You can feel the electricity in the air!" cried the commercial running nonstop on every radio station within shouting distance of Greater Washington, D.C. last week. "Maryland vs Alabama! See the greatest football spectacle ever staged in this area!"
"Listen to that crowd!" screamed another announcer calling himself Howard Bosell and doing a simulated play-by-play with all the appropriate sound effects. "Fifty thousand fans! The largest crowd to ever attend a college game in the state of Maryland! The Alabama quarterback drops back to pass! Randy White nails him for a 13-yard loss! Listen to that crowd!"
"All-America Randy White, are you badder than old King Kong?" asked a cheerleader on a TV spot showing the massive tackle sitting in the stadium while the rock-'n'-roll ditty Bad, Bad Leroy Brown thumped loudly in the background. "No," said Randy, trying to hide a blush, "but I'm meaner than a junkyard dog."
"We've only just beeegun to wiiinnn," sang an off-key chorus of Terrapin players in yet another video pitch.
There was in fact no escaping the hard-sell bombarding the airwaves, the newspapers and the billboards (SEE THE TERPS PULL THE PLUG ON THE CRIMSON TIDE). Russ Potts, the U of M hustler responsible for the "Return to Glory Campaign" as well as a program that is so jam-packed with ads that it rivals the Washington telephone directory for sheer heft, offers an explanation that must qualify as the understatement of the month: "We're not at all shy about commercialism."
The aggressive enthusiasm of Potts and the 9,500 new season ticket-holders who have bought his line can be forgiven, for the Terrapins actually have a quality football team to peddle. Indeed, not since the glory days of the mid '50s when Jim Tatum's boys were national champions one year and 10-1 another, has there been such an epidemic of pigskin fever in College Park, Md. and environs. The reason for all the raucous behavior is the performance of Coach Jerry Claiborne, the soft-spoken perfectionist who came to Maryland's rescue two seasons ago after he was fired by Virginia Tech for allegedly committing the high crime of "dull football" and sentenced to one year of hard labor as an assistant at Colorado.
Unlike some fickle Virginia Tech fans, Maryland Athletic Director Jim Kehoe remembered that Claiborne won more games (61) than any coach in Tech history and had six straight winning seasons before slipping below the break-even mark in his last two years with the Gobblers. Kehoe hired Claiborne to replace Roy Lester, whose remark at one preseason press conference—"We have a lot of experience, players experienced in losing football games, that is"—might have been funny if it were not so painfully true.
In Claiborne's first season at College Park, the Terrapins, who had spent the previous five years losing 42 of 51 games, finished 5-5-1. Last season they were 8-4 and earned their first invitation to a postseason bash (a 17-16 loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl) in nearly two decades.
Bear Bryant had no idea that Maryland was going to get so tough so fast when he called Kehoe in 1970 and said, "How'd y'all like to play a game of football?" The Tide had not taken on the Terrapins since a 21-0 drubbing it suffered way back in 1953, and Bryant, obviously taking note of Maryland's plight in the years since, was looking for a nice pleasant warmup game to kick off his 1974 season. The Bear likes to open with a breather; it was at Maryland in 1945 in fact that he began his head-coaching career with a game against Guilford College that, he recalled recently, "scared me to death" and "I just knew we were going to lose." What he didn't mention was that his Maryland team buried poor Guilford 60-6.
So coming to College Park to play a team that is ranked in the Top Twenty was as much a surprise for Bryant as the fact that he was going to have to match wits with Claiborne, a former defensive back who played and coached under Bryant at Kentucky and was on his staff at Texas A&M and Alabama as well. "We scheduled this game a few years ago as a sightseeing trip," Bryant admitted last week, "but now we are going up there to play a football game." Claiborne himself best summed up the meaning of the drama when he said, "It will be a real challenge to our team. We will see just how far our program has progressed in two years."
A convention of surveyors from several foreign countries who were meeting in the nation's capital ordered 500 tickets to the game. But when they were informed that the U.S. version of football is not soccer, as they had presumed, they returned most of their tickets. Maryland, which tacked 15,000 extra seats on to Byrd Stadium to accommodate the record crowd of 54,412, had little trouble filling the vacancies. It was a pity, though, that the surveyors did not show up for they would have seen a sterling exhibition of what the strange pastime called college football is all about.
