For Bear Bryant and his Alabama Crimson Tide, last weekend's trip to New York was supposed to be a laugher. Friday's itinerary for the 68-man traveling squad included a tour of the Big Apple. Then on Saturday, for some real fun, the whole bunch would bus over to New Jersey's Meadowlands to play Rutgers University in a football game. That's right, Rutgers. Said Alabama kickoff specialist Tim Clark, "I first learned there was a Rutgers when I read it on the schedule before the season started."
Alabama-Rutgers did look like a mismatch. The Crimson Tide went to The Meadowlands riding a 25-game winning streak, ranked No. 1 in both the polls and well on its way to a record third straight national championship. The Scarlet Knights, on the other hand, still mix it up with a few of the Ivies, and they had never before played a No. 1 team, unless you count Lehigh, which was to become No. 1 in Division II even after losing to Rutgers back in 1977. The joke around Giants Stadium last week was that Penn State wasn't No. 1 when Rutgers played it to open that 1977 season, but the game sure gave the Nittany Lions a boost in that direction. That was the last time Rutgers had played a big-name opponent in the regular season in The Meadowlands, and at halftime of that game the Scarlet Knights trailed 38-0.
Well, a funny thing happened out there in the Jersey marsh last Saturday. As expected, Alabama won, but it certainly didn't win as expected. Which is to say that the final score was 17-13, and Rutgers could easily have come away with a tie had it not been for a mental boo-boo by the Scarlet Knights' coach, Frank Burns. At the end it was the Rutgers fans in the crowd of 58,107 who were standing and cheering as their team went down to defeat. And why not? In a curious twist, the loss should boost Rutgers' hopes of breaking into the Top 20, while Alabama's inability to squash this upstart should cost it voting power in the polls. It was Bryant who offered the best summation of the topsy-turvy affair. "We won the game," he said, "but Rutgers beat us."
If the result was disappointing for Bryant, it wasn't as bad as the first time he went to New York with an Alabama team. That was in 1933 when he was a sophomore end and the Tide suffered its only loss of the season, 2-0 to Fordham in the Polo Grounds. "That was the first time I'd been to New York and it was a big deal for me," Bryant said last week. "We came up on a train and got to see a little of the town. I remember large buildings."
That memory was one of the considerations that led Bryant to schedule last Saturday's game with Rutgers. "Most of these kids have never been to New York," he said. "They're from rural communities like I was. I like to take them places." On Friday morning he sent them on a 2½-hour bus tour of the city. They crossed the George Washington Bridge, rode past the United Nations and the Empire State Building and on down to Battery Park, where they disembarked to take a look at the Statue of Liberty. "What they really noticed, though," said C.D. Tatum Jr., the school's athletic business manager, "was old native New Yorkers—those winos with their bottles and the drunks lying in the gutter. They'd seen all those things in pictures and in the movies, but they thought that was just playacting."
Bryant himself passed up the tour. "I've been here plenty of times," he said, "and when I come to town I stay in my hotel and only go out to do my business. I'm afraid to walk those streets alone." No matter. New York came to the Bear. On Thursday night the Giants' head coach, Ray Perkins, an ex-Bryant player, visited him. Friday night it was Sonny Werblin, who owned the Jets when they signed Joe Namath out of Alabama, ran The Meadowlands for a while and now heads up Madison Square Garden. That same night George Steinbrenner offered to send a limousine to bring Bryant to the Yankees-Royals playoff game, but Bryant declined. "Bear'll stay home like he always does," said Alabama Assistant Athletic Director Charlie Thornton. "He doesn't want to get up here and be bigdogging it and overlook some detail."
It was Werblin who initiated the idea of a Rutgers-Alabama matchup back in the mid-'70s. Bryant was staying at Werblin's home in Golden Beach, Fla. and Sonny was showing him the architect's drawings for The Meadowlands, which was then under construction. "I can't wait to see Alabama play Rutgers in this stadium," said Werblin, who until recently was a trustee of the New Jersey school.
"You've got to be crazy," said Bryant. "Our schedules are made up 15 years in advance."
"Well, I know nobody would be stupid enough to turn down a game in front of 78,000 people at $10 a head," replied Werblin.
"Say those numbers again," said Bryant, and the game was on. Alabama dropped two games against Miami to make room on its schedule. Eventually Alabama agreed to a flat guarantee of $100,000 for Saturday's game, a top-rate visitor's check, and it will give Rutgers the same when the Scarlet Knights visit Birmingham next year. In both cases the home team makes the real bundle. It's a profitable marriage.
Being able to play a game or two a year in Giants Stadium has been an important factor in building up the Rutgers football program. That program has been steadily on the rise since 1971, when Dr. Edward J. Bloustein became the school's 17th president and urged a new emphasis on athletics. Bloustein authorized full grants-in-aid for athletes. Previously, the school had only given scholarships on the basis of financial need. He also started a campaign to promote the fact that Rutgers is The State University of New Jersey, a move he hoped would stem the outward flow of top prospects from the country's eighth most populous state—people like Franco Harris, Joe Theismann and Drew Pearson. In 1973 he brought in Burns, who was known as Flinging Frank when he quarterbacked Rutgers in the mid-'40s. Burns won six games that year, seven the next, and has never won fewer than eight since. In 1976 his team led the nation in defense and was undefeated, untied and uninvited to any bowl game. Rutgers got its first postseason bid in 1978, losing to Arizona State in the Garden State Bowl 34-18. Upgrading has had its occasional embarrassments, like the 1977 Penn State fiasco, but the Scarlet Knights have shown progress. Last year they traveled to Knoxville and upset Tennessee 13-7. "That got our attention," says Bryant. "Shirley Temple teams don't do that."
