How Alabama and Ohio State Met in the 1978 Sugar Bowl
The look of the Sugar Bowl was changing in many ways. The football game was back on New Year’s Day, with the Southeastern Conference champion automatically in one corner. Edna Engert, after 41 years of running the business office, decided to call it a career.
She had once said, “I was very involved with the piano as a young girl. My mother said I must make up my mind to either attend college and study music or take a job. I took a job and I’ve never regretted it. It led me to the Sugar Bowl. “The feeling was obviously mutual. This woman, who started with 37 bosses, was entrusted with command of the Sugar Bowl’s nerve center for most of her tenure with the Mid-Winter Sports Association. She served well. If Fred Digby was “Mr. Sugar Bowl,” Edna Egnert was the “Mrs.”
As a testimonial given by her “bosses,” Edna was presented with a gold charm and desk set. Until then, it was a gift reserved only for Sugar Bowl presidents.
Carl James, the 48-year-old athletic director of Duke University, was named executive director in July; but the position was again open the following year when James resigned to become Athletic Director at the University of Maryland.
Alabama and Notre Dame again seemed to be the champagne pairing for the holidays. After an early season loss to Nebraska, the Crimson Tide had developed into a potent football team. The Irish were in and out, and indeed a loss to a very weak Ole Miss seemed to knock the Notre Dame aspirations for No. 1 askew. But it was the only Irish loss.
What the pairing appeared to be riding on was a Texas defeat before November 19, the day the invitations would be issued. A loss by the No. 1 Longhorns should lift the Tide to No. 1, and Dan Devine’s Fighting Irish would go wherever No. 1 went for the chance to swipe the crown.
A more likely occurrence would be Texas steaming into the Cotton Bowl with the Irish tagging behind, and Michigan edging Ohio State in the Big Ten’s annual showdown. That would send Michigan to Pasadena and the co-champion Buckeyes looking for other vacancies on New Year’s. Since the Big Ten and Pac-Eight had broken their Rose-only binds, their representatives had played in other bowls, though not in New Orleans.
Notre Dame was more desirable, but the novelty of a Big Ten team in the Sugar Bowl was intriguing-particularly if it were a game between Coach Bear Bryant, with 270 victories, and Coach Woody Hayes, with 231 victories, the biggest winners on football’s active roster. It was interesting also to ponder the insurance the Sugar had with the SEC tie-up. Without it, Bryant surely would have been angling for a No. 1 showdown.
In spite of being generally outplayed, Michigan somehow beat Ohio State. The fiery Hayes, gentleman and history scholar off the field and occasional firebrand on the field, slugged an ABC cameraman in the game’s final moments. Hayes’ temper had become part of football lore and New Orleans braced for it.
Alabama and Ohio State were 3rd and 8th in the polls at the time of the selections. The Tide’s wishbone gained 416.7 yards a game, the 11th best offense nationally. Ohio State was 14th with 413.8 yards a game and 2nd in rushing with 321.2 yards. On the opposite side of the ledger, the Buckeyes gave up only 230.8 yards a game (7th nationally) while ‘Bama surrendered 252 yards. Sprinkled on the Buckeye roster were names like Pete Johnson (fullback), Chris Ward (tackle), Ron Springs (tailback), and Tom Cousineau (linebacker). Alabama had names like Ozzie Newsome (receiver), Jeff Rutledge (quarterback), and Tony Nathan (running back).
The only names the press seemed interested in were Bryant and Hayes. The growl vs. the scowl was the way in the New Orleans press painted the game.
“I don’t know why you people keep making such a big deal over Woody Hayes and Paul Bryant,” rasped the Bear. “I can assure you that I’m not going to play…and I hope Woody does.” Hayes made a case for the vintage years. “When (Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat and (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin got together. If you want a good contest or a good agreement, you’d better get the grandfathers involved.”
Even the players got into the act. Springs said, “This is a game between Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes. They are the two best coaches of all time. We (Ohio State) wouldn’t want to say we play for the second-best coach.”
Gil Le Breton, who covered Ohio State for the Times-Picayune, however, believed the Buckeyes were priming themselves for a tumble. “They found a ready-made excuse and used it,” said LeBreton, referring to an Ohio State feeling that the Buckeyes rightfully belonged in Pasadena as the undisputed Big Ten champion.
A victory and a Texas loss could put ‘Bama on the top of the polls. Ohio State was trying to redeem itself for two losses and a conference co-championship instead of a national championship.
“Coach Hayes has been saying all along that there’s one more great game left in this team,” said Aaron Brown. “This has got to be the one.” Springs added, “We really felt this was the best Ohio State team we’ve had here in a while. Those Oklahoma and Michigan losses were just so disappointing. They kinda all stay on our mind.” In a way I’m glad we’re playing Alabama. It’s like a second chance for us.”Story excerpted from the book "Sugar Bowl Classic: A History" by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.