The Gene Stallings era of Alabama football marked a brief return to greatness for a program that had only begun to crawl from beneath the long shadow left by the passing of Coach Paul Bear Bryant. The hiring of Stallings brought mild jubilation to Tuscaloosa. After all, Stallings was one of “Bear’s Boys,” a survivor of Junction, a man entrenched behind the palisade of old-school, grit-and-blood Southern football.
Most students of the Crimson Tide know that Stallings went on to bring the first Championship since 1979 back to the Capstone with his 1992 team. That ’92 squad fielded explosive skill position talent and a complex but lethal defensive machine that worked smoothly despite its many moving parts.
But in 1990, Stallings’ first year back in Tuscaloosa, things weren’t nearly so rosy.
The man many hoped would erase the memories of the Bill Curry Era and Ray Perkins’ abrupt departure struggled to rebuild the once-mighty Crimson Tide in his early months in T-town. Many thought he would be the Bear’s torch bearer. After all, they certainly spoke in similar, grumbled fashion. They were both big, tough men by the standard of the day. The two were each tougher than boot leather. Both believed in the tenets of fundamental football, and that greatness does not spring from scheme or trickery, but rather, can be found in a more difficult to mine quality: heart.
The Tide certainly opened the Stallings Era on rough waters. They dropped the first game of the season to lowly Southern Miss. They then suffered two SEC losses, albeit close ones. In fact, Alabama’s first three losses came by a combined margin of eight points. But in Alabama, an L was an L, and Stallings was already feeling the burn at 0-3 in his first year.
Alabama got its first win against perennial SEC underdog Vanderbilt, then got a second victory by beating a “directional school,” Southwestern Louisiana. Despite the positive momentum, a monster loomed on the horizon, as Alabama was scheduled to travel to Knoxville to meet the third-ranked (and much hated) Tennessee Volunteers on October 20, 1990.
As the game played out, it had all the hallmarks of Stallings’ first SEC losses at Alabama that season. The Bama defense was ferocious, the offense was slightly less so. But the difference in what would become his first signature win at Alabama was not a linebacker or a tailback, but rather a cannon-legged kicker out of Birmingham’s Huffman High by the name of Philip Doyle. Doyle carved his storyline into Alabama lore on that October afternoon before Alabama and a national television audience. And in doing so, he helped the Crimson Tide announce to the world that a new sheriff was in town, and that the Tide had come to reclaim its throne.
The 1990 Tennessee team was nasty, pure and simple. Under a head coaching legend of their own in Johnny Majors, the Volunteers had become a pumpkin-orange juggernaut capable of knocking off any team in the conference on any given Saturday. They had a salty defense, to be sure, but they also had an explosive offense, able to run and pass with equal aplomb. The Vols were undefeated heading into the game against Alabama (though they did have two ties on the season.), but that didn’t tell the whole story. In a broader context, the Tennessee team had really only lost two times in the previous two dozen games, and coming into the game against Bama they were riding a 12 game unbeaten streak. Vol back Tony Thompson was a beast, as he led the SEC in rushing yards at that point in the season. In a word, the Vols were simply fierce.
Alabama, on the other hand, seemed unable to catch a break in its three early losses. All three were close, but the Tide was unable to do what would become a hallmark of later Stallings-led teams: they couldn’t dig down to win the close game. That would change on that fateful October evening, however, as Alabama found a steel-pulsed kicker and sparked the physical identity that Stallings would fan into championship flame in coming years.
The game began just as it ended…off the toe of Doyle. Tennessee received the initial kickoff, and returner Dale Carter promptly fumbled it away to the Tide. Alabama drove inside the 20 on the legs of Derrick Lassic, but ultimately elected for a field goal. In what seemed an ominous forewarning of the game’s tone, Doyle missed that first chip shot, and Alabama let a golden opportunity slip through its fingers.
Tennessee struck first late in the opening stanza after a shanked Tide punt gave them great field position at the Tide 36. The Vols used their explosive playmakers to drive the ball inside the Bama 10, even utilizing a reverse to offset the Tide’s rapid, aggressive defensive pursuit. However, the Alabama defense rose up on a third and goal and stopped the men in orange, forcing a field goal attempt by Greg Burke that was converted to give the Vols a 3-0 lead with 4:09 left in the first.
Alabama answered with the arm of Gary Hollingsworth and a multi-pronged running back attack that featured the likes of Lassic, Chris Anderson, Robert Jones, and fullback Martin Houston. The drive nearly stalled at one point, but Hollinsgworth kept things alive with his legs, scrambling for a pivotal first down on a third-and-three keeper. Later in the drive, on a third-and-long, Hollingsworth once again came up big, finding tight end Donnie Finklea with a strike to the 22-yard line to convert the first down. The drive sputtered there, but Bama was well within Doyle’s range. The kicker nailed a 30-yarder to knot the game at 3-3.
Both teams stuttered and started for the remainder of the second thanks to tenacious defense, and the score at the half was tied. Alabama began to seize the momentum, however, and with the Vols kicking to the Tide to start the second half, Alabama would have a gilded chance at taking the coveted lead in the SEC slugfest.