When on the eve of the game the M.C. at a Washington Touchdown Club luncheon said that Maryland needed all the extra tickets it could get to seat "the 5,673 players Bryant is bringing up here," Claiborne replied that "we don't have 70 players to put into a game. So we'll play 40 or so and hope for the best. I think the fourth quarter will be very significant." Later, when told that Alabama's fresh hordes were so proficient at sustaining their attack that in the final quarter last season they outscored their opponents by the margin of 147-26, Claiborne leaped from his record book to show that his 1973 team had enough staying power to better its rivals by a 114-26 margin.
Soon after the game began it looked as if it might be over well before the fourth quarter. After winning the toss, Alabama rolled 73 yards in 11 plays to score on a seven-yard blast by Calvin Culliver, a fleet fullback who sped past the Terrapins like the proverbial hare. In one series of plays in the second quarter he cracked over left guard four times in a row, his final effort resulting in a 73-yard dash that put Alabama ahead 14-0. Maryland gamely tried to rally but the Alabama defense, headed by End Mike Dubose and Tackle Charles Hannah, who is taking over where his All-America brother John left off before joining the New England Patriots, was having none of it. Sputtering out when it counted most, the Terrapins had to settle for two long field goals by Steve Mike-Mayer, a Hungarian whose kicking style would have been recognizable to the surveyors and whose older brother Nick does the same thing for the Atlanta Falcons.
With Culliver piling up 154 yards in the first half, the Tide looked all but unstoppable. Any prospect of Maryland breaking the Alabama tradition of strong finishes was quickly dismissed by one Southern journalist. "It's like tryin' to eat turnip greens with a spoon," he drawled. "There ain't no way to do it."
But there was. Claiborne's remedy of crisscrossing his tackles and ends on the defensive rush, for example, cut off Culliver so effectively that he gained but a scant 15 yards in the second half. Randy White and Linebacker Harry Walters were also harassing 'Bama Quarterback Richard Todd to the point that he turned erratic, most glaringly when he tried for a coffin-corner kick and the ball traveled only seven yards.
Bryant has come to expect the unusual from Todd. When he first saw him play, he said, "If he gets the little things down, he will be the greatest quarterback ever at Alabama. And he's going to get them down or I'll choke him to death." The Bear was ready to do exactly that when Todd, who inherited the starting slot after the No. 1 quarterback, Gary Rutledge, suffered a shoulder separation in a scrimmage two weeks ago, faked a punt and ran on fourth and five deep in his own territory. But Todd picked up a crucial first down. "I wouldn't have done it," Bryant said later. "But that's why he's our quarterback and I'm just stupid."
After Mike-Mayer added a third field goal to make it 14-9, Todd recovered his cool long enough to engineer another touchdown, but the gritty Terp defense kept snatching the ball back. On the second play of the fourth quarter Louis Carter rammed into the end zone, again narrowing the margin to five points. The key play in the drive came when Terp Quarterback Ben Kinard faked a beautifully deceptive handoff and ran for 23 yards to the Tide seven. Carter's touchdown made it 21-16 and so it remained as Alabama let the clock run out on a long and difficult afternoon.
For Maryland, a two-touchdown underdog to one of the nation's highest ranked teams, the answer to Claiborne's question about how far his team has progressed was very far indeed. For Alabama the reaction of Assistant Coach Bud Moore was typical. When someone remarked that the Tide met a pretty good football team, Moore said that considering the rough working over Alabama got, "I hope they're a great team."
Claiborne was in no mood for consolation talk. Shaking his head in the locker room, he said, "Ed rather play bad and win. I'm not the kind of coach who wants to play a close game."
Looking ahead to a schedule that includes Florida, Penn State and North Carolina State, Claiborne is hardly the sort to be unrealistic. "It's very possible that we'll have a better team this year but a worse record," he said.
For the moment, however, the last and most telling words belonged, as usual, to Bear Bryant. "We won the game," he said, "but we certainly didn't beat anybody."