My name is Ron, and I’m a bowlaholic.
Unlike many of my younger sportswriting brethren today, clamoring for a national championship playoff, I love bowl games.
For the next 5 ½ weeks, I will watch bits and pieces of all 35 bowls, including three (the Liberty, the Sugar and the BCS national championship game) in person.
In my 30 years of writing sports, I’ve probably covered more than 40 bowls and some of the crazy pre-bowl activities that entertain the teams, whether it’s a steak eating contest at the Cotton Bowl, a beach tug-of-war at the Outback Bowl or an orange-squeezing contest at the Capital One Bowl.
Yeah, I know the argument from the average sports fan that these bowls don’t matter, that the only one anybody cares about is the national championship game.
That’s true for some people. But not for a college athlete who has worked all year for some kind of tangible reward. Players are treated like kings by bowl hosts, from the “can do” hospitality to the load of bowl gifts players receive.
I’ve personally reported on a fair share of great bowl games and there are some bowls I wish I would have covered. Here’s a look at a bit of both categories:
My fave five bowl games I’ve covered:
1. No. 2 Alabama 34, No. 1 Miami 13, 1993 Sugar Bowl – Alabama hadn’t sniffed a national championship since 1979, and the No. 2 and unbeaten Tide was an eight-point underdog going into the ’93 Sugar Bowl.
This was clearly a battle between old tradition (Alabama) and new tradition with the No. 1 and defending national champions Miami. Miami was shooting for its third national title in four years, fourth in six years and fifth in 10 years. Miami entered the game with the nation’s longest win streak at 29 games; Alabama was second at 22.
There was yapping all week prior to the game, such as a scene one night in the French Quarter outside of Pat O’Brien’s bar when a group of 10 to 12 players from each team got into a brief taunting and shoving match.
“Miami’s kind of like Muhammad Ali - they talk a lot and usually back it up,” Alabama senior running back Derrick Lassic said at the time. “But I couldn’t believe they were jawing with us. It kind of showed me they weren’t sure of themselves, like they didn’t have the confidence.”
The Hurricanes kept jabbering away.
“Alabama is a one-dimensional team, and no one-dimensional team can beat us,” said Miami freshman linebacker Rohan Marley, son of late reggae singer Bob Marley.
That sounded great until the game started. Then, Lassic pounded the Hurricanes with Alabama’s typical ball-control offense, while the Tide defense executed a brilliant gameplan by ’Bama defensive coordinator Bill “Brother” Oliver.
Oliver thoroughly befuddled Gino Toretta, Miami’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Torretta, who Miami Coach Dennis Erickson touted for his ability to read defenses, was dazed.
Most of his 24 completions in 56 attempts for 278 yards came after ‘Bama took a 27-6 lead with 9:56 left in the third quarter on cornerback George Teague’s 31-yard touchdown interception return.
“We got into Torretta’s head,” said ‘Bama cornerback Tommy Johnson, who intercepted Torretta’s first pass of the third quarter. “We played zone 30 percent of the time and man the rest. We faked blitzes and dropped two or three men deep. We dared him to throw long.”
Torretta didn’t have much time anywhere. He was sacked on the second play of the game after being flushed from the pocket by all-American ends Eric Curry and John Copeland.
“The first time I hit Torretta I told him to get used to it because I was going to be there all night,” Curry said.
Alabama scored 14 points in a 16-second span early in the third quarter and the Hurricanes were done. Lassic’s 135 yards on 28 carries and two TDs earned him the game’s Most Outstanding Player honor.
“Our running backs and our offensive line were challenged,” Lassic said. “Miami said we were a one-dimensional team and we wanted to prove them wrong. They (Hurricanes) were mouthing off at the start of the game, but we shut them up.”
Leave it to Stallings to have the last word.
“It’s like I said - what some rookie wide receiver might say in Pat O’Brien’s doesn’t mean a thing,” Stallings said. “The football field is where you settle it.”
Stallings was truly humbled by being the coach of a national champion.
