, with daughter Frances (“Sis”) joining Junior in 1921, Wade was becoming known in national football circles at the same time as the University of Alabama was seeking a replacement for coach Xen C. Scott, who had stepped down while fighting cancer. Alabama first approached McGugin about taking over for the 1923 season, but he turned down the job and instead recommended his assistant, Wallace Wade. Alabama had not been playing football for very long and had just joined the Southern Conference in 1922. Prior to that season, it was an independent and despite some decent records was never regarded as an elite team.

At the same time, the University of Kentucky was also looking for a head coach, and Wade was close with a manager of athletics there. Following an interview with the Kentucky athletic council in Lexington, Wade sat irritated in a hallway as the council went behind closed doors to discuss the candidates and select a coach. As the minutes went by, Wade’s impatience grew until he resolutely walked out of the building and soon publicly declared that he was going to Alabama. He leveled a shot at the men he claimed had kept him waiting, saying, “Kentucky will never win from a football team of mine.”

At Alabama, Wade could not be compensated until the football season started in the fall of 1923, so he worked manual labor jobs in the heat of the Alabama summer, which may have set the tone for his first practice, on September 10. Alabama players were greeted with no benches and no water buckets on the field yet were put through a three-hour practice, a swirl of motion and commotion, focused on fundamentals and defense.

“Move it!”

“Get down! Lower!”

“Do it again!”

There was no mistaking who was in charge.

As he had done at Fitzgerald-Clarke and then at Vanderbilt, Wade wasted little time in showing early results at the University of Alabama, improving the team’s record to 7–2–1 in 1923 from 6–3–1 the year before. To Wade’s dismay, those losses included a twenty-three-point blowout to Syracuse and a heartbreaking loss to the University of Florida, which cost them a Southern Conference championship. In 1924, the Crimson Tide won the conference title, losing just once, on November 15, in what would turn out to be the last regular season loss for Wade’s team until October of 1927.

Wade held coaching schools over the summers for college and prep coaches (which helped recruiting) and never wavered from promoting his core belief that anything less than the strongest work ethic was unacceptable. His players called him “Bear” behind his back, as his off-season and in-season workout sessions were legendary for their level of physical intensity. Wade believed that players would perform in a game as they did in practice, and that meant supreme year-round physical conditioning.

In his other incarnation as coach of Alabama’s baseball team, Wade noticed how well the players were able to stabilize themselves and cut on the dirt and grass, even when wet, by wearing cleats, so Wade asked a shoe salesman to make a high-top football shoe with baseball cleats. His star player, halfback Johnny Mack Brown, was the first to lace them up and ran for a long touchdown, all the proof Wade needed of the cleats’ effectiveness. By the end of the season, Wade had all the backs and receivers in football cleats, and eventually they would find their way onto the feet of every peewee and professional football player in the nation.

In 1925, for the second year in a row, Alabama won the Southern Conference, this time earning a berth in the Rose Bowl to take on the undefeated Washington Huskies. In 1922, the Tournament and city had constructed a fifty-seven-thousand-seat stadium for $272,198. The football game at the Tournament had been played continuously since the Washington State and Brown matchup in 1916, with service teams stepping in during World War I. The game was renamed the Rose Bowl when Harlan Hall, a local newspaper writer moonlighting for the Tournament of Roses, recognized the similarities between the newly constructed bowl stadium in Pasadena and Yale’s famous Yale Bowl.

At the time, it was the only postseason bowl game, and, therefore, folks began to notice as newspapers covered the action. Despite the Tournament’s hesitancy to select a Southern team like Alabama, Wade’s team was picked to face the Huskies, led by All-American halfback George “Wildcat” Wilson. After trailing 12–0 at the half, Wade switched two of his guards to ends, and Bama turned its fortunes around, storming back to win 20–19 and securing its first national championship.

Shortly after the season, the University of Oregon, Washington State University, and his alma mater, Brown, expressed interest in prying Wade away from Alabama, but he and his family were content to be in Tuscaloosa, and he signed a five-year contract extension with the university. At first, he proved he was worth the investment when his 1926 team repeated as national champions after tying Stanford 7–7 on a late touchdown in the Rose Bowl. However, over the next three seasons, Wade’s teams posted a mediocre overall record of 17–10–1, and, despite his past championships, which helped fund the brand-new Denny Stadium, which opened in 1929, Wade’s critics had started to chirp that maybe he had lost his touch; that even though he was only in his late thirties, maybe the game had passed him by.

In mid-February 1930, Wade received a letter that would not just change his life but alter the histories of two universities. The typed letter was from Dean W. H. Wannamaker of Duke University in North Carolina, the chairman of the Faculty Committee on Athletics. Wannamaker had met Wade three times at Southern Conference meetings and was impressed by the coach, so much so that when Duke sought a new football coach, after deciding that James DeHart was no longer the answer, Wannamaker reached out to Wade for recommendations.

It is our earnest desire to build the very best possible physical plant and to provide for the coaching of our teams the best leaders we can secure … the man we bring in will have entire direction of the team and we will bring in the assistants he will want.

It was not unusual for a university to reach out to Wade or to other prominent coaches to seek recommendations, and Wade responded with his in three days. On his list were Henry Crisp, line coach at Alabama; Lewis Hardage, backfield coach at Vanderbilt; Roy Morrison, head coach at Southern Methodist; and Clark Shaughnessy, head coach at Loyola University. But he added this:

If you decide to wait until the season of 1931, I should be glad to talk with you about the position for myself. If you care to discuss the matter further I expect to be in Atlanta March 2–4th for the conference basketball tournament.

Wade shocked the college football world when he announced before the start of the 1930 season that he was indeed heading to Durham, North Carolina, to coach Duke—a school with little football tradition and a less-than-.500 record in the preceding four seasons. Yet he proved it was time for a new challenge when, as a lame duck, the Bear led Alabama to another national championship in 1930, his final year in Tuscaloosa, before being carried off the field by his players.


Copyright © 2016 by Brian Curtis