Maybe the old man can finally get some rest. Three coaches and one decade to the month after the death of Bear Bryant, Alabama won its 12th national title and its first in 13 years. After biting their lips for a week while the Miami Hurricanes woofed and howled their contempt for the Crimson Tide, the Alabama players dominated and, perhaps more satisfying, muzzled the defending national champions with a 34-13 win in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's. Now that they can once again lay claim to college football's throne, perhaps Tide fans, who have been known to pray for Bryant's resurrection, will let the Bear lie in peace.
Pay no attention to Alabama coach Gene Stallings's stubborn refusal in the days leading up to the game to concede that his team was an underdog. This was an upset of magnificent proportions. Crimson Tide quarterback Jay Barker could not be counted on to pass his team to victory, and, in fact, he would complete only four of 13 throws for 18 yards and suffer two interceptions. Likewise, the outside running game would be an exercise in futility. As long as Jessie Armstead, Micheal Barrow and Darrin Smith have started at linebacker, no team has been able to turn the corner on Miami.
Alabama would have to run between the tackles—football's truck route—behind a smallish, undistinguished line that, until recently, 'Bama fans had maligned. At 6'3" and 250 pounds, center Tobie Sheils is slight for a major-college lineman. Left guard George Wilson shot off half of his left foot in a 1989 hunting accident. And six nights before the game, right tackle Roosevelt Patterson was verbally assaulted in the French Quarter. "You must be an offensive lineman, you fat, sloppy ——," Miami linebacker Rohan Marley had shouted at the amply padded, 290-pound Patterson.
Chalk one up for the shrimp, the gimp and the blimp. Behind them, Derrick Lassic rushed for 135 yards on 28 carries, the most yards a back gained against the Hurricanes this season. "They said we were one-dimensional," said Sheils after the game. "We are one-dimensional. Sometimes you only need one dimension."
More shocking than Lassic's success was the failure of Miami quarterback Gino Torretta (box, page 30) to lead his offense to a single touchdown. A fifth-year senior, Torretta had gone 26-1 as a starter by deciphering coverages and keeping his cool. Both talents deserted him in the Superdome.
Even more remarkable was that Lamar Thomas was finally forced to curb his tongue. Thomas, Miami's spindly-but-dangerous senior wideout, had appointed himself team woofmeister in New Orleans. At a press conference he put his two national championship rings on either side of the microphone. The third one, said Thomas, "will be icing on the cake." Instead, he wound up with egg on his face.
Thomas started the press conference off by running down the SEC. "Not what it was," said Thomas. He then questioned the manhood of Alabama's defensive backs, who, Thomas had noticed, played lots of zone. "Real men play man," he said. Of course, he added, he understood why secondaries stayed in safe zones against the Ruthless Posse, Thomas's moniker for the Hurricanes' corps of wide receivers—himself, Horace Copeland, Darryl Spencer and Kevin Williams. "The best receiving corps probably ever assembled," was his humble opinion. "Anytime we get a team in man-to-man, it's unfair."
When roving bands of players from both teams had a Close Encounter of the Word Kind on Bourbon Street, Thomas zeroed in on Lassic. "Who are you? Who are you?" he shouted. "You know me. Everybody knows me."
In fact, millions would know Thomas after Friday night, though not for reasons he liked. Unbeknownst to Thomas, he had diligently set himself up for one of the more spectacular comeuppances in the history of sport.
How very much at home these Hurricanes seemed in the French Quarter. Their swagger and, for that matter, their curfew—1 a.m., as opposed to 11 p.m. for the Tide—was perfectly suited to the City that Care Forgot, which, last week, was also the City that Gun Laws Forgot. While composing his column on Tuesday night, Tommy Hicks of the Mobile (Ala.) Press Register was interrupted by a bullet passing through the wall of his 16th-floor hotel room. Police found the slug under the bed. Hicks made his deadline.
