Bill Brown (selmaborntidefan)
November 24, 2011
A Look Back: When Bear Broke The Record
(On November 28, 1981 – thirty years ago this coming Monday – Paul William “Bear” Bryant surpassed Amos Alonzo Stagg to become the winningest coach in NCAA Division-I history. This post is a look back through the final phase of Bryant’s pursuit of the record along with some thoughts from an adolescent of 30 years ago viewed through adult eyes).
It hadn’t seemed possible just a few years earlier. But the countdown began on October 4, 1980, when Paul “Bear” Bryant became just the third coach in NCAA Division I-A history to win his 300th game with a 45-0 pasting of Kentucky. The Tide was in the midst of its greatest ever run, a decade-long dynasty that netted the Tide three national championships (and losing a fourth on a disputed vote), five straight 11-1 seasons, nine SEC titles, and an overall record (1971-81) of 117-14-1 for an unheard of winning percentage of .886. The win against Kentucky put Bryant within striking distance of the all-time record of NCAA wins held by Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached for 65 years and won 314 games. Looking over the horizon, the Bama faithful began to count down the wins until Bryant would be the winningest coach in college football history.
A brief look at the schedule for the rest of 1980 was promising. Alabama was dominating every game they played behind a defense that only gave up 8.6 points per game. The one suspected bump in the road was a November 15, 1980 contest against Notre Dame. So Tide fans figured that even with a loss there, Bryant would probably surpass Stagg in the 1981 LSU game expected to be played on November 7, 1981. But the best laid plans often go awry. Riding a 28-game winning streak into the MSU game, the Tide was shut down by a defense every bit as talented as its own. The streak was over with a 6-3 loss, and it became clear there would be no three-peat for the Tide. A shutout loss to Notre Dame followed, but Bama ended the 1980 season with a 30-2 rout of Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. Looking ahead to 1981, the Tide was on schedule to still break the record in the LSU game. But a number of interventions caused a delay.
Alabama began the 1981 campaign looking to continue their decade-long dominance. The Georgia Bulldogs had won the SEC and national honors in 1980 with a pathetic out-of-conference schedule and an in-conference schedule that was incredibly lucky: the Dawgs only played three teams with winning records in 1980, and they needed unusual circumstances to win the games against both Florida and Notre Dame. Plus, the Dawgs hadn’t had to play Alabama. The Tide began 1981 as the pre-season number four.
Times were different in 1981. One controversy concerned the limits placed by the NCAA upon how many times a team could be seen on national telecast. The upper limit was 3 games nationally plus a bowl game. This practice would later be deemed unconstitutional and open the floodgates for the current feast of college games, but the Tide was thus limited to 3 national telecasts in 1981 (they were on regional telecasts a few other times plus ESPN rebroadcasts). ABC coerced Alabama and LSU to move up their November 1981 clash to the
opening week of the season. And in a rarity for its day, the game was telecast on Saturday night in prime time.
BRYANT WIN #307 – LSU
The Tigers were entering the second-year post-Charley McClendon with their second coach, Jerry Stovall. McClendon’s replacement, Bo Rein, had been killed in a plane crash just weeks after his hiring during to cabin depressurization that rendered Rein and the pilot unconscious and resulted in the scrambling of jets from Langley AFB, Virginia. Stovall had gone 7-4 with McClendon’s recruits and entered the 1981 season hoping for more success.
The Tide roared out and dominated the Tigers, 24-7, with three quarterbacks combining for 4 pass completions on 14 attempts. The Tide led 17-0 at halftime with running back Ken Simon starring. The run heavy Tide offense churned out 333 yards, the Tigers only score was in the fourth quarter trailing by 24, and Bryant now had his 307th career win. The win was so impressive that the pollsters jumped the Tide up to #2, trailing only new #1 Notre Dame. The Irish had moved up when new coach Gerry Faust won his opener against Michigan. It would be the (literal) last high of the Faust era. They lost the next game and a half-decade of Irish mediocrity was on.
