During the 1960s Alabama had earned the moniker of the "team of the decade" as Paul W. Bryant had taken Crimson Tide football to the very pinnacle of the sport. Arriving in Tuscaloosa in 1958 he had reenergized a moribund program and then led the Crimson Tide three national championships between 1961 and 1965.
But as the decade had waned so had the Alabama program. The Tide could only muster six wins in both 1969 and 1970 and found itself finishing in the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference. Rumors of Bryant leaving for a NFL team swirled and the Crimson faithful were unsure what the future held. Instead of leaving Bryant finally chose to recommit himself to Alabama football and he did so with a single-mindedness that mirrored his arrival in Tuscaloosa more than a decade before.
In the fall of 1971 Bryant made the decision to switch to the wishbone offense and unleashed it on an unsuspecting USC team in the season opener. The offense was more than effective, it was explosive. Between that game and the 1973 Sugar Bowl, Alabama had outscored opponents 1,228 to 381 and lost just three games. The Tide had three conference championships to show for the effort but in 1973 they wanted nothing less than a consensus national championship.
One half of that had been accomplished. As the season concluded, the UPI poll – which made its final selection prior to the bowl games – chose Alabama as the national champion. For the Tide team, the job was unfinished.
"We've got the UPI championship but if we lose this game it won't matter," said Bama offensive tackle Steve Sprayberry the week prior to the game.
Meanwhile, in South Bend, Ara Parseghian had also successfully reversed the fortunes of a legendary football program which had found itself mired in mediocrity. Between 1959 and 1963 the Irish had not seen a winning season. Although Parseghian had suffered a 5-4 record his final year at Northwestern, he was tapped as the Notre Dame head coach in 1964.
The fact he was not a Notre Dame graduate nor Catholic raised eyebrows but his inaugural season quelled any controversy; the Irish went 9-1 and were chosen as the National Football Foundation's national champion. Alabama was selected as the UPI and AP champion but fell to Texas in the Orange Bowl after the final selection had been made.
By the 1973 season, both programs were at full strength. The Crimson Tide defense was as stifling as ever, permitting just more than eight points a game, but the high-octane offense was like nothing ever before seen in Tuscaloosa. Bama's wishbone attack finished the regular season averaging 480-yards-per-game and more than 41 points a contest. Going into the bowl game the Tide was ranked second nationally in total offense, second in rushing offense and third in scoring.
The Crimson Tide offense was a serious concern for the Golden Domers' coach.
"I would feel more comfortable if they didn't have this air threat with the wishbone attack," Parseghian admitted prior to the game. "When they complete a pass, it's more than 23 yards a rack. They are an explosive team."
Notre Dame had climbed to the top of the standings with a defense that lead the nation and an offense that boasted its own fireworks. Parseghian's Wing-I offense may not as been as electrifying as Alabama's but it wasn't far behind either. The Irish finished the regular season averaging almost 36 points a game with an offense more than capable of stunning the best defenses with an array of sweeps, counters and misdirection. Bryant admitted that if the Bama defense played too aggressive, "we're liable to find ourselves grabbing a lot of thin air."
The game, which was held on New Year's Eve, marked the first time a Sugar Bowl hosted a pair of undefeated teams. In fact, it was just the ninth time in college football history that major teams with perfect records were meeting in a postseason contest.
Given the stakes involved and the history of the two programs, the anticipation for the matchup climbed to a fever pitch in the weeks leading up to the game. The intriguing aspects about the game were hypnotically compelling and seemed almost limitless.
"Look at the possibilities," wrote Dave Lagarde in the New Orleans' Times-Picayune, "Alabama undefeated and untied; Notre Dame undefeated and untied; North against South; Catholic against Protestant; Parseghian against Bryant; the Bear against the Pope."
Sports Illustrated was more succinct: "It's doubtful that any college bowl game ever featured two teams with such an itch to get at one another."
For headline writers grasping for ways to encapsulate the historic contest, hyperbole became mundane. It was referred to as the "Game of the Century," the "Second Battle of New Orleans" and even Bryant called it "the biggest game ever played in the South."
Parseghian stopped short of that but admitted it was one of the biggest games a northern team ever played on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. And he was very clear his team understood the stakes.
"We have all the incentive we need," Parseghian said. "We're up to our necks in it. But so is Alabama."
For many Crimson Tide partisans, Parseghian himself had provided plenty of incentive. The season prior, the Notre Dame coach had raised the ire of the Tide faithful for publicly deriding Alabama’s decision to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl rather than the defending national champions, Nebraska. The Parseghian said the Crimson Tide "took easy way out" while his squad took on the Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl. They got shucked 40-6.
While the comment Parsegian made the year before made good bulletin board material leading up to the 1973 game it was his actions more than a half decade prior that truly rankled Alabama fans.
In 1966, the Tide was aiming for a third consecutive national championship and the prospect seemed likely when Alabama was chosen as the pre-season No. 1 team in the country. Yet, despite being undefeated and untied that season, the Crimson Tide found themselves passed over for the National Championship in favor of the not-so-fighting Irish. In a matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation, Parseghian settled for a tie with Michigan State and, despite the blemish on the Notre Dame record, poll voters refused to rank Alabama No. 1.
