Auburn Wins 1984 Sugar Bowl, but National Championship Still Eludes Tigers
By Tony Barnhart, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/CBS
Story submitted Fall, 2008, for the Sugar Bowl’s 75th Anniversary Celebration
In 36 years as the Sports Information Director and Athletics Director at Auburn University, David Housel had to make a lot of tough phone calls. Few, said Housel, were tougher than the call he made to Al Del Greco on Jan. 3, 1984.
The day before Del Greco had kicked three field goals, the last with only 27 seconds left, as No. 3 Auburn beat Michigan 9-7 in the Sugar Bowl to give the Tigers an 11-1 season and, they hoped, the school’s first national championship since 1957.
“I thought logic was on our side,” said Housel, who retired as Auburn’s athletics director in 2005. “We were No. 3. Both No. 1 (Nebraska) and No. 2 (Texas) had lost. We all thought that we could move up to No. 1 after winning the Sugar Bowl.”
Del Greco, a native of Miami, was one of the few players on the team plane that flew back to Montgomery from New Orleans.
“All the guys who had a ride home after the game were allowed to go back on their own,” said Del Greco. “I went back to my dorm on campus and David said he would call when he found out the results of the vote.”
The phone call came from Housel and it was not good news. Miami, which had beaten No. 1 Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl, had jumped from No. 5 to No. 1 in the final polls. Nebraska, which had gone for a two-point conversion at the end of the game and failed, only dropped to No. 2. Despite the win over a very good Michigan team, Auburn had remained No. 3 in the final rankings.
“David loves Auburn more than any man I know,” said Del Greco, who went on to kick for 17 seasons in the NFL. “It just killed him to have to deliver that news. We were disappointed not to win the national championship because that was a great team. But we didn’t even move in the final polls. That can’t be right.”
Understand that it was a different world in 1983. In today’s 24-hour news and sports cycle there would have been endless debate and discussion over what should happen if No. 1 and No. 2 both lost. Today there would have been dueling coaches on ESPN BEFORE the game staking a claim to the national championship if their teams won.
But in 1983 it was a very unusual thing when, before the game, Miami started making the claim that if the Hurricanes beat No. 1 they should BE No. 1. Even NBC, which broadcast the Orange Bowl, was billing it as the game for the national championship. It was unprecedented and it worked. It didn’t help Auburn’s case that the television ratings for the Orange Bowl (23.5) dwarfed those of the Sugar Bowl (8.9). And it didn’t help that Auburn that its only points were Del Greco’s three field goals while Miami and Nebraska were combining for 61 points.
As a media veteran, Housel understood exactly what had happened when the final poll numbers came in. That’s why he was so heartbroken.
“It was one of the worst nights of my life,” said Housel. “I kept wondering if there was something more we could have done. But I finally decided there was not. It was just the perfect storm. Miami benefitted from it and Auburn did not.”
It was Pat Dye’s third team at Auburn since taking the job in 1981. The former Georgia All-American, who served a long apprenticeship under Alabama’s Bear Bryant, had recruited well in his first two seasons and knew this had the potential to be a very good team. The great Bo Jackson was a sophomore and was the MVP of the Sugar Bowl with 130 yards. Tommy Agee and Lionel James, who both had very good pro careers, were on that team. Offensive tackle Steve Wallace, who played 12 NFL seasons and was on three Super Bowl teams with the 49ers, anchored the offensive line.
“We weren’t exactly shooting with blanks in that game,” said Dye, who stepped down as Auburn’s head coach. “There were a lot of really good football players on that team. That was a championship football team.”
Auburn began the summer of 1983 as a collection of talented individuals. It would bond and become a team over an unspeakable tragedy. Gregg Pratt, a junior from Albany, Ga., was a bowling ball of a fullback at 5-8, 211 pounds. On the morning of Aug. 21, 1983 Pratt received a preliminary physical examination and was pronounced fit for running wind sprints. Later that day while running he collapsed. He never regained consciousness.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the guys but it changed me forever,” Del Greco said. “At that age you never think about death and dying. It’s something that you never forget.”
Housel remembers that after the death of Pratt the Auburn team, understandably, could not muster much intensity in practice. Then one day during drills and with Dye in the tower looking down, a thunder storm began to roll in.
“All of us watching practice got the heck out of there,” Housel said. “But coach Dye stayed up on that tower. Before that the team was kind of tentative. They were in sort of a funk. But coach Dye showed them that he wasn’t afraid of anything and so they shouldn’t be afraid either. From that point on I think we had a very confident football team.”
Dye is old school and not one to complain. His generation of coaches believed their job was to win games and then let others decide who gets the hardware. But he still points out, even to this day, that Auburn played the toughest schedule in the country that season. The Tigers only played one bad game all season, that coming in a 20-7 loss to No. 3 Texas in Auburn when Jackson had only 35 yard rushing. That’s why Auburn did finish No. 1 in the New York Times computer poll at the end of the season.
“The computers aren’t political. They just look at who you play and who you beat. We were a pretty salty team after that (loss to Texas) and at the end of the year we were playing as well as anybody in the country,” said Dye. “Look at how we finished.”
Auburn had an incredible closing stretch in 1983 beating No. 5 Florida (28-21), No. 7 Maryland (35-23), No. 4 Georgia (13-7), which would go on to upset No. 2 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 19 Alabama (23-20) in Tuscaloosa.
“That run deserved a national championship,” said Housel. “But it just wasn’t to be.”
Despite the disappointment of not winning the national championship, the 1983 Auburn team remains one of the most revered in school history. It gave Auburn its first SEC championship since 1957 and only the second in school history. After watching Alabama and Bear Bryant dominate the SEC for 25 years, the 1983 Auburn team put the Tigers back on the college football map and gave their fans hope for the first time in a long time.
And when it was all over, polls or no polls, Auburn brought home a Sugar Bowl trophy. All in all, it was a great, great year.
“That was a good great group of men who made up their minds that they were going to win a championship,” Dye said. “We almost got the big one but came up a little short. That doesn’t take anything away from what they did for Auburn. I was proud to be their coach.”
Tony Barnhart has been covering college football for over 30 years, including the past 24 years for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A Past President of the Football Writers Association of America, Barnhart also works for CBS Sports.