Georgia Tech, an old Tide nemesis, was next on the agenda, and if LSU had problems then they paled in comparison to Bill Curry’s issues at Tech. Tech had had issues replacing Bobby Dodd similar to those Bama would have in future years. Curry was the fourth head coach in 14 years to succeed the legend, and his first year was nothing short of a disaster: 1-9-1, with a win over Memphis and a nothing short of shocking tie of #1 Notre Dame, who was probably looking ahead one week to their 1980 grudge match with the Tide. Tech was clearly rebuilding. Led by future NFL coach Ken Whisenhunt, the 1981 Alabama game was Tech’s season opener against a team hitting on all cylinders. Naturally, nothing went as planned.
The Tide jumped to an unsurprising 10-0 lead on a 47-yard pass from Walter Lewis to Joey Jones and Peter Kim’s field goal. But Tech had a future college star themselves, freshman Robert Lavette. In his first college game, Lavette had 11 carries for 50 yards and two touchdowns. (He would also be the star of Tech’s 1984 win over the Tide). The Tide entered the fourth leading by a touchdown, but Tech put together two drives and aided by 3 lost Alabama fumbles, the Yellow Jackets stunned #2 Alabama by a 24-21 final. This was the most stunning defeat of Alabama since their 1976 loss to Ole Miss. The only positive that could be deduced from it was that it occurred early enough to allow them to rise to the top of the rankings. It also delayed the Bear Bryant count at 307 and set the Tide up to possibly break the record on the road at Happy Valley in November against Penn State. More important was the Tide plunged ten places to #12 in the nation.
BRYANT WIN #308: AT KENTUCKY
The Tide traveled to Lexington the following week for a return match with the Kentucky Wildcats. A major probation had reduced the Wildcats from a 10-1 top ten team in 1977 to a 3-8 also-ran by 1980. Bama fans naturally expected another 45-0 pasting similar to Bryant’s 300th win, but the Cats had a decent defense in 1981. Alabama fumbled six times (remember, the wishbone was a high risk offense) but only lost one. The Tide, however, did not penetrate the end zone until the fourth quarter. In fact, they entered the final frame losing by a point, 10-9. Peter Kim’s fourth field goal put the Tide up, 12-10, and a 9-yard TD run by Jeff Fagan put the game away late. The Tide got a real scare against another also ran but got Bryant his 308th win at a school he had once coached. The AP poll moved the Tide up two places to number ten.
BRYANT WIN #309 VANDERBILT
The Tide headed to Nashville to close out September against old whipping post Vanderbilt. A not-so-close look at the 28-7 final might suggest yet another pasting of the Commodores. But the Tide scored 28 points in a most unusual fashion. Vanderbilt, in fact, made a game of it as they are wont to do once a year. Alabama only outgained the Commodores, 307-250. Each team had only one lost fumble but typical of Vandy luck, the Tide returned the lone lost fumble for a 33-yard touchdown. The Tide led, 16-7, at halftime without the offense ever penetrating the end zone. A blocked punt for a safety, the fumble return, and a 72-yard interception return for TD by Bennie Perrin was all the Tide scoring. Fagan punched in a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Tide a 22-7 lead and a little-known event at the time became much more important later.
Tide kicker Peter Kim missed the extra point to keep the deficit at 15. However, that was the last extra point attempt any Tide kicker would miss for six years. Kim, Terry Sanders, Van Tiffin, and Phillip Doyle would stretch the consecutive PAT streak to 198 consecutive kicks before Doyle missed one in the 1987 Penn State game. (The record was later broken by Syracuse). Ken Coley later hit Jones for an 81-yard touchdown pass and the missed two-point conversion left the Tide up 28-7. So unimpressed were the pollsters with the Tide’s three most recent games that they dropped Alabama a spot to #11 in the polls. USC, led by Heisman winner Marcus Allen, topped this poll with Penn State second and Texas third. And with Mississippi State ranked ninth it was clear the Tide would have a strong enough schedule to throw them back into contention if they could just get a little luck from some other opponents.
BRYANT WIN #310 MISSISSIPPI
The week of the Ole Miss game was marred by the elephant in the room: allegations of racism in the Tide football program. The Tide hit the field seething and poor little Ole Miss was left to endure the punishment. The Tide put together its best effort thus far in the 1981 season by drilling the Rebels for over 500 yards of offense. Ole Miss didn’t even score until the third string came in, and the Tide waltzed to a 38-7 trouncing of the hapless Rebels. Two TD passes, one each by Walter Lewis and Paul Fields, highlighted a spectacular day. Bryant was still on pace and the count was now 310.
THE FINAL TIE: SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI
Alabama’s fumbling problems continued against Southern Mississippi as the Tide placed the ball on the ground four more times to bring the season total to 21. Fortunately, the Tide recovered all four. This game is best remembered for one of the rare coaching blunders of Coach Bryant’s distinguished career. USM QB Reggie Collier took the Golden Eagles from their own 20 and into field goal range. It appeared that USM might not even get the kick off, but Bryant inexplicably called a timeout with 2 seconds remaining and the clock running. This allowed USM to set up and hit the 40-yarder to end the game in a tie, 13-13. The Tide’s national title chance now appeared to be gone for good as they prepared to face an improved Tennessee Vols team on “The Third Saturday In October.”
BRYANT WIN #311 TENNESSEE
Alabama played its best game thus far in 1981 by obliterating the Vols, 38-19. Alabama fumbled six more times but only lost one. The game was over by halftime as Alabama quickly tore out to a 28-0 lead on two Peter Kim FGs, a one-yard TD run by Fagan, and an 8-yard TD pass to Jesse Bendross. This marked win #311 in the countdown to the record.
BRYANT WIN #312 RUTGERS
The following week saw Alabama with a chance to avenge a near miss from 1980. Rutgers had outplayed the Tide for much of the afternoon only to lose 17-13. This time the Tide left no doubt, running up 482 yards of total offense and a 24-7 lead en route to a 31-7 win that gave Bryant 312 wins. The Tide did this despite losing three more fumbles to push the season total to 30.
BRYANT WIN #313 MISSISSIPPI STATE – TIES GLENN “POP” WARNER FOR SECOND PLACE ALL-TIME
The Tide was now set up against the MSU Bulldogs, and they were about as good as they had been the previous year when they ended Alabama’s 28-game unbeaten streak. A Tide victory would tie Bryant with Pop Warner for #2 all-time and put the Tide with the inside track to yet another SEC championship. It would also avenge the previous year’s shocker. But if Alabama was thinking revenge they had a strange way of showing it. The two teams combined for SEVENTEEN fumbles (both ran wishbones) including 11 lost, 7 by Alabama. Throw in two interceptions thrown by MSU’s John Bond (who would later become famous in the Cam Newton scandal) and there were a mind-boggling 13 turnovers, or 2 more than MSU’s total number of first downs. MSU took the early lead but the Tide took the lead on a Peter Kim field goal, 10-7.
Unfortunately, Kim got roughed on one of his kicks and was badly hurt leaving the Alabama kicking game at less than 100%. Naturally, punter and backup kicker Terry Sanders picked up the slack by knocking home a fourth quarter field goal that gave Alabama a 13-10 lead. But MSU would not go quietly. Bond let his team on their best drive of the day. At the Bama 10 needing a field goal to tie, Bond went for it all, and Tommy Wilcox saved the day for Alabama with an incredible interception at the two that he took to the ten. Bryant-Denny Stadium erupted more in relief than ecstasy. Bryant had tied Pop Warner and the thought of breaking the record against Auburn was delicious. But it was far from a certainty because the next foe, Penn State, had its own coaching legend and was ranked #5 in the nation.
