Editor's note: Alabama's traveling fans are a hallmark of the school's football culture. This story is the first in a weekend series about the legion of Crimson Tide supporters converging in Columbia in RVs for Saturday's game.
COLUMBIA — A crimson flag with the ubiquitous white Alabama “A” fluttered from the front window of a 40-foot-long motor home snug in its spot off the gravel road at Cottonwood RV Park. A white sign with red cursive lettering was tacked to the windshield: “I made the ride to watch the Crimson Tide.”
Gerald and Callie Waldrop parked their 2006 Phaeton Motor home one row over. Cables and hoses snaked from behind the RV’s diesel engine to various hookups — electricity, water, sewage. Red chairs surrounding a picnic table faced a flat-screen TV that pulled out from the RV’s underbelly.
Inside the home a purposeful Crimson color scheme, from carpets to candles, overrode the factory-installed green and gold. Seated on the leather couch, Gerald Waldrop, 70, recalled his first Alabama football game.
He was 4 years old. His uncle Harold Hendrix, a classmate of the famed Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, took him to Knoxville,Tenn., in 1946 to watch the Crimson Tide in a losing effort.
A fan since, the Waldrops have not missed an Alabama bowl game since 1964, the year star Alabama quarterback Joe Namath won the national championship.
Gerald Waldrop purchased his first RV, "a box on the road," in 1975 while serving in the Alabama statehouse. He parked it in Montgomery,Ala. when the Senate was in session. He also seized the opportunity to begin tailgating.
“In the early days, we’d come the day of the game,” Waldrop said. “Things changed as motor homes got more sophisticated. Now some people take off when football season starts and don’t come home until it’s over.”
Waldrop estimated that 1,500 RVs carrying faithful Alabama fans travel to away games. The Waldrops, from Helena, Ala., were among the early arrivals Thursday afternoon in anticipation of Saturday's game, which is Alabama's first visit to Columbia for an SEC conference game.
The 100 spots at MU's single-game RV lot, which doesn't open until 6 p.m. Friday, have been sold out since Oct. 1. The Waldrops and other fans without spots are pulling into local campgrounds, Walmart parking lots and other RV-friendly sites.
"We're packed with 'Bama fans," Bruce Barnes, campground host at Katfish Katy's in Huntsdale west of Columbia, said Friday morning. "We've been turning fans away since the schedule was released. We haven't had the same issues with Kentucky or Vanderbilt fans."
Alabama fans travel well. By many accounts they have the largest motor home contingent in college football. In a world of mythic fandom, the Tide rises above the rest, often overshadowing home crowds with flowing crimson red and shrieking chants of “Roll Tide!”
Angela Harmison is a recent recruit in a culture where most are born and bred.
“It’s addictive,” Harmison, who's staying at Cottonwood, said.
She moved to Mobile, Ala., with her husband, Keith Harmison, in 2010.
"The first question everyone asks is, 'Who are you for?'" Keith Harmison said, referring to the bitter in-state divide between Auburn and Alabama fans.
The Harmisons relaxed beside a fire late Thursday evening with another couple, the Palmers, and Dave Eubank — all Alabama RV-ers.
On the gravel road that winds through the RV park, a white motor home with Alabama tags lumbered over a speed bump toward the back of the campground. Softly, from an open window, a tired voice said, "Roll Tide."
Eubank lifted his wine glass. "Roll Tide," he said.
Unparalleled success through the years forged the bond among Tide fans. Alabama's 14 national titles are the most in NCAA football history. Recently, after a 17-year drought, the Tide has won two titles in the last three seasons — 2009 and 2011. Fans credit Coach Nick Saban, who was hired in 2007, for reigniting a frustrated base.
Gerald Waldrop said the past few seasons remind him of the glory days, when Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant stalked the sidelines wearing his trademark houndstooth checkered hat. Bryant won six national titles and 14 SEC championships in 25 years at the helm.
"If Coach Saban keeps winning national championships, we'll finally bury Bear Bryant," Waldrop said of Bryant, who died of a heart attack four months after retiring in September 1982.
One of Waldrop's most prized possessions came from the hand of Bryant.
In 1970 Southern California visited Alabama, still fielding an all-white team, at Legion Field in Birmingham. The Trojans had lost only three contests in the previous two years, and Bryant's team was reeling, still sore from back-to-back six-win seasons — unthinkable under Bryant.
The Trojans fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham, who is black, steamrolled the Tide. He finished with 135 yards and two touchdowns. After the game Bryant, who had already tried to integrate the team, made it clear to the Alabama brass that the Crimson Tide would have to recruit black players. A year later, John Mitchell became the school's first black football player.
A 28-year-old Waldrop sat 10 rows behind the Alabama bench in 1970. When the Trojans' Cunningham scampered for his second touchdown, Waldrop saw Bryant throw his still-lit Chesterfield cigarette in disgust.
Waldrop, eye on the cigarette burning in the dirt, crept down to the fence dividing the bench from the fans and whispered to a trainer to hand him the butt.
"He looked at me like I was crazy," Waldrop said. "I keep that cigarette butt in a safety deposit box today."
The Waldrops have always been early arrivals to away games; they like to get their bearings and do some sightseeing, Callie Waldrop said.
Chris Bice and his gang plan to come into town Friday afternoon. Bice, his wife, and another couple left Olive Branch, Miss., on Thursday afternoon and stopped in St. Louis overnight. After a Budweiser brewery tour Friday morning, Bice said he'll be waiting at the campus RV-lot gate when it opens.
Saturday: Dan Burley's serial coverage of Alabama fans' first SEC conference game in Columbia moves to the RV lot down the hill from Memorial Stadium.