I have a fond memory of the first time Alabama and Oklahoma met in football, an Orange Bowl game at the end of 1962. The most recent meeting between the Crimson Tide and the Sooners, in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2013 season, was most disappointing.
That said, it might seem strange that my most memorable Alabama-Oklahoma game was the third of the three bowl games between those two, and in most respects the least meaningful. At the end of the 1970 season, Alabama was 6-5 and relegated to the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston’s Astrodome. Oklahoma (7-4) had been so desperate after its loss to Texas that the Sooners had switched midseason to the wishbone offense.
Both, though, were the same big names they are today, and the AstroDome had a record crowd, standing room swelling it to 53,812.
The game had plenty of offense – Alabama 229 rushing and 199 passing for 428 yards and Oklahoma 349 rushing and 66 passing for 415. Johnny Musso had 27 carries for 138 yards and Scott Hunter passed for 174 yards on 13-26 passing.
Musso and Hunter also teamed up on a trick play touchdown pass, the left-handed Musso taking a pitchout to the right and then throwing back to the slow-afoot Hunter, who took it 25 yards for a touchdown with just under eight minutes to play. That gave Bama a 24-21 lead.
It came down, though, to a pair of field goal chances.
With 59 seconds to play, Bruce Derr hit a 42-yard field goal to tie the game.
Alabama responded with a quick drive after recovering an onside kick. Musso went 21 yards to the 19. Two plays later, with five seconds to play, usually dependable placekicker Richard Ciemny had a 34-yard field goal to win it. He snap-hooked it left and the game ended in a tie.
After the same, Alabama Coach Paul Bryant said, “Oklahoma ran up and down the field on us for awhile, because we didn’t know much about stopping that wishbone offense.”
Which brings us to why this is my most memorable of the five Tide-Sooners contests.
I was in my first season in the sports information office. The day after the game the team plane took us back to Tuscaloosa. I was sitting on the right hand side of the plane in an aisle seat and Coach Bryant was just in front of me and sitting on the aisle on the left side.
I had a clear view as he worked during the flight home. He had his usual legal pad and fountain pen and was drawing up the wishbone against various defensive alignments. I assumed he was doing due diligence, looking at the offense the Sooners had run in order to be able to defend it more efficiently in the event there was another game against a wishbone triple option team.
That may have been his thought, and it also may have been the planting of a seed. He surely realized the offensive advantages of the wishbone. Still, it would not take hold until the following August. That’s when Bryant told his staff, “We’re going to sink or swim with the wishbone.”
Both Alabama and Oklahoma were swimming the next season and beyond. In 1971 both wishbone teams went 11-1 and had graduated to major bowl status, Bama to the Orange and the Sooners to the Sugar. Both of their losses had been to No. 1 Nebraska.
That 1970 Astro-Blluebonnet gamewas not the first Alabama vs. Oklahoma bowl meeting.
In 1962. much of the attention on Alabama had to do with the Tide having successfully replaced Pat Trammell, who had quarterbacked Bama to the national championship the previous year. The new man was sophomore Joe Namath, and Bryant had proclaimed him “potentially the finest quarterback I’ve ever coached.”
Alabama had followed up its undefeated 1961 season with a 10-1 record, a 7-6 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta the only blemish.
There was great excitement in that President John Kennedy attended the game. He was an admirer of Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson and Kennedy went to the Sooners lockerroom prior to the game to wish them luck and then sat on the Oklahoma side. After the game, Alabama said that had given the Tide motivation.
Following the game the talk was not of Kennedy or Namath or Bryant or Wilkinson.
This was the Lee Roy Jordan game. The Alabama middle linebacker was credited with 31 tackles in Alabama’s 17-0 win over the Sooners.
Later Jordan would say the game “was a tremendous highlight of my football career,” which included being All-Pro with the Dallas Cowboys. But, he added, “I think I was credited with a little more than I actually accomplished.”
Those two bowl games – a win and a tie – are the only good results for Alabama against Oklahoma. The Sooners have won three straight games and have a 3-1-1 record against the Tide, including 1-1-1 in bowl games.
The most recent meeting at the end of the 2013 season is one of the 20 losses Alabama has suffered in the 12 years under Coach Nick Saban (who has 145 wins in that period).
After winning national championships in 2011 and 2012, there were high hopes for the Tide in 2013, but Bama stumbled in the final game of the regular season, losing to Auburn, and in the process losing the opportunity to play for a third consecutive national title.
The Sugar Bowl was Bama’s consolation prize that year, and there was concern prior to the game that it would be a letdown for the Tide.
Although Saban’s post-game statement in answer to a question about the mindset of the team was “it looked like we had some who played like they didn’t want to be there,” he did not use that as an excuse, and certainly didn’t say (as some have said) that Alabama didn’t want to be in the Sugar Bowl.
Regardless, it was a sloppy effort in New Orleans against the Sooners. Alabama lost three fumbles and had two passes intercepted, more than off-setting Alabama’s 516 yards of total offense compared to OU’s 429. The Sooners took a 45-31 win, the final score coming with 47 seconds to play when a Tide fumble was recturned for a TD.
On the good side, freshman running back Derrick Henry rushed 8 times for 100 yards and a touchdown and took a pass short 61 yards for another TD in a losing effort.
The two regular season games between Alabama and Oklahoma came during tumultuous times for Crimson Tide football, a period of NCAA probation. The first came in the final season of Dennis Francione’s curious two-year reign as Bama coach in 2002, the other in the first year of Mike Shula’s tenure in 2003.
Alabama would go 10-3 in 2002. The second game of the season was in Norman, and it started poorly for Bama. The Sooners had a 23-3 halftime lead, but the Tide scored three touchdowns and a field goal in the second half.
Bama’s defense had regrouped in the second half and the Tide offensive line dominated OU in the comeback, but Oklahoma finally put together an 80-yard drive and took the lead back at 30-27 with just over two minutes to play.
Down to its last chance for a miracle comeback, Alabama drove to the Oklahoma 43, but quarterback Tyler Watts ost control of the ball on a pass call and Oklahoma picked it up and returned it for a touchdown.
Alabama had 224 of its 288 yards of offense in the second half and the Sooners were minus 23 yards in rushing offense as the Tide sacked Sooners quarterbacks Jason White (who suffered a knee injury) and Nate Hybl six times.
Oklahoma came to Tuscaloosa in 2003 as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team and left with a 20-13 win. White was back at quarterback and completed two long touchdown passes for the win. Bama trailed 13-3 at halftime and had it dfown to 20-13 late in the game before failing to recover an onside kick for the last hope at victory.
For Bama, Brodie Croyle completed 24 of 42 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown, but suffered two interceptions.
It was one of Alabama’s best efforts in that 4-9 season.
The Tide will be trying to break a three-game losing streak at the hands of the Sooners when No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 4 Oklahoma at 8 p.m. CST Saturday, Dec . 29, at the Orange Bowl, the semifinal game for the College Football Playoff.