BRYANT WIN #314 – TIES AMOS ALONZO STAGG FOR FIRST-PLACE AMONG DIVISION-1 COACHES
The 1981 Alabama-Penn State game began a decade-long home-and-home series that exemplified the best in college football. The first game was in Happy Valley and marked the first showdown between the two since the unforgettable Sugar Bowl that netted the Tide the 1978 national championship with an amazing goal line stand. Alabama would channel those past glories in this game as well as they sent Bryant into a first-place tie with Amos Alonzo Stagg as the winningest coaches in college football history.
More bad news erupted in the week before this game as Bama RB Ken Simon’s name came forth in a controversy. Simonton added to it by “suspending himself,” and Bryant contradicted Simonton by noting that he alone as head coach would decide who was suspended or not. Simon did play in the Penn State game. The game was an offensive stampede as both schools attained over 350 yards each. Alabama blew the Nittany Lions off the ball early and often, roaring out to a 24-3 halftime lead courtesy of two Walter Lewis TD passes to Jesse Bendross, a TD run by Paul Ott Carruth, and a field goal by the back-up kicker Paul Trodd (playing in place of Peter Kim, whose injury prevented his travel to Penn State).
The Tide fumbled four more times to bring the season total to 45, and they lost three of those to make 23 turnovers for 1981. But they also called up past glories with a seven-play goal line stand inside the ten-yard line that netted zero points for the Lions and must have left Joe Paterno wondering what he had to do merely to put the ball in the Bama end zone. It is a win made all the more ironic by events of the past several years as Paterno surpassed Bryant and was then immediately removed after passing Eddie Robinson due to the still erupting Sandusky scandal.
BRYANT WIN #315: THE DAY BEAR BROKE THE RECORD – AUBURN
Alabama had an off week before playing Auburn in 1981. The Tigers were little more than invited guests to Bryant’s coronation or so it seemed. Very few 5-5 teams were shown on television in 1981, but ABC had the afternoon telecast to show it to the entire nation live. Events that occurred that morning, however, made the game of even more importance. The same Penn State team that Alabama had leveled just two weeks earlier stunned the college football world by not only beating but routing #1 Pittsburgh, 48-14, and sending the national championship race into a quandry. Pitt, led by quarterback Dan Marino and coach Jackie Sherill, had jumped to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter when Penn State suddenly exploded as Todd Blackledge made play after play. Marino threw a bomb that would have put Pitt up 21-0 that Roger Jackson intercepted for Penn State. The Lions then scored and scored just before halftime to tie it. They then blew out Pitt in a game where Paterno actually let off the gas and ended the carnage early.
The Pitt loss raised hopes in Alabama because it ensured that with a win over Auburn the Tide would be ranked no lower than third, behind the nation’s only unbeaten team (Clemson) and Georgia, who had lost only to Clemson. Hardly a Tide fan would have believed that they would still be sitting with a shot even at 8-1-1.
A game time temperature of 63 degrees was comfortable for viewing at Legion Field. Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles called the Iron Bowl, and it was Auburn’s first appearance on television owing to a two-year ban that covered 1979 and 1980. ABC treated a Bama win as merely more than a formality, showing pictures of Bryant each time they went to a commercial. These pictures ranged from childhood photos to a picture as “The Other End” to Don Hutson to pictures with Presidents. Jackson noted heading into the game that Bryant was nervous about the game, an unusual admission from the domineering coach. One other fact entering this game: Pat Dye had been a coach under Bryant and entering the 1981 Iron Bowl Bryant had beaten his former coaches 28 consecutive times.
Alabama took the opening kickoff at its own 23. Three plays got them a yard. Terry Sanders’ punt was fielded by Chuck Clanton at the Auburn 32. A few key blocks and moments later Auburn was at the Bama 14 with a first-and-ten that brought the Auburn half of Legion Field to its feet. (Note: For those who are unaware, the game was once played annually in Legion Field with a 50-50 ticket split. This arrangement ended in 1989 with the first trip to Jordan-Hare. Since 1992, it has been a home-and-home series). After Auburn’s three QBs failed to move the ball, future NFL kicker Al Del Greco came on to put the Tigers ahead. His 25-yard attempt looped around the pole from the right side and was called “no good” as Alabama dodged an early Auburn bullet.
