A Thousand Faces of Defeat: Notre Dame, Alabama, and the 1973 classic

First-ever meeting between college football powers Notre Dame and Alabama lived up to the hype in the Sugar Bowl

Drinks were flowing inside the French Quarter, like always. This was the heart of New Orleans. The party never stopped, especially not the week of the Sugar Bowl, and especially not the week of this Sugar Bowl.

A large crowd gathered inside Antoine’s, the famed Louisiana Creole restaurant on St. Louis Street, on this late December night, 1973. Sugar Bowl officials were hosting their grandest of all parties in advance of the first meeting ever between undefeated college football powers Alabama and Notre Dame.

The hype machine was in perfect working order, though it was limited mostly to newspapers and network TV back then in a bizarre, ancient world without tweets and ESPN. After all, the No. 1 Crimson Tide and No. 2 Fighting Irish were in town led by already legendary coaches “Bear” Bryant and Ara Parseghian, respectively, and were preparing to play for the Associated Press national championship.

Then-Alabama assistant sports information director Kirk McNair stood elbow-to-elbow with coaches, media members and bowl officials. He noticed a large, lumbering man right next to him with a face Americans had come to love — or loathe — as the country’s most opinionated sports broadcaster.

It was Howard Cosell. A big game, indeed.

“ABC was doing the game,” McNair said, recalling the pre-game buildup, “and had sent some of their pro people in. Howard Cosell was there to do color (commentary).” Cosell would famously announce that “at Notre Dame, football is a religion; at Alabama, it’s a way of life,” in reference to the game. 

“This matchup was the Game of the Century,” wrote author Keith Dunnavant in Coach: The Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant. “Notre Dame’s tradition of Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian versus Alabama’s tradition of Wade, Thomas and Bryant.”

A Thriller to be Remembered

It was a different New Orleans in 1973. The monstrous Superdome was still under construction. The grand building, hard by the Mississippi River and now ingrained as part of the city’s skyline, wouldn’t open for another two years. The Sugar Bowl was then played outdoors at Tulane Stadium, home to not only the collegiate team but also the first home of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.

And this particular Sugar Bowl in this particular era of New Orleans was braced for a party. It got one, too. Few football games, boxing matches, basketball games, you name it, pitting unbeaten powers against one another rarely live up to the hype. This one did.

The eventual New Year’s Eve result — Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23 — lives in the minds of so many college football fans, either those among the 85,161 who witnessed it in person on that cold, wet, windy night, or those snuggled on their couches as part of a then-record national TV audience.

It was, as late author Al Browning wrote in his 1977 book, Bowl Bama Bowl, “60 minutes of Grade-A football.”

Of course, it was also one of the most disappointing games in the storied history of the Crimson Tide. To a man, Alabama’s players believed they had the better team. Their leader did, too. But he didn’t focus on his kicker’s missed extra point or a 35-yard, third-down pass by Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements out of his own end zone that put the game away late in the fourth quarter. He focused on the game’s significance. You can close your eyes and imagine the deep, gruff voice of the powerful Bryant as he described his memories of that night to Browning: “You had to believe you were seeing football the way it ought to be played, college, pro, or whatever,” Bryant said. “I understand people had heart attacks watching it, and one Alabama sportswriter (Herby Kirby of the Birmingham Post-Herald) died in the press box right after. We sure don’t want football to be that exciting, but the comments I heard were mostly how good the game was for college football, having two fine teams with great traditions to play such a thrilling finish.”

The Irish thrill that sealed Alabama’s fate — Clements’ 35-yard completion from his own 3-yard line — preserved its one-point win. He threw it to sophomore tight end Robin Weber, a self-described “scrub,” and Notre Dame was able to run out the clock and clinch the Associated Press national championship.

