Tom Brady, Johnny Rodgers, President Kennedy, and a dude named Lee Roy highlight the Crimson Tide’s storied history in Miami
Bowling has been Alabama’s biggest tradition during the holiday season. The Crimson Tide has been to a record 68 bowl games and has an all-time winning percentage of .610 in postseason bowl action. In addition, Alabama is 5-2 in College Football Playoff games since the inception of the four-team bracket in 2014. Although the Crimson Tide shares a special bond with the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl (the lyrics of Yea, Alabama, Alabama’s fight song, allude to visits to Pasadena, California, in the 1920s and 30s) the Crimson Tide has a rich Orange Bowl history as well. This Saturday, Alabama will look to add to its already illustrious bowl history with a victory in the Orange Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners.
Making its ninth appearance in Miami, the Crimson Tide holds a 4-4 record all-time in the Orange Bowl. Alabama’s history with this coveted bowl game began during World War II, when the Crimson Tide met Boston College on January 1, 1943. Although the win would later be referred to as the “Miami T Party,” initially the Crimson Tide, falling behind 14-0, struggled in stopping the Eagles’ T formation offense. But then a furious comeback in the second quarter put Alabama ahead at halftime, 22-21. Two second-half touchdowns and a safety for Alabama sealed the 37-21 win.
Alabama didn’t make its next appearance in the Orange Bowl until 10 years later when it faced Ben Schwartzwalder’s Syracuse Orangemen. Leading 7-6, Alabama began to pour it on and eventually the game morphed into the biggest rout in bowl history, a 61-6 squeeze of the Orange from New York. Charles Israel of the Philadelphia Bulletin wrote, “The up-state New Yorkers were ruthlessly butchered to make a Miami holiday. It was cruel and barbarous treatment.”
Years of flux followed that Orange Bowl win for Alabama, as the Crimson Tide took a two-decade hiatus from the sparkling beauty of the Florida coast. Then in 1963, when Alabama was scheduled to meet Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl, President John F. Kennedy stopped by to support Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson, who ran the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
Bama and “Bear” Bryant used Kennedy’s favoritism as motivation to unload on the Sooners, 17-0. Lee Roy Jordan, Alabama’s linebacker who ended the game with 31 tackles and who would go on to star for the Dallas Cowboys, would always remember that day in Miami. Said Jordan, “I have been fortunate enough to play in some big games—the Super Bowls, the conference championships with Dallas, and many important battles for Alabama—but that Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma has to be one of my biggest thrills. It was my best football game as a collegian.”
The 1965 Orange Bowl was the first bowl game to ever be played at night, and under the bright lights and amid the pomp Alabama and its flashy QB, Joe Namath, met Darrell Royal’s Texas Longhorns. “The staging was magnificent; there were rockets and fireworks and a multiplicity of bands. Fresh oranges were carefully Scotch-taped to the orange trees in the east end zone, and bathing beauties lounged on coral rocks, waiting, presumably, to retrieve field-goal attempts,” wrote John Underwood for Sports Illustrated. Namath, playing with a hurt knee, led the Crimson Tide back from a 14-0 deficit but came up just short on a quarterback sneak in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. “One official said it was a score, but the referee said no,” Namath said. Texas won, 21-17.
The very next year, Alabama exacted Orange Bowl revenge on Bob Devaney’s Nebraska Cornhuskers. This was the first season the national championship was handed out after the bowl games, so there was a lot riding on No. 4 Alabama versus No. 3 Nebraska (Arkansas was No. 2 and Michigan State was No. 1). After Arkansas lost to LSU in the Cotton Bowl, Bryant came into the locker room at halftime of the Nebraska game and announced that Michigan State had also fallen to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. “So that was all we needed,” said receiver Dennis Homan.
Quarterback Steve Sloan completed 20 passes for 296 yards and Alabama rang up 518 yards of total offense in a 39-28 win. The Crimson Tide were voted AP national champions. Guard John Calvert summed up the team’s mindset going into the game with Nebraska: “We believed in ourselves and that was our secret to beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. We all had that feeling. We went to Miami thinking we were going to beat ‘em and I attribute that feeling to Coach Bryant. He had faith in us and when he has faith, it kind of grows on you.”
