Here, now, comes Alabama. Tough Alabama, terribly swift Alabama, unnaturally persistent Alabama. Alabama always does something right. It is the fourth quarter against Tennessee, and Alabama is being led by a left-handed quarterback named Ken (Snake) Stabler who has ears that get out there and who likes to depress the rear ends of automobiles with wheel-stand fast starts so they can get out there, too—to make his speeding tickets worthwhile.
Once last year, when the Snake was a sophomore, he threw a fourth-down pass out of bounds to stop the clock—against, and to the benefit of, this same Tennessee team. Elephants remember. The Snake forgot that bonehead play almost the moment before he made it. The Snake is a cool one. "You can never tell about left-handed quarterbacks and left-handed crapshooters," says Paul (Bear) Bryant, the Alabama coach.
Now the Snake is trying to drive Alabama 75 yards to the Tennessee goal in the dwindling rain of the fourth quarter at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Stabler's mother is up there in the stands, shivering in her wet, wet clothes, but not budging. Nobody among the 56,368 people in there bumping umbrellas is budging. Mrs. Stabler forgot to bring her umbrella and her raincoat and has sat there drowning for three quarters in the rain storm that came spilling out of the Great Smoky Mountains 45 minutes before kickoff.
The score at this point is 10-8, Tennessee. While the 56,000 are losing their cool, Mrs. Stabler's young son is firmly in control of his, saying calmly in the Alabama huddle at the 25-yard line: "Keep your heads. Just keep your heads. No mistakes, and we'll get it."
October 23, 1966
It had been 10-0 at the half as Alabama fumbled around in the rain and was forcibly made to realize that Tennessee was probably the best team it will see all year. Stabler did not deserve to be so calm—he had not completed a pass in the first half, and Alabama had been able to muster only two drives of 25 yards. But that is another thing Alabama football teams are: nonphobic. Ruffle-resistant. Coach Bryant had walked into the Alabama dressing room at the half, calm as you please, and had begun his instruction by saying, "All right, gentlemen. The first half was theirs. This one will be ours." It was, too.
With nine minutes plus to play and Alabama on its 25, the rain stops, as if Bryant himself had passed a hand across the skies. It is a long way to the Tennessee goal wherever you are on the field, because until Alabama's touchdown about five minutes earlier no team this year had crossed the Vols' goal line.
So Stabler begins. First an incomplete pass. Then a pitchout to Les Kelley, the big running back. He gets six. Third down, four to go. Big down. Alabama cannot afford to give up the ball now. Strategy down.
In the study of opposing teams, football coaches search assiduously for tendencies, for clues to weaknesses. Sometimes when they are playing a friendly rival they search until the last minute. For example, on Friday at Knoxville, as Alabama limbered up on the field, Alabama Assistant Coach Dude Hennessey asked Tennessee Assistant Vince Gibson: "O.K., Vince, it's too late to change now. What have you been doing this week?" "Holding prayer meetings," replied Gibson.
If they are extra sharp, coaches will find that they can sometimes work an opponent's strength against him, as in judo and the wife-husband relationship. In Tennessee's case, the Volunteers' two excellent linebackers, Paul Naumoff and Doug Archibald, tended to take off after potential receivers when they smelled a pass. Alabama figured it could decoy deep with its regular receivers and then throw delays to others floating into the zones from which the linebackers flew. To set up its touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Alabama had gotten an important gain on such a pass to Tight End Wayne Cook, and then a two-point conversion on the very same play.
Now, as before, Stabler picks his spot beautifully—he sends his split end and wingback flying. When the Tennessee linebackers go after them, Kelley, after a moment's delay in faking a block, slips into the unprotected underbelly of the Vol defense, takes Stabler's pass and runs 14 yards to the Alabama 45. Next it is a cross pattern to Split End Ray Perkins, going down and cutting sharply to the middle. Twenty yards and another first down at the Tennessee 35.
No more passes now. Alabama is in field-goal range. Furthermore, it believes it can ram the ball right at Tennessee's slanting, stunting defense. Gene Raburn, spelling Kelley, gets nine yards in two tries. Then, as the Tennessee line pinches to stop the expected plunge, Stabler slips outside for 11 to the Tennessee 15 (the Snake would rather slither than fly, any day). Now Kelley is back, slamming off the left side to the 12, then again to the—oops, the ball pops out of his hands, and on one forward bounce smash dab into the hands of teammate Perkins at the Tennessee seven. Lucky Alabama. Fortunate Alabama.
