He pondered the same questions he had heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the past few months. They tortured him, agonized him — in part because he had grown tired of searching for the answers, in part because he might never know the answers.
Coach, what happened?
Coach, how did it happen?
Coach, why did it happen?
Each query tore away the scab from a wound that no one would let heal. Today it was a newspaper reporter. Yesterday it might have been a man on the street. Tomorrow it might be an old friend from college. What? How? Why?
“Last fall was one I’ll never forget,” he told Naylor Stone, a newspaper reporter from Birmingham. “Gee, it was tough. Man, dirty letters poured in to me. They called us everything.”
Consoling himself, he reached for a copy of an old Indian prayer he kept close by on his desk. He fished it out from under a pile of old newspapers, read it aloud and wished it were true.
“Great Spirit, help me never judge another until I have walked, for a while, in his moccasins.”
It was August 1956. Jennings B. "Ears" Whitworth had been the head football coach at the University of Alabama for one year, seven months and 18 days. During the last eight of those months, he had become one of the most reviled figures in Crimson Tide history.
His wound — Alabama’s 0-10 record from Whitworth’s first season in 1955 — has since become a scar, marring the beauty of the Tide’s rich football legacy, an ugly imperfection amid the trophies, titles and larger-than-life characters that define the Crimson Nation.
The current generation of Alabama fans knows very little about their team’s lean years from 1955 through 1957. They know Ears Whitworth was a loser and Paul “Bear” Bryant, the coach who succeeded Whitworth, was a winner. Ask any Alabama fan, young or old, black or white, alumni or no: Who’s the worst coach in Alabama football history? Invariably the answer returns: Ears Whitworth. Like Benedict Arnold and Pontius Pilate, Whitworth is famous for being infamous.
But success in football is a collaborative effort, well beyond the reach of any single person. Then again, so is failure. The question of why Whitworth failed so miserably as Alabama’s head coach can never fully be answered. But the answer Whitworth feared, the answer that many have naturally assumed both then and now, is both incorrect and incomplete. It wasn’t all his fault.
Researching a football team that played more than half a century ago is no easy task. Fortunately, the Alabama athletic department has archived most of its history in an enormous collection of scrapbooks. These scrapbooks, put together by the sports information department and maintained by the Paul W. Bryant Museum, chronicle the minutiae of Tide sports since the turn of the 20th century by way of newspaper clippings from around the state and region. Papers from the past and present, such as The Tuscaloosa News, Birmingham News, Birmingham Post-Herald, Crimson White and Atlanta Journal Constitution, are well represented within these aging, poster-sized pages.
Despite the remarkable chronology contained in these crimson time capsules contain, they indirectly contribute to the mystery surrounding the Whitworth era. Occasionally, the students charged with clipping the clippings were careless in their chore. Some of the articles were pasted without referencing the title of the newspaper, the author of the story or either.
The only recourse for me — an ardent student of both history and college football — was to reveal and examine that time of great unrest within the Crimson Nation through the eyes of great sportswriters of the time, men like Naylor Stone, Zipp Newman, Furman Bisher and Charles Land. Then, I turned to two current writers and Crimson Tide historians – Cecil Hurt and Kirk McNair – to get their perspective on the Whitworth era and argue what lessons the university can learn from it.
At the end of the 1954 season, Alabama athletic director Hank Crisp found himself in search of a new head coach for the Tide’s suddenly flailing football team.
The Harold “Red” Drew era, which lasted eight seasons, had been terribly inconsistent. A 9-2 record in 1950, followed by a 5-6 record in 1951. A 10-2 record in 1952, followed by a 6-3-1 record in 1953. The bottom fell out on Red in 1954, after the Tide started the season 4-1 and then failed to win its last six contests.
Crisp, who had first served as athletics director from 1931 through 1939, had been coaching the line in football as an assistant under Drew since 1950, keeping the position even after becoming Drew’s boss. Since he wanted to continue this unusual arrangement for the foreseeable future, Crisp needed to find a coach he could easily manipulate. His search zeroed in on a small agricultural school in rural Oklahoma.
Oklahoma A&M, now known as Oklahoma State, was hardly a football powerhouse in the mid-1950s. Save for a couple of odd years where the team overachieved in the mid-1940s, the Aggies mostly toiled in obscurity. In 1950, the team hired Whitworth, a career SEC assistant coach who, since winning a Rose Bowl at Alabama in 1931 as a star player, had spent the previous 18 years coaching the line at Alabama, LSU and Georgia, respectively.
