By: Ron Higgins
Barry Krauss, the sideline reporter for the University of Alabama’s football radio broadcast team, plans to introduce himself this weekend to Penn State coach Joe Paterno when the Nittany Lions visit Tuscaloosa.
“I’ve never met him,” Krauss says. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Call it finishing the job that started Jan. 1, 1979.
That’s when in the 45th annual Sugar Bowl, Krauss, as an Alabama senior linebacker playing the final game of an All-American career, forcefully introduced himself to Penn State running back Mike Guman in what remains the most dramatic national championship game-saving tackle in college football history.
Fourth and 10 inches to Alabama’s end zone late in the game, No. 1 Penn State trailing No. 2 Alabama, 14-7. Handoff to Guman leaping over the top of the pile and. . .
“Greatest hit I’ve ever had,” Krauss says of the helmet-to-helmet tackle that preserved the seven-point win to give Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant his fifth national title.
Look at the picture or paintings of Krauss’ noggin knockin’ hit on Guman at the top of a pile of clawing, grunting, sweating, fatigued bodies.
“I don’t think there’s any other picture that depicts Alabama football greater than that picture because it’s about teamwork,” Krauss says.
It’s the quintessential Alabama football moment frozen in time, something that Krauss, 53, realizes more and more as the years have passed.
“(Former Alabama linebacker) Cornelius Bennett told me he saw my hit on the goal line,” recalls Krauss, “and he said, `That’s where I want to play football.’ He chose Alabama based on that hit.
“And a few years ago when Kevin Steele was Alabama’s defensive coordinator, I went in his office to congratulate him on his recruiting. He said, `Turn around and look.’
“There’s a six-foot picture of the goal line stand behind me. He said, `All I have to do is show them that. That’s the tradition of Alabama football. That sells itself.’ That’s pretty awesome.
“Bob Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, was watching that Sugar Bowl game and said, `You know what? That’s going to be my next No. 1 draft pick, Barry Krauss.’ ”
For years, the first thing Krauss recalled about the fourth-down stop was being temporarily paralyzed from the hit. He had a chronic pinched nerve in his neck that got worse and worse.
“When I hit Guman, there was immediate pain and I was totally paralyzed on my left side,” Krauss says. “I buckled when I hit him. In a split second, Murray Legg, our strong safety, comes running up and he pushes me into Guman’s back away from the goal line. Guman fell for what seemed like five minutes, but it was just a couple of seconds.
“When I came off (the field after the play) to the sideline, I still had no feeling in my arm. I was in a lot of pain. I was just trying to regain composure. I made a hard hit. Also, I was trying to comprehend what we had done.”
What Alabama had done was finish the job it started the year before in the ’77 season. In the Sugar Bowl following that year, the No. 3 ranked Crimson Tide, despite 10 fumbles (losing two), hammered No. 8 Ohio State, 35-6.
Because the two teams in front of Alabama lost earlier in the day, including No.1 Texas getting hammered 38-10 by No. 5 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, ’Bama figured a 29-point win over the Buckeyes had earned them another national championship.
But the poll voters voted Notre Dame national champions, believing beating the No. 1 team in the land by four touchdowns was more impressive.
“Before that (Ohio State) game, Coach Bryant told us everything that was going to happen that day and we all looked at him feeling it couldn’t happen, but it did,” Krauss says. “And then when we won and didn’t get named national champions. . .wow!
“So here we are a year later in the Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Penn State. Even though we lost to USC early in the season, we were No. 2. And like Notre Dame the year before when we beat No. 1 Texas, we thought we should be national champions if we beat Penn State. We had to make sure we finished the job.”
And they did. Krauss, recruited by Bryant out of Pompano Beach, Fla., was named the game’s MVP. After 76 years worth of Sugar Bowls, he’s still the only linebacker ever to win the award.
He went on to play 11 years in the NFL, 10 with the Colts, and it was then he realized how much he had learned from the Bear.
“Coach Bryant taught us to never give up, battle to the end, fight through everything,” Krauss said. “I went through some very difficult times in the NFL.
“I went through six head coaches in 10 years with the Colts. At Alabama, I lost just five games in four years. I go to the Colts, we lose 11 my first year.
“And even worse, nobody cared. When we lost a game at Alabama, it was like someone died. It was devastating to everyone in the Alabama family that we not only let ourselves down, but we let down the Alabama fans.
“I had a lot of pressure on me as a No. 1 draft choice. We weren’t winning. But Coach Bryant taught us to play every game like it was my last, so that when I walked away from the game, I had no doubt that I gave everything I had.”
That’s why the goal line stand against Penn State holds a special place deep in Krauss’ heart. You see, it wasn’t just about winning a national championship. It was about the way it was won, the Bryant way, a team with its back to the wall, with each man fighting through the fatigue and the enormity of the moment to individually perform their jobs resulting in a collective success.
Quiz Krauss about that final fourth down play, and he remembers every little detail, from Tide defensive tackle Marty Lyons advising Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina during a timeout, “I think you better throw the ball,” to strong safety Murray Legg screaming the defensive huddle, “It’s a gut check!”
“Everything came together on the play,” Krauss says. “David Hannah, who had his knee drained a couple of days before the game, wasn’t even supposed to be the game. But when Warren Lyles got hurt, Hannah ran out there to replace him and he was instrumental in re-establishing the line of scrimmage at the point of attack by submarining a blocker.
“Before the play, I thought since they’d just run it up the middle on third down, that they might run outside or throw. So I backed up just a bit to give myself more depth. When Fusina handed off to Guman, he saw a hole inside. So did I.”
“When the play started, (defensive back) Mike Clements came from the outside. Rich Wingo (who entered the game earlier in place of injured Rickey Gilliland) took on the lead blocker. My job was to get the jumper and I had the opportunity to square up.
“I hit Guman face-to-face. That’s the way I used to do it. I went down on the turf in pain and I didn’t even realize we stopped them until Marty Lyons reached down, picked me up and said, `Barry, you stopped him, man.’ ”
Years later in Don Wade’s book “Always Alabama,” Guman recalled Clements’ initial hit from the outside keeping him from getting fully airborne. He also said hitting Krauss was like hitting “a wall.” Krauss hit Guman so hard that it loosened the rivets on Krauss’ helmet, but the long-term impact of the moment didn’t really resonate with Krauss until years later.
“It took me a couple of decades to understand how that play changed my life, and all of our lives that day,” Krauss says. “In that fourth quarter of the biggest game of our careers, we defined the moment. But we were prepared for the moment.
“We were the epitome of what Coach Bryant talked about, what he believed and what we worked for. It’s about rising to the occasion. It’s about all coming together in the right place at the right time. We were all taught to do our job and everybody had to do their job at the right time.”
These days, Krauss speaks to corporations. Wherever he speaks, with the picture of his fourth-down stop enlarged behind him as his backdrop, his message is about teamwork, about focusing on goals, about persevering, everything he learned from the Bear.
“It has been 30-something years and I still think of Coach Bryant, especially when I’ve been in difficult situations,” Krause says. “What would Coach Bryant expect me to do? Lay down, give up or fight? Battle through it. I’ve done it.
“No one knows what it is like to be put through a physical and mental grind, but by going through that with Coach Bryant, I became a better man and I thank him for that.
“He talked constantly about winning a national championship. To be able to have that as one of my final moments with him, to have the honor to perform for him like that, to finish it up that way, walk over to that sideline and see him knowing we did our job the way he taught us, is still the greatest feeling I’ve ever had.”
Even ’ol Joe Paterno can appreciate that. Bet you he gives Krauss a hearty handshake and a pat on the back this weekend.
But probably not a head butt.