He doesn't throw picture passes, unless you want to count the ones that hang. As a passer, therefore, you must rank him for getting it there and not for any contributions he might make to the art of flight. Nor does he run with blinding speed or power, only gusto. As a runner, therefore, you might consider him for a demolition derby, but never a Grand Prix. He is not very big and not at all brash and as quarterbacks go he will never be known as Broadway Tom or make the Monday night television team. But Tom Clements, 20, of McKees Rocks, Pa. is at this moment the quarterback of the national champion Notre Dame football team. If you witnessed this emergence—a record 85,161 people in the Sugar Bowl did; some 40 million watching on television did—you saw a happening.
The game was not artful and it was not particularly pretty, and it was decided mostly on imperfections rather than perfect football, but like Clements himself it was certainly to the point. One, to be exact. Notre Dame, an underdog scratching, came from behind three times to beat top-ranked Alabama 24-23, wresting in a flash the championship from the hands of Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide and setting it firmly into those of Ara Parseghian's not-unlucky Irish. A sign popped up in the west-side lower deck of rusting, creaking Tulane Stadium immediately after the issue was decided; "God Made Notre Dame No. 1." God, but with Clements' help.
Forget the dramatics that went on before in this hyperventilation-a-minute battle of two undefeated super-charged college teams. Forget that Alabama had felt set upon from the dawning of the day—it rained when it was not supposed to, and got cold (well, cool), and 53 Alabama team steaks burned up in a kitchen fire at the team's hotel. Forget the breathtaking shifts of fortune that came before Clements' last heroic act. How Alabama fell behind in the first quarter, feeling its way against the intricacies of the Notre Dame attack and the bewildering scaffolds of the Notre Dame defense. How Alabama abruptly gained its considerable composure, and the lead at 7-6, only to lose it back again on Al Hunter's 93-yard kickoff return. And then to take it again at 17-14; and once more lose it, and take it again at 23-21 on a Bryant nifty—a halfback-to-quarterback pass. Forget that as the game wound down the teams tightened up, fumbling the ball back and forth—five times in all.
Forget even Clements' winning drive, a 79-yarder to a field goal that required Old Mediocre Tom to carry the ball himself three times for important gains and to loft a 30-yard floater to Dave Casper to set up the kick at the Alabama nine. "I really thought it was going to be intercepted," said Clements of the pass, and it certainly should have been, as there were two Alabama defenders beside Casper. But homemade signs in grandstands don't lie.
January 6, 1974
Instead, return with us now to the last two minutes of play. The last act of Tom Clements. Alabama has punted 69 yards to the Notre Dame one and is menacing the Irish offense. On third down at the two, Clements hands off to a running back. Oh, no he doesn't. He takes it back, calmly (with gusto), withdraws into the end zone, and spirals a 35-yarder to Tight End Robin Weber who is all alone near Bear Bryant on the Alabama sideline. That was it. Notre Dame ran out the clock. Clements, of course, had the ball when the game ended.
In retrospect, the game will be remembered almost as much for the anticipation it generated as it will for its frenzied denouement. It came in on a wave of inspiration and con, lacking nothing and promising everything. The kind of game, as Bryant said, "You can sink your teeth into." He would know. He had a hold up to his gums. If college football were Dodge City, Bear Bryant constantly would be out in the middle of the street calling for a last showdown. He seemed, in the hours preceding the game, always the coolest man in the crowd—relaxed, composed and quick-witted. And if not exactly cuddly, at least nice.
Asked if it was a distraction to have to talk so much about the national championship, Bryant replied, "At Alabama we always do." But the Bear was relaxed, not asleep. He quietly posted security guards on the players' floors at the Fontainebleau Motor Hotel. No one allowed in without a pass signed by Bryant.
Parseghian's Irish-Armenian nerve endings were more obvious than Bryant's and he was no less precautious. He shooed sportswriters off the field after a five-minute "press conference" the first day in New Orleans, lest they see his team practice, and when he spied an alien figure in the press box during a later session he dispatched a manager to see what the man was up to. The man was up to his elbows installing telephones.
Like the practiced gamesmen they are, neither coach was willing to concede beforehand that the opposition was anything less than immaculately conceived. They showered each other with acclamation. Bryant spoke of Notre Dame's speed, its incredible balance, blah-blah, and Parseghian of Alabama's amazing depth and versatility, blah-blah. The Bear said he wept as a kid when he read about Knute Rockne's death. Ara could find no riposte to that.
Bryant was quoted saying this was "the biggest game in the South's history," and if that was not quite verbatim it did catch his tenderest feelings. (Actually, he said that for his players it was a rare chance, but for him it was no different from any big game. "It's just the next one.")
But the private admission that he was now up to three sleeping pills a night betrayed the depth of Bryant's anticipation. He fled to the sanctuary of his suite at the Fontainebleau whenever he could to escape the swelling tide of Alabama fans pouring into New Orleans. Through the teeming French Quarter opportunism flourished in the form of red-and-white "A" hats and blue-and-gold "ND" buttons. And partisanship ran amok. At an all-night oyster house on Bourbon Street an Alabama woman sang "Hail Mary, full of grace, Notre Dame's in second place," while a Notre Dame man nearby punctuated her chant with cries of "Alabama was made in Japan!"
But for the players, made in their coaches' image, there was no show business, only game business. They did not have to be told why they were not brought to New Orleans until the weekend of the game. A night at Your Father's Mustache was a surfeit of Bourbon Street for the Notre Dame team. No other French Quarter invasions were planned or carried out. Bryant, in a spasm of leniency that surprised even his own coaches, loosed his players Saturday night after the Sugar Bowl banquet, but if any took undue advantage they were inconspicuous. Indeed, it is unlikely that a major bowl game ever had two teams with so singular an itch to get at one another. "I came to Notre Dame for a game like this," Wayne Bullock said, capsulizing the general attitude.
For Parseghian, however, the significance of playing Alabama in a historic first made little impact compared with two more personal things:
One, the confrontation with Bryant. Though he protested otherwise, Ara clearly relished the opportunity, often referring to the "immense respect" he had for the old master, and how they had "common traits," such as a keen appreciation for "field position and the kicking game," a quote that was to prove ironic. Beating Bear Bryant obviously meant something to Parseghian.
And, two, more than anything, it had to represent a very special, very personal vindication for Parseghian. For all his success, Ara had been unable over the years to remove that last flossy shred of doubt that he was capable of winning the really big game—a doubt that should now be way out of date but that intimates say Ara harbored himself since the criticism of his playing for the tie in the 10-10 game with Michigan State in 1966, Notre Dame's last national championship year. It is on the big game that Parseghian's coaching philosophy rests—that and winning the championship—and in one deft swipe at Alabama he accomplished them both. He and Clements and you know Who.