By great and undeserved fortune, I Was There that day at Memorial Stadium along with almost 51,000 others. I had to be; it was my job. I was a brand-new alumnus in my first year as assistant sports information director, making…well, let's say that the salary A.D. Carl Maddox budgeted for low pup on the SID totem pole probably wouldn't pay a week's interest on what Dan Mullen makes today. Not that I knew much better, a Jones County farm boy presented with the unimaginable privilege of being paid—however little—to attend Bulldog games. That I still am, albeit in a rather different role and for a few more dollars, says something about the addictive nature of my profession.
But maybe moreso, about the impact of that day. I mean, that was also my first Mississippi State-Alabama football game. Really. What a way to begin, huh?
Fear not, this won't be a complete recapsulation of the game itself. Space doesn't permit, and I've got basketball to attend to as well today. But we couldn't let the 30th anniversary go unnoted. So I'll simply share a remembered snapshot or two, and get to a larger point of sorts.
I will also do a little stage-setting for the large, probably now much larger, portion of readership who Were Not There. And, explain the constant capitalizing; it reflects the famous sticker printed probably within hours of the final horn and borne by more bumpers in this state than there were seats at the stadium. If any of you know where one is that can still be read, hurry, take a pic and post it! But then most of those bumpers long ago went to the wrecker's yard.
Emory Bellard was in year-two. The first had not gone well, a 3-8 season crippled by early-year injuries at running back and quarterback; by trying to force-fit an entirely different offensive scheme, the true Wishbone that Bellard himself invented in 1969, on players not signed for it; and the lingering program trauma caused by the spectacular and largely self-inflicted crash and burn end to the Bob Tyler regime. State has not had a coach/AD since, nor will it ever again. Old LSU hand Maddox was hired out of retirement to salvage an athletic program sooooo close to fiscal collapse only a few deepest insiders knew the entire story. I'm not among that number, thankfully.
Maddox's first job was to hire a coach, and former Texas A&M coach Bellard was chosen over, do you remember, Bobby Collins. The mind now boggles what might have happened had the choice gone otherwise; State and not SMU could have become the first NCAA death penalty target, though we'd have done some winning before that.
Bellard's wishbone wasn't a huge first-year success, but some fine pieces were there. Tyler had left a heckuva list of linemen, running backs, and ends (split and tight alike) who didn't get much use in year-one as all the Dogs did was run. The defense, now, that was already well-stocked everywhere. You kids are seeing a good defense here in 2010; and a generation ago the Joe Lee Dunn squads of 1998-99 were justly celebrated. But I'll tell you without hesitation, the 1980-81 defenses would have whipped them all. At the same time. And I don't just say that because they were and are friends, they were that good. All Bellard needed was a true option-triggerman, and a revised scheme that had at least a semblance of a passing threat.
Enter John Bond…though to be fair, fellow frosh Timmy Parenton was very nearly as good and would never get a real chance to show it with J.B. locked as starter all four years. Well, not the first two games; anyone here recall Robby Mink? But after two wins Bond took over and the wingbone was on the way. Right, wingbone; Bellard recognized a pure ‘bone wasn't enough any more and a slot sort of receiver was needed. He had the perfect guy for the job, too, in back Danny Knight. So Bellard ‘broke' his bone with one of the halfback jobs slotted out behind a tackle; and either Michael Haddix (still maybe the best all-around MSU back of my tenure) or George Wonsley as the pitch man behind Donald Ray King or Henry Koontz at fullback. Oh, and behind that brutal line of Kent Hull, Wayne Marris, Roman Grace, and I'm gonna make guys mad for not using all names but space is again shortened. And that doesn't include tight end Jerry Price to block, since Mardye McDole and Glen Young ran the deep routes.
There were hiccups along the way, including a lopsided home loss to a vengeful Collins' crew. But at Miami, everything clicked and Bond ran a naked-bootleg to seal a victory that in a year or two was recognized as big-time, given what the ‘Canes were becoming. The real turning point was a fourth-down, goal-line stand against Auburn in Jackson…and a week later that same goal line would host bigger history.
I wrote a longer account of the game in a 2005 D.B. for the 25th anniversary. The main notes: Bellard really did tell his defense the week before he'd invented the wishbone and he knew how to beat Alabama's version. By the way, Bellard can be credited, or blamed if you wish, for extending Bear Bryant's career by teaching Alabama the wishbone for 1971; just as he'd helped Oklahoma before. (I often wonder if Darrell Royal could have patented his offensive coordinator's '69 invention?) And State had the hosses to do it; victory would hinge on the offense making something happen.
Well, no touchdowns were scored that Saturday. Nor needed. It only took a series to see this was a heavyweight brawl of two teams ready to play their way and not adapt an inch. Oh, what a physical battle, the likes of which we don't see these days of ‘skills' and ‘blow up' hits. Every lick laid was a blow up, except everyone bounced right back up and hit back. Hey, they didn't know any better back then, football was supposed to hurt.
When Alabama booted a field goal (close on to 50 yards I recall) before halftime, there was an audible sigh in the grandstands. First that the bad guys had scored; second that they'd only scored three. Who knew that would be all Alabama's points? Then State's offense began grinding away, aided by fine punting that gradually tilted field position sufficiently where Dana Moore could kick first one, then another field goal in the fourth quarter.
Being in the lead lent an almost frantic air to every Dog the rest of the way, which is not always a good thing but in this case worked perfectly. Alabama was so desperate on their last possession, they—gasp!—began throwing the ball. And it worked with a series of completions putting the ball on the two-yard line in the final minute. At that same goal line as a week before.