In a game of narrow misses, you always remember the little things:

—Talented Alabama All-America selection Woodrow Lowe, a stalwart on the kickoff team, was gassed during one part of the game, McNair remembers, and was held out of the kickoff unit during the second quarter when Al Hunter stunned the crowd with a 93-yard touchdown return. “Obviously Lowe would have been in there if they’d had any idea (Notre Dame) might run that thing back,” McNair said.

—Usually steady Alabama kicker Bill Davis missed an extra point in the fourth quarter that kept the Crimson Tide’s advantage at only two points, 23-21. He’d already made two extra points and a 39-yard field previously.

—And future Tide head coach Mike DuBose, then a defensive lineman, “almost got to the guy (Clements),” McNair said, before the fateful 35-yard pass that sealed the game. “A safety would have been an Alabama win.”

It wasn’t to be.

Parseghian called it a “make or break play.” And Clements said it was designed to go to future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper across the middle, “but when he wasn’t open I saw Robin Weber behind everybody (down the left sideline) and just laid the ball up.”


Weber, in recent years, told Fox Sports that he’d never been part of the passing game until then. “I’d never even practiced that play, never caught a pass from Tom Clements, not in a game, not even in practice.”

He was, quite simply, supposed to be a decoy.

“Tommy Clements has the guts of a burglar,” wrote sports writer Jimmy Bryan in the next morning’s edition of The Birmingham News. But Clements couldn’t steal one national title from Alabama. The other news service, United Press International, awarded its championship trophy prior to the bowl games, and Alabama won that one in ’73.

Further cementing this as a night never to be forgotten, Kirby indeed passed away that night after falling ill after the game. He’d mentioned to McNair, his friend and former Post-Herald colleague, that he had an awful headache. McNair even assisted him with a few interviews so Kirby wouldn’t have to leave the press box.

Kirby wrote his last story before collapsing in the press box, describing in detail the final strike: “Call it luck, call it a leprechaun, but the issue in the 40th annual Sugar Bowl Classic was settled here Monday night by a cool Notre Dame quarterback named Tom Clements,” Kirby wrote.

Writers and broadcasters alike described a classic. Notre Dame led after every quarter: 6-0 after one, 14-10 at halftime and 21-17 after three. Nonetheless, Alabama rallied after each juncture to lead 7-6, 17-14 and even 23-21 early in the fourth quarter.

“It was a humdinger of a game,” Bryan wrote. “The lead switched seven times on the soggy PolyTurf. But Clements always had big-play magic in reserve. Alabama didn’t, and that was the difference.”

Great players lined the field that night. Alabama All-Americans included wide receiver Wayne Wheeler and Lowe, a linebacker. All-SEC halfback Wilbur Jackson led a powerful wishbone rushing attack and quarterbacks Gary Rutledge and Richard Todd directed the offense.

Notre Dame featured a powerful rushing attack led by Wayne Bullock, Art Best and Wayne Penick. They helped the Irish to 252 rushing yards and 421 total yards against a stunned Tide defense.

But it was anyone’s game for 58 minutes. In fact, the pendulum had swung toward the team in crimson jerseys late in the game. Jackson and Randy Billingsley already had touchdown runs, Davis had made a 39-yard field goal — and then Alabama took its 23-21 lead with 9:33 left on the clock. A fumble recovery on the Irish 39 had led to a trick-play touchdown. Todd handed the ball off to Mike Stock, who passed back to Todd. Twenty-five yards later, Todd ran into the end zone and sent the Crimson Tide fans into hysteria.

Until Davis’ missed extra-point attempt. A field goal could still win it for Notre Dame.

The Irish, as lore would have it, drove all the way from its own 19 to the Alabama 2, and Bob Thomas drilled a 19-yard field goal for a one-point lead.

Time remained for yet another Alabama comeback. But on its next drive, Clements completed the backbreaking long pass, and Alabama never had the chance.

“I can’t believe it,” Clements told reporters in the locker room. “I’ll have to read the papers tomorrow to make sure this all isn’t a dream.”