At 11:40 p.m. on New Year's Eve, John Routh, who brings so much pleasure to so many as the Miami mascot, Sebastian the Ibis, was strolling on Bourbon Street in his civvies when a bullet grazed his head, close to his right eye. Routh, who took seven stitches in his face, suited up the next night, saying. "It's going to take a heck of a lot more than a bullet in the head to keep me out of this game."
The flying bullets and the near dustup between players were mere sideshows in the sublime unruliness that is holiday week in New Orleans. Wet bars sprang up everywhere—even in front of a major hotel, conveniently close to the valet parking stand. Have a pop while we bring your car around. After a disconcerting encounter with some French Quarter transvestites, Miami offensive tackle Mario Cristobal observed, "New Orleans—where the men are men, and so are the women."
'Bama fans had a significant numerical edge over their Miami counterparts in the Quarter and an overwhelming one in the Superdome. Torretta could not hear himself think. While some teams practice amid piped-in cacophony, to simulate the din of a loud arena, Miami coach Dennis Erickson has always eschewed "the noise thing," as he calls it. The Hurricanes have sophisticated hand signals for such emergencies. Against Alabama, hand signals were of no use. Arriving at the line of scrimmage, Torretta found himself facing defensive formations he had never before encountered, either on films of Alabama games or during practice.
The Miami offense lives by the short pass—no Hurricane rushed for more than 88 yards in a game this season—and Crimson Tide secondary coach Bill (Brother) Oliver had spent nearly a month perfecting a scheme to nullify that weapon. When Miami had the ball, the Crimson Tide had five, six, sometimes even seven defensive backs on the field. On several occasions Alabama placed 11 men on the line of scrimmage. It was a naked challenge to Torretta and the Ruthless Posse: Beat us deep if you can. "Sometimes we'd play man; sometimes we'd show man and drop into zone," said cornerback Tommy Johnson. "Torretta didn't know what was going on."
Besides loading up with defensive backs, Oliver juggled his two All-America linemen, ends John Copeland and Eric Curry. Sometimes he put them side by side to make it more difficult for Miami to double-team both. That left some hapless Hurricane with the near impossible task of blocking one of these future first-round NFL picks by himself.
The outcome of Oliver's scheming was a pick party. Torretta threw three interceptions, each of which led, directly or indirectly, to an Alabama touchdown. To be fair, the first, which came midway through the second quarter, wasn't a bad throw. Tide safety Sam Shade had to perform a bit of ballet to pick off the pass, which he returned 33 yards to the Miami 31. Five plays later Alabama tailback Sherman Williams scored on a two-yard run to put the Tide ahead 13-3.
By that time Miami's offense had joined the ranks of the one-dimensional, and Torretta's first play from scrimmage in the second half had a familiar look to Johnson. "[Horace] Copeland clears out for [Kevin] Williams to come underneath," said Johnson later. "They do it all the time."
This time Johnson stepped in front of Williams and received a belated Christmas gift at the Hurricane 43. Six plays after that, Lassic scored from the one to make the score 20-6. Sixteen seconds later Torretta telegraphed another dump pass. This one was intended for flanker Jonathan Harris, who was unaware that the ball was en route. 'Bama free safety George Teague sprinted in front of him, snatched the ball out of the air and sailed in for six.
It was Teague's first interception return for a touchdown, and it was a fine effort, but he would soon outdo himself by executing the transcendent play of the season. It came with slightly more than nine minutes left in the third quarter and with Thomas at center stage. The loquacious wideout had been having a poor game. He had caught four short passes, but in the first quarter Johnson had stripped him of the ball after Thomas had made a 13-yard reception, and Alabama had recovered on its own 23-yard line.
Now, with Miami facing second down and 10 at its own 11-yard line, Thomas's moment had arrived. With a nifty hip fake at the left sideline, he had burst past cornerback Willie Gaston and hauled in Torretta's sweetest pass of the evening at the Miami 36. Thomas was headed for the goal line. Thomas, a member of Miami's 400-meter relay team, has 4.5 speed in the 40. However, as Thomas neared the end zone, a crimson blur rapidly closed on him. "I was supposed to be behind him on that play," said Teague afterward. "I knew if I didn't catch him. I was going to be in trouble."