Y'all have surely memorized the film clip as it's now shown prior to each MSU home game at least a couple of times. Of Alabama quarterback Don Jacobs taking the snap and going right, a textbook wishbone sweep. Of Tyrone Keys lunging his full 6-7 or so length over the Alabama blocker, his height proving just enough to stick Jacobs in the gut and rattle the ball free. Of Billy Jackson, pursuing from behind, falling on the fumble. Of sheer hysteria on and off the field.
But it wasn't quite over, and what few saw clearly—including us in the press box—was the last necessary snap. See, as Hull lifted the ball for the hike, the Tide nose guard slapped it. Legally, perhaps, if Hull moved it off the ground long enough; but no ref was about to throw a flag. And D.Ray saved them from having to make any such decision by saving the fumbled snap that shot by Bond and into the end zone. King even scrambled across the goal as time ran out…
…and the naturally-anxious officiating crew ran off, for the safety of their locker room. I'm not sure I've seen a sweeter sight in the 30 seasons since than that flock of zebras dashing through the right-side gate by the end zone, because it meant it was done. The score was final.
The Dogs had won.
By the way, three days later a Jackson TV crew came to campus to shoot a clip for national use. Bellard was setting up his shot as Hull told me about those frantic finals seconds, and when Kent said that Alabama had slapped the ball Emory's head jerked around with a "What?!" Funny how even the combatants involved don't always know all the details.
But the images that remain clearest to this then-kid happened after the game; following the locker room (they were open in those innocent days) interviews as myself and Mr. Bob Hartley got giddy players to still-startled reporters who'd never dreamed they would have such a story fall into their laps. No, kids, the game wasn't televised, amazing as that now seems. Nobody nationally gave the Dogs a chance after 22-straight losses in the series. Sports Illustrated had nobody shooting the game either, and only Jack Cristil's brother in law was known to have shot any color slide film of the game. One of his shots would make the next issue.
Anyway, word came from the press box that ABC-TV would gladly speak with Emory via phone. Again, kiddies, this was pre-cels, when phones were wired to a box. The nearest available was in the stadium office above the locker room, and Mr. Hartley tasked young me with getting Bellard there. After waiting for him to clean up, suit up, and light up that omnipresent pipe, that is.
Finally ready, I led Coach out the locker room door, looked to the left…and froze. There had to be a couple-hundred ecstatic fans peeking around the building corner already, which mean thousands more were on the hillside behind. Even a first-year SID knew there was no way, nooooo way I'd ever get the coach through that throng in under an hour. What to do?
Simple. I turned to lead Bellard in the other direction.
Through the still-stupefied crowd of Alabama faithful, unable to grasp much less accept what had just happened.
Yes, I confess, there was a tinge of anxiety at what I was attempting. If one over-the-top Tider lost control, something bad could very, very easily have happened. And even now all these years later the stares and glares remain vivid. Just about everything else that has, and has not, happened over my ensuing career has been worth the seconds-that-seemed-hours escorting the winning Bulldog coach through a tidal pool of shocked loathing.
It. Was. Wonderful.
And still is, along with recalling the sight of Emory leaning back in the stadium manager's chair, putting boots up on the desk, adjusting the pipe, and beginning his talk to a national TV (audio only, sadly) audience with "Well, podnuh…"
A few hours later with the press box just about empty and all field lights off, my work almost done, I went up to the second floor for a moment to lean out an open window and let loose a most unprofessional whoop of elation. Which, oddly, was echoed by a lingering stadium maintenance crewman on the other side of the field. Then it was time to drive back to Starkville where I found a campus littered with impromptu confetti (OK, toilet paper stacks tossed in celebrations that had ended by then). Oh, and not all seemed thrilled. A campus security cop pulled up to my car and asked what I was doing driving around. Just looking for the celebrating, I said. Officer Jerk said and I quote "There's no celebration going on here." What is it about the official mind that can't abide others having a good time on their watch? I still wonder about that incident and what it says of petty human nature. Maybe John Law was just grumpy he had not been There is all I can figure.
Now it's exactly three decades in the rearview, but still the biggest page in most Dog diaries of the day. And I agree, it isn't entirely fair. Several generations of State students and fans will pass without any moment of remotely similar significance. I try not to ‘pull rank' too often now when a younger fan will talk about the latest big MSU win as ‘biggest' or ‘best' because, and they don't and can't know. It's the job of us who Were There to tell them what really was the biggest and best. Just as it was the task of them who came before me to recount Army 1937, or the 1941 SEC Championship, as B&B Dog days. In fact it's kinda scary to realize today's fans are not that much more removed from 6-3, as I was those other MSU milestones in 1980. Times for sure flies.
Yet…the best thing about history is it just keeps accumulating. Which means that with a lot—a lot—of Bulldog luck, there just might come a time when we witness the next and newest MSU milestone moment. I mean something seriously great, beyond a bowl game or Division title (co-title if we're being honest about '98). See, 1980's greatness was in large part due to alllllll the years of frustrating losses to one overBearing opponent; as well as their then-exalted status. Neither such situation holds today. Nobody dominates the Dogs that way any more, and no SEC team is ever going to dominate to such a degree again. The league has grown up and we're all better, richer for it.
Which also means that MSU now has resources Maddox couldn't have dreamed of, and legitimate possibility of achieving what has only been done once in 111 years. Not this year; Dan Mullen didn't know that State can't win the West on tie-break in 2010 and play a (down) East champ for the real title. Yet we know now that it is possible. Mississippi State is putting pieces in places to have a chance, a chance, at aiming for what would be the ultimate moment.
Because remember, there was no Bulldog Sugar Bowl for the 1941 team. So the dream remains…and should it come to pass you can stick a I Was There bumper sticker on my forehead.