Author Tommy Ford holds his latest book History Made at a book signing at Books-A-Million in Gadsden in December 2021. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
In the south, tea is brewed sweet as cordial manners. Porches harbor swings and hearts are blessed daily, while kitchen tables serve cornbread and conversation. Even if the creek should rise, everyone esteems southern Saturdays come fall with one sacred tradition: college football.
In Alabama, college football fans bleed crimson. Tommy Ford is no stranger to such a ritual, nor is he unaccustomed to the paramount success of one of the south’s leading athletic legacies that flourishes at The University of Alabama. The Gadsden native is the author or co-author of twelve books that illustrate the Crimson Tide football phenomenon – a spectacle that characterized a grand portion of his own life, with roots tracing back to his childhood.
Ford’s earliest memories of Alabama football coincide with those who he considered his hometown heroes. In the mid-1960s, 10-year-old Ford cheered for a collection of Gadsden players who signed with Alabama: distant cousin Danny Ford, neighbor Wayne Owen, David Beddingfield, Steve Clay and Wayne Stevens. That personal connection to the sport sparked Ford’s interest in Capstone culture, a small seed that would cultivate a relationship spanning a lifetime. Ford attended his first in-person game five years later in Nashville, witnessing Alabama battle Vanderbilt, and the rest is history.
Following Ford’s 1974 graduation from Gadsden High School, he traded one City of Champions for another, packing his suitcase for Tuscaloosa.
“It was like a dream,” said Ford. “Ever since I became a fan, I wanted to become a student. There was never any consideration of going anywhere but Alabama. There was no second option, no plan B. I remember getting the acceptance letter in the mail and thinking it was a dream come true. I would’ve been perfectly happy, privileged and honored just saying I’d gone to school at UA. But being able to come back in 1982 and work at the university for 38 years was a true blessing.”
While at the university, Ford earned a Bachelor of Science in Finance in 1978, later returning to acquire his M.A. in Higher Education Administration. During his years on campus, Ford’s involvement with the Capstone surged. He served in the SGA Senate, Jasons and Kappa Alpha Order before returning to Gadsden, where he worked at American National Bank (the precursor to Regions downtown) prior to securing a position at The Chamber – with a little help from a Tide legend.
“I got Coach Bryant to write a recommendation for me for the chamber of commerce job,” said Ford. “I was so surprised when I got the letter he sent to the chamber and he said, ‘We were considering hiring Tommy in our sports information office following his graduation, but he was majoring in finance and had a job lined up.’”
Catching the eye of Bear Bryant stemmed from another of Ford’s contributions to UA – his illustrious writing career. When Ford first meandered about the Quad, he possessed no experience in journalism; yet a friendship with Cape Town, South Africa native and UA swim team member Jonty Skinner charted a new course for Ford. During the 1970s, under the leadership of five-time Olympic Coach Don Gambril, Alabama’s swim team thrived. Setting numerous records at countless meets, Ford watched as the swimmers exhibited exceptional talent, but received no recognition in the college’s student-run publication The Crimson White.
Ford addressed this discrepancy with then CW sports editor and current UA Journalism and Creative Media instructor Mark Mayfield, who prompted Ford to make a change himself. While Ford anticipated Mayfield would either assign a writer to the swim team or equate the absence of coverage with lack of manpower, Mayfield instead suggested Ford cover the meets. A surprised Ford, who knew little of swimming himself, picked up the pen.
Ford dove into writing for The CW, polishing his craft and developing a balance between informative news and engaging reading. His initial quantitative article on UA’s swim team – which he described as “the most boring story you could imagine” – soon transformed into fleshed out features, longer pieces and in-depth coverage. When Mayfield became CW editor, Ford stepped into the role of sports editor from 1977 to 1978, immersing himself in the universe of Alabama athletics where he traveled with the football team.
“Until the 1920s, the south was not considered a football powerhouse by any stretch,” said Ford, reflecting on Alabama’s impact on the game. “Everything was in the northeast and out west. I think [the south’s love of football] goes back to our fathers and grandfathers. When Alabama beat the University of Pennsylvania in the 1922 season, that kind of put us on the map. By the time I was growing up in the 1960s, Coach Bryant changed things with three national championships. But the tradition didn’t start in the ‘60s…it was there long before that, 40 years earlier. It’s been quite a ride.”
