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’Tis The Season…Thoughts About Alabama And Bowl Games

In the late 1970s when I was in the sports information business at Alabama, I attended the annual summer CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors Association) convention and workshop in Atlanta. I was one of the few who drove to Atlanta.


One of the most famous and competent men in the SID business was Don Bryant, known to journalists and others as “The Fat Fox” or “Foxy,” who was at Nebraska. This was at a time when Bob Devaney was having extraordinary success as head football coach of the Cornhuskers. Bryant had convinced Devaney to speak at the Atlanta convention.


Knowing I had a car, Bryant asked me to take him to the airport to pick up his head coach. After Bryant introduced me, Devaney – who had a tremendous sense of humor, a dry wit – had a story to tell me regarding my coach, Paul Bryant.


Devaney said that Coach Bryant had called him during the 1965 bowl manipulation season – something the Alabama coach was famed for. “He told me that the only way either one of us could win the national championship was if we went to the Orange Bowl and played each other,” Devaney said.


Alabama was ranked fourth and Nebraska third at the end of regular season play with No. 1 Michigan State playing UCLA in the Rose Bowl and No. 2 Arkansas playing LSU in the Cotton Bowl.


As it turned out, UCLA upset Michigan State and LSU did the same to Arkansas and that night the Orange Bowl game between the Tide and Cornhuskers became the national championship game.


“Alabama beat the hell out of us and won the national championship,” Devaney continued.


“The next year they (the Associated Press) changed the rules back to where the bowl games didn’t count in the national championship race because [No. 1] Notre Dame didn’t go to bowl games and the Big Ten rules prevented [No. 2] Michigan State from going.


“Bear called me and said, ‘Bob, they’ve rigged the poll where neither of us can win the national championship, but I’ve talked to my friends in New Orleans and they promise me that if we’ll play in the Sugar Bowl they’ll show us a great time.’


“We went to the Sugar Bowl and Alabama beat the hell out of us.


“A few years later, neither one of us were very good and Bear called again. He said that since we couldn’t win the national championship, we ought to go play in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, that he had talked to his friends and they promised they’d show us a great time.


“I told him I’d get back to him. I picked up the phone, called the Sun Bowl, and we went down there and beat the hell out of Georgia.”


Devaney wouldn’t have cared and I didn’t tell him that the first bowl game I had ever seen in person was as a fan, that Orange Bowl game at the end of the 1965 season. The 39-28 Tide win is remembered for things like tckle-eligible passes from Steve Sloan to Jerry Duncan and successful onside kicks and (for me) the nice performance by my high school friend and Bama tailback Frank Canterbury.


I fell in love with the entire bowl experience. When the late Al Browning, who had worked for me at ’BAMA Magazine in between stints as sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News and Knoxville News-Sentinel, wrote his book, “Bowl Bama Bowl,” he asked me to write the foreword. After telling him I thought he should call it “Bowl Tide Bowl,” I began the foreword with something cheesey like, “Alabama football goes with bowls better than corn flakes.”


It’s the time of year when I have bowl memories beyond just the games.


Paul Bryant
Bowl games were very big to Paul Bryant (Photo: Bryant Museum, 247Sports)

We’ve all heard that bowl games were meant to be “rewards for a good season.” The late Billy Neighbors, one of the all-time great linemen in Alabama history, didn’t see it that way. He was a member of Bryant’s first Alabama signing class. In his first year of playing in 1959, Neighbors remembered Bryant having a team meeting in which he said that Bama was going to be invited to the new Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia if the team voted to go.


Neighbors said the players realized it would mean another few weeks of spring training type practice. “I don’t know of one player who voted to play in the bowl,” Neighbors said. “Coach Bryant had all of our votes and went through them and then announced that it was unanimous, that we were going to the bowl game.”


That Liberty Bowl game was the first of 24 consecutive bowls for Alabama under Bryant.


This is not the place for me to go through a littany of Alabama bowl games. Two Sugar Bowls stand out – the 1978 team beating Penn State and the 1992 team of Gene Stallings defeating Miami to win national championships. The Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 1982 as the Bryant Era ended, certainly, occupies my memory bank.


Lately, though, the national championship games – first the BCS games and now the College Football Playoff contests – have superceded the bowl games, though the CFP includes the bowls in its semifinal games.


Alabama will play against Oklahoma on Dec. 29 in the Orange Bowl, while Clemson will meet Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl the same day. But then winners go to Santa Clara, Calif., — that bastion of college football interest — to play in the championship game.


Following the 2009 season, Alabama went to Pasadena to play Texas for the BCS national championship. The game was IN the Rose Bowl, but was not THE Rose Bowl. Thus, it seemed, the Tide had a chance to win the national championship with a 14-0 record (which happened) and not have added to its all-time bowl record.


I was visiting with some reporters – Ivan Maisel from ESPN, Dennis Dodd from, Tony Barnhart from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — before the game and posed the question: Is this a bowl game?


The consensus answer was that it was not. The Rose Bowl had already been played. This was a post-season game.


And that’s how the game is listed in today’s accounting, under the umbrella of “Bowl Games and Post-Season Games.”


No team has been more successful in bowl/post-season games than Alabama. The Crimson Tide has played in more of them (65 bowl games, 3 BCS title games, and 3 CFP championship games) than any other. Alabama has also won more than any other (38 bowl games, 3 BCS, 2 CFP).


Bama was the first team to win all of the traditional Big Four (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton) and the only team to win all of them at least three times. Later the Fiesta Bowl bought its way into the big four with the Cotton Bowl dropped, but today those five plus the Peach are part of the new Big Six, the games incorporated into the CFP scheme.


There are 41 bowl games available for the 130 major college football teams, meaning that every year there are teams with no better than a .500 season are “rewarded” with a bowl game.


From the standpoint of players and fans, there are some bowl games that don’t play into the national championship scheme, but which are well thought of for their hospitality, including the Sun Bowl in El Paso, the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, and – believe it or not – the Birmingham Bowl.


For years the Rose Bowl – the Granddaddy of bowl games – was head and shoulders above all others, but after Alabama defeated Southern Cal, 34-14, following the 1945 season, the then Pac-8 (which owns the game) elected to close up shop. Only the representatives of the Pac-8 and Big Ten would participate.


Coach Bryant, who had played in Pasadena for Bama in UA’s 1935 Rose Bowl championship and was a Tide assistant coach on the 1937 team that suffered Alabama’s only loss in the game, wanted desperately as Alabama coach to have the Tide invited to the game. In 1966 there was a thought that Alabama might get the invitation since the Big Ten’s best team, Michigan State, wasn’t eligible.


It didn’t happen. Many believe that Jim Murray, the influential columnist for the Los Angeles Times, was instrumental in the Rose Bowl not taking Bama because in those days the Tide was an all-white team.


Just part of the spectrum of Alabama bowl history.

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