A word almost never used in conjunction with Nick Saban is the word “vulnerability.” In the state of Alabama, to suggest that there is a chink in the Alabama armor is almost verboten. Yet even in Alabama football’s unprecedented dynastic run, Saban and the Tide have been consistently vulnerable in one area. Akin to Achilles in Greek mythology, the Alabama-Saban Dynasty has had a soft spot in its heel for placekicking, and that shortcoming has come scarily close to two less Alabama football national championships.
A question haunts Alabama fans, even in championship seasons: “Why can’t Alabama football land a dependable field-goal kicker?”
Since Saban arrived at the Alabama in 2007, the field goal kicking continuum of Leigh Tiffin—Cade Foster—Jeremy Shelley—Adam Griffith—Andy Pappanastos has seen its share of ups and downs. But history shows it is more than a Saban problem; it is a struggle that goes back to the Bryant years.
For the last 57 seasons, Alabama field goal kicking has been both a blessing and a source of head-scratching frustration. Under Bryant, the recipe for championships was a dominating defense, a solid kicking game, and a mistake-free offense. On special teams, Bryant not only employed the punt as a matter of necessity, he also used it as a weapon—calling for the quick kick when the situation called. As much as he valued the kicking game, Bryant was blessed with only one truly big-leg, dependable field goal kicker, Peter Kim, who brought soccer-style kicking to Tuscaloosa in 1979 and connected on 69 percent of his career attempts.
For nine of the seasons in the era from 1961-1973, Bryant utilized a family pipeline for his field goal kicking, as the Davis family from Mobile provided the bulk of the legwork for the Crimson Tide. The first Davis, Tim, made nine field goals in 1961—the longest of 41 yards—and was the MVP of the 1964 Sugar Bowl. Playing without the magnificent Joe Namath, who had been suspended for drinking and missing curfew, the Tide, on an unusually cold New Orleans day with snow piled up around the edges of the Tulane Stadium, used defense and kicking to battle No. 6 Ole Miss. Tim Davis made four field goals in a 12-7 win.
Tim, and later his brothers, Steve and Bill, were competent kickers. The middle Davis, Steve, kicked a short field goal to beat Tennessee, 11-10, in 1966. The Tennessee game was always the most important contest to Bryant, but Steve Davis had more pressure than Bryant’s ire. Allegedly after the Tide broke the huddle, an Alabama lineman told Davis he would kill him if he missed the kick.
Bill, the best of the group, made 65 percent of his field goal attempts. But in 1973, in a crushing Sugar Bowl loss to Notre Dame, Bill’s miss on an extra point would have tied the game.
Coming into the contest, Alabama was ranked No.1 and had already been awarded the UPI National Championship, while the Irish were ranked No. 3. Notre Dame led 21-17 at the start of the fourth quarter, but after the Tide took a lead on a touchdown reception to quarterback Richard Todd, Davis missed the extra point.
The Tide led by only two points after the miss. Notre Dame came back with a wobbly 19-yard field goal with four minutes left in the game. Alabama could not respond with points, but a punt pinned the Irish near their own goal line. A three-and-out would have assured the Tide great field position, but on 3rd-and-8, the Irish shocked the Tide by passing from the end zone. The Tom Clements pass gained 38 yards for the Irish. It was just the second reception of the season for tight end Robin Weber. The Irish ran out the clock, won the game and the AP National Championship.
Decades later, Bill Davis still could not explain why he missed the extra point. He just missed it.
Afterward, Bill subsequently received dozens of support letters, including one from legendary Oklahoma coach, Barry Switzer.
Previous to the Notre Dame debacle, the Tide had deteriorated in the late 1960s and early 70s. In 1970, after another 6-5 regular season, Alabama faced Oklahoma in the Bluebonnet Bowl. The Sooners jumped out to 21-7 lead, but the Tide fought back to lead 24-21 in the 4th quarter. Oklahoma tied the game with a 42-yard field goal and Alabama had a chance to win on the game’s last play when Richard Ciemny lined up for a 34-yard attempt. He missed badly, a hooked knuckler that sailed 15 yards left of the upright. The game ended in a tie.