“Only in America can a guy get fired twice in my career like I have (Phoenix Cardinals and Texas A&M) and end up winning national Coach of the Year and coaching a national championship team,” he said.
2. No. 3 Florida 52, No. 1 Florida State 20, 1997 Sugar Bowl – It wasn’t masterful, but it was the summation of a psyche job started by Florida coach Steve Spurrier more than a month earlier when FSU beat Florida, 24-21, at FSU.
That day when Gators handed over the No. 1 spot to the Seminoles, Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel was sacked six times and threw three interceptions. He was hit so many times by the fierce Seminoles’ pass rush that Spurrier put together a videotape of what he thought were late hits and campaigned an entire month in the media for the officials to protect his quarterback.
While Spurrier worked the officials, he also decided to put Wuerffel in a shotgun formation in the Sugar Bowl, hoping to alleviate the pass rush. Wuerffel was still sacked five times by FSU and Florida was whistled for a Sugar Bowl record 15 penalties, but he also threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns in a 32-point laugher over the previously unbeaten Seminoles.
Thanks to No. 4 Ohio State’s 20-17 win over previously-unbeaten and No. 2 Arizona State, the Gators jumped to No. 1 in the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN coaches polls to give the 12-1 Gators the national title.
“A month ago after losing to Florida State, I thought we were out of it,” said Spurrier, who saw his team finish No. 2 in the polls in 1995 after the Gators were pummeled 62-24 by Nebraska in the national championship game matchup in the Fiesta Bowl. “But Ohio State beat Arizona State. It seems like we’ve had some divine guidance.”
The largest Sugar Bowl crowd at that time to watch the game in the Louisiana Superdome - 78,344 - saw the Gators set a Sugar record for most points scored by pulling away in the third quarter behind the brilliant play of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Wuerffel. After Florida State cut Florida’s lead to 24-20 with 10:24 left in the third quarter on Scott Bentley’s 45-yard field goal, Wuerffel responded in the final 5:43 of the period by throwing his final touchdown pass and then ran 16 yards for another score that doomed the Seminoles.
“To celebrate a team championship is much more rewarding than standing behind a podium by yourself,” said Wuerffel, who was an easy choice as the winner of the game’s Miller-Digby Most Outstanding Player award.
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden tipped his cap to Spurrier for his decision to put Wuerffel in the shotgun. After Wuerffel threw four TDs in 12 tries out of the shotgun in the SEC championship game win over Alabama, Spurrier decided to try it against the ‘Noles.
“That was the smartest thing that Steve could have done,” Bowden said. “Wuerffel just threw the heck out of it and Steve kept his running backs in the backfield for more protection.”
Wuerffel said his view in the shotgun looked clearer than being a dropback passer.
“I just stood back, threw to spots and our receivers got there,” Wuerffel said.
3. No. 4 Tennessee 20, No. 4 Ohio State 14, 1996 Citrus Bowl –The Vols and the Buckeyes both entered the 50th annual Citrus Bowl with one loss in the ’95 season.
Tennessee’s second-half collapse in a 62-37 loss to Florida kept the Vols from a perfect regular season. The Buckeyes folded in the final two quarters to Michigan, 31-23, in the regular-season finale.
While the Vols had sophomore Peyton Manning at quarterback, Ohio State had Heisman Trophy winning running back Eddie George at running back, Outland Trophy winner Orlando Pace at offensive tackle and Bilentnikoff Award winner Terry Glenn at wide receiver.
The Buckeyes also quarterback Bobby Hoying, an all-Big 10 first teamer who led the conference in total offense and finished second nationally in passing efficiency behind Florida’s Danny Wuerffel.
All that talent added up to Ohio State ranking fifth nationally in total offense, averaging 490.6 yards, and sixth nationally in scoring offense, averaging 38.4 points.
“They may be the most decorated team we’ve ever played against,” said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer before the game.
Yet in what was one of the best defensive performances in UT history, the Big Orange defense stopped Ohio State with a second-quarter goal-line stand and forced three fourth- quarter fumbles as the Vols held on for a six-point victory.
