How Alabama and Penn State Met in the 1979 Sugar Bowl “Everything coach told us turned out to be right – except the vote,” said Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss of the 1978 bowl sequence. “He said we had to beat Ohio State convincingly. He said Oklahoma would lose, Michigan would lose, and Notre Dame would beat Texas. We just looked at him, feeling it couldn’t all happen like he said. Damn if it didn’t.”
“Man, I was driving home; sure we’d be national champions. Then we go and get ripped off.”
The victory Bear Bryant forecast for the fifth-ranked Irish over No. 1 Texas catapulted Notre Dame into the top spot in both polls while Alabama inched to No. 2, forcing a lot of fans to wonder if the pollsters voted for the name rather than the game. It was fair to speculate that had the positions been reversed – Notre Dame No. 3 and Alabama No. 5 before the bowls – and if the Tide beat No. 1 Texas 38-10, it would not have leapfrogged the Irish to the top.
It must have frustrated the man many considered the best collegiate coach of all time. Bryant had won three Associated Press national championships, four in United Press International. But Notre Dame was directly responsible for Bear not having an incredible seven AP No. 1’s.
In 1966, Notre Dame had been voted No. 1 despite a 10-10 tie with Michigan State and despite Alabama’s 11-0 record. Now the Irish had leapfrogged over Alabama to No. 1 despite the Tide’s slaughter of Ohio State. The Irish beat him, 24-23, in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, and then upset him, 13-11, in the 1975 Orange Bowl.
There was a change in the masthead of the Mid-Winter Sports Association. The name was formally changed. No one bothered to call it anything but the Sugar Bowl, so after 44 years the membership gave up the ghost. The Sugar Bowl was now the Sugar Bowl.
An odd thing occurred in 1978 as the season opened and the time came to choose the participants for the Sugar Bowl: The weaknesses in the SEC-Sugar Bowl contract caught up with Alabama’s Bear Bryant. After beating Nebraska and Missouri, the Crimson Tide lost 24-14 to Southern California in a game Bryant would say was “worse than the score.” The loss was damaging to the Sugar Bowl because ‘Bama was the SEC’s best chance for a No. 1 team and, thus, the attraction for the highest-ranked opponent on January 1.
Georgia, which lost one early season non-conference game, was knocking on the Sugar’s door most of the season. The Bulldogs were not a bad team but had little chance at No. 1. But they held the inside track for the Sugar Bowl. Bryant, it seemed had written himself out of the Sugar Bowl. His Crimson Tide improved and continued to improve after the USC loss, rising to No. 3 in the polls. In some way, Bryant had to be able to play No. 1 Penn State in order to have a shot at a national championship. With the Big Eight tie-up in the Orange Bowl and the SWC tie-up with the Cotton Bowl, the Sugar was the only major bowl in which a pairing could occur.
When the original contract between the SEC and Sugar Bowl was drawn up, Bryant influenced the formula for selecting the conference representative. As the perennial champion, and because he wanted the freedom to go elsewhere on occasion, it was agreed in the event there was a tie for the conference title, the “most recent appearance” rule would prevail. That is, the team last appearing in the Sugar Bowl was free to go to another bowl. Alabama’s better overall record would not come into play as the Sugar Bowl had less say in the representative than either the Orange or Cotton Bowls.
All Georgia had to do was beat Auburn to tie ‘Bama for the conference championship and the Bulldogs would host the Sugar Bowl, probably against Oklahoma. There was some talk of matching Penn State and Alabama in the Gator Bowl, but nothing came of it. Nothing had to.
Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno had never won a national championship, nor had Penn State in 92 years of playing the game. He let the Sugar in on a secret. Penn State seemed ready to play in Miami, but Paterno allowed that should Missouri upset Nebraska and should Auburn beat Georgia, which would put Alabama in the Sugar, he wanted to play the Crimson Tide.
Sure enough, Missouri beat Nebraska, and Auburn and Georgia tied. After the Lions beat Pittsburgh and the Tide defeated Auburn, Alabama moved up a notch in the polls. The Sugar Bowl found itself with the No. 1 and No. 2 teams, only the fifth time this had happened in postseason football.
Why would Paterno look for the toughest foe? The answer was he had a team that could look anyone in the eye and not blink. The Penn State defense gave up an average of 54.5 yards rushing while quarterback Chuck Fusina, second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, directed an offense that averaged almost 31 points a game.
Paterno, unlike Bryant, did not believe winning a national championship was as important as the challenge of playing for a national championship. “This is my third 11-0 team,” Paterno said in indirect reference to what seemed to be a prejudice by voters against Eastern football.
Paterno reiterated his fundamental belief in the chase for the title. “I think the important thing is that we have an opportunity to go for it,” said Paterno. “Certainly it is important to have goals to attain.” The talented quarterback Fusina echoed his coach. “We want to be No. 1,” he offered, “and we’re going to work as hard as possible. But it’s not everything…If we don’t win a national championship; I won’t feel the four years are a waste. There are a lot of things other than national championships. It’s not life or death.”
Alabama’s aspirations were clearly more single-minded. “Sure, I’d like to win another national championship,” growled Bryant. “Every year I want that to be our goal and the objective of our team. Every day when they come in that’s what we talk about. We write it down and we talk about how we’re going to get there.” “It is,” said Barry Krauss, “the reason a lot of us came here.”
Bryant and Paterno were, of course, more concentrated with each other’s teams. Bryant characterized his Alabama squad as “a bunch of average players who don’t know they’re not supposed to be able to play as well as they do.” The figures backed Bear up. Uncharacteristically, this Crimson Tide team was not a reckoning force, particularly on defense where it surrendered 309.2 yards of total offense a game. “We used to not give up that much yardage in a season,” moaned Bryant.
The thought came up that perhaps a replay of the 1978 bowl season could occur. If Alabama beat Penn State and 3rd-ranked USC (early season conquerors of Alabama) beat Michigan badly in the Rose Bowl, then the Trojans could rise to No. 1.
Tide defensive tackle Marty Lyons seemed self-assured. “If we beat the No. 1 team in the nation,” he said, “…they’re 11-0 and no one else could beat them. That has to say something for us…We weren’t brought here to play football for the fun of it. We were brought here for achievement.”
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.