Just because Alabama coach Bill Curry has squeezed every drop of potential from his hard-luck team, received a vote of confidence from the university president and finally beaten one of the Bear's boys on the road, we shouldn't assume that life is finger-lickin' good for the man who is destined to be known forever as Chicken Curry in College Station, Texas. To the contrary, should the Crimson Tide lose to Army in the Sun Bowl on Christmas Eve, the squawking you hear will be 'Bama diehards again preparing feathers (and tar) because they think Curry is too dang disorganized and too dang pure. To put it another way, they think he's too dang Georgia Techish, Tech being the school where Curry went 31-43-4 over seven seasons before arriving in Tuscaloosa in 1987. For the moment, however, the clucking has subsided, thanks to the Tide's resounding 30-10 victory over Texas A & M last Thursday night.
The game may have been Jackie Sherrill's last with the Aggies. As both coach and athletic director at Texas A & M, Sherrill presides over a program that has been on NCAA probation the past three months. Then on Nov. 18, George Smith, an Aggie fullback in 1982 and '83, alleged that Sherrill had paid him to keep quiet about rules violations during that period.
All of last week Texas newspapers and radio and TV stations were reporting that Sherrill, an All-America Alabama linebacker under Bear Bryant in the 1960s, would resign immediately after the game against the Crimson Tide. At week's end, however, his name was still on his office door.
Perhaps Sherrill couldn't bring himself to depart on such a sour note. Without starting quarterback Bucky Richardson, who was out with torn ligaments in his knee, Texas A & M sustained its worst home defeat in six years and only its second at Kyle Field in 26 games. Though beaten by a superior team, Sherrill couldn't resist the urge to point out that "it's unfortunate we had to play when we did."
December 12, 1988
The game had been scheduled for Sept. 17, around the time Hurricane Gilbert was marching toward the Texas coastline. Fearing that his players' safety would be jeopardized by flying in the vicinity of the storm, Curry decided to keep the Tide at home. When the weather that Saturday in College Station came up sunny, breezy and in the 70s, Chicken Curry became more than just an item on restaurant menus.
The makeup date of Thursday, Dec. 1 wasn't especially pleasing to either side, coming as it did after traditional season-ending donnybrooks for them both. Alabama had lost to Auburn the previous Saturday, while Texas A & M had beaten Texas on Nov. 24. But Dec. 1 was the only date that the schools and ESPN, which had the TV rights to the game, could agree on. The chamber of commerce in College Station, hoping to make up for some of the lost revenue from the canceled date, dubbed the game the Hurricane Bowl, and local businesses did their best to capitalize on the event.
Back in September both teams had lofty expectations. However, after a 3-0 start, the Crimson Tide staggered in to play the Aggies with a 7-3 record—which included a 22-12 loss to Ole Miss—injuries having claimed tailback Bobby Humphrey, 'Bama's Heisman Trophy candidate, and defensive back Gene Jelks, its best athlete. Texas A & M was lucky to be 7-4, after beginning the season 0-3, and getting sacked by an NCAA probation that banned them from appearing in a bowl game this season. Then last month The Dallas Morning News reported that Smith said he had received a series of payments from Sherrill to buy his silence. One $500 payment, said Smith, arrived in an air-freight envelope only four days after A & M went on probation.
The day after the story appeared, Smith flew from Atlanta to College Station and held a press conference to recant the statements he had made to the Morning News. Smith said that Sherrill had been "like a father" to him, and explained that the money was nothing more than a loan to help him get on his feet. Smith also said that Sherrill had referred him to someone who might help him land a job.
Fearing that the Aggies would be distracted from the matter at hand—beating TCU on Nov. 19—athletic director Sherrill kept coach Sherrill off the sidelines during A & M's 18-0 win over the Horned Frogs. He returned for the game against Texas, even though the university had begun an in-house investigation of the Smith affair.
The NCAA decided to see what the school uncovered before launching an investigation of its own. "Call me cynical," wrote Barry Horn in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Call me incredulous. But don't call me and tell me an Aggie judge and an Aggie jury is going to find an Aggie coach guilty of paying 'hush money' to an otherwise forgotten two-bit runner named George Smith. Talk about Aggie jokes."
On the other hand, with the NCAA looking over its shoulder, Texas A & M can hardly afford a whitewash. If either the school or the NCAA finds more infractions, the Aggies could get the dreaded death penalty, which stipulates that the offending college can't field a team for at least a season. So by the time Alabama arrived in College Station, rumors were flying that, win or lose, Sherrill would announce his resignation after the game.
On the morning of the game, 'Bama called a press conference of its own. The purpose was to respond to an ESPN report that a group of Tide boosters was raising $2 million to buy out Curry's contract. Roger Sayers, Alabama's interim president, and Winton (Red) Blount, the chairman of its board of trustees, announced not only that they would honor Curry's contract next season but also that they had extended it through 1992. "To quote a recent candidate for president," said Blount, "read my lips: His contract is not for sale."
The Hurricane Bowl festivities included a dance and a king-and-queen contest. The original game programs were sold, albeit with updated inserts, and a bowl-like atmosphere prevailed in College Station. Nevertheless, the crowd of 59,152 was about 13,000 shy of capacity, leaving the schools to haggle over how much 'Bama would have to pay A & M to make up the loss in revenue. All the seats had been sold for the Sept. 17 date.
Once the game got under way, Sherrill found himself plagued by another Smith—David, the Alabama quarterback. If the game had been played in September, D. Smith would have missed it with an injury. Ever since, Aggie fans have been accusing Curry of being less afraid of Hurricane Gilbert than of playing A & M without Smith. Curry denied the charge. Yet, as the season unfolded, it became obvious that Smith was perhaps more important to the Tide than either Humphrey or Jelks. Without him, Alabama failed to complete a single pass in 11 attempts against Mississippi.
Last week, with Smith mixing play-action passes with runs by tailbacks Murry Hill and David Casteal, the Crimson Tide marched 75 yards on its first possession to take a 7-0 lead. After the Aggies' Scott Slater made a 49-yard field goal, Alabama's Philip Doyle connected twice, from 39 and 42 yards, to give the Tide a 13-3 advantage at halftime.
Texas A & M took the second-half kickoff and drove 80 yards behind quarterback Lance Pavlas to make the score 13-10, but the Tide broke the game open early in the fourth quarter. First Smith engineered another long scoring drive, which culminated in an eight-yard TD pass to fullback Kevin Turner. Then 'Bama's Derrick Thomas, winner of this year's Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, clobbered Pavlas behind the line and recovered the ensuing fumble. Four plays later Doyle converted a 30-yard field goal to put the Tide ahead 23-10.
In the game's final seconds, Thomas, whose two sacks gave him 24 for the season and 47 for his career, sneaked up behind Curry and doused him with a bucket of ice water. After that he helped carry Curry to midfield, where Curry shook hands with Sherrill.
In the locker room Curry was asked if that was his first victory ride at Alabama. He smiled and replied, "No, our players are big carriers, and I guess they like to pick me up because I'm not so heavy."
Just the same, if he doesn't win an SEC title right quick, Curry may never get those 'Bama boosters off his back.