Georgia Tech Head Coach, 1920-1944
Record: 134-95-15 (.580)
by Fred Russell, Nashville Banner
It was in 1906 that a 16-year-old boy walked into the registrar's office at Georgia Tech, saying that he was William Anderson Alexander from Mud River, Ky., and he wanted to study engineering. He was admitted as an apprentice student, because his high school background was lacking.
When Bill Alexander died in his sleep on April 23, 1950, he was still at Georgia Tech, not as an engineer, but as one of the most respected figures in the history of college athletics.
Alex hadn't been good enough to play varsity football, but in 1908 Coach John Heisman appointed him captain of the scrubs, and in his senior year he got into the Georgia and Clemson games long enough to win a letter. Later Heisman, whose name lives on the trophy presented annually to the outstanding player in college football, added Alex to his coaching staff.
In 1917, when Heisman produced an undefeated Tech team, Alex was in World War I, serving in France as a young officer instructing troops in the mathematics of field artillery. In 1920, after his return to Atlanta and after Heisman decided to become coach of his alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, Alex was named the Georgia Tech head coach.
A tough, clever taskmaster, with his teams to match his character, Bill Alexander knew glorious years on The Flats. It was not until his fifth season as head coach, in 1924 that one of his teams lost to a Southern opponent, to Alabama, coached by Wallace Wade.
Alex was the first coach whose teams appeared in all four of the major bowls: the Rose in 1929, Orange in 1940, Cotton in 1943 and Sugar in 1944. It was Notre Dame's Knute Rockne who said: "Bill Alexander gets more out of less than any coach in America."
Notre Dame and Georgia Tech played each other from 1922 through 1929. When the series was scheduled, Alex said, "They will beat us about nine times out of ten, but in losing we will learn a lot of football. We will gain a lot of prestige nationally. And when we win, it will be a mighty sweet victory." Tech won only once in those eight years, in 1928, 13-0.
Alex's overall record as a head coach, from 1920 through 1945, was 134-95-15. It was during his dismal seasons, such as 1931 when Tech lost to Vanderbilt, 49-7, that people, especially newspapermen, came to know the real Bill Alexander. He was genuine.
Nothing riled Alex more than criticism of his players. In the locker room after Alabama beat his 1933 team, 12-9, on a last-minute inter-ception, an assistant coach lacerated the Tech squad for its lapse. Alex couldn't stand it. "Get out!" he thundered at his aide. "This is your team only when it wins. Now it's my team. Get out before I throw you out!"
Yet Alex had his full share of fun. Whenever he diagramed a football play, he always chalked tiny "x's" to denote Tech players and huge circles to represent the opposing team.
A favorite of Alex was Bill Fincher, a giant Tech tackle who had one glass eye. Occasionally, after the first two or three plays had been run in a game and some physical contact established, Fincher would surreptitiously slip his eye into his hand, then suddenly show his face to the lineman opposite him and growl: "So that's the way you wanna' play, huh?"
Alex was a bachelor until in his 50s. Fiercely independent, he turned down many invitations to eat Christmas dinner at the home of good friends, fearing he might be imposing on family gatherings. On more than one Christmas Eve morning, he would board the "Dixie Flyer" train in Atlanta and settle comfortably into a Pullman seat, reading a newspaper or sometimes a magazine or book, and enjoying the scenery. Late in the afternoon in Nashville, one of his longtime friends, a dining car steward, would climb aboard, greet Alex warmly and prepare to assume his duties en route to Chicago. Except, as both knew so well, there are mighty few if any passengers riding a train on Christmas Eve night. Both being convivial gentlemen and slow sippers, Alex and his friend savored the leisure and enjoyed probably the most unhurried meal and the fullest service in the history of railroad dining. The next day both men would head back South on the same "Dixie Flyer," content in their placid way of alleviating loneliness at Christmas time.
Perhaps the severest test of Alex's equanimity happened shortly after his marriage. Coming to breakfast early and alone one morning, he said to the cook: "I'll eat the rest of that barbecue hash that we had last night. Just heat it up a little and put it on toast."
Several minutes later, drinking his second cup of coffee after having eaten the barbecue, Alex welcomed Mrs. Alexander to the table after she had first visited the kitchen. She informed him that he had eaten not barbecue, but a half-can of dog food.
"Well, it was a little flat, but not bad," Alex said, with insouciant calm.
This was the same Bill Alexander whose composure during probably the wildest bit of action in the history of post-season bowl games remains a conversation piece among the still living members of that unbeaten 1928 Georgia Tech team. In the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, 1929, Tech and the University of California were tied 0-0 in the second quarter with Tech in possession of the ball on its 23-yard line. Running back Stumpy Thomason fumbled and Roy Riegels, California center, grabbed the ball while it was still in the air. In turning to avoid a tackle, Riegels somehow lost his direction and headed towards his own goal. As Riegels was being chased by teammate Benny Lom, it was delirium on the sidelines. Except for Coach Alexander, who said to his excited players jumping up and down near the Tech bench: "Sit down. Sit down. He's just running the wrong way. Every step he takes is to our advantage."
Riegels stepped 64 yards before Lom caught him and spun him. The ball went into the end zone, but the officials placed it on the one-yard line. When Cal tried to punt from its end zone, Tech tackle Vance Maree blocked the kick for a safety and two points. The final score was Tech 8, California 7.
After being recognized as 1928 national champions, Tech only won three games in 1929 and two in 1930. Coach Alex began looking for a bright young assistant. He had heard and read about the University of Tennessee's lanky, bold senior All-American quarterback, Bobby Dodd.
In midseason, 1930, Alex had sent his line coach, Mac Tharpe, to scout future opponent North Carolina, playing Tennessee in Knoxville. Tharpe's automobile broke down en route and by the time he reached Knoxville, the game was over. Tharpe sought information from Tennessee head coach Bob Neyland, who suggested that he talk to Dodd. When Tharpe got back to Atlanta he told Alex: "Dodd's analysis of Carolina is better than any scouting report that I could have made."
Alex admitted that he also was most impressed after reading a newspaper story about how Dodd, seemingly trapped behind Tennessee's goal line for a big loss in the final game of his college career, had escaped to throw an impromptu touchdown to Buddy Hackman for the decisive play in a 13-0 defeat of Vanderbilt.
On Dec. 28, 1930, Tech signed Robert Lee Dodd as an assistant football coach. The salary was $300 a month, but Alex offered a $600 bonus if Bobby would report in time for spring football practice.
"That $600 was more money than I had ever seen," Dodd said. "I used about $500 of it paying off debts I had accumulated in Knoxville. And you know, in all the years I was at Georgia Tech, I never had a contract."
"Coach Alex was wonderful to me. He could growl and snap, but when it came to an emergency, he was your guy. He enabled me to purchase the home my family and I lived in so many years. And he did the same thing for our black trainer, Porto Rico.
"The Old Man was a clearing-house for everybody in the Tech family, from toothaches to funerals to household quarrels. He had the story-telling ability of Mark Twain, the accumulated miscellaneous information of John Kieran and the sympathetic understanding of Dorothea Dix."
It is remarkable that Alexander and Dodd coached at only one university. It is more remarkable that Alex was on the Tech scene as student, assistant coach, head coach, and athletic director for a total of 44 years, and Dodd as an assistant coach, head coach, athletic director and finally fund-raiser for 58 years, until his death in 1988 at age 79.
I often thought that life's most rewarding satisfaction for Bill Alexander, and later for Bobby Dodd, was in hearing so many old players say that the happiest days of their lives were when they were playing football at Georgia Tech.