Several AP voters later admitted that the racial turmoil in the South and the fact Alabama fielded an all-white team had affected their decision making. Yet by the 1973 season things had changed dramatically. Bryant had embraced integration as quickly as the wishbone and the Tide team he brought to New Orleans was filled with standout black athletes. The team's leading rusher was Wilbur Jackson who had joined the Tide squad in 1970 as the team's first black scholarship player.
When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference urged black players to boycott of the Sugar Bowl to pressure the Mid-Winter Sport's Association which controlled the game to admit more blacks to its membership, Bryant bristled.
"I don't have any black players," he insisted. "I don't have any white players. I have only players."
On the final night of 1973, more than 85,000 enthusiastic spectators packed into New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium for the 40th annual Sugar Bowl game. Ticket scalpers , according to accounts, had demanded as much as $2,000 a seat. A violent thunderstorm had engulfed the city that afternoon but passed though by nightfall. As kickoff approached, conditions were cold, windy and damp in the Crescent City.
The game was broadcast nationally on
CBS ABC and the enormous interest in the contest prompted the network to bring its star sports announcer, Howard Cosell, was on hand for the play-by-play even though his experience with the college game was minimal. His voice would become inescapably associated with the epic contest for millions of viewers across the country.
Notre Dame struck first with quarterback Tom Clements completing three passes for 59 yards and setting up the touchdown run by fullback Wayne Bullock. The Irish kicker missed the extra point giving the Irish a 6-0 lead. The drive would be the high-water mark of the Irish air attack as the Tide defense adjusted and smothered Notre Dame's receivers for the rest of the night. Clements would make just one more completion before the game concluded.
In the second quarter, the Tide took the lead after an efficient drive downfield but watched it immediately disappear when Irish halfback Al Hunter ran the kickoff back 93 yards for a touchdown. Clements completed a pass to end Pete Demmerle for the two point conversion and the lead. Alabama responded with a 39-yard field goal to make the score 14-10 at the half.
Alabama and Notre Dame traded touchdowns in the third quarter. The Tide's came on a 93-yard-drive and the Irish's after taking advantage of a short field due to an Alabama fumble. It seemed the game was going to turn into the a battle of defenses but nobody was expecting the dramatic final stanza.
Early in the fourth quarter Notre Dame fumbled and Bryant rolled the dice. Alabama quarterback Richard Todd pitched the football to Mike Stock and headed downfield. Stock then rolled right and lofted it to the wide open Todd for a 25-yard touchdown. Like his Notre Dame counterpart earlier in the game, the Tide kicker was unable to make the extra point. With 9:33 left in the game Alabama held a precarious 23-21 lead.
Notre Dame's Clements was undeterred leading his team on a workmanlike 77-yard drive down the field to the Tide two-yard line. Once again, the Alabama defense rose to the challenge and stopped the Irish who had to settle for a field goal and a 24-23 lead.
Both defenses stiffened forcing punts with Alabama using the "coffin corner" kick to pin the Irish deep with less than three minutes left in the game. Bryant was confident his defense could hold them and get the ball back with good enough field position for a field goal. Two off-tackle runs collected a yard each and the Irish were facing a long third-and-eight from their own three yard line.
Bryant knew he had the game in his grasp.
"There are so many ways to win from that position," he recalled years later. "A fumble. A good defensive play to force a safety. A blocked punt. The main thing was to hold them and make them try to kick it out. We were sure to have good field position and plenty of time to score. We also had two timeouts left."
But now it was Parseghian's turn to gamble. The unbending conventional wisdom of the day was to only run the ball from within your own five-yard-line. The risk of a sack and a safety was simply too great. Instead, the Notre Dame coach chose to run a play-action pass and it caught the Alabama defense completely off-guard.
Irish tight end Robin Weber blew by the Tide defensive back who froze looking for the run and found himself wide open down the sideline. He snagged the ball from the air and went out of bounds near where Bryant was standing. "I could have knocked the ball down myself," the Tide coach commented.
The 35-yard-completion gave the Irish first down with less than two minutes to play. Notre Dame then proceeded to run out the clock and claim the 24-23 victory.
The game had been predicted to be a great one and so it proved to be with no less than six lead changes in the game and momentum swinging back and forth every possession. The outcome unclear until the final minutes and the excitement of the finale proved too much for some. Birmingham Post-Herald sportswriter Herb Kirby saw the game to the end, wrote his story, filed it to the paper -- then died of a heart attack in the press box.
In the Alabama locker room after the game it was quiet except for sobbing, Tide center Sylvester Croom later recalled.
"Everyone cried that night, all of us," he said. "It was very disappointing. We were on the verge of greatness and then it was over."
Bryant, as was his custom, left his players and walked to the Notre Dame locker room to congratulate the victorious Fighting Irish. The Notre Dame players fell silent as the Alabama coach walked over to Clements and told him, "Son, you’re a great quarterback. I just want you to know that."
Long afterward Bryant said the teams had been so closely matched and the game so tightly fought that he had a hard time thinking of the game as a loss.
"I don’t think we got beat by Notre Dame," he said. "Time just ran out on us."