When No. 2 Alabama (6-0) plays Ole Miss (2-3) on Saturday evening, the nation will not lift its head unless there’s an upset. It will be one of 26 college football games that ESPN will televise Saturday, one of 11 it will show under the lights. We take that for granted these days. It is news when a game is not televised.
Once upon a time, in 1968, 11 years before ESPN was born, a regular-season college football game had never been televised in network prime time. ABC experimented with a late-season game between Alabama and Miami. A year later, it remained a novelty. If you want to know when the modern history of the sport began, go back 42 seasons to an early October night. A genius named Roone Arledge had the idea to show Alabama play Mississippi, and the game turned out to be one of the greatest in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
The game may have had that impact because it was televised. But it definitely had that impact because of a skinny junior quarterback who became a folk hero in the manner that Southerners have mastered throughout this nation’s history — in a losing cause.
On Oct. 4, 1969, at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning completed 33-of-52 passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns. He ran 15 times for 104 yards and three touchdowns. He gave the first indication that the program that coach Paul (Bear) Bryant had built at Alabama had begun to slide (the Tide would finish the season 6-5).
To put Manning’s performance in perspective, no player had ever thrown for as many as 300 yards and rushed for 100 in a major-college game. Manning did all of that, and yet the No. 20 Rebels lost to the No. 15 Crimson Tide, 33-32.
“We couldn’t rush Archie. We couldn’t contain him, either,” said Alabama athletic director Mal Moore. He was a defensive assistant that night.
“I don’t tell people I was the secondary coach,” Moore said. “I have to be asked. You probably knew. You just wanted to see if I owned up to it.”
So many elements of what made the night great are gone. Bryant hasn’t prowled the Alabama sideline in nearly 30 years. John Vaught, like Bryant a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, last coached the Rebels in 1973. Legion Field is a shell of its once towering self. The façade that read “Football Capital of the South” has been carted off, the upper deck with it. Manning is better known as the father of a pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
Among fans of a certain age, however, Manning is remembered for that performance.
“I always say that I don’t think that Legion Field held but about 70,000, but I know I’ve had 400-500,000 people tell me they were there,” Manning said. “The years go by and people have a poorer memory. ‘Was that you and Joe Namath?’ ‘I remember I watched every minute of that game with you and Kenny Stabler when y’all beat Alabama.’ It wasn’t Kenny and we didn’t beat them.”
The Alabama quarterback that night, Scott Hunter, may have had his greatest night as a collegian, too. Hunter was 22-of-29 for 300 yards.
“I just loved that kind of game,” said Hunter, who went on to play in the NFL and is now a stockbroker in Mobile. “You look up and you’re six points behind every time you get the ball. You got to go out there and keep throwing and keep making it happen. It was Archie’s kind of game, too. He didn’t do a single thing wrong that night.”
How the game came to be televised had a little to do with the structure of college football and a little to do with the structure of Major League Baseball. In 1969, the national pastime expanded to four six-team divisions and instituted postseason playoffs to determine the American and National League champions. The playoffs were to begin on the afternoon Saturday, Oct. 4 (postseason baseball wouldn’t be played at night for two more years).
Arledge, the executive director of ABC Sports, is best known as the father of Monday Night Football. Before that first, however, came his answer to the baseball playoffs. He saved the weekly college football telecast until Saturday night to show it in prime time. Though only three networks existed at the time, Arledge persuaded ABC to give the slot to the sports division. That wasn’t hard. ABC had only four of the top 30 shows in the preceding season.
In those days, ABC televised a dozen or so games a season, and set most of the schedule by April 1. Arledge contacted Bryant and Vaught in the early part of the year and sold them on the idea. Arledge sent a technical crew to Legion Field, where Alabama played its biggest games, to perform a site survey.
When the crew returned, Arledge called Bryant. ESPN analyst Beano Cook, then the ABC publicist for college football, happened to be in Arledge’s office as he spoke to Bryant. Cooke recalled the conversation as follows:
“Coach,” Arledge said, “we’re not going to be able to do the night game because the candlepower of the lights is not strong enough. Do you think you could do something about it?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bryant replied. “I’ll talk to the mayor. If he won’t do it, he won’t be re-elected.”
“Bryant talked to somebody,” Cook said. “We sent somebody to check the lights again. They were good enough. We did the game.”
For the record, Birmingham returned Mayor George C. Siebels Jr. to office in 1971.
