ND-Bama … Memory Lane Up in the Headlights

“Memory Lane up in the headlights,
It’s got me reminiscin’ on them good times.”

Dirt Road Anthem (click to listen)
(Jason Aldean 2011)

Could Notre Dame and Alabama play for a national title this season?

It’s still doubtful (mainly because ND probably will not win out), but the Irish and Tide have me reminiscing on them good times – of December 1973.

That New Year’s Eve, those two teams played what was – and remains – my favorite college football game (just edging out the great Nebraska-Oklahoma 1971 Thanksgiving Day classic). A crowd of over 85,000 filled old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans and saw two unbeaten teams battle to the final whistle with Notre Dame pulling out a 24-23 victory and laying claim to the National Championship. (A note on rankings in 1973: the UPI or “Coaches poll” still announced its champion at the end of the regular season – and ranked Bama #1 with the Irish #4; the more popular Associated Press (AP) or “Writers poll” waited until after the bowls and named ND champion). The UPI started holding its final ballot after the bowls the very next season.

Even though I was a Georgia boy, not a Catholic, and had never been north of Kentucky best I can remember (other than being born in Dover, Delaware, and living there a few weeks courtesy of the US Air Force), the Irish held a special place in my sporting soul (still do). Thank the great Lindsey Nelson for that affection. Like scores of thousands of others, I watched and loved the old Notre Dame football replays on Sunday mornings featuring the plaid-clad Nelson and the Golden Boy Paul Hornung. Those of you who don’t remember pre-ESPN days should realize most Saturdays offered only one college football telecast, with the occasional national-regional double feature. So, the team I got to see the most on that old Zenith was Notre Dame … and the Irish always seemed to be ahead by forty points as Nelson switched to further action, his signature line. (An aside – years later I would date a pretty girl at Georgia a couple of times – named Lindsey Nelson! A few years after that, in grad school at Tennessee, I got to meet the real deal when Mr. Nelson spoke to a sport history class – he lived on a bluff over the Tennessee River – what a man).

The fact that a whole slew of my cousins and an uncle or two ate, drank, and slept Alabama football also had my adrenaline flowing for the ’73 Sugar Bowl. If my (admittedly fading) memory serves me, I made a long-distance call to the Heart of Dixie to gloat just minutes after Irish QB Tom Clements calmly hit TE Robin Weber with a long-pass from the ND end zone to ice the game. Long-distance calls were nothing to take lightly in those days, but my mother let me have my fun. I don’t think any other football score has ever been so much fun since.

Aside from personal interests, the game held broad national implications too.

The two schools had never met on the football field. Many southern football fans, and Alabama fans in particular, chafed at what they saw as preferential treatment in the polls for Notre Dame. More people in northern cities, more television and newspaper exposure, more northern sportswriters with big-city biases, all those factors rubbed Bama and other southern fans raw. And there was 1966 of course.

That season the Irish were voted national champs after finishing the season with a 9-0-1 record that included a tie at #2 Michigan State in the next to last game of the year. Alabama finished 10-0 (and then won the Sugar Bowl over Nebraska), but still finished #3 in both polls. Want to start a fight in Alabama? Bring up that vote.

While the ND-State tie is long-remembered, the fact that the Irish won at Oklahoma and then crushed USC 51-0 in the season finale is often overlooked. Guess where Notre Dame plays this weekend? Guess where the Irish finish the season? Yes and yes … Oklahoma and USC.

I don’t think it will happen. I doubt the Irish can handle the Sooners on the road this weekend. I question whether ND will be able to stave off the future NFL squad at the LA Coliseum. They are too young, too fragile, too accustomed to losing big games the past decade or so.

But, oh just savoring the possibility for one more week … the Irish got me reminiscing on them good times.

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