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Rearview Mirror: The Lean Years

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The back half slide of William Alexander.

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Clint Castleberry, the Jackrabbit.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/6291)

From the other side, it seems all too predictable - young, successful coach ages, gets old, and top assistant takes over in his stead as old coach takes over full-time as the athletic director. Though, in the moment, the rollercoaster ride of the Great Depression and World War II didn’t make a future of much of anything too apparent, other than the daily struggle of trying to keep the department intact into the next calendar year.


The summer of 1930 brought an intriguing visitor to the Flats. An Alabama representative had come for Coach William Alexander, offering him the position of legendary coach Wallace Wade, who had departed for Duke, of all schools. Alex responded, “I would not consider the offer. I am not sure I would be a good coach at Alabama. In fact, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be. I am not sure I would be a good coach anywhere except at Georgia Tech. Come to think of it, I am not sure I am a good coach here, but I’m going to stay as long as I can,” (Wallace, 95). Surprisingly foresightful words from a fresh-off-a-championship coach who would both retire as a coach from the same Institute he began his career and not post another winning record until 1937.

Dr. J. B. Crenshaw, head of the Modern Languages department, also happened to be the lacrosse coach at the time. Alex, as the head of the athletic department, was jawing with Crenshaw about his loss to the school in Athens by a monumental 8-1 margin, though the languages professor was quick to add that everyone had a fine time. Alex jokingly replied that it was if he had lost a football game 56-7, and there was no good in that.

In the fall of 1930, as the previously mentioned first dark age of Georgia Tech athletics set in, Tech took its worst drubbing in a quarter century when it lost to Florida, then a backwater college with little football success to speak of, by a whopping 55-7. Naturally, the witty Crenshaw bounded up to Alex after the game to remark that, “Only 55-7. That’s like 8 to 1 in lacrosse. It was a fine game and everyone had a good time. Ha ha ha,” (Wallace, 96).

The loss of the commerce department nailed a school and athletic program already saddled with the Great Depression. However, despite those tricky circumstances, Tech was able to secure eye-popping upsets of Alabama and Duke several times in the early thirties, keeping them both out of the Rose Bowl. Tech had changed its scholarship program to a loan program, though, during the worst of the depression years, which didn’t make it any easier to secure top-flight talent for the program.

Alex, as a subpar student and football player in his own right back in the 1910s, and as a math professor immediately following his graduation, intimately knew the struggles of athletes in the classroom. Thus, he and math professor D. M. Smith founded one of the first tutoring programs in the country to get Tech athletes prepared in the classroom.

It’s here that Wallace’s account of Alex’s tenure gets a little sketchy. He breaks into stories about the coaching stability of the Old Man and his two assistants, Bobby Dodd and Mack Tharpe, with quotes about how Alex’s weathering of legitimately awful years of football saved future coaches from “undue pressure.” Problem is, this isn’t really true, and it’s not exactly like Tech had other, better, cheaper, or more loyal options than the coach they already had. Plus, he even had a national championship to his name already. Let’s avoid the sketchy quotes and return to the facts.

The next time Tech broke .500 was with a 6-3-1 season in 1937. They followed this up with a two loss, Orange Bowl season that saw only losses to Duke and Notre Dame, with a win over Missouri in the big game. Tharpe would go on to serve in World War II, and indeed perish along with nine players from that team. Just as notable, though, would be a young man who gave his life for his country after being a part of Alex’s last good year in 1942.

Tech had won three games in each of the previous years before it was Clint Castleberry’s chance in the sun. Since freshmen could play according to the altered war rules, the Jackrabbit was Tech’s first Run-Pass Option player - throwing leftie or tucking the ball and keeping it. He was a transcendent talent unmatched by many before and few since.

After getting off to an undefeated start, things were going so well for the Yellow Jackets that they were in the national title hunt. Only, the wheels fell off the bus in a catastrophic way. The Jackrabbit took an injury and was devastated. Alex had a heart attack, compounded with gallbladder issues. Bobby Dodd was forced to take the reigns for the very first time and rattled off three wins before running headlong into an angry team from Athens that had just suffered one of their worst defeats ever. Castleberry was injured. The barking band of bulldogs won 37-0. Tech ultimately lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl with Alex back on the sidelines, despite direct orders otherwise.

Castleberry, who will one day get a column to himself, would ultimately go on to perish in combat in service of his country. His jersey remains the only one retired by Georgia Tech football.

Alex would go on to lead the Yellow Jackets for two more years, producing bowl teams in each one of them. In the first, Eddie Prokop led Tech to score 13 unanswered points to defeat Tulsa in the Sugar Bowl. In the latter, Tulsa got their revenge by returning the favor in the Orange Bowl. Following the 1944 bowl loss, Coach Alex passed control on to his hand-picked replacement, a Tennessee quarterback turned Tech assistant by the name of Bobby Dodd. With the Old Man settling down into his Athletic Director role, after thirteen years as his assistant it was time for the pride and joy of Galax, Virginia to step into the spotlight.

Alex’s reign was full of perhaps the highest of highs for any Tech team - the Rose Bowl winning national champion 1928 team easily the star, or becoming the first team to appear in all the major bowls - and some pretty low lows. His team’s were never all that consistent on the field, but Alex’s presence was a steady hand guiding the ship of Georgia Tech. Nowadays, Tech fans would be happy to win a memorable national championship if it meant enduring their fair share of bad. But, though it’s easy to stop and think about what could’ve been, with Castleberry being the foremost example, it’s disingenuous. Alex did, and would continue to do great things for Georgia Tech. It is often understated just how much the loss of the commerce school crippled the athletic program, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have turned it around without him.

And it’s all because he turned down that one invitation to coach at Alabama.

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 and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.