Among Blair Terry’s Alabama memorabilia is a collection of photographs from different big Crimson Tide games. One of them, below left, is from the Alabama vs. Notre Dame 1986 contest. Terry, who lives in Moulton, says the 1973 loss to the Irish still hurts. (Copyright photo by Jeronimo Nisa of The Decatur Daily)
This is my story for today’s print editions. I got some help from five Daily Bama Blog readers, although you’ll have to click on the link at the bottom to read their contributions:
As Alabama prepares to play Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game, you probably can divide the Crimson Tide fan base into 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 were asked who they dislike 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 that game. 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 legendary Alabama coach 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.
“The 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 you 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.
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 pic
tured 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 sticks 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.
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