Part of the self-styled mythology of Bear Bryant is how football saved him from a hard life of plowing the fields of his native Arkansas.
“If I hadn’t been lucky I’d still be out there somewhere plowing,” he liked to say.
As it was – more than a decade after begging his way into the Sugar Bowl, and coaching Kentucky to its remarkable victory over Oklahoma – his newest team was plowing through Southern football fields.
Coaching now at his alma mater of Alabama, Bryant’s first national championship was college football’s equivalent of the providential immovable object. This team gave up a total of 22 points in 10 games, none in the last five (“They played like it was a sin to give up a point,” Bryant assessed after the season.”), they led the NCAA in three defensive categories and set 10 school defensive records.
Arkansas coach Frank Broyles knew his team had its work cut out, though he also felt the Razorbacks could move on anybody’s defense. They had a weapon no one had been able to neutralize: halfback Lance Alworth, one of the nation’s most dangerous ball-carriers, running, receiving or returning kicks.
It took the Tide six plays to score. “We noticed something a little different in their defensive alignment,” Alabama tackle Billy Neighbors said, “so we made a slight adjustment.” The adjustment sent running back Mike Fracchia scurrying past a defender who penetrated into the backfield, past another just beyond the line, and racing down the sidelines 43 yards to the Arkansas 12. On the next play, quarterback Pat Trammel faked a pass and then, around left end, ran it in.
A pleased but perplexed Neighbors said later, “We ran that doggone play about six more times and never did do anything with it again.”
Though the Tide kept pressure on the Hogs Bama got no more points until late in the half when Butch Wilson intercepted Arkansas quarterback George McKinney and returned the ball 17 yards to the 20. Eventually, kicker Tim Davis, who had missed one earlier, was waved back into the game. This time he kicked true and Alabama led 10-0 with four minutes to go.
That very nearly was enough time for Arkansas to get to the dressing room just a field goal behind. The main thrust of the Razorback offense had been to the inside, but, from the Tide 48, Paul Dudley swung out to the short side of the field and, as his blockers mowed down defenders, made his way to the 10 where Tommy Brooker collared the runner.
“I should have gone the distance,” Dudley said. “Billy Moore threw the key block that got me past the line, and Jim Collier cleared part of the path downfield. After Collier threw his block I cut to the inside . . . I could see daylight, but before I could resume my regular course down the sideline I was hit from the side.”
The threat ended with a missed field goal.
In the second half, Razorback kicker Mickey Cissell had two more early chances. One of his field goals was blocked, the other was good, recording the recorded the first points against Alabama since October. Now the score was 10-3, and Arkansas was back in the hunt.
In the final minutes, McKinney began opening up, hitting Alworth with a 31-yard pass to the Alabama 43, where the ball was fumbled, a 37-yard completion to Collier at the Tide 40, and another pass that tantalizingly grazed Alworth’s fingertips in the end zone.
Wilson deflected another pass, intercepted it and stepped out of bounds no more than four inches from the Alabama goal, but essentially ending the game.
Bryant, who said he had “nine heart attacks out there,” revealed he was prepared to give the Razorbacks a safety on fourth down if time had not run out.
“We were in it on the scoreboard, but were never in it on the field,” a glum Broyles assessed afterward.
Alabama had won its first Sugar Bowl by allowing the Razorbacks only four real chances at the end zone, and holding Alworth to 15 yards rushing.
As the coaches met at midfield, Broyles had to cut his congratulations short. His players were trying to claim the game ball. “Give them the ball,” he yelled to his squad. “They won it. It belongs to them!”
Bryant growled at his own players. “Let ‘em have it.”
It was the only thing Alabama gave up all day.
Recap 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.
Ala: Trammel 12-yard run (Davis kick)
Ala: Davis 32-yard field goal
Ark: Cissell 23-yard field goal