Whitworth, with his endless closet of narrow, dark ties and brown suits, was straight out of central casting for a middle-aged white man circa 1955. Closely cropped hair racing away from his eyebrows and leaving behind a prominent forehead. Average height, a little thick around the middle, a strong nose, average lips and a weak chin. And ears. Ears that, upon catching the right wind, might have lifted a slighter man clean off the ground. No key is needed to pick Whitworth out of the 1930 Alabama team photo. One only has to look for the man who appears to have two moths settling simultaneously on either side of his head.
Under Whitworth’s tutelage from 1950 to 1954, A&M managed only two winning seasons and 22 victories. The only newsworthy item to emerge during Ears’ tenure there was the so-called “Johnny Bright incident” in 1951, wherein a prominent black football player from Drake University (Bright) was assaulted and knocked unconscious on three separate plays by A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith. The third blow Bright suffered not only knocked him out cold, but broke his jaw as well, forcing him out of the game. A clipping from the Des Moines (Iowa) Tribune from Nov. 11, 1980, cited three Aggie students who claimed that a coach from A&M – it is unclear if it was Whitworth – extolled the players in practice to “get that nigger.”
Ears’ best year at A&M came in 1953 when he managed seven victories and a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title. An un-attributed newspaper clipping from the time, pulled from one of the Bryant Museum’s mighty scrapbooks, suggests that Whitworth was well liked and comfortable at A&M, claiming he was “one of the most popular personalities to hit the Oklahoma sports scene in many years.”
Another clipping, from late 1955 (likely from The Crimson White), stated that Whitworth came highly recommended to Crisp, who must have seen the coach as the perfect pawn for his unorthodox and highly invasive managerial style. He hired Whitworth under two potentially debilitating conditions. First, Whitworth would have to work with the staff that remained in place from the Harold Drew era and could not hire his own assistant coaches. Second, Crisp would remain on the football staff as a line coach.
Whitworth agreed to the deal – “reluctantly” according to the editorial – and was officially introduced as Alabama’s 19th head coach on Dec. 1, 1954.
From January to August 1955, Whitworth embarked on a whirlwind tour of Red Elephant Club meetings, alumni chapter functions and Rotary Club soirees. In August, he told a CW reporter that he had traveled more than 15,000 miles during that time period, in addition to entertaining state high school football and basketball coaches and hosting the university’s annual coaching clinic.
The start of fall practice in August was Whitworth’s first chance to parade the team in front of the local media. Naylor Stone, the venerable columnist from the old Birmingham Post-Herald, opined that Whitworth’s preseason practice sessions were among the most intense ever witnessed at the Capstone.
“We’ve never seen Alabama players go through the paces like they’re doing today,” Stone wrote. “Coaches work just as hard, perhaps harder.”
Players were herded onto the practice field just after dawn, drilled for hours in the grueling, mid-summer heat until lunch and again at a late afternoon session. This “two-a-day” schedule dragged on for 10 days.
In practice, Alabama’s offense operated out of the split-T formation, which was developed in the 1940s as a run-based offense designed to create gaps and personnel mismatches. In Alabama’s first scrimmage of the season it was obvious that the offense was weighted toward running the football. The Tide rolled up 200 rushing yards against itself, behind the fleet feet of senior quarterback Bart Starr and star end Tommy Tillman. Days later, however, Tillman would face surgery to repair a bleeding ulcer, putting him down for the year and beginning an injury trend that would eventually force Alabama to improvise a new offensive game plan.
The 1955 season was not supposed to be Alabama’s year. A Birmingham News poll picked the Tide to finish seventh in the conference, citing issues concerning mounting injuries, strength of schedule and personnel depth (the number of players available at a position). Four Alabama opponents were preseason top-10 teams, including Rice, the Tide’s opener in ‘55.
That game, dubbed by Birmingham News sports editor Zipp Newman as “the toughest opener ever for the Crimson Tide,” began another trend that would continue through the rest of the season. Alabama would keep things close, perhaps scoreless, through the first half, before wading and wilting in a bog of tired legs and broken bodies as the game moved into the third and fourth quarters.
