Perspective: Tide-Irish matchup revives memories of rivalry
by Mark Edwards
Decatur Daily
As Alabama prepares to play Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game, you probably can divide the Crimson Tide fan base in two basic groups:

The first group includes fans whose emotions stir when they think of Notre Dame — deep, old emotions, coming from years ago. Back then, if they they were asked who they disliked the most, Auburn or Notre Dame, they might need time for long and serious thought.

The folks in the second group? They aren't old enough to have a clear idea what that first group is talking about. This includes the Alabama players, even though they're bombarded with Tide football history lessons literally from their first team meeting when they're taught the words to "Yea, Alabama."

"In my life, we haven't been rivals, really," Tide All-America center Barrett Jones said. "But obviously older people have come up to me and told me about the old days when we used to not like Notre Dame."

Maybe it's like trying to teach somebody what life was like without cell phones, Internet, cable sports news networks and bunches of college football games on television every fall weekend. It's hard to understand if you didn't live it.

By the way, that's what life was like when Alabama and Notre Dame played each other for the first time Dec. 31, 1973. Five other meetings followed in 1974-87, but the first was the only one in which the winner took the national title.

The much-anticipated meeting paired great vs. great, tradition vs. tradition, and, not least of all, North vs. South. And Alabama lost. Notre Dame upset the seven-point favorite Crimson Tide 24-23 in the last Sugar Bowl played at Tulane Stadium.

According to Sugar Bowl records, that game drew a Nielsen TV rating of 25.3, and since then, no college football game has matched that. The closest is the 1987 Fiesta Bowl in which Penn State beat Miami 14-10, drawing a 24.9. The highest rated game in the BCS era, which started in 1998, is Texas' 41-38 win over Southern California for the 2005 national title. That one got a 21.7.

However, Alabama's dislike for Notre Dame began in earnest seven years before the teams’ first meeting. In 1966, the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide went unbeaten and untied at 11-0-0, but finished third in the final polls. Notre Dame won the national title under Ara Parseghian despite having a 10-10 tie against Michigan State on its record. The Irish had the ball at the end against the Spartans but ran out the clock instead of going for the win, going against the famous philosophy attributed to Alabama's Bear Bryant, which he summarized by allegedly saying, "A tie is like kissing your sister."

The differences between the two schools ran deep back then, according to Athens native Keith Dunnavant, who in "The Missing Ring" wrote about the 1966 season, set against the simmering backdrop of the civil rights movement and the discord between different cultures.

"[T]he two institutions occupied starkly different positions in American society in 1966, symbolizing the cavernous divide between North and South, between integration and segregation, between the scorn of the dominant media culture and the embrace of the dominant media culture," Dunnavant wrote.

The teams still knew little about each other in 1973, as regionalism dominated the sport. The NCAA placed strict limits on television appearances, which at the time meant only two nationally televised games a year and one regionally, until the bowl games. Alabama played LSU and Auburn on national TV and Tennessee in a regional broadcast. Games against California, Georgia, Florida and Miami remained totally off the air, except for radio.

The only place one could get weekly highlights was a Sunday afternoon show by ABC's Bill Fleming. During a 30-minute broadcast, he would review five or six of the big Saturday games.

Of the 22 players Alabama started in the Sugar Bowl on offense and defense, 16 came from Alabama high schools, three from Georgia, two from Florida and one from Tennessee. This year, Alabama's depth chart shows four offensive starters from in-state and four on defense.

For Notre Dame, starters came almost exclusively from Northern states, including six from Ohio, three from Pennsylvania and two each from Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and New York. As for Southerners, the closest the Irish came was one starter from Virginia, one from Oklahoma and one from Missouri. Only one came from Notre Dame's home state, Indiana.

There was no BCS then, either, and bowls invited teams before the regular season even ended. The Sugar Bowl finalized the Alabama-Notre Dame matchup with two games left in the schedule. In addition, the coaches poll wrapped up voting before the bowls and already had voted the Crimson Tide as its national champion. The AP waited for the bowls and had Alabama No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 3.

Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant won 323 games. He lost 85, however, and this might stand as the most significant. He revealed a bit about the unusual nature of this particular game in "Bear," his 1974 biography:

"I got a letter from Ara Parseghian shortly afterward, the only one I ever received from a coach who beat me. He said how much his group had enjoyed playing us, how wrong the impressions were beforehand. (They pictured us as a bunch of rednecks, and we had some thoughts about them, too.) He said how much everybody got out of the game, and how great it was for college football that we now had a series going. It was very gracious, Ara's letter. One I'd love to have written him."

Now, as Alabama prepares to update its history with Notre Dame, five Crimson Tide fans try to explain why that game from 39 years ago still stick with them today. Also, after that, one Alabama person talks about what he thought of that game in 1973 when he had no Crimson Tide ties.

