The ND-Bama Link

In the late 1920s, a young man in the southern Arkansas town of Fordyce was starting to make quite a name for himself.  As a 13-year-old, he wrestled a captive bear in a promotion for a local movie theater, and gained a lifelong nickname.  He made the high school’s varsity football team as an eighth-grader, and would eventually lead Fordyce to a state championship in 1930.

Bear Bryant was coached at Alabama by former ND star Frank Thomas.

Bear Bryant was coached at Alabama by former ND star Frank Thomas.

Paul “Bear” Bryant accepted a football scholarship to the University of Alabama, and starred for the Crimson Tide in 1933 through 1935, playing on Bama’s national champion team of 1934.

His head coach at Alabama? A gentleman by the name of Frank Thomas, or Coach Tommy as he was often called.

Frank Thomas was born in Muncie, Ind., of parents who emigrated from Wales. His father was a steel worker, and later moved the family to East Chicago, where young Frank was a standout athlete.  He began college at Kalamazoo College, but caught the attention of new Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne in 1919, and transferred to ND.

Thomas, a quarterback, is one of but a handful of Irish football players who were teammates of both the legendary George Gipp (1920) and the Four Horsemen (sophomores in 1922).  He was the starting quarterback before being supplanted by Harry Stuhldreher during the 1922 seasons.

Rockne called Thomas “a fine field general” and predicted success one day for him as a coach.

Rockne was an outstanding judge of football and leadership acumen, and guided literally hundreds of his ND players – and aspiring young coaches who attended his summer coaching schools – into positions at colleges and high schools nationwide. His prediction for Thomas proved spot-on.

Thomas began as an assistant at Georgia in 1923-24, then spent 1925-28 as head coach at Chattanooga, compiling a 26-9-2 record.  He returned to Georgia for another two years as backfield coach under another Rockne protégé, Harry Mehre, before taking over as head coach at Tuscaloosa in 1931.

Legendary Alabama Coach Frank Thomas played for Knute Rockne.

Legendary Alabama Coach Frank Thomas played for Knute Rockne.

As head coach of the Crimson Tide from 1931 through 1946, Thomas not only coached Bryant and fellow end Don Hutson (future Pro Football hall of famer Green Bay Packer), but led the Tide to four Southeastern Conference titles, and victories in the Rose (twice), Sugar and Cotton Bowls.  His Alabama record of 115-24-7 is second only to Bryant’s 232 victories at ‘Bama from 1958-82. And his 1934 team was named national champion.

Thomas retired as a football coach after the 1946 season, but continued to serve as Alabama’s athletic director until 1952. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and died in 1954.

Outside Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, Thomas is remembered with a bronze statue, along those of Bryant, Wallace Wade, Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. Like Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz outside Notre Dame Stadium, they’re celebrated for leading their teams to national titles.

Thomas’ fine career at ‘Bama is another reminder that the influence of Rockne touched virtually every corner of America.