The Rice game followed this script, with the Owls scoring every one of their points in the final period to claim a 20-0 victory. The following week, Alabama trailed Vanderbilt 7-6 at halftime and lost 21-6. The week after that, TCU and Alabama played to a scoreless first half tie before the Horned Frogs roared to life in the second half to claim a 21-0 win. The week after that, Tennessee’s 13-point fourth quarter barrage powered the Vols to a 20-0 victory at Legion Field.
Through the first four games of the season, Alabama had three times as many turnovers (18) as points (6). Inconsistency and impatience kept the Tide shuffling endlessly through three quarterbacks – Starr, Clay Walls and Albert Elmore. Before the Tennessee game, Alabama’s top three halfbacks were injured, effectively neutralizing the Tide’s split-T system.
In a desperate attempt to fix his ailing offense, Whitworth took the overall concept of the split-T scheme – the gaps and mismatches created by spreading out the offensive line and tight ends – and combined it with a wide-open passing attack. The following week’s result, loss number five against Mississippi State at homecoming, represented the Tide’s best offensive performance to date. Alabama accumulated 18 first downs, 14 completed passes and 165 passing yards in the 26-7 loss. In contrast, Alabama had only completed nine passes for 85 yards through the first four games of the season.
Reporters covering the Tide didn’t know what to make of the high-flying, pass-happy offensive system that Whitworth had concocted. Three writers – Max Moseley from the Montgomery Advertiser, Ed Miles from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Bill Smith from the CW – all described it as “the spread formation.”
Smith broke down the new system:
The offense is the spread play, with all of its octopus-armed facets which Coach J.B. ‘Ears’ Whitworth installed three weeks ago in an effort to generate a scoring threat… Whitworth has players spread all over the field. The quarterback received the ball both from the T quarterback position and from the [single wing halfback] position, depending on the situation and the type of play desired. A roving end is now being used. He is spread out from the line from 10 to 20 yards and alternates on virtually every play from one side to another. The halfbacks are often spread out almost this far.
This appears to be the first mention of the spread offense as fans recognize it today, likely predating Glenn Ellison’s “Run-and-Shoot” scheme that originated around the same time. Who knew that Ears Whitworth was perhaps the original innovator of modern-day football’s most potent offensive scheme?
While the new spread formation presented the Tide with more scoring opportunities, it couldn’t solve the team’s dire depth issues. Alabama’s sixth loss of the season, a 27-7 defeat to Tulane, played out exactly as the previous five games had, with the two teams tied at the half and the Tide blown out late. The following week’s game – a 35-14 loss at Georgia – followed a similar formula.
The next three weeks gave way to three more losses – 26-2 to Georgia Tech, 34-12 to Miami, and 26-0 to Auburn. With the exception of the Miami game (Starr’s best performance of the season), weather and strategy began to foil Alabama’s wide-open passing attack. Windy conditions at Legion Field kept the Tide grounded in their loss to Tech while Auburn’s steady ground-control approach kept Alabama from sustaining offensive momentum.
Ten games, 10 losses. Not since 1895 had an Alabama football team emerged from a season without a single victory. And while it proved a terrible stain on the program’s young but stellar tradition, the winless season was enough to convince Crisp that he should allow Whitworth to begin hiring his own assistant coaches. However, it was not enough to convince Crisp to give up his own seat on the staff.
Before the start of the 1956 season, Whitworth let three coaches go and brought in two to take their place – Barney Poole and Dorsey Gibson. Gibson had coached the freshman team at Oklahoma A&M during Whitworth’s tenure in Stillwater. Ears also attempted to address his team’s depth issues, signing an enormous freshman class of 39 athletes.
By the time the Tide competed against itself in the annual A-Day scrimmage, Whitworth had reversed course on the spread system that had garnered so much media attention the year before, deciding instead to revert back to the old split-T. Clay Walls entered the season as the top quarterback after Starr graduated and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Walls directed the first-team squad to a 26-0 victory behind an impressive ground game that rolled up 313 yards. After the game, however, the usually jovial Whitworth was hardly impressed with his team’s performance.
“You disappointed me,” a Post-Herald reporter overheard Whitworth tell his boys. “People will tell you you looked good today, but deep down in your hearts you know that you didn’t. We’ve got a long way to go if this is any indication. We did everything wrong. There was nothing impressive about today.”
As it turned out, not even a large freshman class could fix the depth issues in time for the 1956 season. Playing the same slate of teams that they opened with during the previous season, the results were all too familiar: three losses – at Rice, at Tennessee, at home against TCU – and a tie against Vanderbilt in Mobile.