Now the Tide decided to show its stuff. Quarterback Alan Gray bolted on an option play and roared 63 yards to Auburn’s 21-yard line. A short drive gave the Tide a Paul Ott Carruth TD and the Tide was up, 7-0. Two short drives by each team netted nothing. Auburn then took the ball at its own 30 and painstakingly drove downfield on the good Alabama defense. With first and goal at the seven, Auburn tried for the quick strike but saw All-American Tommy Wilcox outleap the defender and make the interception. Two Auburn trips inside the Alabama red zone had netted zero points, and the Tide still lead, 7-0.
Because Wilcox had come out of the end zone on his interception, Alabama had the ball at its own one. They wound up with fourth and six at their own five and punted. Auburn thus began their next drive at their own 48. Another Auburn drive took them into the red zone and once again Del Greco misfired on a field goal attempt – again wide right.
The teams seemed to be mirror images of one another except that Auburn was piling up the yards. both defense were playing well. Auburn got the ball at its own 37 and luck finally shined on the Tigers. George Peoples bolted through the Alabama line and roared 63 yards for a touchdown, accentuating the point by dragging a defender the final 5 yards across the goal line. When Del Greco made his kick, the Tigers had tied Alabama, 7-7, with three minutes left in the first half.
Alabama seemingly had spent most of the first half inside its own red zone. Sure enough, they got planted there again to start their next drive at their own 12. And then disaster struck when Gray fumbled and Zac Hardy recovered at the ten for Auburn. Needing only ten yards for a game-changing touchdown, Auburn came up less than a yard short and had fourth down in the shadow of the goalposts. Pat Dye opted to take the sure points and sent Del Greco out for a chip shot. Unfortunately for Auburn, holder Joe Sullivan (Pat’s younger brother) fumbled the snap and attempted to throw it into the end zone. The only thing worse for Auburn than missing the points would have been a penalty, which is exactly what happened. Sullivan tossed to an ineligible receiver, which got Alabama out of the deep hole and gave them first down at the 26 needing only to burn a minute before halftime. Amazingly enough, even that easy task proved monumental.
Walter Lewis dropped back and heaved a bomb towards Joey Jones. At the last second Auburn defensive back David King hurled himself in the way and ball bounced off his helmet back into the hands of Mark Dorminey. Sullivan’s first pass put Auburn into Bama territory, and he threw three prayers into the end zone that nobody caught. Halftime of the Iron Bowl, and the two teams went in for the half tied 7-7.
The reactions of the two fanbases to this were telling. Auburn fans were wondering “what might have been” as they realized that had they executed their final plays of drives with minimal competence they would have the lead -possibly as much as 23-7. Auburn had outplayed Alabama in every category but the game was still tied. Alabama, on the other hand, had not played well at all and had to feel fortunate the game was still close – much less tied.
Coming back from halftime Bryant told ABC sideline reporter Verne Lundquist that “ah team is playing like they afraid of hurtin’ somebody’s feelings.” Frank Broyles giggled that he wished he could have been in there for the halftime motivational speech, and everyone expected Bama to come out loaded for, uh, Bear. Or at least Tiger. The statistics showed that Auburn had 200 yards of total offense to Alabama’s 86. And 63 of that had come on one play. If Alabama ever got it going……
Auburn started the second half at its own 17. Joe Sullivan tossed the ball towards Bama DB Bennie Perrin. With nothing between him and the goal line, Perrin dropped the ball and the hearts of Tide fans nationwide sank. Auburn punted and Bama now had it at their own 45. Needing a spark, Bear Bryant called on one of his six QBs who had not yet played, Ken Coley. Coley was a spark, setting the Tide on course to the end zone that included a fourth-and-one conversion. At the 26-yard line, a shovel pass to Jesse Bendross ended in the end zone, and Alabama had regained the lead, 14-7.