With another strong defense and a talented thrower in senior Eddie McMichael, who had completed almost 70% of his passes, Burns' 1980 team was off to a 4-0 start. That looks swell on paper, but the opponents were Temple, Cincinnati, Princeton and Cornell. There was a lot of worry in New Brunswick last week that Rutgers might not be ready for a truly major league power like Alabama. "When I was told six years ago that we would be playing Alabama in 1980," says Burns, "it didn't bother me a damn bit because I figured by that time I'd be fired."
It was Bryant who best expressed what Rutgers stood to gain last Saturday. At a press conference on the eve of the game he said, "If Rutgers beats us, I think their program's made. Everybody—alumni, administration, coaches, players—will jump on the bandwagon." Not that Bryant ever considered losing. There was a strong suspicion that while Bryant said he had brought his team north to see New York he had also come north to let New York see his players. As the team's best defensive performer, End E.J. Junior, put it, "It's exciting to play in New York in more ways than one. The press can see you in real life, and a good performance can be convincing when it comes to poll time. And if you're thinking of individual honors, a good performance can help out. Like Coach Bryant says, 'It's where everything starts.' "
Bryant's trademark is self-deprecation, and he habitually poor-mouths his teams, but he sounded convincing at the Friday press conference when he said, "We're not a well-disciplined team, and I thought by this time we would be. This team is not even close to last year's." He lost nine of 11 offensive starters from that team through graduation, and he has been hard hit by injuries. For the time being he has made do with sheer numbers, always a strength at Alabama. He interchanges two complete offensive lines, and against Kentucky two weeks ago he used five quarterbacks and 16 running backs. He uses so many players, in fact, that in the opener against Georgia Tech his top runner, Major Ogilvie, carried just one time. Saturday against Rutgers he ran the ball six times.
Ultimately, Alabama beat Rutgers only after being forced to abandon what it does best—run the ball—and start throwing. The Crimson Tide had averaged more than 42 points and 397 yards rushing per game to lead the nation in both categories. But against a defense that ranked fourth in the country in stopping the run, Alabama found itself with a narrow 10-6 lead midway through the third quarter and going nowhere.
Bryant was not surprised. Analyzing Rutgers beforehand, he had emphasized its strong rushing defense, but then added, "If they won't let us run, they've got to let us pass. We can complete the pass in a one-on-one situation." Now, as Alabama took possession on its own 28-yard line, Bryant ordered the pass. At that point Alabama quarterbacks had thrown seven times without a completion, but on first down Don Jacobs threw a perfect strike to Split End James Mallard near the left sideline for a 23-yard gain. Not surprisingly Jacobs decided to come right back to Mallard. This time he called a "26 belly pass," a play in which Mallard heads downfield, then slants across the middle instead of cutting out toward the sideline. As Mallard sped past Cornerback Dan Errico, however, he saw Safety Mark Pineiro stationed well to the inside. Instead of turning in, therefore, he sprinted on for the end zone. Jacobs lofted a perfect pass, and Pineiro could not recover. "I saw the ball," said Mallard afterward, "and I thought, 'It's the only ball up there. I'm the only one out here. It's my ball.' " He gathered it in and raced the rest of the way untouched for a 49-yard touchdown. That two-play, 72-yard, Jacobs-to-Mallard drive ultimately proved the difference in the ball game.
Rutgers wasn't willing to fold, however. The Scarlet Knights had scored the game's first points on a 44-yard field goal by Alex Falcinelli. That was the longest kick of Falcinelli's career and marked the first time all year that Alabama had trailed in a game. Falcinelli added a 39-yarder less than two minutes before the half. In between, though, the Crimson Tide had taken the lead on a 23-yard field goal by Peter Kim, who was born in South Korea and paid his way to Alabama after one year of kicking for the University of Hawaii, and a seven-yard run by Billy Jackson. Mallard's touchdown made the score 17-6, but on the first play of Alabama's next possession Jacobs fumbled the ball away at the Alabama 24-yard line. Two plays later, on a nine-yard swing pass from McMichael to Tailback Albert Ray, the Scarlet Knights narrowed the score to 17-12.
It was at this point that Burns had his mental lapse. He ordered a one-point conversion, narrowing the gap from five points to four, a meaningless difference. A successful two-point conversion would have put Rutgers within a Falcinelli field goal of the Crimson Tide. Asked about that decision after the game, Burns said, "I blew it."
Rutgers knew it had to throw the ball against Alabama, and McMichael went into the game ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency. The Tide countered by blitzing him heavily. "On our pass patterns we don't usually keep our backs in to block," McMichael said afterward. "When they saw our backs leave, they would send somebody in after me. It seems like I always had two face masks staring me in the face when I was trying to throw." Under that constant pressure McMichael was able to complete only two of his last nine passes, and Rutgers netted just nine yards in the fourth quarter.
Still, the Scarlet Knights got one more good chance midway through that quarter when Ken Smith returned an Alabama punt 40 yards, crossing the entire width of the field in the process, to give Rutgers a first down at the Tide 33-yard line. Just six yards would put Falcinelli in his 44-yard range, but now, of course, a field goal would do no good. McMichael tried to pass and on third down was sacked for the fifth time in the game. In all he was trapped behind the line six times for losses totaling 80 yards, and that statistic, more than any other, explains how the Crimson Tide dodged an upset.
Afterward, an Alabama cheerleader posed outside her team's dressing room with a red sign with the number 301 in white numerals on it. That is the number of wins Bryant now has. He needs just 14 more to pass Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg to become the winningest collegiate coach of all time. But inside the locker room Bear didn't feel much like a winner last Saturday.