What was worse for Whitworth’s cause was the absence of improvement in the Tide’s performance from the previous season. The same four teams that defeated Alabama by a combined score of 82-6 a year ago had now beaten Whitworth’s boys 99-26.
With Alabama’s winless streak now at 20 games, the wolves began circling around the Tide’s coach. In September, reporter Austin White (the name of his paper is unknown) wrote “a few hundred belligerents are clamoring for [Whitworth’s] head.” Columnist Bob Pruitt went further, claiming that Whitworth was “the target of one of the most cruel attacks a man in his position has been faced with in many years…letters, telephone calls and wires greeted him at every turn.”
The cruelest of the “cruel attacks” against Whitworth began in mid-October 1956, when an effigy of the coach was found hanging near the UA commerce school. A second was found days later, dangling from a tree near a campus library. This time, the perpetrators had scrawled the name “Whit” across the dummy’s chest.
The third effigy was the most ambitious. This time, in addition to Whitworth’s name, several derogatory screeds were scrawled across or tacked onto the embattled coach’s likeness:
“Hey hey, ho, ho! Whitworth’s gotta go!”
“Go back to A&M”
“We want Lujack!” (The latter a reference to Johnny Lujack, a former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback from Notre Dame.)
The homecoming game against Mississippi State on Oct. 28, Whitworth’s 15th as Alabama’s head coach, started off like so many others had before as the Bulldogs raced out to a 12-0 lead in the second quarter. But before the end of the first half, Tide quarterback Clay Walls threw a 46-yard touchdown pass Jim Bowdoin, pulling Alabama within a touchdown at 12-6.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the score unchanged, Alabama forced and recovered a fumble on the State 30 yard line. Several plays later, Walls powered his way into the end zone on a quarterback sneak to tie the game at 12-12. Pete Reeves’ extra point gave the Tide a 13-12 advantage, and the defense held against a late Bulldog charge to preserve the victory. It had been 736 days since Alabama’s winless streak began, ironically at the hands of the same Mississippi State team back in 1954. Delighted that their coach finally could claim the first win of his tenure, several Alabama players rode a weeping Whitworth off the field atop their shoulders.
The rest of the season was a roller coaster ride for Tide coaches, players and fans alike. Alabama came within a whisker of beating Georgia at Legion Field, only to give up a punt return touchdown, a fumble on the subsequent possession, and lose, 16-13.
Whitworth collected his second win the following week in New Orleans, upsetting Tulane, 13-6, despite entering the game as a two-touchdown underdog. However, Georgia Tech extinguished the Tide’s exuberance the next week in Atlanta, dismantling the Tide, 27-0 behind a 20-point second half point barrage. The following week, Alabama played Mississippi Southern to a 13-13 tie.
The 1956 season came to a close with the annual in-state tilt against Auburn. Just as they did in 1955, the Tigers pounded the Tide in Birmingham, 34-7. Auburn churned out 489 yards of offense, primarily on five straight touchdown drives in the second and third quarters.
The final tally of Whitworth’s second season: two wins, seven losses, one tie.
By early 1957, despite the Tide’s improvement over the final half of the last season, it appeared that Whitworth’s future was hanging by a thread. Journalists across the state fanned the flames, suggesting that prominent alumni were fed up with their school’s sluggish football program. The media’s incessant probing prompted one 36-year-old law professor from north Alabama to fire off an impassioned letter to the editor (the scrapbook fails to cite which paper).
“As a University of Alabama alumnus, I urge that University of Alabama officials be allowed to handle their own business without interference from the outside.”
It was signed, Howell Heflin.
Whitworth put on a good front in the spring and summer of 1957, a far cry from the previous season when he was overheard poor-mouthing his boys after the A-Day game. Mercer Bailey of The Tuscaloosa News reported that Whitworth was confident that he would have both speed and depth in his third season, a luxury he had yet to enjoy at any point in his tenure. When another reporter asked him what kind of team he expected in 1957, Whitworth responded “tol’able.”
However, behind his grandstanding lurked a darker realization. Whitworth was well aware that his three-year contract was up at the end of the 1957 season and that after two awful seasons the chances of him saving his job were extraordinarily slim. Birmingham News columnist Charles Land would later report that Whitworth “offered to announce when the  season began that he would not return.” The administration refused that offer.
Still, Whitworth appeared outwardly confident that 1957 would be a turn-around year for the Tide.