Surely this would be enough. Auburn had fought a valiant effort. And when they wound up punting on the next possession that would seal the deal.
Wrong. To put it charitably, this was Joey Jones’s worst hour as a member of the Crimson Tide.
The interception at the end of the first half was not Jones’s fault, and as it netted zero points was virtually meaningless. But Jones stepped up to field a punt and gave Bama fans a memory they won’t soon forget. He dropped the ball at his own 42. In and of itself that would not have been a big deal. However, Auburn’s Chuck Clanton was right on Jones as he dropped it. The ball bounced backwards ten yards with both players in pursuit and then the ball hit Clanton’s hand and bounced even closer to the end zone. Clanton recovered it at the Alabama 2, and Auburn was now set up needing only six feet and a kick to tie the game. The play was important because in 1981 defensive players were not permitted to advance fumbles. While Auburn possession at the 42 or even the 32 would have been bad, it would not have been disastrous. Now the Tigers had momentum, and when Lionel “Little Train” James hit the corner for a TD, the game was all tied up once again.
Jones handled the ensuing kickoff well, but a three and out followed by a Sanders punt put Auburn at their own 33. Auburn’s George Peoples, having the game of his life, became a horse, hitting the line again and again and driving it. Figuring Alabama was now set to stop Peoples, Dye called for a pass. Ken Hobby threw it to Bama’s Bennie Perrin, and once again the Tide was in business.
Alabama once again drove, this time to the Auburn 33. There Mickey Guinyard fumbled it and Auburn’s Tim Drinkard recovered the Tide’s fifth turnover to snuff out a Bama rally. But Auburn was held to a punt. This would likely have been the turning point but for yet another muff by Joey Jones that Auburn again recovered. This one was not quite as disastrous, occurring at the Tide 33. The third quarter ended with Auburn pushing towards the end zone.
A facemask penalty gave Auburn the ball at the Tide 13-yard line with a third-and-one. Once again Auburn took it inside the ten, this time as far as the five. Once again Alabama stiffened. Once again Al Del Greco came out for a kick but unlike his other attempts this one was good. It was early in the fourth quarter, and Auburn had the Tide down, 17-14. The Tiger fans in Legion Field were whooping and hollering, realizing they were less than a quarter from upsetting a legend.
But they forgot one critical point – Alabama still had the Old Man on the sidelines. They had not won 88.6% of their games over the last decade by getting lucky. Tide comebacks were the stuff of legend – both the 1972 and 1973 Tennessee games came to mind. And Alabama was simply a different team in the fourth quarter. Even foes who had beaten Alabama over the previous decade had nearly always lost the fourth quarter to the Tide when it went into its “gut check” mode.
Thirteen minutes left. Ball on their own 25. Like players who had already won two national championships (the seniors), they responded to the challenge. They began converting third down plays. And then luck shined on the Crimson Tide once again. Just as it appeared Auburn had held Alabama to a punt, a defensive holding call gave the Tide a new set of downs. Now was the time to make them pay – and Lewis did. Jesse Bendross slipped through the Auburn secondary from the tight end position and beat his man badly. All Lewis had to do was toss him a catchable ball, which he did and the Tide was up, 21-17, with ten minutes left.
Auburn now was facing the mountain every Bama foe faced. You’ve beaten them every way possible yet you trail. After forcing a three-and-out, Alabama got the ball back on Auburn’s 49-yard line. Auburn, quite simply, was now down to luck. On the first play, Linnie Patrick bounced off five tacklers and dazzled the fans and dazed the Auburn Tigers with a 32-yard gain. Two plays later he did a similar run that ended in the end zone, and after Peter Kim’s kick the Tide now had a 28-17 lead.
At this point there were seven minutes left but the game was as good as over. At one memorable point Alabama put 11 men on the line and rushed an Auburn punt that went through the end zone. Despite solidly outplaying Alabama for three quarters, Auburn once again had to sit down and ponder what might have been. Alabama had prevailed, 28-17, and made Bear Bryant the winningest coach in college football history.
