Stabler Remembered For Run In Mud

On Dec. 2, 1967, I sat in the wind and rain in the upper deck at Legion Field and watched Alabama defeat Auburn with one of the most memorable plays in Crimson Tide football history. It is particularly noteworthy to me because I have personally witnessed almost every Alabama football game since then, but that was the last in which I was in the stands.

A few years ago I wrote a book that was supposed to be the 50 greatest plays in Alabama football history. After I had done all the work, the publisher decided to change the name of the book to “Game-Changers: The Greatest Plays In Alabama Football History,” and about 15 of the plays were deleted. One that was not eliminated, though, was what I would consider to be among the top five. On that cold, wet, windy December day, Kenny Stabler made a sensational 47-yard run on swampland to give the Crimson Tide victory over Auburn.

Kenny Stabler died Wednesday, but his magnificent effort on that run will live forever in Bama lore.

Here is the story of that Run In The Mud:

Auburn linebacker Gusty Yearout was friend of several Alabama football players. In the summer he worked out with Tide tailback Frank Canterbury at Ramsay High School in Birmingham, where the two had been teammates. Yearout was Auburn captain and met at midfield for the coin toss. Quarterback Kenny Stabler represented the Alabama seniors, who all served as captains for the Auburn game.

“Back then the coaches taught you to hate the opponent,” Yearout said. “I was intense and competitive anyway, so I had worked up a real hate for Alabama going into the game. As we went out for the coin toss, I put on the meanest, hardest look I could. I meant to intimidate Stabler from the start. I was trying to stare Stabler down, the referee was trying to introduce the captains, and Stabler was talking.

“He said, ‘Hey, Gusty. What are y’all doing after the game? We’re having a party at the Bankhead [Hotel]. We’ve got plenty of beer. Y’all come on over.”

“I guess it made me mad that my intimidation wasn’t working. Finally I stammered, ‘What room?’”

Yearout and some of his teammates joined Stabler and company at the party.

The level of celebration by Stabler is not recorded, but it’s safe to say that he was being celebrated by a host of Alabama followers. Alabama had defeated Auburn, 7-3, because of one magnificent run in almost impossible conditions. A heavy rain in Birmingham had turned Legion Field into a sea of mud. The field was used throughout the fall for college and high school games, and by December 2 there was scarcely a blade of grass.

Presumably some spectators left the stadium early, but the vast majority stayed to the end. The rain was unpleasant and inconvenient. Tornados in the area could have proved disastrous.

Alabama eschewed the pass for most of the day. Stabler, one of the most effective passers in the nation, threw only five times, completing three for a mere 12 yards. Alabama had only five first downs and total offense of only 176 yards. Indeed, Alabama had only one meaningful offensive play, but that was enough.

Field conditions were a factor from the opening kickoff. Literally. Alabama elected to kick off, but Tide defenders were slipping and sliding. Eddie Propst had a touchdown-saving tackle for the Tide.

Auburn problems with field goals were instrumental in Alabama’s win. The Tigers got close to the Alabama goal five times, but managed only a third-quarter field goal by John Riley for all their efforts. One first half Auburn field goal try sailed wide to the right; another was short owing to a poor snap.

As a result, Auburn made two questionable coaching decisions. In the second quarter, Auburn had fourth-and-goal at the Alabama three-yard line and tried to run. Stopped at the one. Later in the half the Tigers tried a run on fourth-and-two at the Alabama seven, and again the attempt failed.

Other Auburn errors played a role in Alabama winning. Early in the fourth quarter, an apparent Auburn first down at the Bama 15 was wiped out by a penalty. Moments later the Tigers were forced to punt. The Auburn punter was unable to handle a low snap and had to fall on the ball, giving it to Alabama at the Tide 46.

Halfback Tommy Wade went at left end for five yards, then up the middle for two to the Auburn 47. On third-and-three, Stabler called an option right. There was, however, no option.

“They had been making me run all day,” Stabler said of the Auburn defense. “I made up my mind there would be no pitch. I was going to run that one.”

Run he did. He picked up blocks at the corner by tight end Dennis Dixon and fullback David Chatwood, and as he made his way downfield, Stabler pointed out a target for Dennis Homan. Homan made the block.