“I’m anxious for the season to get along,” he told the Post-Herald’s Stone. “I don’t see how we can miss having a good football team this fall. I’m so excited over these kids that my stomach is in an uproar. Those butterflies are giving it fits.”
Whitworth’s butterflies only intensified as the opening game of the season – at Louisiana State – grew near. A several days before departing for Baton Rouge, four players unexpectedly quit the team and a fifth, guard Fred Sington Jr., was ruled ineligible by the league. Then a flu outbreak hit the team, grounding several players, including star quarterback Bobby Smith and center Benny Dempsey. In all, 16 players would miss the game due to either the flu or other injuries.
All of those obstacles – along with a talented LSU team – combined forces against Tide on Sept. 28 as the Tigers crushed Alabama, 28-0, to open the season.
“I still say we can’t be that bad,” Whitworth proclaimed after the game, but the numbers told a different story. LSU blistered the Bama defense for 337 yards, while surrendering only 142 yards in return. The Tide turned the ball over six times.
The next three weeks brought more bad news. A 6-6 tie against Vanderbilt in Nashville, a 28-0 loss to TCU in Fort Worth, a 14-0 defeat to Tennessee at Legion Field.
It was at this point that Alabama football – with its 65-year tradition, five national championships and an already legendary scroll of head coaches – reached its nadir. At no time in the history of the program had there been a worse stretch than Whitworth’s two-and-a-half year tenure: two wins, 20 losses and two ties. The fans, the alumni, the administration – they had all had enough. With the Crimson Nation perched atop an enormous powder keg, Whitworth decided it was time to light the match.
On Oct. 21, the coach was in Birmingham to address the city’s Quarterback Club when he told attendees that he did not expect Alabama to renew his contract, nor did he plan to ask them to do so. Armed with this information, reporters from across the state bombarded the athletic department for a statement regarding Whitworth’s future. They got one the following day.
Dr. A.B. Moore, the chairman of the university’s athletic committee, issued a six-part edict stating that his committee expected Whitworth to honor the remainder of his contract, but that his contract would not be renewed upon its expiration in December. With six games remaining in what was now his final season, Ears Whitworth was a lame-duck coach.
Immediately, reports from The Birmingham News had Alabama targeting four candidates for the upcoming coaching vacancy, including Harry Gilmer, Frank Moseley and Wade Walker. But the man of the hour, the man that Newsweek claimed was a cinch to get the job, was a coach from Texas A&M named Paul W. Bryant.
Bryant — folks called him “Bear” — told The News he was not interested in the job.
“I have not been approached by anybody…and I don’t want to be approached by anybody,” Bryant said. “I am very happy at Texas A&M, I expect to spend the remainder of my career right here.”
For his part, Whitworth maintained his loyalty to the university he loved, telling the press that he would indeed coach the team throughout the remainder of the season.
Simultaneously, it was becoming apparent that Hank Crisp’s time was running out as well. The incoming university president, Dr. Frank A. Rose, was hinting at a scorched-earth approach to fix the football team he stood to inherit.
“We’ll do whatever we feel necessary to get the best [head coach],” Rose told The Birmingham News. “We’re going to change this situation of losing.”
In the meantime, losing continued unchecked for three of the next four weeks. Alabama lost its homecoming game against Mississippi State, 25-13. Then came a 14-13 upset win at Georgia before two more uninspired performances against Tulane (a 7-0 loss in Mobile) and Georgia Tech (a 10-7 loss at Legion Field).
Just seven days before Whitworth’s contract was set to expire, the Tide finally came to play. Playing in Tuscaloosa for the final time that season, Alabama stunned Mississippi Southern, 29-2, behind an impressive offensive performance that produced 343 total yards of offense and only 19 fewer points than the Tide had scored during the entire 1955 season.
But as was usually the case for Bama and its beleaguered coach, success would not be sustained. The following week, Auburn drilled the Tide, 40-0, at Legion Field in one of the most lopsided Iron Bowl games in history. The Tigers went on that season to win a national championship, the only title that Auburn University officially recognizes.
The following day, Dec. 1, 1957, Whitworth’s contract expired. His final record: four wins, 24 losses and two ties.
There are several reasons why Ears Whitworth ultimately failed as Alabama’s head coach.