Bear Bryant detested being among the “ordinary folk.” | Courtesy Alabama Sports Hall of Fame

The Buildup to a Classic

One of the reasons this Crimson Tide defeat was so crushing is because it took so much work to rebound from the program’s pitfall just a few years earlier.

In a pre-talk radio, pre-Internet world, Bryant was able to avoid the widespread daggers that might have been directed his way today. Lest we forget, the legendary coach survived quite a rough patch.

After his much-ballyhooed hiring in 1958, Bryant produced seven straight magnificent seasons (1960-66) of either no losses or one loss. That stretch produced a 68-6-3 record and three AP national championships, including one in 1965 followed by an unbeaten 11-0 season in 1966 and controversial No. 3 ranking.

But then slippage began:

—1967, Alabama finished 8-2-1 and after a No. 2 preseason ranking ended up No. 8. The Tide lost to Texas A&M 20-16 in the Cotton Bowl.

—In 1968, Alabama finished 8-3 and after a No. 10 preseason ranking ended up 17th. The Tide lost to Missouri 35-10 in the Gator Bowl and managed only 23 yards on offense in the process.

—In 1969, Alabama finished 6-5 and lost to Colorado 47-33 in the Liberty Bowl.

—In 1970, Alabama finished 6-5-1, which included a 24-24 tie with Oklahoma in the Bluebonnet Bowl.

“We don’t awe anyone now,” Bryant told the media after the ’70 season. “We are back among the ordinary folk, and I don’t like it.”

The school wasn’t about to make a change, however Bryant was tempted to leave. The NFL’s Miami Dolphins offered him a five-year, $1.7 million contract after the ‘69 season, according to Crimson Storm Surge author Chris Walsh. “He was tempted,” Walsh writes, “but declined, saying he would never leave Alabama for financial reasons.” The Dolphins instead hired Don Shula from the Colts.

Changes had to be made. And they were.

This stretch produced Alabama’s first black scholarship signee in Wilbur Jackson prior to the 1969 season. Bryant knew he should integrate his football team, and his point was reinforced in the ’70 season opener when USC’s Sam Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-21 win over the Tide in Birmingham. Bryant brought Cunningham into Alabama’s locker room after the game for congratulations. By 1973, one-third of Alabama’s starters would be black, writes Walsh.

The addition of black players affected Alabama’s fortunes for the better. So, too, did a new offensive scheme. Bryant famously (and secretly, at the time) visited Texas coach Darrell Royal in the summer before the ’71 season to learn the run-oriented wishbone, featuring multiple running backs and option game.

The late Mal Moore, then entering his first season as quarterbacks coach, said Bryant didn’t tell the assistants until late August. The team only practiced the wishbone a few weeks. So obviously, USC didn’t expect it in the season opener — and Alabama shocked the Trojans 17-10 in Los Angeles, attempting only six passes all night.

Alabama was onto something. Physical, smash-mouth football. It finished 11-1 in ’71 and 10-2 in ’72. And despite finishing both seasons with bowl losses, it was ranked No. 6 in the 1973 preseason AP poll.

What a season it would be. Alabama began the ’73 campaign with a 66-0 demolishing of California. Later in the season, while still undefeated, it beat 10th-ranked Tennessee 42-21. After opening the first five games with a simple fullback dive, the Tide opened the rivalry game against the Vols with a play-action pass from Gary Rutledge to Wayne Wheeler that produced an 80-yard touchdown. “It was perfect,” Rutledge said in McNair’s Game Changers. “Tennessee had obviously looked at film and knew we always ran a dive play on first down. … No one was within 15 yards of (Wheeler).”

Alabama was a powerful offensive machine. Later it defeated Virginia Tech 77-6. Alabama also beat a previously unbeaten LSU squad 21-7 and pounded Auburn 35-0 to pay back the Tigers for the previous season’s famous “Punt, Bama, Punt” loss. The Tide produced a then-school-record 477 points and after pounding you, could surprise you through the air, too.

