It was almost four decades ago now, New Year’s Eve of 1973.
New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, a recipe for magic and mischief all in itself.
But this final day of the year had a special trick up its sleeve, in the form of the Greatest College Game ever.
Undefeated Alabama , ranked #1, would finally meet Notre Dame, who was also undefeated, and only the top program all time. You can throw out any superlatives – “Game of the Century”, “Clash of the Titans”, “Ali-Frazier”, all the terms that games like these rarely seem to approach, yet this contest met and surpassed them.
It was Catholics vs Southern Baptists, Yankees vs Rednecks, North vs South – it was finally Notre Dame vs Alabama.
I sit here, some 39 years later, and my senses are still assaulted with the peculiar New Orleans sights, sounds and aromas, just as if I never left. The scents of beer and booze, strong coffee, French food and baking beignets still hover just under my nose. I smell the muddy Mississippi rolling on, stale urine, salt air, and cheap perfumes mingling with car exhaust.
I can hear the laughter, the sirens, horses clomping down the bricked streets, ice rattling in glasses, the Lucky Dog and strip club vendors working for clientele.
I still see and hear the Notre Dame and Alabama fans doing their “game prep”, the street musicians playing for a tip, the young boy tap dancing on Canal, and the street artists doing impromptu portraits for dinner money.
I could not tell you what I did for lunch a week ago Sunday, but I can paint the day of December 31, 1973 like Rembrandt.
Being the son of Alabama season ticket holders, I was fortunate to see many Alabama games. There were not nearly as many entertainment options as today, and on an autumn Saturday I could usually be found at the Alabama game, or on the Basketball court listening to John Forney and Doug Layton call the game on radio.
After Alabama rebounded from some mediocre years with the wishbone offense keying a perfect season in 1971, my family began to attend the bowl games as well. We made the long drive with friends to Miami for the Orange Bowl, in search of a National Championship against unbeaten Nebraska. Alabama was very good, hopes were high – problem was, Nebraska 1971 may have been the best team ever.
Nebraska 38 – Alabama 6.
We will get it next year, Bama fans said. Alabama was undefeated again when Auburn came to Birmingham for the season finale. Auburn could do nothing on offense, and their fans Booed when they elected for a field goal in the fourth quarter down 16-0. However, 2 improbable blocked punts, perfect bounces and TD returns on plays that were mirror images made for a most improbable 17-16 Auburn win.
A Cotton Bowl loss to Texas 17-13 only salted the wound.
We will get it next year, Bama fans said again. The 1973 Alabama team was one of our best ever, and the wishbone put up incredible numbers and points. The 1973 offense is still considered by most to be the most prolific in Alabama history. After an undefeated season capped by a 35-0 revengeful demolition of Auburn, the Tide looked to cement greatness with a win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
New Year’s Eve Day, dawned, gray and chill. I remember we savored an early breakfast at Brennan’s, a magnificent treat in itself. A morning of impatient and tense waiting brought us to a local dive that served amazing meat and veggie lunches, where I filled up on shrimp cocktail, hamburger steak with onion gravy, mashed potatoes and squash casserole. The place was packed, and looked almost like a Norman Rockwell painting.
A few hours later, we made our way to the car and made the drive to old Tulane Stadium. The temperature seemed to be dropping, the wind rising, and it was a wet, raw, cold afternoon more befitting Memphis up The River than the Crescent City.
Parking, we then made a fairly long walk through a New Orleans neighborhood towards the stadium. I was amazed at the amount of Notre Dame pennants and flags and shirts I saw, especially from the locals. I felt that being a Southern and SEC state, that Alabama would have overwhelming local support, but my Dad told me about the Catholic ties between that area and how that translated into support for Notre Dame.
I specifically remember a crowded porch, with about 10 people on it, playing the ND Victory March on an old record player, sipping cocktails and yelling “Geaux Irish”. As I stepped along the sidewalk, an older fellow (Though I guess now he would be 50 tops) stepped down off the porch, waving a ND flag at us. I gave him the best glare and “Roll Tide” a 10 year old could muster, and marched along, secure in my contribution to the cause.
Arriving at the Stadium, the wind became suddenly more biting. I zipped up my Alabama rain coat, adjusted my Crimson Felt Cowboy Hat adorned with the White felt Script A, and prepared to enter the arena. The moment was at hand.
My Dad joked that Howard Cosell better have super glued his toupee on in that wind, and I began scouring the crowd for a sight of him.
I will not dwell on the game. Our seats were in the end zone, and I watched the warm-ups intently, and caught Coaches Bryant and Parseghian chatting on the field. The game itself was a magnificent battle, that could have, should have, ended in a fitting tie, save for the fact Alabama missed an extra point. On the famed Clements to Weber pass, I was in the opposite end zone, and remember thinking………………
“Yes, He’s under pressure….Dang he got it away, but that’s a long pass, he can’t complete it, he can’t complete it, he……… expletive “
Notre Dame 24 – Alabama 23
The game ended, and I felt numbed by the elements and the bitter defeat. As we always did, (knowing some players) we made our way to the locker room entrance, outside the stadium. I clearly see the Bama team filing around and into the old cinder block locker room, the players battered, bloodied, some with blank expressions of despair and disbelief.
I remember some players, like Center Sylvester Croom, walking by with head up, but with tears flowing down sweat-stained cheeks. I remember Coach Bryant looking like he had aged a decade that night, and then the locker room door closed, and I turned away, and looked at the stars.
As time goes on, we remember certain great plays. If the games are big enough, or great enough, we remember them and how they played out.
I still FEEL that loss.
In a bitter twist of the knife, Bama and Notre Dame met again the following year, in Miami, and Bama had another National Title waiting to be won…………….
Notre Dame 13 – Alabama 11
Our Programs have not met with such high stakes on the line since, and have not played at all in a quarter century. I have long hoped for another shot like we had in 1973, but both our Programs stumbled around in the last 20 years, and I began to doubt it could ever come to pass.
And now here we are in many ways come full circle to the same place, in many ways light years away from the 1973 meeting.
Yankees vs Rednecks, Catholics vs Protestants, North vs Progressive South…………………….
Notre Dame vs Alabama,once again with a National Title at stake.
You Notre Dame guys go wake some echoes, and practice volley cheers if you like................
But I think I’m going to do a little searching in the attic, for a 39 year old Crimson Cowboy Hat..................