There is a sense in which Bear Bryant’s ascent to the top of the wins chart in college football was really the end of his Alabama career. The night had set on Birmingham as ABC and the Crimson Nation celebrated an achievement none dared dream a decade earlier. But this was the final hurrah for a Bama team that would go 8-5 in Bryant’s final 13 games at the Capstone. The same man who had lost only 9 games in one decade lost 4 in a six-week span in 1982. One of those losses would end college football’s longest home-winning streak at 57, and the other three would end decade-long winning streaks against LSU, Tennessee, and Auburn.
After the Iron Bowl, however, there was still work to be done. Alabama entered the bowl season ranked #3 and headed to the Cotton Bowl to face longtime nemesis Texas. #1 Clemson would have #4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl with #2 Georgia facing off against one-loss Pitt in the Sugar Bowl. With a little of Bryant’s typical luck (think 1965) the Tide would again be national champions. But the Bryant luck seemingly expired for good as the clock hit 0:00 on November 28, 1981. Although Georgia lost to Pitt on a fourth and four 33-yard TD bomb from Dan Marino to John Brown, Clemson won the Orange Bowl with a dominating performance over Nebraska to claim a national title. But even then it didn’t matter to Alabama, who somehow blew a 10-0 fourth quarter lead and lost, 14-12, to the Longhorns. Bama fans took minimal solace in the fact that Clemson’s head coach was former Tide man Danny Ford, who at 33 was the youngest head coach in Division I. Another issue, however, was before the Tide faithful, and it was one over which they had little control: mandatory retirement.
This issue had reared its ugly head in 1980 when some noted that as a state emloyee Bryant would turn 70 in September 1983. The Alabama legislature met – over Bryant’s objection it might be noted – and passed one of those laws known popularly as “the Bear Bryant retirement law” (not its real name) in May 1981. A former Alabama law school dean challenged the law, and it wound up in a Montgomery court where the judge ruled it unconstitutional while at the same time saying he disagreed with the law. Auburn Coach Pat Dye made no particular secret of the fact that on the recruiting trail they were able to capitalize on players who would not be able to play for Bryant, a fact that no doubt helped Auburn over the next several years. The mind-numbing timeout at Southern Miss had caused a few to question Bryant’s senility but the fact remains that he was actively coaching Alabama at the time rather than becoming a Paterno-Bowden figurehead.
Alabama began the 1982 season with high hopes and dreams. After beating eventual champion Penn State in October, Alabama was ranked #2 in the nation and enjoying the high life. Then the bills for Bama’s success over the previous two decades suddenly came due, and the shocking loss in the Iron Bowl seemed to finish off whatever fight Bryant may have had left. Just 424 days after reaching the pinnacle, Bryant lost the one fight every man loses, succumbing to a heart attack at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa on January 26, 1983. His death was so notable in the sports world that a moment of silence was held at Super Bowl XVII just four days later commemorating the life of the legend of college football. Bryant’s legacy was felt even in that game that featured former Bryant players Bob Baumhower, Dwight Stephenson, Don McNeal, and Tony Nathan.
In the thirty years since Bryant’s passing of Amos Alonzo Stagg the college landscape has changed to something unrecognizable in 1981. Bryant not only pushed Alabama to be the best it could but the imposing figure he left towering over the entire SEC has served as an impetus to make every team in the conference better. Since Bryant died, five SEC teams have won national championships – three of them (Alabama, LSU, Florida) multiple championships. Beating Alabama is still the measuring stick for every team in the SEC.
It has been said that the story always ends badly – because if it didn’t then the story would never end. But those of us who are old enough to have been alive and to appreciate the accomplishment will never forget the glorious autumn afternoon of November 28, 1981 when for three hours the entire attention of the world was focused on Legion Field and the accomplishment of one man whose legacy has suvived intact. It is a legacy that makes us proud to say, ‘THIS IS ALABAMA FOOTBALL.’
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