In Bryant’s 1975 autobiography, Bear, he wrote that by the time the ’73 Sugar Bowl came around, “I about had myself convinced that it was the best offense I ever had, no matter what the formation. I’d have said it was the best, period, but Notre Dame beat us and since we didn’t win I can’t call it the best anything.”

No, if there were any remaining doubts, they were silenced heading into a Sugar Bowl showdown. Bama was back.

“We enjoyed being around each other,” said Alabama center Sylvester Croom. “Blacks, whites, the rich, the poor — there was some kind of togetherness.”


The Lasting Legacy

No, Alabama didn’t win the 1973 Sugar Bowl. But that’s almost part of the magic of the memory by this point. “Even though it was a loss (by Alabama) it was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen in football,” McNair said.

That season, that grand spectacle of it all did nothing but reinforce the Crimson Tide’s place among college football’s elite. It solidified Bryant’s era, which would go on to produce two more national titles under Bryant in 1978 and 1979 before his retirement in 1982.

“We had one of the best teams in Alabama history,” Croom told Browning. “And had we won over Notre Dame we would have been ranked right up there with the great ones.”

To most Alabama fans, the 1973 team still does. And to those who covered it, many knew it immediately to be true.

“The Tide’s gallant go for a fourth U.S. crown in 15 years was shattered by a very fine football club, equally motivated,” wrote The Birmingham News’ Alf Van Hoose after the game. “Defeat has a thousand faces. Alabama can count ’em all after losing one of the game’s all-time classics.”

Tears flowed in the losing locker room. “Everybody cried that night, all of us,” Croom said. “It was very disappointing. We were on the verge of greatness and then it was over.”

Even Bryant was surprised by the outcome.

“Before they completed that gutsy little pass from their end zone, I thought we were going to win the game,” Bryant said. “I figured we would make them punt, get the ball deep in their territory, and score at the end to win. But they fooled us by passing.”

The despair afterward was palpable. Croom told Browning he didn’t think the best team won that night. Teammates such as Brown, Robin Cary and Mike Raines agreed with him in locker-room comments to the media after it ended. Even the stoic Bryant agreed.

“I think we lost to a great football team, but I don’t really feel like we lost,” Bryant said. “Time just ran out on us.”

Bryant stood in the locker room after the game that cold night and said, “I wouldn’t mind playing them again tomorrow. In fact, I’d like it.”

Little did anyone know that Bryant would only have to wait until the next season to get his wish. These teams would meet again after the 1974 season. The setting would be Miami, in the Orange Bowl. Again, Alabama entered 11-0 and unbeaten. Notre Dame entered 9-2. The rematch was on.

“New Verse, Sam Sad Song,” screamed The Birmingham News headline following the game.

Again, Alabama lost. This time it was 13-11. Clements was named MVP, breaking the Tide’s hearts again, and the retiring Parseghian went out a winner.

“Alabama had quite a bit better team than Notre Dame that next year but played really poorly,” McNair said. “There were a lot of mistakes in the game. It wasn’t nearly as well played as the year before.” Visions of oh-so-close chances like Todd missing an open receiver down the middle of the field haunt Tide fans’ memories in such a close defeat.

Notre Dame leads the all-time series 5-2, although the Tide owns the most recent bragging rights after a 42-14 thrashing of the Irish on January 7, 2013, in the BCS Championship Game. Alabama’s only other win in the series came at Legion Field in Birmingham in 1986. It produced a 28-10 final score and one of Daniel Moore’s most famous paintings — “The Sack” — that features sack artist Cornelius Bennett providing a crunching blow to Irish quarterback Steve Beuerlein.

But the first four went Notre Dame’s way, including back-to-back bowl wins after the ’73 and ’74 seasons, regular-season games in 1976 (21-18) and 1980 (7-0), then later a 37-6 revenge pounding in 1987 under Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, Indiana.

Fun games, all of them. But you know how it goes. The sequels never top the original. H&A

 

Cover photo: Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Robert Adams, Birmingham News.

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