How Alabama and Arkansas Met in the 1980 Sugar BowlNew Sugar Bowl executive director Mickey Holmes’ feared his initial brush at a bowl pairing would cause his red hair to change color. The University of Georgia was turning the hair of all the Sugar Bowlers white.
Vince Dooley’s Bulldogs were unable to win outside the Southeastern Conference but were perfect within and knocking on New Orleans’ door. It was possible, with Auburn wins over Georgia and Alabama coupled with a Bulldog loss to independent Georgia Tech that a losing Georgia (5-6) team would hold down the host spot in the Sugar Bowl.
At the same time, Alabama, the nation’s No. 4 offensive team, No. 1 defensive team, and No. 1-ranked team was cruising effortlessly to at least a share of the SEC Championship with the Bulldogs. Alabama and Georgia didn’t play, and the Bulldogs would earn the invitation in a tie because of the “most recent appearance” rule. New Orleans could lose a possible national champion and gain a team with a losing season record. “We’d welcome them with open arms and go on with our bowl,” Holmes said diplomatically of Georgia’s chances.
Auburn, 15th-ranked but ineligible for bowls because of NCAA probation, put the Sugar on hold by unleashing James Brooks and Joe Cribbs on Georgia. Brooks gained 200 yards and Cribbs 166 in a 33-13 War Eagle whoop. But the Sugar Bowl could rejoice only momentarily. Alabama’s last game was with these same War Eagles, a very good team. If Auburn could beat the Crimson Tide, Georgia and Alabama would be tied in the final SEC standings and the Bulldogs would spend the holidays in New Orleans.
Coach Bear Bryant said of his state rivals and the bowl situation, “It’s not up to me, but if we can’t beat Auburn, I’d just as soon stay home and plow.” The Auburn faction went up in arms over the comment, which added more fuel to a rivalry that needed none.
Georgia officials removed the fear of having a losing team in the Sugar by requesting that the “most recent appearance” rule be waived should the Bulldogs lose to Georgia Tech. The request applied only in that instance, though. If Georgia won, and Auburn broke Alabama’s longest-in-the-nation victory string at 19, the ‘Dogs wanted their rightful berth.
The SEC Sugar Bowl opponent would be either Arkansas or Texas (tied with the University of Houston for the Southwest Conference lead). Texas appeared to be the odds-on choice; but the Longhorns were upset 13-7 by Texas A&M, and the Sugar had Arkansas, a 10-1 conference co-champion.
Bear Bryant, now hard on the heels of Amos Alonzo Stagg’s all-time coaching record of 314 victories, showed up on the field more than an hour before the Auburn-‘Bama kickoff. As he and Assistant Athletic Director Charlie Thornton strolled around Legion Field, Auburn students began chanting, “Plow, Bear, plow.” Bryant had Thornton put his hands behind his back whereupon the coach grabbed them, turning the bent over assistant athletic director into a plow. The students roared approval.
With Vince Dooley in the press box along with some very nervous Sugar Bowlers, Bryant’s team played an uncharacteristic Alabama game. The Tide had third-quarter fumbles on its 21, 23, and 37 and on the Auburn 12-yard line. Alabama was letting a national championship slip away.
Auburn took an 18-17 lead with less than 12 minutes remaining; then the Tide composed itself and drove 88 yards for a touchdown and a 25-18 win. The Sugar Bowl had dodged a silver bullet.
Lou Holts, the Arkansas coach who was knocked out of the Cotton and into the Sugar with Baylor’s upset of Texas (because of the SWC’s most recent appearance rule) said, “There were just four minutes left in the Alabama-Auburn game when we found out we’d be playing the Bear.” He spoke of his first game against Bryant when he was an assistant on the South Carolina staff. “I was coaching the defensive secondary and, boy, it was going to be a great thrill. But it wasn’t so because we got beat something like 42-0, or some ridiculous score like that. Heck, lots of teams get excited about playing Alabama before the game…They’re so good I don’t vote for second or third place behind them. Nobody is close to them.”
Others thought differently. After the close call with Auburn, the Associated Press poll dropped Alabama to No. 2 behind Ohio State by a point and a half, upsetting Tide fans who jammed the telephone circuits to AP headquarters in New York. The coaches who vote in the United Press International poll kept the Tide on top; but if ‘Bama was to regain its AP ranking, it was going to have to be impressive in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State would have to stumble in the Rose Bowl.
Holtz had done a masterful job with Arkansas. With five freshmen in his starting lineups and a defense ranked no higher than 6th in the SWC, he put together a team that played excellent field position football. “We use a rope-a-dope defense,” said Holtz. “Everyone always seems to have us on the ropes.” The “Cinderella Pigs” were sixth-ranked after giving up an astounding 320 yards but only 9.8 points a game. And if the bowls fell just right, Arkansas had as much claim to No. 1 as anyone.
“Polls, polls, polls,” groused Bryant, “that’s all I’ve heard about. I just want to beat Arkansas…by one point or a half point, I don’t care. Then I’ll let y’all (the press) take care of the polls.”
Which is what Crimson Tide defensive back Don McNeal, who unlike his coach had polls very much on his mind, was counting on. “This is it,” McNeal said. “Everybody comes here (Alabama) to win the national championship. That was my goal when I came here. I’ve accomplished it once. I’m hoping for two.”
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.