The Vols, trailing 7-0, were on the verge of going over the edge with 6:21 left in the first half. Ohio State, primed at the Tennessee 24-yard line following Vols’ tailback Eric Lane’s fumble, ran George five straight times to the Vols’ 2-yard line where the Buckeyes faced fourth-and-inches for a first down.
But the Vols stuffed George for a 2-yard loss with linebacker Jesse Sanders submarining a blocker and tackle Bill Duff coming over the top. Amazingly, the Buckeyes’ ran the play away from the side of Outland Trophy-winning lineman Pace.
“If we couldn’t make six inches with a Heisman Trophy winner, then maybe we shouldn’t deserve to win the game anyway,” said miffed Ohio State coach John Cooper.
After an exchange of punts, the Vols got the ball back with 41 seconds left at the Tennessee 20-yard line. Fulmer acknowledged he was hoping to get the Vols into field goal position. Two plays into the drive, UT tailback Jay Graham broke a simple draw play for a game-tying 69-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds left in the first half.
And on Tennessee’s first possession of the second half, Manning’s 47-yard scoring strike to Joey Kent with 13:22 left in the third quarter gave the Vols a 14-7 lead, and they never trailed again.
The Vols’ defense held on, forcing one last turnover. Tennessee cornerback DeRon Jenkins leveled Ohio State receiver Dimitrious Stanley, who fumbled with 57 seconds left. Tennessee linebacker Craig King recovered at the Tennessee 38-yard line, clinching an 11-1 finish, the fifth 11-win season in Vols’ history.
“Nobody thought we could hold an offense like Ohio State’s to 14 points, but we were confident we could if everyone played to their capabilities,” Jenkins said.
The game’s Most Valuable Player was Tennessee’s Graham, who outrushed Ohio State’s George, 154-101, with each player scoring once.
4. Ole Miss 42, Air Force 29, 1989 Liberty Bowl – This may be the only college game in history won by a paralyzed player.
Just ask former Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer. He was there that frosty December night in Memphis.
"It's the most emotional moment I've ever had in my 38-plus years as a coach," said Brewer, retired and living in Oxford with his wife, Kay.
The '89 Liberty Bowl was a shootout, with the Rebels and Falcons combining for 1,046 yards. There was a lot of offense, but as far as Brewer was concerned, the game was never in doubt once Chucky Mullins showed up in the dressing room tunnel shortly before kickoff. Mullins was a Rebels defensive back from Russellville, Ala., who convinced Brewer to give him a scholarship. He played without fear and rarely was without a smile as wide as the Mississippi River.
But at the '89 Homecoming game against Vanderbilt, he was paralyzed while tackling Vandy's Brad Gaines. As he began his recovery and rehab at Baptist Memorial Hospital on Union Avenue in Memphis, Mullins became a source of inspiration for the team members as they rallied around their battle cry, "It's time."
It was only fitting that the Rebels went 8-3 in the regular season and ended up at the Liberty Bowl. That meant Mullins' teammates could slip away from their hotel, The Peabody, and make the short trek down Union to visit him at Baptist.
"And every day when we would go to practice, our buses, with the police escorts blaring their sirens, would pass right by Baptist," Brewer said. "Our kids knew exactly where Chucky's room was and they'd wave. He could hear us coming."
Still, on Liberty Bowl game night, no one was quite sure if Mullins was well enough to attend the game. As usual, it was skin-stinging cold and it didn't seem like an ideal time to bring Mullins for a visit.
"We'd just come off the field in pregame warm-ups when they backed the ambulance down the chute next to our dressing room, and they rolled Chucky out," Brewer said. "He was all bundled up and had on that little cap, but he was smiling. Our team was so excited and revved up."
And the Rebels were taken a notch higher.
After his pregame speech in the dressing room, Brewer turned to Mullins and asked, "Chucky, is there anything you want to say right now?"
The team gathered around Mullins tight, straining to see if he could say anything. Finally, he spoke as his teammates hovered over him.