Alabama got the ball to open the third and began to march in plodding, methodical fashion. The Tide appeared stumped on a third-and-two, but the Vols made early contact and Bama picked up an easy first to keep the ball moving. Hollinsgworth found another favorite target in tight end Steve Busky, and Bama converted to get within scoring position. Hollingsworth took a shot from inside the 10 on a third down, but the pass was broken up in the end zone, forcing a field goal attempt. Doyle was once again called upon, and the Huffman High alum drove the ball through the uprights from 20 yards out for the 6-3 lead in the third.
The fourth quarter saw a rejuvenated Vol squad come storming back, however, as the defensive battle for field position waged on. Alabama, which had only a single turnover in the game up until that point (compared to UT’s three), made a fatal error with a Jones fumble. The Vols capitalized on the opportunity, and despite a solid defensive stand by Alabama that stalled the Vol drive, Burke’s career-long 51-yard field goal attempt was good to knot the score at 6-6 once again. A mere 10 minutes is all that remained in the fourth quarter.
A few plays later, Carter took in another Alabama punt and rumbled inside Tide territory to the 42. The Vols met a defensive wall, however, and settled for another field goal attempt, this time from 52 yards out. The kick, (which would have marked a new career long for Burke moments after the kicker set a personal best earlier in the game) fell short, and the score remained tied.
After another snuffed Alabama drive that began at their own one-yard line (thanks to a tremendous punt from reserve quarterback Sterling Henton), the Tide punted from their own end zone, giving Tennessee wonderful field position with minutes left to play. Carter returned the punt to the Bama 47. Things began to look grim for the upstart Tide, as it appeared they would suffer the same close-loss fate that had plagued them early in the season.
The Vols put together a few plays at the edges to take advantage of Alabama’s tiring defense, and were moderately successful, moving the ball to the 35 with 2:22 left to play. The drive came to an abrupt halt thanks to a fantastic play by Alabama defensive back Efrum Thomas, who diagnosed a screen pass and punished the Vol back to set up yet another Burke field goal attempt.
Alabama’s special teams, which had already been huge in the game, loomed large once again. The Tide front collapsed the Vol blocking, and Stacy Harrison slipped free on the end on a direct path to Burke. He extended his body, and thanks to the low trajectory of the long kick, the ball hit Harrison in the ribs and bounced to the turf, where Burke tracked it down at the Tennessee 38.
With a chance to win the game in hand, in typical Stallings fashion, the Tide played conservatively. Alabama ran three plays for seven yards to drain the clock and find Doyle’s favored hash position. As the two teams met at the line of scrimmage on what would be the final play of the game, only four seconds remained.
Doyle, who had missed his first attempt at the game, was looking at a 48-yarder…within his range, but on the outer edge of it. After all, the kick he’d missed earlier was a mere 20-yard chip. There would be no second chance, as Doyle had to strike the ball true, with power, if the unranked Tide hoped to upset the third-ranked Vols.
The snap was clean…the hold, good. Doyle did his part, launching a rocket off his toe that split the uprights. The kicker, along with his teammates, erupted in jubilation, scampering across the field, his arms outstretched as to gather in the glory and joy that fell upon him from the scant fans in crimson who had braved Neyland Stadium that day.
Stallings, already an aged gentleman, had a celebration of his own, old-man hopping with his first pumping as the scoreboard rolled to a final score of 9-6.
The Tide had done the unthinkable thanks to Doyle and a vicious defense (led by the likes of John Sullins, George Thornton, and Efrum Thomas) that held the vaunted Vol offense to a mere 175 yards. Vol star back Thompson was held to only 48 yards on 17 carries, and for the second year in a row, the Tide had forced the Vols to juggle their quarterback rotation in hopes of generating momentum against the Bama defense. They had unseated an SEC power, and cleared their way, philosophically speaking, that would lead back to national prominence.
Nothing is as sweet as a victory over an ancient rival in the waning seconds of a game played on enemy turf. But for Alabama, it was a game that sounded the trumpet on what would become an all-too-short reign of terror enacted upon the SEC by Stallings and the men in crimson.
On that afternoon, Alabama proved that it was a winner. The team learned how to win the big game, how to believe with their backs against the proverbial wall. It was a lesson that would serve them well over the next two seasons as the Tide once again climbed the championship ladder and ascended its crimson throne.
It was also a game that settled the Tide faithful and let them know what kind of man was at the helm of the Tide’s beloved program. Though Alabama finished the season at 7-5 with a loss to Howard Schnellenburger’s Louisville Cardinals in the Fiesta Bowl, the Tide would play the next two seasons with only a single loss, including a stunning, dominant championship victory over the seemingly-unbeatable Miami Hurricanes in the 1992 season.
The Stallings years represented a golden time for University of Alabama football, and it can be argued that that groundswell of momentum fell in favor of the Tide in those last few minutes of their victory over Tennessee.
For his role in that great victory, Doyle remains one of the most revered kickers to ever wear crimson, his name considered alongside fellow booters such as the Tiffins, Van and Leigh. He was clutch when he needed to be, and in true Stallings style, he was resilient, refusing to relive past failures when his team needed him. For that, his place in the Tide Hall of Fame is secure.
(To watch the full game and delight in the tears of 100,000 crying Vols, check out this link. To see highlights of the 1990 TSIO in October game, click here. For a slightly shorter iteration of the highlights, check here.)