Goodness, what a buildup.
“Alabama undefeated and untied; Notre Dame undefeated and untied,’’ the hysterical media hype screamed. “North vs. South; Catholic vs. Protestant; Parseghian vs. Bryant; the Bear vs. the Pope.’’
The amazing thing about that Sugar Bowl Classic of Classics 39 years ago was that the game between the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 3 Fighting Irish not only lived up to the prescience but surpassed it.
“It was one for the ages,’’ Ara Parseghian said simply in trying to describe his Notre Dame team’s 24-23 win in one of the most memorable games ever played in college football.
In a game charged with as much electricity as filled the New Orleans skies with a fierce thunderstorm hours earlier, from the opening whistle to the game-ending horn, fans were on their feet. The lead see-sawed between the Irish and Tide throughout. Notre Dame was ahead four times — taking the first lead and the last — Bama ahead three times, and the Irish didn’t nail down their victory until converting on third-and-9 — from their own 2 — in the waning minutes.
In the eight decades of the Sugar Bowl, and the thousands of plays run in that time, that one third-down attempt is indelibly etched into the chronicles of the game.
The eyes of the sporting world were riveted on the football chess match being played out that New Year’s Eve with 85,161 squeezed into Tulane Stadium.
The ABC telecast drew a rating of 25.3, one of the most watched college games ever. Last season’s BCS Championship Game between LSU and Alabama drew a 14.0.
Everyone was caught up in it, even the players.
“It was a game played by Who’s Who of football for the next two decades,’’ said Gerry DiNardo, a Notre Dame guard and later head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. “In the locker rooms, there was Bear Bryant, on his way to becoming the winningest coach in college football, and in the other, Ara (Parseghian). There were players like Richard Todd, Sylvester Croom and Dave Casper.
“One thing I remember most about that game was that I could never recall as a player prior to that being so tuned into the strategy of the game. I can recall watching every play on defense, every little thing that happened. I watched the whole thing with great attention. That was unusual for me. Normally after we came off the field on offense, I wanted to sit down and relax.
“I guess it was because it was for the national championship, and all the intensity had built up to such a level that it was one of those things where the senses were really alive. It was different from any other game I’ve ever been part of.’’
A different world
It was a different world back then. The Sugar Bowl was an “open’’ bowl, meaning it could invite anyone it wanted, though that almost always included a prominent Southeastern Conference team.
The Tide could, of course, go where it wanted, and the Orange Bowl was dangling $100,000 more than the Sugar payoff, no small sum in 1973.
But out of the blue, on Nov. 8, Bryant announced, in what was described as a sugarcoated challenge, that his team wanted to play Notre Dame in New Orleans. The key words were “in New Orleans.’’
Part of the underlying reason was Bryant’s friendship with Sugar Bowl member Aruns Callery, who was indicted with 10 others, along with the Bally Corporation, the world’s largest pinball manufacturer, on various federal gambling-related charges. New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison was also indicted. Callery, who had contributed to several election campaigns of Garrison, a frequent and severe critic of the federal government, always maintained that was the underlying reason for the charge.
Several of the defendants pleaded guilty, but Callery, 63, refused.
There were “friends’’ who avoided him, and there were some members of the Sugar Bowl committee who whispered openly that the organization should break its “embarrassing’’ association with Callery.
There was never a real threat of that because nothing close to 75 percent of the membership felt that way, and because some of the Sugar Bowl’s most influential figures publicly stood by Callery.
Callery and Garrison were acquitted.
Publicly, everyone was euphoric. Behind the scenes, Bryant was saying, “The Sugar Bowl don’t deserve it.’’
Bryant meant the Sugar didn’t deserve a high-profile game between two high-profile programs for the championship. Bama was No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 3. Oklahoma was No. 2, but was on NCAA probation and ineligible for a postseason appearance. This meant the Sugar Bowl was effectively for the national championship.
Weather plays a part
As much as anything of that night, Parseghian remembers a pregame conversation with his kicker, a talk that strongly influenced the outcome.
“It was cold and rainy,’’ he said, “and the synthetic playing surface was worn and slippery. The field also had a big crown. My punter was booting some balls out of the end zone. I always talked to my kickers before games, and he showed me how high the crown was, that he basically was kicking uphill when he stood at the back of the end zone.
“I remember thinking that if we’re stuck back here when we’re playing, we’re not going to get much more than a 30-yard punt. I filed that away in the back of my mind.’’
The lead in the game see-sawed between the teams, most notably on a Sugar Bowl record 93-yard kickoff return by the Irish’s Al Hunter in the second quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Bama halfback Mike Stock hit Bama quarterback Richard Todd on one of Bryant’s trick plays to put the Tide in front 23-21, but kicker Bill Davis missed the PAT.
Notre Dame scored the final points with 4:12 remaining when kicker Bob Thomas put the Irish ahead 24-23. But the drama was just beginning.
When Alabama punter Greg Gantt boomed a punt that was downed at the Irish 1 with less than three minutes remaining, the table was set. All Bama had to do was hold Notre Dame, get the ball back in good field position and win with a field goal.
Two plays later, on third-and-6 from the 4 with 2:12 left, Parseghian told quarterback Tom Clements to go with a long count in hopes of drawing the Tide offside. Instead, Irish tight end Dave Casper jumped, pushing Notre Dame back to the 2 facing third-and-9.
“We were in exactly the same spot from before the game,’’ Parseghian said. “I thought if we punt, they’ll get the ball back around the 30, and we’ll lose.’’
A pass? Really?
Parseghian gave Clements the next play, and it took the signal-caller aback. He called Power-I-right, tackle-trap-left.
“There were two options on the play,’’ Parseghian said. “Clements could bootleg the ball around left end or throw to Casper, the primary receiver, who would cross the middle of the field from right to left.’’
Clements said, “I do remember asking, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and I answered, “OK, let’s go.’ ’’
Parseghian now says a pass out of his end zone wasn’t much of a gamble, although he was aware a slip on the slick turf could cause a safety — and a loss.
“Circumstances prevail there,’’ he said. “I knew we could get beat by a field goal if we didn’t maintain possession. Being so close to the goal line, we would have had to punt from out of the end zone. We tried to lead them into thinking we were going to run the ball by coming out in the two-tight end formation and a stacked backfield. We made it look conservative.’’
Alabama was completely taken by the deception.
Bryant wasn’t even watching. He was getting his return team ready.
Mike Dubose, later the coach at Alabama, said later, “I was the outside linebacker on the play, and we were completely fooled by it. It caught us off guard. Third-and-9 in 1973 wasn’t exactly the way it is now, as easy as it is to pick up. In that situation in 1973, you’re thinking run. It was a great call on their part.’’
Clements had to throw to his second option, Robin Weber, because Casper got hung up in the middle of the field. Weber, who hadn’t practiced in two days because of a knee injury and hadn’t caught a pass all season, reeled it in for 36 yards and a first down, essentially sewing up the win.
Still the champ?
Alabama wasn’t going to let something like a defeat smudge its pride. In those days, the United Press International Coaches’ Poll voted after the regular season, and UPI had the Tide No. 1 before the Sugar Bowl.
Notre Dame leapfrogged the Tide after its victory, but to this day, Bama continues to claim the ’73 title, meaning the Sugar Bowl was played between two national champions, despite one beating the other.
The embarrassment caused UPI to amend its practice the next season.
“We received national championship rings, and that was nice,’’ Crimson Tide wide receiver Wayne Wheeler said years later.
“But we knew the Sugar Bowl was the national championship.’’