"That's all he said and let me tell you, from that point there was no way we were losing that game," Brewer said. "Air Force had a great team, and I had enormous amount of respect for its coach, Fisher DeBerry, and the offense they ran.
"But when Chucky said, 'It's time,' I just put my hands in my pocket because it was a done deal. Our team just erupted. They almost tore off the dressing room doors and it was an easy game to coach. We played way beyond our means (Ole Miss led 28-9 at the half). We were a good football team, but we were an exceptional football team that night."
5. No. 2 LSU 38, No. 1 Ohio State 24, 2007 BCS championship game – When LSU fell behind the Buckeyes, 10-0, there wasn’t an ounce of panic on the Tigers’ sideline or in the Louisiana Superdome stands.
That’s because LSU had its back to the wall so many times during the ’07 season – it won four games in the fourth quarter, including three in the final 90 seconds - even the Geaux Tigers faithful was used to not hitting the panic button.
“We have a never-give-up attitude that’s engrained in your mind from the time you first get to LSU,” fifth-year senior quarterback Matt Flynn said. “Guys know how to win and don’t accept losing. Even if we’re down 10 points in the fourth quarter, we still feel in the back of our mind that we’re going to win the game.”
The Tigers didn’t wait until the fourth quarter to beat the Buckeyes. After the slow start, LSU scored on its next five of six possessions and finally turned loose a stampeding defense down the stretch to preserve a 14-point victory.
“We’re the first two-loss team ever to win the national championship, and there may still be some argument who’s the best team in the nation,” said LSU coach Les Miles, a Michigan grad who discovered that instead of taking the Michigan coaching opening a few weeks prior to the national title game, all he had to do was take a 90-minute bus ride to New Orleans from Baton Rouge to beat the Wolverines’ most hated rival. “But the national champion was crowned tonight. I knew this team was competitive and I knew they would fight like (heck).
“By the grace of God, by divine intervention, we got here. We just wanted a chance to do our best.”
As the Tigers (12-2) have all season, they leaned heavily on their seniors to make most of the game’s big offensive plays, and then turned to a sophomore to turn it up on defense and special teams.
Flynn was voted the game’s most outstanding offensive player. He completed 19-of-27 passes for an efficient 174 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.
“We knew Ohio State would come out with a big surge, but we have a bunch of grown men who have been in a lot of tough situations,” said Flynn, who waited four years to become LSU’s starting QB. “This team is stubborn. We don’t know when to quit. Once we got in rhythm, we stayed in rhythm and finished in rhythm.”
Defensively, LSU had an unlikely hero step forward – sophomore defensive end/tackle Ricky Jean-Francois – who was named the game’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player. It was just Jean-Francois’ second game this season after being academically suspended.
He had six tackles and blocked a second quarter Ohio State field goal that led to LSU’s go-ahead TD, with the Tigers taking a lead it never gave up.
“My coach just told me to get low, get down full speed and block it,” Jean-Francois said. “I got through, got my hand up and I thought, ‘Please let me block this kick.’ I think it changed game momentum.”
The post-game celebration carried on until sunrise in the French Quarter. Just before 2 o’clock in the morning, about three hours after the end of the game, LSU’s Miles stood on a second-floor balcony of the Royal Sonesta hotel overlooking Bourbon Street. He held aloft the crystal football awarded to the BCS national champion Tigers.
Once partying LSU fans realized that their leader was among them, as LSU media relations director Michael Bonnette said, “Both ends of Bourbon Street emptied and at least 5,000 people met in the middle. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Miles said he wasn’t try audition for the king of Mardi Gras. He just wanted to let the LSU fans know how he felt.
"It just something I wanted to do to thank our fans,” Miles said. “It was really, really neat.”
Three bowl games I wish I could have covered:
1. Alabama 21, Illinois 15, 1982 Liberty Bowl – This was the last game in the storied coaching career of Alabama’s Bear Bryant. Former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, who played for Bryant, was an assistant on his last staff.
Croom has clear memories of the days leading to the final game, and the game itself. Bryant died less than two weeks after the game.
