Thursday night, 7 p.m. at the Brookwood Village Books-A-Million location, gift-less Crimson Tide fans in the throes of last minute shopping must be on hand for Steve Townsend’s book signing event. That goes also for sports history completists and lovers of good yarns, but especially Alabama partisans giddy about the prospect of the Tide picking up national championship number 16. The book in question is Crimson Heart: Let Me Tell You My Story by Mal Moore with Steve Townsend. If you don’t know his story, you may not realize that Mal Moore is why Alabama is the number one college football team in the land.
It’s an extravagant claim, assuredly one that Mal Moore himself would never have made. The former player, coach and athletic director was modest to a fault about his accomplishments during a half-century with the University of Alabama. However, it is indisputable that he brought about the hiring of Nick Saban in 2007, which set in motion the sequence of events that ultimately brought the Tide back to the pinnacle of college football. It’s odd to think that the road to the national championship runs through Crenshaw County.
Mal Moore was born there in 1939, in Dozier, population 391, and his memoir provides a colorful description of growing up in small-town south Alabama. He caught the football bug early, listening to ‘Bama games on the radio, and after graduating from Dozier High in 1957, despite offers from Georgia and Auburn, he chose to play at the Capstone.
The Tide, at its nadir under “Ears” Whitworth, had just taken on a new head coach named Bryant. The young quarterback from Dozier was one of the lean and hungry country boys driven to their physical limits by the Bear’s brutal conditioning regimen. Moore was playing backup to Pat Trammell when the Tide won the national title in 1961, earning the first of his 10 championship rings.
After graduation, Moore put in a year coaching with Montana State, then returned to Tuscaloosa in 1964 as a graduate assistant coaching defensive backs. He became a quarterback coach in 1971, the year the Tide hitched its destiny to the wishbone. At Coach Bryant’s side during his record-breaking run, Moore was thought a lock for promotion after the old lion’s retirement in 1982, but Ray Perkins was chosen instead.
Mal Moore was in the wilderness for the next few years, crossing over to the dark side to coach Notre Dame for two seasons, then going pro for four as an assistant to fellow Tide alum Coach Gene Stallings with the Cardinals, variously of St. Louis and Arizona. When Stallings took the call from Mama and returned to Alabama in 1990, Moore came along as well. Two years later, the Tide was hoisting another championship trophy.
In 1994, though, his wife Charlotte having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Moore stepped away from the field and into the front office, becoming an assistant athletic director. Here he worked alongside Steve Townsend, a former LSU partisan who had come to the University of Alabama in 1988. “He and I traveled through the years so much together, we exchanged a lot of yarns,” Townsend told Weld this week.
Moore became athletic director in 1999, just as the mighty Tide football machine began to spring leaks. Mike Dubose retired in ignominy in 2000, a 2001 NCAA investigation of recruitment violations led to probation and a bowl ban, Dennis Franchione abandoned ship after one season, his replacement Mike Price was waylaid at a Pensacola strip club and Mike Shula was brought in on short notice to right the listing vessel.
Amid all this, Mal Moore set out to raise $100 million to improve athletics facility upgrades, a seemingly quixotic mission that invited derision. Nevertheless, “He would never concede that Alabama wouldn’t return to what he considered its rightful spot in the college football hierarchy,” Townsend told Ryan Foster of WDGM-FM last week. “He knew Alabama could never attract a Nick Saban or another high-profile coach unless the facilities were improved.” The Crimson Tradition Fund effort ultimately raised $150 million for all Alabama sports, and the modern football building those monies helped erect bears Mal Moore’s name today.
Perhaps the athletic director’s most significant achievement was persuading Nick Saban to coach the Tide. Here, Crimson Heart exceeds mere memoir to offer the authoritative account of how that hire happened (and almost didn’t), dispelling years of uninformed media speculation.
Nearing retirement, Moore approached Townsend in 2010 about writing an autobiography, and the two conferred informally on the project a number of times. In November 2012, though, a sense of urgency appeared. “I knew he was not feeling well, but had no clue as to the severity of it,” Townsend said. The two began meeting at the Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa in January 2013 to record Moore’s recollections for posterity. Even as his health turned for the worst, Moore was going over details for completing the memoir.
After Moore’s death in March 2013, Townsend began assembling the oral history according to an agreed-upon outline, polishing the prose the way Moore, a poetry lover, would have appreciated. “For twenty years, there weren’t many days that I wouldn’t be around him or talking on the phone, so, both from having lived through a lot of it with him and from the friendship, I had pretty good insight into everything,” Townsend said.
When you buy a copy of Crimson Heart at Books-A-Million Thursday night (or online, if you miss the signing event), all the proceeds go to the Mal and Charlotte Moore Crimson Heart Foundation and Alabama Athletics. So buy the book and celebrate the tradition of the Crimson Tide. And if you need convincing that he was truly one of a kind, ponder this: the last time Alabama won a national championship without Mal Moore’s name on the program, the year was 1941.