After Ford’s stretch in Gadsden following his UA graduation, he returned to T-Town in 1982, where he worked for the National Alumni Association in alumni chapter development and fundraising. He later worked as assistant ticket manager in the athletics department before his promotion to ticket manager, serving 13 years as director of the athletics department’s basketball and football ticket priority program known as TIDE PRIDE.
From 2006 until 2009, Ford acted as director of the athletics department’s new annual fund, the A+ Incentives Program, now recognized as the Crimson Tide Scholarship Fund. He then supervised the A-Club Alumni Association, the Red Elephant club booster groups and the university’s official letter-winners organization until his retirement in September of 2019.
Throughout the years, Ford’s writing never ceased. He debuted his first book Bama Under Bear: Alabama’s Family Tides in the 1980s, detailing the history of nine different families and their relationship with Alabama football. He updated the book a decade later in conjunction with the football team’s centennial, adding seven more collections of fathers, sons and brothers who played at UA.
Despite Ford’s numerous accounts of Crimson tales, his most recent publication – History Made – proves his favorite accomplishment. History Made guides readers through Alabama’s 2020 national championship winning season in the midst of a global pandemic. Implementing the reoccurring motif of asterisks throughout the book – a nod to the notion that the 2020 champions would carry a demeaning footnote representing a less-than earned season – Ford illustrates how Alabama’s 2020 team deserves the annotation in an extraordinary manner.
“This team did deserve an asterisk [for their win], but in a way unlike the original meaning,” said Ford. “Their whole lives changed [due to COVID-19]. They were ahead of the curve…ahead of the game.”
History Made reflects on the Tide’s unfaltering leadership and stalwart nature weathering an unprecedented storm. Playing with the utmost precaution, underneath protocols and restrictions, the team overcame endless obstacles to complete the season. From schedule changes and daily COVID testing, to social distancing and quarantining from family, to the depletion of fans in the stands and the athletics department’s loss of an estimated 75 million dollars, the kingdom of college football and crowned Alabama team witnessed a new era in its reign.
Captivating forwards written by prominent figures in the university’s history characterize Ford’s national championship books, with notable individuals such as Terry Saban, Eli Gold, Barrett Jones, Jake Coker and Scott Cochran joining the list. Current New England Patriots and former UA quarterback Mac Jones welcomed readers to discover History Made, sharing for the first time publicly the list of goals and objectives his father Gordon crafted for him following his redshirt year behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. The goals Gordon emphasized for his son proved a prophetic roadmap toward Jones’ ultimate success, mirroring the hurdles the 2020 players cleared to achieve greatness.
While Ford’s retirement entails spending time with his wife, Robin (who also hails from Gadsden) and his son John Michael, he considers his hobby of authorship a privilege and honor. As Ford chronicles generations of Alabama’s paramount presence in southern football lore, he earns his own seat at the Crimson table – toasting “Roll Tide,” as he forges a narrative of his own.
Ford shared what he hopes audiences gain from History Made, alongside his other works.
“These books I’ve done may not mean a lot to people now, but 10 years from now this book on 2020 will be a sort of history,” said Ford. “The 2011 book was just recognized as the 10-year anniversary of the Tuscaloosa tornado. Somebody may glance back through that book in April and reminisce. I’ve come to appreciate growth.”
“When I was at the university in the 1970s, we had 15,000 students. Our physical structure has enhanced so much. The expansion of the Alabama brand has been the most satisfying to have witnessed. For 38 years until late 2019, to have seen the growth on campus, the number of students, facilities and quality of life for students has been the most satisfying thing I’ve ever seen.”
Ford’s other books include: Alabama’s Family Tides; The University of Alabama All-Access Football Vault®; the Alabama-Auburn Rivalry Football Vault®; Bear Bryant on Leadership; Tornado to National Title #14; Crimson Domination: The Process Behind Alabama’s 15th National Championship; A Season to Remember: Faith in the Midst of the Storm; Crimson Mission: Coach Saban & the Tide Silence Critics with 16 the National Championship; The University of Alabama Football Vault® and 17. History Made is available for purchase on booksamillion.com and Amazon.