Teague caught Thomas at the Alabama 15, but he was not content to make a tackle. Reaching over Thomas's right shoulder with his right hand, he wrested the ball from Thomas, thereby effecting the most remarkable full-gallop fumble recovery in memory. An offside penalty against the Tide meant that Miami kept the ball—albeit 77 yards farther back. Deflated, the Hurricanes ended the possession three plays later with a punt. After the game, Thomas was moist-eyed but manful in assessing his humiliation. "That catch could have put us where we needed to be," he said.
Indeed, with more than 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kevin Williams reeled off a mind-bending, 78-yard punt return for a touchdown to cut the Tide lead to 27-13. But 'Bama responded on the next series with a five-minute, 12-play drive that ended with Lassic gliding into the end zone from four yards out for the touchdown that broke Miami's back.
What is Lassic, a native of Haverstraw, N.Y., doing in Tuscaloosa? Lassic has often asked himself the same thing. Several times he has packed his bags, but he has never gotten them to the car. Lassic wanted to play at a warm-weather school and snubbed recruiters from Syracuse, Penn State and Maryland, eventually choosing Alabama over Georgia Tech. In 1988, Lassic's first year on campus, Bill Curry, the Tide coach at the time, redshirted him. When star tailback Bobby Humphrey broke his foot in the second game of that season, Lassic wanted Curry to let him suit up, but the coach was unmoved. Out came the luggage. "I was all ready to go," he recalls. "About eight bags."
Preston Lassic got wind of his son's intentions and phoned him. "He said, 'As soon as you get home, you are to get a job,' " says Lassic." "And you aren't staying at your mother's place unless you pay some rent.' " Lassic unpacked.
On March 25, 1990, Lassic was in his room watching the NCAA basketball tournament while waiting for his girlfriend, Cherlintha Miles, who was driving from Montgomery to Tuscaloosa. Recalls Lassic, "A woman from the hospital called and said, 'Your friend was in an accident. Why don't you come over.' I was thinking something happened to the car and that she needed a ride home."
Miles, 20, had been killed in a one-car crash. Lassic did not leave his room for a week, even to eat meals, and he lost 20 pounds. Three days after Miles's funeral, which he could not bring himself to attend, his bags were again packed. Once more his father talked him into staying in school, this time more gently. Stallings, who had replaced Curry that January, and his staff made several trips to Lassic's room. "Derrick just wanted to lie in bed," says Stallings.
The day after the Sugar Bowl, when Stallings was asked why he didn't seem more overjoyed at having won the national championship, he explained that for him the joys of coaching do not lie primarily in victories. Where then, does this joy reside? "In seeing a kid like Derrick Lassic go 180 degrees," said Stallings.
The Tide coach has apparently evolved from Bear Disciple to Sensitive New Age Guy. Before the 1964 Sugar Bowl game against Ole Miss, Bryant had assembled his coaches. Joe Namath had been caught drinking: What discipline did they recommend? Everyone was in favor of a slap on the wrist—everyone except the defensive coordinator, Ol' Hangin' Judge Stallings. Bryant suspended Namath for the game.
Fast forward to last September. When returner-receiver David Palmer was arrested on charges of drunken driving for the second time in three months, Stallings consulted three psychologists, who advised him not to throw Palmer off the team. The young man had nothing else to fall back on, Stallings was told. Knowing that he would catch heat for appearing to coddle a star, Stallings suspended Palmer for three games, saying, "David needs the team more than the team needs David."
It was the decision of a man secure in his convictions and comfortable in his own skin. The shadow of the Bear? Not a problem for Stallings. The Crimson Tide is winning championships again. Stallings is casting a long shadow himself.