It was December of 1973, my senior year in high school.
I had recently turned 18, making me a “big boy” in terms of voting, qualifying to serve in the military, and a host of other things that being 18 offered. The feds even called me an “adult” and “age of majority.”
Despite this newfound maturity, though, I still cried like a lost puppy the night my Alabama lost to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, 24-23.
I was not the only one.
To be clear, this Tide squad – despite the heartbreaking loss – will always be known as the 1973 United Press International national champions, which at the time was awarded before the bowl games. As a program, we unashamedly and rightfully claim it.
Leading up to the national title tilt, Alabama’s season had been a wild one. Designed primarily for a running attack, the 1973 wishbone offered a little bit of everything. A backfield three and four deep rushed for more than 4,000 yards. Wings were sprouted and more than 1,200 yards were gained through the air. Two NCAA records were shattered, two more were tied, and a total of 454 points (a 41-point per game average) was scored by the powerful Tide offense.
The defense was just as impressive, giving up only eight points per game.
Especially remarkable were Alabama’s triumphs over California, 66-0 (with future NFL stars Vince Ferragamo, Steve Bartkowski, Chuck Muncie, and Wesley Walker), and the 77-6 blasting of Virginia Tech, where the men in crimson set multiple records, including NCAA marks of 748 rushing yards on 63 carries and 833 total offensive yards. Fifty years later, both remain Alabama and SEC records today.
During the 1973 campaign, the Tide outscored its eight SEC opponents 268-70. No conference team came closer than 14 points of this juggernaut.
Statistically speaking, the 1973 squad laid claim to being Alabama’s greatest football team ever.
That’s why the New Year’s Eve Sugar Bowl loss to Notre Dame stings to this day, almost 50 years later.
In a game ABC Television still calls one of the classics in the history of college football, the Fighting Irish claimed No. 1 by only one, 24-23. Notre Dame led at every rest period – 6-0 at the quarter, 14-10 at halftime, 21-17 after three quarters, and 24-23 at the end. But Alabama led three times at 7-6, 17-14, and 23-21.
In his 1974 autobiography “Bear,” Coach Paul W. Bryant wrote:
If you saw that game, you had to believe you were seeing football the way it ought to be played, college, pro, or whatever. I understand people had heart attacks watching it, and one Alabama sportswriter (Herby Kirby of the Birmingham Post-Herald) died in the press box right after. We sure don’t ever want football to be that exciting, but the comments I heard were mostly how good the game was for college football, having two fine teams with great traditions play to such a thrilling finish.
At 18 years old I sure didn’t have a heart attack that dreadful night, but tears sure flowed freely.
Last weekend, our Athletics Department and the A-Club honored this 1973 team at its 50-year reunion, first at a reception Friday night at the Bryant Museum, then Saturday in the A-Club Room and on the field prior to the LSU game.
As 1973 national championship rings flashed around last weekend’s venues, there were no tears and no lamenting the results of that rainy night in New Orleans. Only laughter, smiles, and hugs ruled the gatherings. Stories and tales were told; some were even true. Autographs were signed, photos were taken, and lifelong memories were recalled … and made.
And finally, almost 50 years later, even my tears are gone.
© 2023 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved