Remembering Duke (and Alabama Football)

Posted on January 1, 2011


[written early Sept., 2010 before Alabama-Duke game of Sept. 18, 2010]

Reading Mark Hughes Cobb’s piece in the Sept. 12 Tuscaloosa News about the Tide’s next game with Duke, in Durham, North Carolina, brought back memories of cool weekends in the fall of 1960 when I went to my first Duke football games as a freshman.

We tend to associate Duke with basketball and the reign of Coach K (Krzyzewski for you purists). They occupy the same pinnacle in collegiate athletics in NCAA basketball as Alabama in football. I mention that fact just in case you forgot that Duke is the 2010 National Champion.

So, this is a good year for me, with a nice pedigree (Duke basketball) and a great job (faculty and football at Alabama).

I’ll be pulling for the Tide this weekend, in spite of being an old Dukie, unless of course it is basketball season. One got crazy at Cameron Indoor Stadium during basketball season and the mood stays with you, even close to half a century later.

Why is Alabama playing Duke? Why not? We go way back.

Did you know we share one of the greatest coaches in the game, Wallace Wade? There’s a statue to him out in front of Bryant Denny stadium.

He won three National Championships for Alabama in the 1920s and early 30s and then went on to Duke to coach them to fame. The 1938 “Iron Dukes” were unscored upon the entire season until Southern California put 7 points on the board to Duke’s 3 in the Rose Bowl and spoiled in incredible almost perfect season.

In my freshman year, Duke went on to the Cotton Bowl and beat the Razorbacks of Arkansas 7-6, even with a stable of greats such as Lance Alworth playing for the Hogs.

And, for you history buffs, the 1942 Rose Bowl was not held in fabled Pasadena, but right there in Durham at Duke Stadium because everyone was on edge following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. Was a surprise landing or bombing of California next?

Luckily for us, the Japanese never launched a successful attack on the continental United States, but Oregon State did bomb Duke in the 1942 Rose Bowl. After that Coach Wade decided to go into military service. He returned after the war and coached until retirement in 1950. Those West Coast teams were tough.

I remember the magnificent neo-Gothic architecture of the campus from my days at Duke, although after four years we were ready to escape turrets, towers, gargoyles and get on with the real world.

For me, like Wallace Wade in 1942, it was military service, into the Navy for two years, storming beaches and bars across the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

Ray Charles came to campus in spring, 1963, if I remember correctly, and even in his drugged state (which he survived and came through later), it was a thrilling night. It was Joe College Weekend, if you can believe that.

And in the spring and fall of 1963, violence and drama punctuated the Civil Rights sit-ins in the restaurants and cafeterias of Durham as Americans squared away against each other, each claiming the high ground of principle and law.

Fall in North Carolina is cool, downright cold sometimes, crisp, invigorating, wonderful sweater and football weather, when a pretty date and a couple of football tickets marked an afternoon about as good as it got. Even without a pretty date—they were hard to find for a freshman kid from New Jersey—football was big at Duke.

We elected a guy named Sean Flynn as the President of our freshman class. His dad was Errol Flynn, and with his looks, Sean had a lot better luck than most of us with the coeds. He disappeared years later in Cambodia on assignment as a journalist.

In the fall of 1960, however, we were pretty innocent.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 was two years away, when the Soviet Union and the United States almost decided to swap intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, and Vietnam was not yet on our radar.

The Beatles did not hit the shores of America until 1964 and a local group, salaciously called the Hot Nuts, entertained us at parties around Durham.

Sometimes on Saturdays I had close encounters with shrubs and trees in my Botany lab in the Duke Forest since Saturday classes were a regular part of the curriculum. But after the bushes and plants, it was a football afternoon.

So, all you Tide fans heading off to Durham this weekend, Roll Tide! Enjoy the campus and the ambience. It’s all upscale and yuppified these days, but while the team may not equal the “Iron Dukes” of 1938, they too have a proud tradition, and hopefully can put some points on the board and give the Tide a good game.

Larry Clayton, Duke, 1964

Posted in: Journal