How Alabama and Nebraska Met in the 1967 Sugar Bowl
As an artistic endeavor, the 1966 Sugar Bowl was a smashing success. But by other measures it served only to show how far behind the other major bowls the Sugar had fallen. It attracted 67,421 fans, only a couple of thousand more than the dismal attendance of the 1965 game. And with the Associated Press balloting coming after the bowls, the Sugar Bowl was the only New Year’s Day game that had no direct bearing on the national championship. LSU defeated No. 2 Arkansas in the Cotton, UCLA upset No. 1 Michigan State in the Rose, leaving Alabama to outslug Nebraska 38-28 in the Orange and take it long-shot national crown. The almost unbelievable domino effect made for excellent reading the following week in Sports Illustrated, the foremost sports magazine in the country. No one would read about Missouri-Florida, though. It wasn’t covered.
The Sugar Bowl appeared to be on a merry-go round it couldn’t control. As good as its luck was in earlier days, the reverse seemed to be true in the mid 1960s. LSU-Syracuse was a good match for the 1965 game – until both lost their last games. Florida-Missouri was blemished by a late Gator loss.
States-Item columnist Peter Finney correctly wrote, “Check these Sugar figures (national rankings) for the last 10 games and you’ll probably come to the same conclusion I did. You can’t beat national ratings or a match between Southern teams when it comes to putting people in the ball park.” Among other problems the Sugar Bowl now confronted was the growing feeling that its membership was too restrictive. When no one else stepped forward in 1934 to help launch the project, the Mid-Winter Sports Association limited the organization to the founders, their offspring, close relatives, and special, sponsored individuals. Thirty-three years later, the founders were getting old and many of their sons simply weren’t as interested – or as capable – as the fathers. The image of the Sugar Bowl had become one of a snobbish exclusive fraternity, which didn’t matter much as long as its product remained one of quality. But it was plain the product had slipped.
The Sugar Bowl’s Executive Committee began mulling over possible candidates to join the Association. They wanted people who were hardworking and upstanding, had made a positive mark on the community, and had the ability to get things done.
New associate members selected were John U. Barr, Aruns Callery, Henry Zac Carter, William J. Childress, Harry M. England, Robert J. Fabacher, Charles C. Glueck, Richard L. Hindermann, and Richard H. Nelson.
In other business the Sugar finally saw the wisdom in an Orange Bowl move – a local television blackout should the attraction not sell out.
Nineteen sixty-six was a wondrous year for college football. Three exceptional teams dominated the sports pages: Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Alabama. All had legitimate claims to the national championship, but the Irish were proclaimed No. 1 even after a 10-10 tie with the Spartans. Undefeated, untied Alabama was insulted, and Coach Paul Bryant maintained for years afterward that this was the best team he’d ever coached.
Notre Dame did not compete in bowl games then, and Michigan State could not go to the Rose Bowl because of the no-repeat rule, leaving Alabama the highest-ranked team in postseason competition.
Bryan and Bob Devaney, coach of the fourth-ranked, undefeated Nebraska Cornhuskers, had decided to try to play each other in an “open” bowl. This would be the Sugar, because Alabama had played in Miami two consecutive years and Bryant liked to have his team enjoy all the postseason sites. Both coaches also knew a victory over the other would give either of them a slight chance to win the MacArthur Bowl, the National Football Foundation’s version of the national championship.
Alabama and Nebraska signed for the Sugar Bowl; then the Cornhuskers, in what was becoming a Sugar Bowl tradition, lost its last game to Oklahoma. Alabama upheld its end, coming in unblemished in a 10-game schedule and providing a rare glimpse of the soul of the man who would rule the Southeastern Conference with a crimson-colored fist. “This is the only time I feel like a success,” Bear Bryant said of the undefeated season.
Devaney’s team was formidable, built along the lines of the other Midwest giants, Notre Dame and Michigan State. It was very big but also slow. Alabama, which would be outweighed by 35 pounds a man, was a remarkable team – one known for its defense but which featured notables like quarterback Ken Stabler and receivers Ray Perkins and Dennis Homan.
Perkins, however, had pulled a hamstring and wasn’t expected to play. “Nothing was going to keep me out,” said Perkins. “That game meant everything to us. We felt we had to win, and win convincingly. Coach Bryant felt sure we’d win the MacArthur Bowl with a big win. I even told Stabler I was going to beat him out of the MVP trophy.”
Devaney said he wouldn’t be surprised if Stabler didn’t throw to Perkins on the first play of the game. Then Devaney, noting ‘Bama’s eight-point favoritism and the huge weight advantage his team enjoyed, said he was going to pray for rain.
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.