First, circumstances beyond his control negatively affected his team. Depth was a near constant concern for Whitworth’s first two Tide teams, suggesting that Alabama’s downward slide began as a result of subpar recruiting by Red Drew and his staff.
Then there was an epidemic of injuries, from bleeding ulcers to concussions. It was not uncommon for the Tide to list as many as 10 injured players per week, representing nearly 20 percent of total roster. It didn’t help that the Tide’s strength of schedule during Whitworth’s tenure was perhaps the most difficult in the team’s history. In 1955 alone, seven of the Tide’s 10 opponents were ranked in the AP Top 25 at various points throughout the season.
As football fans on the eastern side of the state are no doubt aware, the mid-to-late 1950s also represent the zenith of the Auburn football program under Ralph “Shug” Jordan. During the time that Ears Whitworth was the coach at Alabama, the Tigers compiled a 25-5-1 record and won a national championship. Undoubtedly, Auburn’s success not only upped the ante for the Tide to field a winning football team, but also hampered its ability to compete effectively on the recruiting trail.
And surely a large degree of culpability for Ears Whitworth’s failure belongs to the Alabama administration.
Kirk McNair has been chronicling the history of Crimson Tide athletics since 1968, first as a beat writer for the Post-Herald and then as the university’s sports information director. Currently he serves as the founder and editor of ‘BAMA Magazine and publisher of BamaMag.com. He believes that Whitworth’s unraveling might have begun before he was even hired.
“Whitworth had been an excellent lineman for Alabama and had been an assistant coach with a very fine reputation,” McNair says. “He was considered something of a compromise candidate to replace Red Drew, under whose leadership the program had begun slipping.
“Many wanted Paul Bryant, others Jim Tatum from Maryland and probably some others.”
Since Whitworth’s hire was not a consensus choice among the administration and the alumni base, he likely faced a house divided before the conclusion of his first press conference. And if the chatter about Bryant was beginning as far back as 1954, that makes Whitworth the first of nine coaches in Alabama’s recent football history to be eclipsed by the Bear’s enormous shadow.
With voices of dissent preceding his arrival at the Capstone, what Whitworth needed was a supportive, strong athletic director to fend off attackers and help ensure his success. Not only did Hank Crisp fail to accomplish any of those feats, he personally made Whitworth’s existence untenable.
Crisp’s management of Whitworth and the Alabama athletic department indicates that he was intent on centralizing power through his office. This power grab was manifest in direct ways (by not allowing Whitworth to hire his own assistant coaches) as well as more by more surreptitious means (such as forcing Whitworth to undertake a 15,000-mile public relations junket in his first off-season).
Unfortunately for Crisp, his control began to unravel as the Whitworth era dragged on. An October 1957 clipping from The Birmingham News revealed that he was left out of the search committee seeking Whitworth’s replacement. He resigned shortly after Whitworth’s contract expired, allowing Alabama to hire Bryant as the new athletic director as well as coach.
And of course, part of the reason Whitworth failed at Alabama was because he wasn’t a very good head football coach. Prior to taking over at Oklahoma A&M, Whitworth had been an assistant coach for three SEC teams over an 18-year span. We can assume that if he had shown signs that he was ready for a head coaching job, it would not have taken nearly two decades for him to land one. As it was, Whitworth’s tenure at A&M was hardly impressive, as his teams posted three losing records in five seasons.
Cecil Hurt Jr., the sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News, has been covering Alabama football for 27 years and is the author of Tradition: The Pride of Bryant-Denny. His pen has been known to help calm or rile the fan base, save or destroy a head coach’s future. Hurt is a modern-day Walter Cronkite for Alabama fans; when he speaks, the Crimson Nation accepts his word as gospel. Hurt believes Whitworth was out of his league.
“Sometimes people can be excellent assistant coaches, but they’re just not good head coaches,” Hurt says. “From what I’ve heard, from what I’ve been told, my impression is that Coach Whit was a good person but was just over his head as a head coach.”
Hurt, 50, has a unique perspective on the Whitworth era – not from personal experience, but because of his father, Cecil Sr. The elder Hurt played for the Tide from 1956 through 1957.
“I think [my father’s] impression was that Coach Whit was probably not a personality to be a head coach,” Hurt says. “Probably one of the main things that Coach Bryant had to do when he came in was to take charge and say ‘I’m doing things my way, this is it.’ And even that took a little time. You can’t do it overnight, but I think that Coach Whitworth wasn’t that kind of person.”