Arledge had another problem. His network televised “The Lawrence Welk Show” at 8:30 p.m. every Saturday night. Welk served up an hour of wholesome orchestral music. In the 1966 and 1967 television seasons, the show finished second among all of ABC’s shows in the Nielsen ratings. It had slipped in 1968 but Welk still had enough power in the marketplace that his contract gave him the right to his time slot. When ABC asked Welk to waive that right so that it could televise a college football game, Welk said no. The telecast began at 9:30 p.m. ET, 8:30 p.m. at Legion Field.
“Today, they come on the air, say hello and kick off,” Hunter said. “Back then, they trotted everybody out on the field. They went to head shots of the starting lineup (the players would line up step in front of a camera to be introduced, and move on) and then they would play the national anthem. All of that took 15 or 20 minutes.”
The viewers knew the two head coaches well. Vaught, who became the head coach at Ole Miss in 1947, had the longest tenure of any SEC head coach. Bryant had won three national championships at Alabama in the 1960s. He and Vaught had great respect for each other as coaches and competitors. They loved beating each other dating to Bryant’s years at Kentucky (1946-53). Going into the 1969 game, they had battled each other to a draw: 5-5-1.
Off the field, they had battled, too. Bryant loved the deception of the tackle-eligible pass and used it with great effect, especially against the Rebels. Vaught considered the play a blight on the game. He began campaigning against the tackle-eligible in the late 1950s. Vaught joined the NCAA Football Rules Committee in 1966 and still couldn’t get the play outlawed.
Finally, in 1968, when the committee moved to adjourn, Vaught stood up from the table, lodged a chair under the doorknob of the meeting room and said, “We are not leaving this meeting until we do something about that damn tackle-eligible pass.” And so the committee did.
Vaught wanted to beat Bryant so badly that the previous week, against SEC ne’er-do-well Kentucky, he refused to allow Manning to show any of the eighth-ranked Rebels’ high-powered passing attack. With the offense in shackles, Ole Miss lost 10-9.
“Kentucky was the only bad coaching job I ever experienced with Coach Vaught,” Manning said. “We tried to save everything for Alabama.”
There would be no shackles on either offense in Legion Field, even as they started slowly. The Crimson Tide led at halftime, 14-7. In the second half, the scoring never stopped. Legend has it that Bryant fired defensive coordinator Ken Donahue three times that night. He may have, though Donahue coached for Bryant until he retired in 1982.
“Fortunately, I was in the press box,” Moore said. “He would have [fired] me, too.”
Manning’s favorite receiver, Floyd Franks, caught 13 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown. Manning drove the Rebels to touchdowns on four second-half possessions. They led 20-14, and Hunter and the Tide retook the lead.
Ole Miss led 26-21 in the fourth quarter, and Hunter brought back the Tide again. Manning and the Rebels went ahead 32-27, and Hunter had one more chance. He drove Alabama to the Ole Miss 14, fourth-and-goal, with just under 4:00 to play. The Tide called timeout. Hunter went to the sideline.
In the official history of Alabama football, published by the university in 2000, Hunter wrote, “Coach Bryant, trying for the umpteenth time to light a well-soaked cigarette, yelled at Coach [Jimmy] Sharpe for a play. Sharpe yelled through his headset mike at coach Steve Sloan in the press box for a play; everybody was yelling but nobody was coming up with anything …”
The referee came over and told Hunter that play must resume. He turned to run back to the huddle.
“I heard Coach Bryant yell, ‘Run the best thing you got!'” Hunter said this week, “which I now know was the best answer.”
Wide receiver George Ranager ran a comeback pattern in the middle of the field. Ranager, a junior, came from Meridian, Miss. In the 1967 Mississippi High School All-Star Game, Manning threw four touchdown passes for the North team. His top receiver had been Ranager.
Ranager caught Hunter’s pass at the 3 and spun to the inside as the defensive back grabbed at his legs. Ranager stumbled and kept his balance long enough to fall into the end zone. The Tide regained the lead for good.
ABC play-by-play announcer Chris Schenkel called it “the most exciting game I’ve ever seen in 20 years of broadcasting.” The game embarrassed both coaches, who had been known for defenses that would clothesline their mothers to prevent a first down. Langston Rogers, the longtime sports information director at Ole Miss, been a confidant of Vaught for many years before the coach died in 2006 at age 96.
“Coach Vaught told me that on the field after the game, Coach Bryant said to him, ‘That was the worst goddamn game I’ve ever seen,'” Rogers said. “He said, ‘You’re right, Bear.'”
The offenses combined to set one NCAA and nine SEC records. One of the latter still stands. To this day, 42 years later, no SEC player has surpassed Manning’s 540 yards of total offense. LSU quarterback Rohan Davey equaled it in 2001.
“It really was fun,” Manning said. “We just kind of had our way. We kept making plays in different ways — some of them drawn up, some of them scrambles. We had a lot of yards to lose a game.”