Alabama fans remember a pair of blocked punts that contributed an Iron Bowl loss in 1972. But what most fans have forgotten is that Bill Davis also failed to convert an extra point in the game. In fairness to Davis, the kick was blocked—off the tee no less—and had Davis converted the point-after, the game could have ended in a 17-17 tie. Instead, Alabama fans had to endure the unending barbs of “Punt Bama Punt!” and the words plastered on billboard signs and bumper stickers.
Across the years, Crimson Tide field goal kicking has led to shining moments and startling disappointment. Two of the most important plays of the post-Bryant era—The Kick and The Kick Six— illustrate the polar opposites of elation and despair.
The Kick by Van Tiffin in November 1985 was a 52-yard game-winner in the Iron Bowl that injected a much-needed rush of adrenaline to the Alabama football program. But Tiffin is not the only Alabama football kicker to win games. Two other excellent kickers, Philip Doyle and Michael Proctor, won games for the Tide. In 1990, Doyle’s last second 47-yarder bested the Vols, 9-6 in Knoxville. In 1994, Proctor made a 32-yard field goal with just over a minute left to beat Georgia, 29-28. In the Mike Shula years, Jamie Christensen won three games with field goals. Van Tiffin’s son, Leigh, had a great Tide career from 2006-09, scoring 385 points and making 74.8 percent of his field goal attempts. Like his father, he had a game-winner, a kick against Vanderbilt in 2006. But two games later, Leigh missed four kicks—three FGs and an extra point (all to the right)—as the Tide lost in overtime to Arkansas, 24-23.
Other than The Kick, the superlative performances of Tide field-goal kickers take a backseat to the misses in the memory banks of many Tide fans. For some reason, fans suffer agonies more deeply than the exultations.
In the 2011 regular season loss to LSU, Tide kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster were collectively 2-for-6. Two years later, before Adam Griffith’s 57-yard FG attempt that became the Kick Six, Foster had missed three field goals against Auburn. Unfortunately for Foster, his misses—and public response to them—were amplified by social media. He received condolences via Twitter but also received many angry responses, including death threats.
The Kick Six, Adam Griffith’s 57-yard effort that came up just short and led to Auburn’s 108-yard touchdown return, cost the Tide a continued path to a third straight BCS National Championship in 2013. As the Tide lined up for the game winner, it seemed, for a moment, that Alabama was on the verge of peeling back the curtain of immortality. History was within reach until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
Though Foster never got a chance at redemption, Adam Griffith did. Two years after the Kick Six, Griffith made 5 field goals in a Crimson Tide win at Auburn. He also delivered the most perfectly executed onside kick in the national championship win against Clemson.
Then the most recent: Andy Pappanastos and his almost-chip-shot miss that sent the 2017 national championship game versus Georgia into overtime. Luckily, Tua Tagovailoa saved the Tide—and Pappanastos—with overtime heroics.
Can Saban reverse history and nab a strong-legged placekicker whose accuracy is undiminished by pressure? Is the next Morton Andersen out there anywhere?
Twice Saban received commitments from top high school kickers, but in both instances the players opted for other schools. Making recruiting failures harder to stomach was the success of Auburn’s kicker, Daniel Carlson. Carlson wanted to kick for the Tide but never received an Alabama offer. The soon-to-be NFL kicker finished his Auburn career as the SEC’s all-time scoring leader. Carlson not only made a lot of kicks, he made pressure kicks as well.
Pappanastos is now gone, and in 2018 the kickers vying for the top spot will be redshirt freshman Joseph Bulovas and graduate transfer and former Temple kicker, Austin Jones. Jones has a rep of being rock-solid under 45 yards. Bulovas made 5-of-7 field goals during the A-Day game, including makes from 49 and 48 yards. But Alabama fans remain cautiously optimistic. With under four minutes to go in the game, Bulovas had a 47-yard attempt that would have given the White team the lead and perhaps the win. He missed.
The nation’s top field goal kicker in the 2019 recruiting class is Will Reichard from Hoover, AL. Saban is working hard to sign him.
Hopefully Bulovas, Jones, or Reichard can instill trust in the minds of Crimson Nation that when the kick goes up, it’s going through—a mindset in which other Saban placekickers did not fully establish.
Alabama fans will welcome any kicker who does not cause them to cringe with fear before every attempt.
Until then, they’ll keep holding their breath. H&A
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Cover image adapted from photo by Michael Tosh.