From Ara to Schembechler to Bowden, all of the great coaches have this in common: losing big
When it comes to blowouts, Nick Saban is in good company.
College football has produced some great coaches across the years, men like Knute Rockne, Gen. Robert Neyland, Bo Schembechler, Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, John McKay, and “Bear” Bryant.
For as many wins as great coaches claim, they all have another thing in common: losing. And in some instances, losing big.
These losses, often tucked away behind stats and trophies, are certainly not the first thing folks bring up when reminiscing on a great coach’s career. The unfortunate reality is that coaches, in moments of career analysis, will often reflect on the painful losses of their career more so than the terrific wins.
This past Monday, Clemson trounced Alabama 44-16 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. For Saban the blowout was unprecedented, stunning even the harshest of detractors and the hardiest of Crimson Tide fans. One has to wonder how Saban will respond to his worst defeat as Alabama’s coach.
While we are pondering this monumental loss, Hall & Arena wanted to take a look at some blowout losses handed to some other all-time greats:
Although Bryant’s close losses to Notre Dame in 1973 and ‘75 are probably the most gut-wrenching, the worst postseason loss arrived at the hands of Nebraska. On January 1, 1972, the Cornhuskers and their great running back/receiver, Johnny Rodgers, shucked Bryant’s squad 38-6 in the Orange Bowl. “We were beaten by a far superior football team,” Bryant told the press. “They toyed with us most of the time.”
Notre Dame has had some good men at the head coaching post in South Bend, but there was something about Ara Parseghian that makes him one of the more beloved Irish coaches. This is not to say that Parseghian, a Presbyterian, had a perfect record or his career was devoid of trouble. Consider 1974, when his Fighting Irish met USC. Notre Dame stormed out to a 21-0 lead and everything seemed to be going Ara’s way…until. The “until” was a halftime pep talk by Trojan head coach John McKay and a superb second half by running back Anthony Davis that spurred a 55-point onslaught in just 17 minutes of play. After the game, Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh, had an exchange with McKay. “That wasn’t a very nice thing for a Catholic to do,” Father Hesburgh said. McKay was quick with a retort: “Father, that serves you right for hiring a Presbyterian.”
John McKay won his first national championship at USC in 1962. Four years later, his Trojan team was trounced by Notre Dame, 51-0, in front of their home crowd at L.A. Coliseum. After the game, McKay famously told his players, “Take a shower, if you need one.” McKay reversed his fortunes the next season, winning the national championship behind the stellar running of Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson.
Fresh off a 14-11 win over Michigan at the “Horseshoe” in Columbus, Ohio State was hoping that a win in the Rose Bowl over No. 1 USC would propel the Buckeyes to a national title in 1972. Instead, Woody Hayes’ team was crushed by the Trojans, 42-17. Trojan running back Sam Cunningham knifed open the Ohio State defense, running for four touchdowns. After the game, McKay poured salt into the wound when he said, “The Big Ten never has been superior to us in my opinion.” It was hard to argue with him. The Pac-8 champion had won four out of the last five Rose Bowl contests when McKay’s team defeated Ohio State to become consensus national champions.
The opening game of the 1983 season did not go well for Joe Paterno. His Nittany Lions suffered a 44-6 dismantling by Tom Osborne and the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the inaugural “Kickoff Classic” held at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The ‘Huskers were led by quarterback Turner Gill, who accounted for 211 total yards in the winning effort. It was Paterno’s worst loss since his first year as head coach in 1966. “You know what it is to be whipped? Well, we were whipped, just plain whipped,” Paterno said after the game.
Yes, the administrator of Saban’s blowout in 2019 has endured an embarrassing bowl loss as well. No diehard Clemson fan could ever forget the 70-33 steamrolling by West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida. Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith threw for six—count ‘em, six!—touchdowns and was 32 of 43 passing for 407 yards. “We’re a better team than we played tonight,” Swinney said. “Just too many mistakes. But we’ll be back.” He wasn’t wrong. After the game, Swinney fired Kevin Steele, his defensive coordinator, and hired Brent Venables from Oklahoma, a decision that has paid dividends that include two national titles in three years.
Iowa City wasn’t kind to Michigan and head coach Bo Schembechler. It was 1984, and the Wolverines were set to meet Hayden Frye’s Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium on the campus of the University of Iowa. Things didn’t quite turn out for the Michigan offense, as safety Mike Stoops and company completely stymied the Wolverine attack in a 26-0 Iowa win. After the game Frye asked the equally befuddled press, “Who’d ever dream we’d goose-egg Michigan?”
Media critics expected Florida head coach Steve Spurrier to exact revenge in the 1999 SEC Championship game for an early season loss in “the Swamp” to the Alabama Crimson Tide. Instead, Spurrier’s Gators were swamped doubly in a 34-7 loss. Two big fourth quarter plays, a 77-yard run by Freddie Milons and a 38-yard interception return by Reggie Grimes for a Bama touchdown, sealed the win. In this rout, the Bama defense held Spurrier’s venerated Fun N’ Gun offense to 114 yards and only 6 first downs.
Steve Spurrier did get revenge in 1996, however. After dropping a road game to FSU in Tallahassee in November, Florida was given a second chance to defeat the Seminoles by the football gods. The Gators rung in the New Year in 1997 by defeating Bowden and his ‘Noles 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Danny Wuerffel, who won the Heisman Trophy that year, lit the FSU defense up by connecting with WR Ike Hilliard for three touchdowns. Said Bowden after the game, “You can see why I didn’t want to play them again. I didn’t know it would be this bad, but I didn’t want to play them again.”
The upshot is that many of these coaches recovered from big losses and went on to win championships. For instance, two years after the 1997 Sugar Bowl, Bowden marched on to defeat Virginia Tech for the national championship in the exact same spot he’d lost to Florida.
With respect to Saban, it will be interesting to see where redemption awaits him. H&A
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