“We worked out at Memphis State the day before the game,” Croom said. “There was a little room there where we had a team meeting. Coach Bryant came in and tried to make a joke.
“Usually when he made a joke, we laughed. But nobody laughed. It was hard to even look at him, because we knew how hard it was on him to stand up there and talk. I remember distinctly dropping my head. I didn’t want to look at him. We didn’t want to break down in front of him, because we knew it was the end.
“It was the most pressure packed game that I’ve ever been involved in, because it was his last game. We had to win that game. To be honest with you, Illinois was probably better than us. We had some guys that game that really played over their heads.
“The players, the coaches, we all felt ‘there ain’t no way we’re going to lose Coach Bryant’s last game. We’re going to live with this the rest of our lives.’
“I remember Illinois was driving and it didn’t look like we could stop them. I remember when they crossed the 50-yard line thinking, ‘If they score, it’s over.’ And we picked off the pass to end the game.
“There was no jubilation. It was relief that we won. We go in the dressing room, and there was no celebration. No nothing. Everyone was crying. It was like a morgue. That had to be the saddest dressing room in the history of football after a victory, because it was over.”
2. Mississippi State 43, Texas A&M 41 (OT), 2000 Independence Bowl – Forty minutes before kickoff, Shreveport’s Independence Stadium was transformed into a frozen tundra.
Snow began falling like crazy, blowing from north to south, covering the stadium’s brand new synthetic turf. By game time, the Independence Bowl logos in both end zones were covered, as were those painted at midfield on both 30-yard lines, and all of the yard lines.
With 8:06 left to play in the first quarter, Independence Stadium saw its first ever snow plow come onto the field to uncover some of the yard lines.
The snow came down steadily throughout the game. The game-time temperature was 28 degrees, with a wind chill of 10 degrees. Total accumulation was somewhere between 1 and 3 inches.
The Bulldogs wore uniforms that made them disappear in the snow. MSU played with white helmets for the first time since the early 1970s, and the Bulldogs were decked out in white from head to toe. Part of the reason was to differentiate from Texas A&M, whose uniforms and helmets were the exact same maroon color.
Even with all-white unis blending in the snow, the Bulldogs pulled out a thrilling two-point overtime win, erasing a 14-point fourth quarter deficit.
A&M scored on the first play of overtime, with 270-pound bruising fullback Ja’Mar Toombs breaking loose on a 25-yard touchdown. But State scored two points when MSU’s Willie Blade blocked A&M’s extra point attempt, which was recovered by Eugene Clinton. Before Clinton could be tackled, he lateraled to teammate Julius Griffith, who ran the distance for the two-point conversion.
Trailing A&M 41-37, State quarterback Wayne Madkin ran twice, the second carry for a game-winning 6-yard TD.
“One thing about this team, they’re very resilient,” State Coach Jackie Sherrill said afterward while thawing out. “They may be outmanned at times, but they’re still going to fight.”
3. No. 6 Arkansas 38, No. 2 Oklahoma 6, 1978 Orange Bowl – The Razorbacks had lost just one game all season entering the game, but seemed doomed when Arkansas coach Lou Holtz suspended three players – running backs Ben Cowins and Michael Forrest and receiver Danny Bobo – for a dorm incident involving a female.
By kickoff, Oklahoma was an 18-point favorite, but Holtz was supremely confident as was his team.
Why? Holtz and his offensive coaches designed a brilliant game plan, centered around QB keepers by Ron Calcagni and a play that running back Roland Sales ran so often and so well that he gained a then-Orange Bowl record 205 yards.
Arkansas coaches noticed watching Oklahoma game film how the Sooners’ defensive front keyed off the first moves of opposing offensive lines.
So Holtz had his offensive tackles fake outside as though they planned to block the Sooners’ defensive tackles to the inside. Then, when Oklahoma’s DTs jumped outside, the Arkansas offensive tackles surged forward to block a linebacker while Oklahoma DTs ran themselves out of plays.
The result was 315 rushing yards by Arkansas, causing Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer to admit, “It was a great scheme that created some great gaps for their dive backs.”