When it became apparent that the University of Alabama would play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in this years BCS National Championship, my memory was sparked by a previous bowl match-up. It was the 1973 Sugar Bowl. The game which decided half of the National Championship that season was a match-up between the same Crimson Tide coached by the legendary Paul Bear Bryant, and Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish coached by Ara Parseghian.
In 1973, both the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish went into the Sugar Bowl undefeated. Strangely enough the Crimson Tide was already crowned National Champions by the UPI. (In those days this poll named the Champion before the Bowl Games started. The poll sponsored by United Press International changed its policy following that season)
Then as now the SEC reigned supreme, and The University of Alabama was the conferences crown jewel. Even storied teams like Notre Dame from “up north” didn’t have much success traveling south of the Mason Dixon Line. Bryant in a pre-game build up said this was the most important game in the history of the South. Speaking in his sandpaper like drawl, “people down here have been looking forward to this game for years.” For Notre Dame it was the, “Era of Ara” and the tradition of long being a football power. Coach Parseghian said he had coaches from the Midwest and all over the nation call to offer encouragement.
As the two teams took the field at Tulane Stadium the ground was wet from soaking rains and heavy thunderstorms earlier in the evening. In fact it was noted that several tornado warnings were in the area as the game kicked off. From the press box Howard Cosell was summoned in by ABC to broadcast games of this magnitude. Cosell speaking in the overly theatrical voice he summoned for occasions such as these bellowed into his microphone. “This is a dream match-up. At Notre Dame football is a religion. At Alabama it is a way of life.” As in a lot of games of this importance the teams played evenly and scoring came on big plays and mistakes by one team or another.
In the book, Coach—The Life of Bear Bryant by Keith Dunnavant gives the following account of the game. “Notre Dame and Alabama slugged out like a pair of heavyweight boxers. The game was ugly, bloody, grind it out, bone rattling football at its best. As in a lot of games of this importance the teams played evenly and scoring came on big plays and mistakes by one team or another. Notre Dame’s Al Hunter returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. Back-up quarterback Richard Todd, scored on a 24 yard flea flicker pass, putting the Tide up but the kicker missed the extra point. Notre Dame responded by driving for a field goal by Bob Thomas and led by a point 24-23. With less than 2 minutes remaining the game turned. Facing a 3rd down and 8 from its own 2 yard line and Alabama wanting the ball back and Notre Dame not want to punt the ball from its own end zone.
So the football game became a chess match. Notre Dame trying to keep possession of the ball and Alabama needing the ball back to seize the victory. Notre Dame’s coach Ara Parsegian and his QB Tom Clements won the war of nerves. On the biggest 3rd down call of his career from his own one yard line Clements faked a run and dropped back to pass from his own end zone. He completed a 37 yard pass to tight end Robin Weber who caught his 1st pass of the year. That was the ball game and the championship.
The fact that this game was played not on New Year’s Day, but on New Year’s eve created a huge natonal interest. In 1973 there were fewer bowl games and this was the only game scheduled for this time slot. All over the nation people tuned in and huddled around the TV. Sports fans and interested by standers took a break from their New Years revelry to watch part of the game. The game played on ABC received huge ratings the Nielson Rating was a 25.3 share. By comparison last years BCS game netted only a 14 ratings share.
Bob Thomas who kicked what turned out to be the game winning field goal, recounted in a December 9, 2012 New York Times article, “I heard one thing over and over when I got back home. People were saying, ‘our whole party stopped to watch your kick.” In a era that anoints every few years a game hyped as the game of the century, the 1973 Sugar Bowl certainly remains a classic and in the top 5 of the best all time modern games.
The game to decide this seasons National Championship will be played on January 7, 2013. Both schools view winning national titles as a near birthright. For Alabama and Coach Lou Saban a win will be the third title in four seasons. For Notre Dame and their Coach Rich Kelly this is their first shot at the National Title in years. In the same New York Times article, Thomas recounted, “I guess we will see if Alabama and Notre Dame can get everyone to stop and watch again.”