Roll Tide is among the most well-known phrases in college football. It functions as a celebratory exclamation, a warm greeting, an acknowledgement akin to the friendly nod of a head, and a connection to University of Alabama fans across the world. The fact that the university’s official mascot is an elephant—rather than an anthropomorphic ocean wave—fazes no one.
“In my travels across the country and even outside of the United States, if I have on an article of clothing that says Alabama, someone is inevitably going to see it and say ‘Roll Tide,’” says Olivia Arnold, the interim director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, which traces the history and legacy of Alabama Crimson Tide’s football program. And while the roots of the phrase are a bit ambiguous, Arnold says that the term most likely originated with early twentieth century journalists.
“Our exhibit in the museum credits Hugh Roberts from the Birmingham Age-Herald with first using the term ‘tide’ in reference to the 1907 Iron Bowl,” Arnold says. “The story goes that Auburn was a heavy favorite to win the game that was played in the mud, but the teams ended up in a 6-6 tie.” Alabama left the field covered in red mud, and Roberts wrote that they appeared like a “crimson tide.” Throughout the next few decades, Zipp Newman of the Birmingham News cemented the nickname into the school’s lexicon.
From there, the history gets murkier. Some say the addition of “roll” was natural as fans watched their Tide roll over opponents. Others credit a student magazine called Rammer Jammer’s May 1926 contest for a new unofficial fight song. The winning tune was “Yea Alabama!” which in its modern iteration ends with “Roll Tide! Roll Tide!” The original sheet music, however, just included the phrase: “Go! Roll to vic-try!” which some claim morphed into the now ubiquitous cheer that connects the Tide faithful no matter how far they roam from Tuscaloosa.
“It gives people the sense of finding someone from back home,” Arnold says. “When my father-in-law was stationed outside of the continental U.S., it made him miss home just a little bit less when someone would see his shirt or hat and say, ‘Roll Tide.’”
This article is part of a G&G series that decodes widely used but little understood phrases in college football.