Alabama vs Texas: 1973 Cotton Bowl

In the long history of the Alabama and Texas football programs, the two teams have met just eight times on the gridiron. Roll Bama Roll is looking back on each of these contests. Today we revisit the epic 1973 Cotton Bowl.

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The 1973 Cotton Bowl was the last meeting between two coaching legends who had dominated the previous decade college football and then reinvented themselves to continue their winning ways.

Darrell K Royal and Paul W. Bryant were longtime friends and colleagues with an abiding respect for each others skills as coaches. Bryant once claimed he spent $10,000 a year in phone calls to Texas to talk shop with the Longhorn head coach. On occasion, they had been sideline rivals as well.

The coaches had rebuilt the proud Texas and Alabama football programs and then guided them to an impressive collection of conference titles and national championships during the 1960s. But as the decade waned, so did the fortunes of the two teams and the men that led them.

Between 1965 and 1967, four-loss seasons became the hallmark of Royal's Longhorns. A 7-10 loss to arch-rival Texas A&M (coached by Bryant protégé, Gene Stallings) to close the 1967 season brought the situation to a head.

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Darrell Royal and the wishbone offense.

Surveying his program Royal identified the team's anemic offensive production as the cause of the problem - the Longhorns only generated only 18.6 points per game in 1967 - and started searching for solutions.

The answer was provided by Texas' offensive coordinator, Emory Bellard - a three-man back-field triple option offense, better known as "the wishbone." Royal unveiled it at the start of the 1968 season and promptly collected a tie against Rice and a loss to Texas Tech.

Then things clicked into place. From the third game of the season until the final game of the 1970 season, Texas didn't lose a single contest and rolled up a pair of National Championships along the way.

It was about this time that Bryant began to look for ways to break the malaise that seemed to have a death grip on his program in Tuscaloosa. Losses had begun to pop up more often than normal until the Crimson Tide racked up a mediocre 6-5-1 record in 1970 garnished with a second straight loss to arch-rival Auburn.

Bryant found himself at the impasse Royal had reached three years prior. And the effectiveness of Royal’s solution was hammered home for Bryant when he faced Oklahoma in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl. The Sooners had adopted a version of the wishbone to counter its conference rival and brought it to Houston against Alabama. The game ended in a tie but it started Bryant thinking.

So, in the spring of 1971, Bryant flew to Austin to learn the intricacies of the offense from Royal. The Texas coach was not simply accommodating, he promised to be available by phone whenever Bryant might have a question in the future. That summer, Bryant brought Royal's staff to Tuscaloosa for a coaching clinic then locked the two groups in a hotel to get a crash course on how the wishbone worked.

Bryant unveiled his new strategy against USC on Sept. 10 1971 and stunned the unprepared Trojans. The 17-10 victory was the first of eleven the Crimson Tide amassed that season, the lone loss being to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

Royal used the wishbone to fuel a high-powered running game based on options, fakes and inside blocking schemes. Bryant liked how it forced the secondary into man coverage which he could exploit with the passing game.

"With the wishbone you get what you want automatically," he said. "I don’t give a hoot what they do, I know what we’re going to do. We’re going to walk out there and read ‘em and go."

Things had gone well for all of 1972 as Alabama rolled up win after win all the way up to the Iron Bowl when they were stunned by Auburn 17-16. The loss put them out of the national championship picture and into the Cotton Bowl - against the master of the wishbone offense himself, Darrell Royal.

The Longhorns had a similarly frustrating season, winning every game except for an embarrassing shutout loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout. They finished the season by trouncing Texas A&M 38-3 then headed up I-35 to Dallas.

More than 70,000 spectators packed into Cotton Bowl Stadium on a partly cloudy and chilly afternoon to see which of the two legendary coaches would be adding to their legend that day. At first it looked like Bryant would walk away with an easy victory.

Texas’ quarterback, Alan Lowry, was suffering from tonsillitis and almost didn’t play. His start was unsurprisingly shaky. Alabama’s Steve Wade grabbed an errant pass by the ailing quarterback and, seven plays later a 50-yard field goal put the Crimson Tide on the scoreboard.

The teams traded punts but then Wade snagged another Lowry pass and returned it 42 yards to the Texas 31. On the next play Alabama’s Wilbur Jackson took a pitchout and scampered untouched into the end zone. Just more than ten minutes had elapsed in the game and Alabama was up 10-0.

A 24-yard field goal put the Longhorns on the scoreboard at the start of the second quarter and Alabama matched it with a 30-yarder at the end of the period. The teams went into the locker room at the half with Alabama up 13-3.

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UT's Terry Melancon about to steal the ball
from Alabama's Wayne Wheeler.

After the intermission things began to go the Longhorns way. A short punt by Alabama gave Texas good field position and Royal dialed up the running game. Longhorn tailback Roosevelt Leaks was the workhorse in a 15-play, 59-yard drive that ended with Lowry scoring on a three-yard run.

With the ball on the Texas 34-yard line in the fourth quarter Alabama’s quarterback Terry Davis went for broke and tried to connect with wide receiver Wayne Wheeler in the end zone to put the game away. Texas’ Terry Melancon grabbed it instead and downed it for a touchback.

With 7:42 left in the game the Longhorn offense went into high gear. Two passes got them to the Alabama 42-yard line and two running plays advanced it eight yards further.

Then, on third and two, Lowry took the snap, hid the ball on his hip and ran the bootleg play to the left. He cut sharply at the sideline and stayed dangerously close the white border the whole 34 yards to the end zone (so close that some later claimed he stepped out of the bounds at the 10 yard line).

The score put Texas ahead for good 17-13.

Still, Alabama staged a furious drive to regain the lead marching 47 yards down the field to the Texas 43 yard line before they were forced to turn over the ball on downs. Texas prevailed against Alabama once again.

It proved to be the final time the two coaches faced each other as Royal stepped down as coach of the Longhorns in 1976 with a 184-60-5 record – as well as a perfect 4-0 against Bryant. He remained the schools athletics director until 1980.

The next season, the wishbone was the key to one of the best offenses in Crimson Tide history. Alabama outscored opponents 477-113 on their way to an 11-1 record and the national championship. And the offense was still in place in 1978 and 1979 when the Crimson Tide claimed two more titles – the final ones under Bryant.

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