Pick a classic underdog story. You know, the ones where the hero is a scrawny little kid that gets a chance to lead a motley crew on a mission to save their local baseball diamond through the power of friendship, or where the awkward and shy kid gets the girl, and together they win homecoming king and queen and get carried off of the field on the arms of his fellow marching band mellophone players. Or whatnot. Alright, got it? If you picked “Rudy,” pick a new one. Don’t argue with me! I see you, one guy who secretly loves Notre Dame! No one secretly loves Notre Dame, they’re all super obnoxious about that stuff. Yeah, I thought so. Join us engineers. Way cooler, obviously. Ready now? Okay cool.
Not so fast. You thought I was going to start there, didn’t you? And you’re right, because I was. But toss that story out, instead, because this one is better. It’s got Georgia Tech. It’s got football. It’s got the always-thrilling Institute mathematics department. It’s got fraternities. Eventually, it even has a national championship. What’s not to love? Alright, here we go.
William Alexander was nobody special when he first got to the Georgia School of Technology. Sure, nowadays, commencement will tell a freshman from the first moment they walk through that door that they are a special person, handpicked to be a part of the future of the Georgia Institute of Technology. And that’s swell. It’s nice to know that you’re a valued contributing member to a community, especially one as big and dynamic as Georgia Tech. But, back in those days, things were a little different for incoming “sub-apprentices,” as the class before the freshmen was known. William Alexander was exactly that - nothing special - at least according to the philosophy coming from the Hill in those days.
By now, it’s pretty clear - the early days of Tech weren’t fun. Before even the days of the over whelming majority of the student body being roped into the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Tech was run as a pseudo-military school. There were no dormitories, recreational facilities, or dining halls when the campus first opened, and change came slowly for the school on North Avenue. Student retention was abysmal; it was even worse than the fallow living conditions that plagued the Engineers. What a time to be alive indeed.
Into that world walked a 16 year old kid, William Alexander, into a class level that tenuously existed, and onto a football team coached by a man who really didn’t seem to need him in any capacity. In those days, the sub-apprentice level shared brutal retention with the rest of the school, with the added perk that most of the incoming students were not near the level they needed to be to succeed if they were to have applied a year later as freshmen. But Alexander was just getting started. The civil engineer set to work, joining a fraternity and slowly climbing his way up the mountain of coursework. It took him six long years to graduate, but, by the time he did, he was valedictorian and had even seen enough playing time in a pair of games, against the Athenians and Clemson in his senior season, to earn a single varsity letter. His biggest athletic accomplishment on the Flats was being named captain of the scrub team, the not-so-endearing name for the scout B-platoon of players necessary for the starting eleven to practice against a full front.
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, those who can’t do, teach. Alexander never did put his civil engineering degree to use, instead joining the mathematics department following his graduation in 1912. Though the valedictorian had a degree that would have given him a bright future in infrastructure and other useful applications, he chose to stay at his alma mater. He was there when he, an able-bodied young man, was called to serve his country in the Great War. After a hop, skip, and a jump across the pond, Coach Alex, as he quickly became known, found himself not only a professor, but those who don’t play, coach, and the young mathematician became the right hand man to legendary Coach John Heisman.
It was Coach Alex who remained when Heisman left in short order for Philadelphia after the 1919 season. The search to replace the Colossus of coaching was a harried, frenetic mess. The Tech men, so dignified and proper before, were reduced to a worried band of desperados, and the city wondered, who would replace the legendary Heisman. They figured a big name would suffice, and even put out several feelers to gauge interest. Then they decided to knock on Alex’s door down the hall. He accepted.
The only reason Alex was even considered came from a few loud, but influential, voices. Alumni and fans like Chip Roberts and Frank Freeman as well as D. M. Smith, father of the mathematics department - all of whom now have buildings named after them, for what it’s worth - vouched for the young assistant coach. When he was hired, he was the “youngest coach in major football, probably the most popular, and bids fair to prove himself the peer of all of them. Not only is coach the idol of the members of the team, but of the student body as well,” (Technique, 1920). A lot of this stemmed from who Alex was as a person, especially compared to his stoney predecessor. He opened up practices, made training and workouts less eccentric and strange, and things just seemed...friendlier, as accounts state. Though many doubted his ability to keep the team at the level Heisman left it - competing for national championships - Coach Alex rattled off three straight conference championships to open his tenure. He lost only four times in those three seasons, once each to Princeton, Rutgers, Notre Dame, and Navy. After unsubstantiated claims of Tech abusing opposing players with unnecessary roughness were made and proven to be inaccurate, Tech started its’ news bureau, a public relations boon that is today’s media positive propaganda machine.
Alex’s early teams were anchored by a relatively tiny players named Buck Flowers. Selected All-South for his work on offense, Flowers’ most excellent skills probably came on the other side of the ball. The approximately 150 safety regularly took down offensive players with fifty and more pounds on him. As a punter he even managed to boot multiple kicks north of eighty yards down the field. 20,000, a record, came to see the Centre College game in 1920, and the win was immediately followed with an invitation to the Rose Bowl. The coach declined. His boys had studying to do. Though the arc of history is long, and in this day and age it may seem as academics saddle the prospects of the football team - they should not and do not - but that is a tale as old as time. The boys, as is always true, have studying to do. Though 1920 and 1921 were the high water marks for the early says of Coach Alex, the old man, as he was called tongue-in-cheek, managed five more winning seasons in a row until he finished 4-5 in 1926. It took until 1924 for a Southern team to beat Tech, though the Golden Tornado finished with an astounding four ties in 1923. In 1925, the frosty relations with Athens thawed somewhat. Alex lost the first meeting with the school out east in almost a decade. Then he lost another in 1926. As Wallace puts it in Dress Her in White and Gold, “He figured that he had to come back with a good season in 1927 or face trouble,” (87).
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below. Until next time, go Jackets!