Championship Tide Made Him A Fan

Fifty years ago, I became an Alabama football fan.



I was 16-years-old (just four days shy from turning a year older), still in high school, and my father, who was an employee for A&P Tea Co., was a meat market manager in the Bessemer store. Being a meat cutter, he was friends with the owners of The Bright Star, and also of R.L. Zeigler's sales staff. Occasionally, one or the other would give him Alabama football tickets.

My first taste of national championship football came in January 1962.

I held a part-time meat clerk position at A&P, and had a few dollars saved up. My father asked me a few days before the 1962 Sugar Bowl if I would like to go.

"How much money do you have?" he asked.

I told him about a $100.00

"Do you want to go to the Sugar Bowl?"

We loaded up in a red beetle Volkswagen and within a matter of hours headed for New Orleans. Dad had two tickets to watch the No. 1 Crimson Tide play No. 9 Arkansas for what would eventually give Alabama its first national championship under Paul "Bear" Bryant.

I didn't know it then, but I do now. It could have been an Alabama-LSU match up. Sugar Bowl organizers would dearly have loved to have gotten unbeaten, top-ranked Alabama and once-beaten No. 4 LSU together at Tulane Stadium on New Year's Day. No matter that, as was the practice in those days, The Associated Press and United Press International polls were closed at the end of the regular season and that both had declared Alabama the national champion, the first of six Bear Bryant won at his alma mater.

In the pre-BCS era of 1961, LSU vs. Alabama in the Sugar Bowl would have been about as close as could be gotten to fashioning such a decisive postseason match up. It wouldn't have been a rematch, either, because they had not played each other in the regular season. Also, the Football Writers Association of America was waiting until after the bowls to vote on the Grantland Rice Award, which also carried national championship status. That award eventually went to Ohio State.

LSU Coach Paul Dietzel, still miffed at being manipulated into a Sugar Bowl rematch with Ole Miss two years before, declared his team was going to the Orange Bowl to face No. 7 Colorado.

The Sugar Bowl wasn't Alabama's first choice, either.

Bryant, who counted being a member of Alabama's 1935 Rose Bowl team among his favorite memories, dearly wanted the Tide to play in Pasadena.

Indeed, Alabama's football legacy had been built around its six previous Rose Bowl appearances, including the first one in 1925, when the Tide got the invitation to play Washington after Tulane rejected the bid and is still referenced in the school's fight song.

But a campaign led by Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray tied the team to the negative image created by segregation policies and violence, such as the attacks that spring on the Freedom Riders.

So Sugar Bowl President George Schneider, former president Sam Corenswet and his son, Sam Corenswet Jr., who was the bowl treasurer that year, attended the Alabama-Auburn game at Legion Field in Birmingham to make the official invitation after the Tide's 34-0 Iron Bowl victory in 1961.

There was also considerable support for fifth-ranked Ole Miss, whose national title hopes were ended by LSU, 10-7. But Rebels Coach Johnny Vaught, whose teams had played in the Sugar Bowl the previous two years, was going to the Cotton Bowl to meet No. 3 Texas.

The remaining choices were limited.

No. 9 Arkansas, the most attractive available team, got the invite for the 1962 game.

And the game was a close one, albeit low scoring, with the Tide winning 10-3.

Those were the first points Alabama had allowed in six games. Opponents scored just 25 points against the Tide all season. It was a defensive battle that mirrored LSU's 9-6 Nov. 5 victory over the Crimson Tide this year. Talk about comparing past Alabama defenses with the 2011 version, the 1961 team would rank up there among the best.

The 1962 game was the start of a solid relationship between the Sugar Bowl and Bryant. In the days before the bowl was tied to the SEC, he brought his teams to New Orleans seven more times, winning six. It is fitting that Alabama won its 14th national title in New Orleans nearly 50 years to the date.

The thing I remember most about the experience of going to the Sugar Bowl to watch the Tide play was where we slept.

With limited funds, a hotel or motel was out of the question. My father decided to sleep in the Volkswagen in a shopping center parking lot. It was cold, but my dad kept the engine running with the heat full blast. I cuddled up in the back seat while he took the front. Don't know how much sleep I got, but dad slept well, snoring even, after visiting Bourbon Street a few hours before.

On game day, I forgot to bring a warm coat. We sat up high in Tulane Stadium and the wind coming off Lake Pontchartrain cut right through us. Dad gave me his coat, and he kept warm by sipping on a bottle of Jack Daniel's.

That was the day, January 1, 1962; I became an Alabama football fan.



John Wayne Cargile is a former sportswriter who has written a mystery novel, "The Cry of the Cuckoos." It is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and Books-A-Million.com. The website is www.thecryofthecuckoos.com

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