Blair Terry, 52, Moulton

Born and bred in Lawrence County, Terry picked up his love of Alabama football from his father, Billy Dwight "Cup" Terry, and his uncles, Charles B. Terry and Sherman Terry Jr. They took him to Tide games, and he still makes regular trips to Tuscaloosa and some road games, including BCS National Championship Game wins over Texas and LSU. He will sit in Sun Life Stadium on Jan. 7, 2013, as Alabama tries to beat Notre Dame for a third national title in four years.

Blair Terry has three boys who he said love Alabama as much as he does, but when it comes to Notre Dame, that's just a generational divide that hasn't been crossed.

"I don't think they understand what Notre Dame means to most Alabama fans my age and older," said Terry, a crew leader in the chemical line at International Paper in Courtland. "And, unfortunately, they probably won't get it ... unless the Tide loses to the Irish."

Terry said that around 1970 or 1971, when he was 10 or 11, he watched Army and Notre Dame on television and pulled for the Irish.

"My dad warned me, 'Son, someday you'll have to chose between Alabama and those dang Yankees,' " he said. "I didn't think anything about it and was too young to understand what had happened in 1966."

Terry recalled watching the 1973 Sugar Bowl on television. It marked only the sixth bowl appearance by Notre Dame, which refused to participate in postseason games during 1925-68, and Terry remembers incredible hype for the first Tide-Irish meeting.

Terry remembers Al Hunter's 93-yard kickoff return in the second quarter. He also remembers the last minutes. Down 24-23 with three minutes left, Alabama faced fourth-and-20 at its own 30. Greg Gantt's punt rolled to the Notre Dame 1.

He was fouled on the play however, but rather than take a 15-yard penalty and what would've been fourth-and-five under the rules of the day, Bryant let the Irish have the ball.

On third-and-eight at the 3-yard line, Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements took advantage of a coverage mistake by the Tide and hit backup tight end Robin Weber for a 35-yard gain near the sideline. In Bryant's book, he said he was close enough to the play he could've knocked the ball away himself.

"As far as the game itself, it definitely lived up to its hype," Terry said. "There were a lot of huge plays and missed opportunities for Alabama that night. ... I went to bed crying that night. Woke up the next morning and it really felt as if the college football world had ended for everyone wearing crimson. Most of the Auburn fans I knew at the time quickly became Irish fans."

As for now, Terry said, "I've never disliked the Irish like my dad did or other Bama fans I know have in the past or do now, but I sure would like to see Alabama beat them come Jan. 7th, 2013."

Anthony Catalano, 49, Clay

Catalano is a retired United States Marine who grew up in the West End part of Birmingham. He and his family watched the Sugar Bowl on his uncle's TV.

Catalano, who was 10 at the time, had an interesting reaction after the game: He kicked in his uncle's television with his cowboys boots.

"I've been a Bama fan for over 40 years," he said. "It was kind of bred into me, if you know what I mean. I used to listen to Bama games on the radio with my parents and the name I most remember hearing is Wayne Wheeler."

Wheeler, who was from Orlando, led the 1973 team in receiving.

"I reacted the way I did because of the heartbreaking way they lost," he said. "I just thought I'd feel better if I broke the TV while kicking it with my cowboy boots on because then I wouldn't have to see it happen again.

"By the way, I got those boots for Christmas, and at the time I thought I was putting them to good use. My parents, not so much. I was never allowed to watch another game at my uncle's house again."

He added jokingly, "Not exactly sure why."

He said he remembers that game well and not just because of the busted TV.

"I think people remember it because of the two legendary programs that played an incredible game," he said. "It's just something that you never forget."

He has three sons. His oldest is a lance corporal in the U.S. Marines and plans to become an air traffic controller.

His other two boys are 8 and 13. As a stay-at-home dad, Catalano home-schooled his oldest son from seventh through 10th grade and the other two since kindergarten.

All three have managed not to kick in a television set.

Dave Crossley, 62, Magnolia, Texas

Crossley attended the Sugar Bowl with his fiance. He had graduated from Alabama in May 1973 with a degree in engineering and had taken a job with Texaco in Houma, La., which is about 50 miles from New Orleans.

He got tickets through his father, who had gotten them from a friend who was a judge, William C. Bibb, who lived in Crossley's hometown of Anniston. Crossley and his fiance — who were to be married Jan. 5, 1974 — attended the game and sat next to Bibb and his wife.

"The game was memorable for so many reasons, but certainly one memory is the miserable weather in the old open Tulane stadium," Crossley said. "At some point during the game, I remember looking into the sky and seeing very ominous rain clouds. I had been in South Louisiana long enough to know that wasn't a good sign.

"And sure enough, much of the game was wet and cold. I believe the weather may have been a factor in several of the important events in the game including possibly the missed extra point by Bama and several turnovers in the second half."

Crossley and his group sat in the end zone opposite where Alabama scored its final points of the game. With 9:33 to play, Tide halfback Mike Stock tossed a 25-yard throwback to quarterback Richard Todd, who sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown. Bill Davis missed the extra point, but Alabama led 23-21.