When Whitworth came to Alabama, he inherited a team that was short on bodies but speckled with talent, most notably future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr. However, Whitworth never seemed comfortable with his lineup card, constantly switching out a player here and a player there. He also never seemed comfortable with Starr, who spent more time on the bench than running the offense, regardless of whether he was injured.
Hurt believes that Whitworth’s unsteady coaching style underscored his not-ready-for-primetime personality.
“What [Whitworth] ultimately said to himself was ‘What I’m doing is not working, so I’m going to try and do something else,’” Hurt says. “I think if you are a paradigm of a strong model head coach, you say ‘Look, I have faith in what I’m doing. What I’m doing is right. This is what we’re going to do.’”
Days after the Auburn loss in 1957, Charles Land caught up with a then-jobless Whitworth to reflect on his tenure in Tuscaloosa and his plans for the future. For Ears, it was one more grueling gauntlet of difficult questions for him to wade through.
“I’m not a guy who remembers the bad things too much,” Whitworth said. “I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me at Alabama. I’ve had some fine boys here. Maybe not the best football players, but still fine boys.”
He then made it clear that he would return to coaching in the future.
“I will say that it will take a lot to get me out of football,” Whitworth said. “I’m just one of those guys who likes to coach. I like to be around young men, watch them grow and develop. You always feel that you’ve had a little part in it.”
In 1959, Whitworth did return to coaching, reclaiming his old line coach position at Georgia under Wally Butts, his close friend and mentor. In the opening game of the season, the Bulldogs defeated Alabama at home, 17-3; one of only two losses the Tide would suffer all year. Georgia posted a 9-1 record that season, winning an SEC championship and defeating Missouri in the Orange Bowl.
Three months later, according to a story from the Rome (Ga.) News Tribune, Whitworth was scheduled to begin a recruiting trip on March 4, 1960. At the same time, his wife Virginia planned a trip of her own to visit relatives in New York. Their son, Bryan, was in Tuscaloosa, attending law school at the University of Alabama.
At some point following Virginia’s departure and before Ears began his trip, the 51-year-old coach suffered a massive heart attack and died alone in his home. A neighbor charged with watering Virginia’s plants discovered the body. The coroner claimed he had been dead for at least two days.
For the University of Alabama, or perhaps for its future head- coach candidates, there are lessons to be learned from Whitworth’s story.
“One lesson obviously learned,” says Kirk McNair, “is that Alabama is not the place for on-the-job training.”
Some of the same problems that poisoned Whitworth’s tenure have befallen several Alabama coaches since Bryant departed after the 1982 season. Bill Curry, Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula all learned the hard way that building on the Tide’s long legacy of excellence can take a dreadful toll. Only the most strong-willed and determined coaches can survive the habitat. Ears Whitworth, by all accounts, was simply not qualified to handle the position.
At the end of the ’57 season, even after the weight of the Alabama job had been transferred from his shoulders to Bryant’s, Whitworth still bore the scars of his three years of torment.
“The way some of these folks talk you’d think I love to lose,” Whitworth told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Furman Bisher as the 1957 season drew to a close. “Lord a-mighty, nobody wants to win worse than I do. I want to win for my old school, for my family, for me. It has been the biggest disappointment of my life.”
It’s easy now, with 51 years of hindsight, to glance through the slick stock of the Alabama football media guide, gawk in bemusement at Ears Whitworth’s 4-24-2 record and assign him full blame for an era gone awry. But deep within the recesses of the Bryant Museum, hidden away inside those dusty, crimson-covered scrapbooks, Whitworth’s true legacy is preserved under the bylines of those great sportswriters of the past. His final interview from Tuscaloosa, that gauntlet thrown down by Charles Land, should give modern-day critics of Alabama’s 19th head coach some pause.
“It has been a difficult thing for Whitworth, this losing business,” Land wrote. “He hadn’t liked it any better than the alumni who gunned for his scalp for two busy years, neither has he liked the telephone calls at strange hours, the nasty words that often followed the lifting of the receiver. Those words weren’t held in reserve for Whitworth alone, the unidentified callers spared neither wife nor son. A lesser man would have quit long before, but Whitworth was a fighter and he didn’t give up.
“This football is an important business, a rewarding business and a cruel business. But all that Whitworth knows, and he did when he came to Alabama.”
Matt Hooper writes a sports column called “Upon Further Review” for Birmingham Weekly. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.