Stabler, a left-hander, carried the ball in his right arm, the arm away from pursuers. He directed blockers with his left hand. His run went down the Alabama sideline and into the end zone. Steve Davis kicked the extra point. It was Alabama’s longest running play of the season, the longest run in Stabler’s career.

“Give Dennis Homan credit for most of it,” Stabler said. “He threw the big block. All I did was run.”

There was still 11:29 remaining in the game, but considering the conditions, an Auburn touchdown was unlikely, and wasn’t to be.

Alabama linebacker Bob Childs intercepted two Auburn passes in the final minutes, and Davis had a key punt for Alabama, a 55-yard effort that went to the Auburn six.

Punting had been a strategic weapon for the Tide. When Alabama had the wind in the fourth quarter and trailed by only 3-0, Bryant said he thought Alabama would win. “I didn’t think anyone was going to put together a long drive under those circumstances, so we kept kicking on third down. I thought for a while there I might have played it too close to the vest, but I guess the percentages haven’t changed.”

Bama punted throughout the game. “We punted on third down when we had the wind, because the punt was our best weapon,” Bryant explained. “We waited until fourth down against the wind because we didn’t want Auburn to have the ball with the wind at its back.”

Bryant said, “I think everybody on both sides tried as hard as they could. There were lots of big plays. But the prettiest one I saw was Stabler’s run.”

Alabama would go to the Cotton Bowl to play Texas A&M. An interesting guest on Alabama’s sideline for the Auburn game was Gene Stallings. Stallings had played and coached for Bryant at Texas A&M, been an assistant coach at Alabama, and was head coach of the Aggies. In 1990 he would be head coach at Alabama.

A day after the game there would be a complaint from Auburn Coach Ralph Jordan that Dixon had “tackled” Yearout on Stabler’s touchdown run. Alabama Coach Paul Bryant said he didn’t see that. “If there was holding, it should have been called,” he said. “But I wasn’t officiating.”

Ken Stabler

Kenny “Snake” Stabler was an All-America in 1967. He played on teams that compiled a 28-3-2 record (1965-67) including a perfect 11-0 mark in 1966. He was winner of the Miller-Digby Trophy as most valuable player of the Sugar Bowl as he completed 12 of 17 passes for 218 yards and rushed for 40 yards in a 34-7 win over Nebraska. He was SEC Player of the Year. He and Joe Namath were selected as quarterbacks of Alabama’s Team of the Century. Stabler was selected by Oakland in the second round of the NFL draft. He had been a first-round Major League Baseball draft pick by the Houston Astros, but turned that down for the NFL. His 15-year NFL career was with Oakland, Houston, and New Orleans. He was the winning quarterback in Super Bowl XI. He served as color man on radio broadcasts of Alabama football.

“We ran more today than we usually do, but it would have been stupid to throw the ball under those circumstances. I expect those were the worst field conditions I’ve ever seen a football game played in. This late in the season, Legion Field is the worst field in America because of all the high school and college traffic it has on it.”

–Paul Bryant, Alabama coach

“It still amazes me the number of people who will tell me about seeing the run in the mud. The details of the rain and wind, umbrellas turned inside out, clothes ruined, and yet they stayed to watch. I hear this virtually every day from some Alabama fan. I listen to the whole story because it is a thrill for them and it is a great feeling for me that they remember.”

–Ken Stabler, Alabama quarterback

“I’ve been around long enough to know that the only thing that counts is what you read on the scoreboard lights. But I don’t think the best team won.”

–Ralph Jordan, Auburn coach

“It was about time I threw a block. That was the first one all year.”

–Dennis Homan, Alabama wide receiver

Game Details:

Alabama 7 • Auburn 3

Date: December 2, 1967

Location: Legion Field, Birmingham, Alabama

Attendance: 71,200

Team Records: Alabama 7-1-1, Auburn 6-3

Team Ratings: Alabama 8, Auburn NR

Score By Quarters:

Alabama 0 0 0 7 -- 7

Auburn 0 0 3 0 -- 3

Scoring Plays:

AU Riley 38-yard field goal

UA Stabler 47-yard rush (Davis kick)

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