Then Notre Dame drove toward Crossley's end zone. The Irish ran 11 plays, gained 79 yards and took the lead for good when Bob Thomas kicked a 19-yard field goal.

The Greg Gantt punt remains a memorable moment for Crossley, who attended classes with him at Alabama.

"I had seen how devastated he was after the two famous blocked punts against Auburn," Crossley said, referring to the 1972 loss to the Tigers. "I had attended the Cotton Bowl the previous year and had seen Greg kick what I believe is still the longest field goal in Cotton Bowl history. In our little Anniston group in the stands, we were all pulling for Greg, knowing the history. He didn't disappoint."

At third-and-eight, Crossley and his group felt the same as Bryant said in his biography — Alabama would hold, get the ball and drive for the winning points.

"To this day, I cannot believe the pass play that was called with the Irish luck getting the first down, which essentially was the end of the game," Crossley said. "The clock just ran out as Bear said afterward."

Now retired from Texaco with a daughter who attends Texas A&M, Crossley still follows the Crimson Tide closely and has attended plenty of Alabama games over the years. Even during a four-year work assignment in London, he managed to catch Tide games through television, although sometimes in the middle of the night in England.

Wanda King, 65, Hueytown

King is a retired teacher who graduated from Alabama in 1968. She attended the game with her husband and two other Alabama graduates, even though she was five months pregnant with her second child.

"I had forgotten how painful that game was to me," she said. "I guess I have tried to forget. I have now come to believe that most of my generation were 'Bear Bryant children.'

"Today's generation will become 'Nick Saban children.' We were accustomed to winning and we really felt that Coach Bryant could walk on water. None of us believed that we could lose that game. I think that we always felt that Notre Dame was a paper tiger — kept on top by the media. Most Alabama fans were shocked by the loss. It was a long ride home the next day. It still hurts that Coach Bryant never beat them."

The 1966 poll controversy still remains in her mind as well, especially since she was a student at Alabama at the time.

"We have always felt that the team was one of our best," she said. "In those days the SEC was not given the respect that we deserved. The Southern bias still existed. ... We always felt that the national media did not want to give us a championship three years in a row. This made Alabamians hate the national media and Notre Dame even more. I always hated Notre Dame and that Sugar Bowl made me hate them even more."

Notre Dame hasn't won a national title since 1988 and hasn't placed in the top eight of a final poll since finishing second in 1993. The lack of success has kept the Irish out of King's mind ... until now.

"I have not thought about Notre Dame for a long time because they have been so bad," she said. "I guess that I can get back to hating them again. Here's hoping that the luck of the Irish will run out."

Barbara Moran, 49, Chicago

Even growing up in the Chicago area, Moran calls herself a lifelong Alabama fan. Her father was a Gadsden native.

She watched the Sugar Bowl with her parents and saw Thomas kick that "awful" field goal to beat the Crimson Tide. Then Thomas, now a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court, signed with her favorite NFL team, the Chicago Bears.

"(It was) adding insult to injury as an Alabama and Bears fan," she said.

To top it off, her son, Chris Moran, became a Notre Dame fan as a kindergartner.

"So as a good mother, I tried to explain that it was difficult for me to appreciate his love of Notre Dame, but I respected his opinion," she said. "He remains a Notre Dame fan to this day — as I have also come to respect their team and university.

"And, even though he was a Notre Dame fan, he has always watched Alabama football with me and the rest of our family on Saturday afternoons."

For Moran, the best part of her story came when her son chose a university to attend. Chris is a sophomore at Alabama and works in the Crimson Tide's athletic communications department, which works with reporters covering the school's sports teams. That includes working in the press box for football games and courtside for basketball.

"Unfortunately, my father passed away before he could see his grandson attend the University of Alabama, but if my father were here I know he would be very proud of his grandson," she said.

Nick Saban, 61, Tuscaloosa

In 1973, Alabama's current head coach found himself as a graduate assistant at Kent State, where he had lettered as a varsity defensive back in 1970-72.

Kent State had completed a 9-2 season and didn't attend a bowl game. Even so, in the AP poll that came out after the regular season, Kent State was one of six teams to receive votes for the rankings but not actually make them.

Although Saban said he admires Parseghian and Bryant, he said he really doesn't remember that Sugar Bowl.

"That was how many years ago? 40? 39? I've been married for 41," he said recently. "I had an anniversary, Dec. 18, and I remember that. That was a real important thing to remember.

"I can't remember, to be honest. I was in my first year of being a graduate assistant coach and I know it was a big game. I know the historical significance of the game. But for me to say 39 years ago, I remember this game, I don't. I just don't. It would be like saying, 'Do you remember the USC-UCLA game when Gary Beban was the quarterback in 1968?' No, I don't. There was no significance (to me) to the game. I was in West Virginia. I was hitch-hiking to practice. That was the only way we could get around. I had other things that were more important at the time."
© 2012