Kelley now gets the first down in a drive to the five, but in three smacks the Crimson Tide is still a yard short of a touchdown and it is beginning to rain again. Earlier, at the Vols' 45, Tennessee had stopped a fourth-and-one Alabama gamble quite coldly. Bryant decides not to give the Vols a second chance. He orders in his field-goal kicker.
"If you've ever kicked one, kick one now," says Stabler to Steve Davis in the huddle, and to the others: "If you've ever blocked, block now." The snap-back is low, and Stabler momentarily fumbles with it and still has two hands on the slippery ball when Davis swings his foot into it. "It couldn't have been more than a yard or two inside the left upright," says Stabler, and Davis is mobbed by red shirts.
Alabama 11, Tennessee 10. Seventy-five yards in 14 plays, no mistakes. There are only 3:23 to go.
Never before in the 65-year, 48-game history of this famed southern rivalry has one point decided the outcome, but the lead appears safe enough. Tennessee had lost the initiative in the second half, had run only four plays for a minus eight yards in the fourth quarter.
Now for the slightly hysterical, mostly maddening, greatly suspenseful finish. Nobody leaving, please. On an angled kickoff intended to prevent a run-back, Tennessee lets the ball go out of bounds and accepts possession on its 27-yard line. The Tennessee quarterback is Dewey Warren, a fine passer. His understudy at the position is Charlie Fulton. But how are you going to keep Fulton down on the bench, he is so marvelous? Coach Doug Dickey feels it would be a crime to man and the Tennessee fans if Fulton does not get back into the game. Fulton has been playing running back and has already swept the Alabama flanks for 54 yards. "Watch Fulton on a halfback pass," had been a final warning to Alabama's defensive backs.
On first down Dewey passes up the middle, and Wingback Bill Baker makes a diving grab at the 49. New life for the Vols, but now less than three minutes to play and Alabama set up to spike anything that flies over with fewer than two motors. And here comes that pesky Fulton on a pitchback from Warren, apparently heading for the right side. He stops, passes (what did we tell you, defense?) and hits Left End Austin Denney 30 yards downfield, and Denney goes eight more to the Alabama 13. First down, well within field-goal range, and still 1:53 to play.
Now Tennessee goes about setting up for Gary Wright, its field-goal specialist. Fullback Bob Mauriello in two powerful thrusts against a suddenly yielding Alabama middle gets to the two for another first down. But here Tailback Walter Chadwick is piled up, then Mauriello loses a yard and somebody calls time-out for Tennessee with 16 seconds to play.
The time-out was a mistake, Dewey Warren said later. It was the last of Tennessee's allotment, and Warren, entrusted with the decision to call it, says he did not. Whoever did, his timing was bad because the Volunteers were still not in the middle of the field for Wright's field goal try. One more running play would have gotten them there, and then a quick time-out would have completed the setup; now with 16 seconds to play and no more time-outs Wright has to kick on third down, sharp angle right.
The rain has all but stopped; the center is perfect, Warren's placement on the tee is true. Wright's kicks, as Coach Dickey said later, are always straight or bend to the right, never left. This one bends far to the right. It seems to pass directly over the right goalpost and high above it. Dewey Warren thinks it is good. Gary Wright is not sure, because he has his head down, as good kickers do. But their impressions do not count. The referee's does and, after a moment's hesitation and many a sign from the crowd, Charles W. Bowen of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. waves frantically to the right and shakes his head—no good. It takes a lot of guts on Mr. Bowen's part. This is a series that once was suspended when a referee was stoned and chased to the streetcar after an unpopular decision.
So Alabama won 11-10 last Saturday, but there was more relief than joy in the Mudville of the Crimson dressing room. "They play too much like we do to enjoy meeting them very much," said a worn-out Kelley.
"What would you have given for our chances at the half?" said Bear Bryant, leaning against a wall and sucking on a cigar and smiling ever so slightly. "This bunch just hangs in there. They are a good football team right now."
How good? Well, very good. Bryant had said that in two weeks he might consider them very good if everything worked out all right. Beating Tennessee, the toughest part of the schedule, is part of the working-out. Part of it also is the emergence of Snake Stabler as a first-rate quarterback. Part of it, finally, is getting a good, strong (66 yards in 26 carries) running effort from Les Kelley.
Typically, Alabama is small, very fast and proud. And there isn't a school left on the schedule with more than a holler-down-a-hole chance to beat the Tide.
Tennessee, of course, will still be heard from. They are a fine young team, these Volunteers, with a fine young coach who is on the verge, after only three years on the job, of walking with giants. Doug Dickey could even turn out to be Bryant's successor as the best coach in the South, when Bryant retires.