Sugar Bowl Matters To Tide Football

For those who have followed Alabama football for any length of time, the issue is the national championship. That is so remote a possibility this year as to be inconsequential. But that does not mean that this is an insignificant bowl game as some have intimated in the wake of the Andre Smith suspension.

Alabama is the nation's bowl team. Once upon a time, before the Sugar (which is being played for the 75th time tonight), Orange, and Cotton, and way, way before such things as Fiesta and Weedeater, there was only the Rose Bowl. And from the South came the Crimson Tide, expected to be a sacrificial lamb to the powers of the West Coast. Unbeatable Washington was a prohibitive favorite against Coach Wallace Wade's 1925 Bama.

Alabama's performance in the Rose Bowl--not just that 20-19 win over Washington, but following successes against Washington State and Stanford and USC--until Bama had a 4-1-1 record made the Crimson Tide a national power. When the Granddaddy of Bowls became a closed shop to the Pac-10 and Big Ten following Alabama's 34-14 shellacking of Southern Cal in the 1946 event, Bama moved its reputation to other bowls.

You can see it in New Orleans this week. Bama and big bowls go together.

The inherent problem with the BCS system is that the national championship will come only from the final game. That was not always the case. When there was a Big Four being played on New Year's Day (January 2 if New Year's fell on a Sunday), there were all sorts of possibilities.

The Rose Bowl was not the only bowl that aligned with conferences. The Cotton was the province of the old Southwest Conference. Later the Orange made an alliance with the Big 8.

In 1973, Alabama was number one in the nation and Notre Dame was number three. The two most famous college football teams had never played. Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant, nearly a decade from retirement but already established as one of the all-time greats, was the bowl puppeteer. The Orange, particularly, wanted Alabama.

One of Bryant's best friends was Aruns Callery, a member of the Sugar Bowl committee. When Bryant made his decision, he said, "This one's for you, Aruns." He took the game to New Orleans and revitalized the old bowl game that was played in Tulane Stadium.

Bryant's bowl influence cannot be over-stated. Ray Melick of the Birmingham News shared a story he heard from a Big Ten writer about Penn State's Joe Paterno. Following Penn State's undefeated regular season run in 1978, Paterno wanted to take a day to himself. He told his secretary he was not to be disturbed, that he was not taking calls from anyone. A moment later he returned to his secretary's desk and said, "Unless Coach Bryant calls. Then get me even if I'm in the bathroom."

Bob Devaney, the legendary Nebraska coach, told the story of his bowl arrangements courtesy of Bryant. Devaney said that Bryant called him after the 1965 season, when Nebraska was ranked third in the nation and Alabama fourth. "He said we should get together in the Orange Bowl, which was played at night, and that one of us might sneak into the national championship," Devaney said. Alabama was a decisive winner, much more so than the final score of 39-28 indicates, and with other upsets in the day, Alabama won the national championship.

The next year, Devaney continued, the Associated press made a convoluted decision to decide the national championship before the bowl games and give the title to Notre Dame, which didn't go to bowls in those days. Bryant called Devaney and suggested the two get together and just have a nice time in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama won 34-7.

A few years later, when both teams were down a bit, Devaney said Bryant called and suggested since nothing was on the line that they go to Memphis and play in the Liberty Bowl, another bowl where Bryant had close friends. "I told him to let me get back to him," Devaney said. "As soon as I hung up I called the Sun Bowl and set up a game against Georgia."

If these were the days of the old conferences and old bowl alignments--and Paul Bryant--Alabama would not be playing in the Sugar Bowl. Florida would be the representative to the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma the Big 12 representative in the Orange Bowl, Texas the SWC champion in the Cotton Bowl, and USC and Penn State in the Rose Bowl. And Bama would be meeting Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, hoping for a series of events to win the national championship.

In 1975 the first Sugar Bowl game was played in the Louisiana Superdome. The game matched Bama against Penn State with the Tide taking a 13-6 win. Later that year, the Sugar Bowl and SEC announced a pact whereby the SEC champion would be the Sugar Bowl host.

Bryant's blessing probably wasn't absolutely necessary to the deal, but it helped that he endorsed it. He said, "It may not be good for us (Alabama may have needed to play somewhere else to win a national championship, Bryant thought), but it's good for the conference."

Every bowl is important to Alabama. Tonight Alabama plays Utah (kickoff 7 p.m. CST with television coverage on Fox) in the Sugar Bowl.

It will be Alabama's 56th bowl appearance, which is an NCAA record (Texas is second at 48). If Bama can win, it will be the Tide's 32nd bowl victory, also a national record.

Alabama already holds the record for most Sugar Bowl wins with its 8-4 record in previous games. The Tide ties homestate LSU for most appearances in the Sugar Bowl at 13 with this game.

One other number of significance is 800. Because the NCAA took away eight Alabama victories with its sanctions against the Tide, Bama has had to do extra work to get to its 800th victory, which it will do with a win tonight.

And regardless of final ranking, if Alabama can get a victory tonight, its record will be 13-1, and no team in the nation will have a better record. It would be Bama's second 13-win season in history, the other coming in the 13-0 national championship season of 1992 (which concluded with the Tide's last Sugar Bowl appearance).

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