Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and the 1978 Sugar Bowl: An all-time coaching clash

by Marty Mulé for The Advocate, December 31, 2014

Bear Bryant (l.) and Woody Hayes (r.). Courtesy of Bear Bryant Museum

Major Ogilvie reflected for a moment, then said, “It was an honor to be on the field with those coaches on the sidelines — two of the greatest coaches of all time going head-to-head.’’

The former Alabama running back was referring to the 1978 Sugar Bowl, which was supposed to be the football equivalent of “Clash of the Titans.’’

No one, not even the most heralded of players, had the marquee pull of the crotchety — and revered — old-school coaches in this one. Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes, at the height of their coaching powers, were matching wits.

Alabama and Ohio State, two storied programs, were playing for the first time, and the stars of the show were Bryant with his 270 victories and Hayes with his 231. They were at the time college football’s winningest active coaches.

That was a bit — but not quite — like this year’s pairing, with latter-day masterminds Nick Saban of Alabama and Urban Meyer of Ohio State clashing in Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl.

That year also was the first time a Big Ten team played in the Sugar Bowl; the conference had unleashed the Rose Bowl-only strings for its members in 1975. SEC champion and third-ranked Bama was 10-1 and in position to claim the national championship. The Buckeyes, ranked eighth and the Big Ten co-champions, were 9-2 — and saying they wanted to prove that, despite two defeats, they were as good as anyone in the hunt for the No. 1 pennant.

Still, New Orleans sportswriter Gil LeBreton sensed that Ohio State was setting itself up for a fall with a feeling, amidst a constant low refrain, that they really belonged in Pasadena, where Big Ten champions had a reserved berth.

“They found a ready-made excuse,’’ LeBreton wrote, “and used it.’’

Yet the coaches remained the focus of the pregame buildup, portrayed in local media as “The Growl” (for Bryant’s rumbling voice) vs. “The Scowl” (for Hayes’ game-day continence).

“I don’t know why you people keep making such a big deal over Woody Hayes and Paul Bryant,’’ the Bear rasped to reporters. “I can assure you I’m not going to play … and I hope Woody does.’’

Hayes, a serious student of history, made a case for vintage coaches with a reference to the day’s world politics.

“When (Egyptian president Anwar) Sadat and (Israeli prime minister Menachem) Begin got together, it’s the same as when Bear and I get together,” he said. “If you want a good contest or a good agreement, you’d better get the grandfathers involved.’’

Thinking back, Ogilvie said, “They were kind of the show, and this was a game in which we could win the national championship.”

The right to say which team had the best coach was important to the fan bases and players, even then. Buckeyes back Ron Springs noted at the time, “This is a game between Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes. They are the two best coaches of all time. We wouldn’t want to say we play for the second-best coach.’’

The chance to win the national championship was at the forefront for the 10-1 Crimson Tide, but it was a long shot despite its lofty standing. Bama lost an early-season game to Nebraska 31-24 but had rolled ever since.

Notre Dame had the same record but lost to lowly Ole Miss 20-13. The Irish, who were playing No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, recovered to rise to No. 5. No. 2 Oklahoma was playing big underdog Arkansas in the Orange Bowl.

Early in the season, Ohio State was expected to be in the mix, but it dropped a game to Oklahoma 29-28. And then, despite generally outplaying Michigan for the Rose Bowl berth, it lost 14-6. The fiery Hayes, off the field a gentleman but often a firebrand on it, slugged an ABC cameraman in the game’s final moments — a harbinger of how his career would end after the next season, when he belted a Clemson player after an interception in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 28, 1978, as the Buckeyes drove for a chance at a game-winning field goal in the final minutes.

Even with the odds stacked against the Tide, Bryant was confident Bama would end up on top of the polls. He told his players that, for that to happen, they would have to win convincingly. He told them Notre Dame would beat Texas and Arkansas would beat Oklahoma, clearing the path for Alabama. The players weren’t sure they believed all of that would happen, but they would try to do their part.

Bama’s game plan was simply to challenge the Buckeyes, and the Tide ran 16 of its first 17 plays straight into the teeth of the Ohio State defense. Alabama so dominated early that it had just three first-half possessions, scoring on two of them to hold a 13-0 lead.

The Buckeyes had a chance to get back into it with quarterback Rod Gerald guiding them to the 3-yard line, where on fourth down Hayes eschewed a field goal attempt and went for the touchdown — but failed.

“I thought about it being bad football,’’ Hayes said later. “When you’re down 13 points, field goals don’t look so big. … If we had gotten the touchdown, we would have played better ball.’’

Bama was ahead — but not playing so great, either. The Tide couldn’t hang on to the ball, dropping it at inopportune times. Bama finished the game with an astounding 10 fumbles, losing two.

“To tell the truth, I don’t think either team was at its best,” Ogilvie said. “I think we were all pretty rusty after the month layoff between the end of the regular season and the Sugar Bowl.”

Ohio State made a couple of mild threats on the Bama side of the field in the third quarter but was repulsed — cementing the victory for Bama. Later, Hayes said, “There in the third quarter, when we had the ball on the short end of the 50 twice and didn’t move, their defense rose to the occasion and our offense didn’t. That definitely sealed the ballgame right there.’’

The final score was Alabama 35, Ohio State 6. The Tide had done its job.

A disgruntled Hayes said afterward, “They beat us with about one-half as much material as we have, and we played them with about one-fourth as much coach as they got — because we sure got out-coached here today. They just outplayed us in every department they could have.’’

The major question after the game: How was it possible for one team to fumble 10 times against a quality opponent and still win by 29 points? Alabama tackle David Sadler felt it was because there simply was no better team: “Anyone who doesn’t vote for us (for the national title) isn’t voting with a clear conscience,” he said.

An Alabama vote was logical, too. Just as Bryant had predicted, Notre Dame upset No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl, and Arkansas beat No. 2 Oklahoma 31-6 in the Orange.

“Everything Coach told us turned out to be right — except the vote,’’ Ogilvie said.

When the votes in both the AP writers and UPI coaches polls were revealed, Notre Dame leapfrogged Bama, going from No. 5 to No. 1. Bama’s players felt ripped off, and fans speculated that, had the positions been reversed — Notre Dame at No. 3 and Alabama at No. 5 — the Tide would not have leapfrogged the Irish.

Bryant coached Bama to the next two national championships, meaning Alabama could have had a three-peat. But what Bryant really wanted to clear up was another subject.

Right after the Sugar Bowl, he wasted no time saying the focus on the coaches, the game between “The Growl” and The Scowl,’’ never came into play.

“Winning or losing has nothing to do with how bad or good the coaches are,” he said. “Woody is a great coach. And I ain’t bad.”

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