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'73 Sugar Bowl: In turbulent times, Notre Dame-Alabama played epic game that lived up the hype

 

Ara Parseghian still remembers every little detail of that dreary night in New Orleans nearly four decades ago, when two titans of college football met for the first time.

It was a time of jarring social and political turmoil in America: the pain of the civil rights movement still fresh, U.S. troops finally home from an unpopular war in Vietnam, a scandal known as Watergate on the verge of toppling the most powerful man in the free world.

Against that backdrop, Notre Dame and Alabama did something that rarely happens in sports.

They didn't just live up the hype, they blew it away.

The game of the year became a game for the ages.

"It was Alabama vs. Notre Dame. It was the Baptists vs. the Catholics. It was Bear Bryant vs. yours truly," said Parseghian, who coached the Fighting Irish for 11 years and now, approaching his 90th birthday, enjoys retirement at his winter home in Marco Island, Fla., right across the Everglades from Miami. "There were just a multitude of things that built it up. A huge viewing audience was the result."

Indeed, while ESPN officials were hoping for record ratings in the BCS era when top-ranked Notre Dame met second-ranked Alabama on Monday night, there was little chance of approaching the massive audience that tuned in on New Year's Eve 1973 for those same two teams in the Sugar Bowl, the game that would decide the national championship, a contest so momentous that ABC sent in Howard Cosell to join the regular college broadcast team of Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson.

"At Notre Dame, football is a religion," Cosell would say that night. "At Alabama, it's way of life."

The game was worthy of even his extensive hyperbole — and then some.

The lead changed hands six times. Notre Dame returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Alabama scored on a trick play. The Crimson Tide missed a crucial extra point in the fourth quarter. The Fighting Irish barely made a chip-shot field goal that provided the winning margin with less than 5 minutes remaining.

Mostly, the game will be remembered for Parseghian's gutsy decision right at the end to call a deep pass out of his own end zone, the ball going to a little-used tight end who managed to make a juggling catch along the sideline before tumbling into the Alabama bench, right in front of the Bear.

"I am laying on my back, clutching the ball, looking up at a bunch of red helmets peering down at me and hearing a bunch of cuss words over the roar of the 80,000 people in the stadium," said Robin Weber, the second-stringer who made the catch that lives on in Notre Dame lore.

"I get up from the sideline and flip the ball to the referee and, as I'm looking back downfield for penalty flags, here comes a very upset Bryant storming toward me almost in my face," Weber added. "I see no flags and jump for joy because I know it is checkmate in a national championship game."

Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23.

While the college kids who will play Monday night know little of what happened at rickety old Tulane Stadium long before they were born — some will acknowledge they're not even sure who won — there is constant prodding from the old-timers.

Especially on the Alabama side.

"People have been stopping me on elevators saying, 'I was there at the '73 game. You better win one for us,'" said Barrett Jones, the Crimson Tide's All-American center. "Certainly we've heard a lot about it. But when the ball is snapped, that's not going to matter."

It does matter to Bill Davis.

He was the Alabama kicker on that '73 team. He was the one who missed the extra point with 9½ minutes remaining after the Tide reclaimed the lead, 23-21, on a 25-yard pass from Mike Stock to quarterback Richard Todd, who handed the ball off to his halfback going right and then broke free along the left sideline, the Notre Dame defense totally caught off guard when Stock pulled up and threw back the other way.

Now a dentist in the north Alabama town of Athens, Davis no longer remembers if he missed the kick to the left or the right.

Maybe he's just learned to block it out.

"I felt bad about it at the time," he said Monday morning in a telephone interview from his office during a break between patients. "I still do."

Fortunately for Davis, who followed two older brothers into the Alabama kicking job, he didn't face the sort of Bill Buckner-like scorn that would bedevil others who faltered on the biggest stages. He still says "Roll Tide" at the end of phone conversations, still has mostly fond memories of his football career and playing for the man everyone in Alabama calls "Coach Bryant" to this day, nearly 30 years after his death.

Davis built a successful business, which he shares with his daughter, and welcomed his first grandchild just last Friday.

"It's a girl," he said proudly.

But, come Monday night, he'll be tuned in and pulling extra hard for his beloved Tide. There's still a score to settle.

"If we win," Davis said, "that would put a lot of that other stuff to rest."

For Parseghian, the '73 Sugar Bowl put to rest his reputation for playing it safe, which he had carried ever since his decision to settle for a 10-10 tie in an another epic game, the 1966 contest against Michigan State.

That game was especially galling to Alabama fans, since the tie didn't prevent Notre Dame from winning the first of two national titles during the Parseghian era. The Fighting Irish stayed atop the rankings ahead of both the mighty Spartans (who had four of the top eight picks in the next NFL draft) and a Tide team that posted a perfect record in the quest for an unprecedented third straight championship (to this day, no team has finished No. 1 in The Associated Press rankings three years in a row).

Seven years the epic Notre Dame-Michigan State tilt, with another national title hanging in the balance and the Irish facing third-and-long from their own 3-yard line, Parseghian decided the prudent call was to gamble. He sent in a formation that looked like a run — two tight ends and three running backs — but signaled a pass to quarterback Tom Clements.

"I knew he was going to be throwing the ball out of the end zone. If he slips and falls, or he's sacked, that's a safety and we lose the game," Parseghian recalled. "Yeah, it was high risk. But that's what we had to do. I didn't want to punt it back to them out of our own end zone."

Big tight end Dave Casper, who went on to star in the NFL, was the intended target. The Tide had him well covered. But Weber, who was mainly known for blocking, ran right by the cornerback and found himself all alone far heading toward the sideline. Clements delivered the ball perfectly. Weber juggled it briefly before tucking it away and getting knocked out of bounds.

Game over.

"An over-the-shoulder, pure hands catch, on a play I had never before practiced, thrown by a quarterback who had never thrown me the ball, not even in warm-ups in practice," Weber said. "From my perspective, quite simply a sandlot play between two good athletes."

Notre Dame ran out the clock and celebrated its championship.

Parseghian and Bryant spoke briefly on the field afterward. Later, the Notre Dame coach sent off a letter to his larger-than-life rival, who would pass away 10 years later, about a month after his final game.

"We had great respect for one another," Parseghian said. "Basically, I just told him there were no losers in that game."

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963