Six years later, Alabama faced Nebraska again in Miami, in a contest between two undefeateds. But this time the Cornhuskers were “loaded for Bear” and it was no contest. Ask any Alabama fan who witnessed this game and the name he or she will repeat is Johnny Rodgers, because Rodgers’ incredible day left the kind of impression that is seared forever into the mind.
With his team leading 7-0, Rodgers fielded a punt and charged 77 yards for a second Nebraska touchdown, and that was all the scoring the ‘Huskers needed in a 38-6 rout. But here’s another name for you to remember: Rich Glover. Glover had 18 tackles and made mincemeat of Bryant’s vaunted Wishbone offense. “We were beaten soundly by a far superior football team,” said Bryant after the game. “They toyed with us most of the time. They were one of the greatest, if not the greatest, I’ve ever seen.”
The Crimson Tide returned to the Orange Bowl just three years later to face a growing nemesis, Notre Dame. On December 31, 1973, the Fighting Irish secured a 24-23 win over the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl—a heartbreaking loss for Alabama—and surely the Irish would not turn back the Tide for the second time in as many seasons. But lo, there was added motivation for Notre Dame. Head coach Ara Parseghian had announced that this was his last game, and the Fighting Irish wanted Ara to go out a winner—“Win One for Ara!” the fans exclaimed. They did.
After a fumbled punt in the first quarter, Notre Dame punched it in for the game’s first score on a 4-yard run by fullback Wayne Bullock. Then in the second quarter, the Irish cobbled together a 17-play drive that chewed up over 8 minutes of clock and 77 yards of gridiron. A Mark McLane touchdown scamper put the Irish up 13-0. Alabama scored 11 unanswered from that point forward, but it was not enough. “To polish off the point, consider poor error-ridden, Ara-rattled Alabama, which has come a blustering to the threshold of the national championship three straight years now only to wind up dry (with the exception of the UPI vote before last year’s loss to Notre Dame),” wrote Underwood in his postseason SI feature. Although Notre Dame won, it was USC and Oklahoma which shared a piece of the national championship cake—the Sooners took home the AP slice while the Trojans enjoyed the UPI. Two-loss Notre Dame finished sixth in AP and fourth in the coaches’ poll.
It would be 25 years before Alabama would make another appearance in the Orange Bowl; oddly enough, one of the players from the 1975 game would lead the Crimson Tide into Miami—this time as head coach. Mike Dubose, who played end at Alabama from 1971-74, took over the Alabama program after Gene Stallings resigned in 1997. After a 4-7 season in 1997 and a 7-5 season the next year, Dubose led Alabama to an Southeastern Conference (SEC) title in 1999.
After dispatching Florida for the second time that season in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, the Crimson Tide faced the Michigan Wolverines, coached by Lloyd Carr. With a stout defense and explosive offensive players like Freddie Milons and Shaun Alexander, Alabama came into the game as a slight favorite. And after the Tide took a 28-14 lead, it seemed like the prognosticators were spot on with their predictions.
Enter Tom Brady, the smooth quarterback for the Wolverines, whose splendid third quarter brought the Wolverines back from death’s door. On the day, Brady amassed a total of 369 yards and four touchdowns—his favorite target wideout David Terrell, who snagged three touchdowns. Tied at 28 after regulation, Brady wasted no time in finding tight end Shawn Thompson on a 25-yard pass on first down on Michigan’s first overtime possession. Alabama answered when quarterback Andrew Zow, off a play fake to Alexander, found receiver Antonio Carter who walked into the end zone. It was all smiles until PK Ryan Pflugner lined up for the extra point, which he muffed, giving the Wolverines a one-point win, 35-34.
Both Alabama and Tom Brady have done relatively well since then. Brady has five Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots, and ironically, Alabama has five rings as well.
Now Alabama looks to claim its sixth national title in 10 seasons, and the first playoff hurdle to clear is Oklahoma. Perhaps in this year’s Orange Bowl, Quinnen Williams can channel his inner Lee Roy Jordan. Perhaps Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts can mimic Steve Sloan.
And hopefully for the Crimson Tide, the rich Orange Bowl history gets even richer. H&A
Browning, Al. Bowl ‘Bama Bowl: A Crimson Tide Football Tradition. Nashville, Rutledge Hill Press, 1977.