John Bond’s corvette was parked near the dressing room at Jackson Veterans Memorial Stadium on the afternoon on the first day of November 1980.
Like the rest of Mississippi State’s football players, Bond, State’s unflappable freshman starting quarterback, had ridden the team bus from Starkville as the Bulldogs prepared to play Bear Bryant-coached Alabama. The Crimson Tide was the midst of the greatest winning streak in the long and glorious career of one of the most legendary coaches in college football history.
Alabama, just just like this Saturday when it plays the Bulldogs in Tuscaloosa, was ranked No. 1 nationally. Alabama, just like this Saturday, was the defending national champion having won back-to-back national titles in 1978 and 1979. Alabama, just like this Saturday, was undefeated.
But there was this. Alabama, unlike this Saturday, was on two winning streaks that to this day have stood the test of time. One a 28-game winning streak that is still tied for the longest in SEC history (also set by later Tide teams from 1991-93) and the longest consecutive SEC victory streak at 27 games that started late in the 1976 season.
Yet even in the face of this Crimson juggernaut, then-Mississippi State coach Emory Bellard made a promise to his team in the days leading up to that 1980 game. Thirty plus years have passed since that week, and John Bond, now 51 years old and living outside of Jackson, instinctively recalls the words of the beloved Bellard, who died February 2011 at age 83.
“We had an open date the next week after the Alabama game,” John says. “So Coach Bellard tells us, `Look guys, if you win this weekend, I’ll give you Sunday and Monday off. You won’t have to be back here until Monday afternoon.’
“I knew right then I was getting one of our student managers to drive my car down to Jackson, because I wasn’t going to be back until Monday.”
He wasn’t. Because Mississippi State had a defense loaded with future NFL players and because Bellard had created the Wishbone option offense that Alabama ran, the 20-point underdog Bulldogs walked away with a stunning 6-3 victory in a game that was nothing but field goals.
Alabama’s Peter Kim hit a 49-yard field goal in the second quarter to give the Tide their only score of the day and a 3-0 halftime lead. The Bulldogs' Dana Moore, recruited out of LSU’s backyard in Baton Rouge, hit two field goals in the second half, one from 37 yards out and the other from the 22, to put State ahead.
The Crimson Tide's offense, which had been averaging more than 300 yards per game, totaled 116 vs. State. Alabama lost four fumbles, including a last-gasp threat being thwarted with six seconds left at the State 4-yard line when State’s Tyrone Keys blasted Alabama QB Don Jacobs. Jacobs fumbled and Billy Jackson recovered.
There was still some drama left on State’s final snap from its own 2-yard line, because the Bulldogs received a delay-of-game penalty for an on-the-field celebration following Jacobs’ turnover.
But more about that later.
Back to Bellard, a Texas native who spent 21 years as a high school head coach in Texas before University of Texas coach Darrell Royal hired him as offensive coordinator in 1971.
Consider the boldness of Royal’s move. A traditionally great college football program, led by a Hall of Fame coach, hires a high school head coach to jumpstart a program that had tailed off a bit.
Of course, it took Royal a year to be convinced that Bellard shouldn’t be the linebackers coach, as he was in his first year on the staff in 1967. In 1968, Royal moved Bellard to offensive coordinator, because he became intrigued with an offensive scheme that Bellard developed called the Wishbone.
In the Wishbone, the fullback lined up just ahead of the two halfbacks on either side. The quarterback would take the snap, begin running parallel to the line, handoff or fake to the fullback, then pitch the ball to a trailing back or keep it himself. Bellard once said that the Wishbone “is the soundest offense that has ever been put together.”
Once he installed it at Texas, the Longhorns won 30 consecutive games, an Associated Press national title in 1969, and another unbeaten regular season in 1970. The Longhorns averaged 363 yards rushing in 1969 and 374.5 in 1970.
The Wishbone became the rage. Oklahoma began using it and won national titles. And then after Alabama’s Bryant had uncharacteristically average seasons of 6-4 in 1979 and 6-5 in 1970, he consulted with Bellard to install the Wishbone in 1971. Alabama immediately went 11-1 and Bryant won nine more SEC championships and two national titles in the last 12 years of his career.
Bellard, meanwhile, was hired by Texas A&M as its head coach. He was 48-27 in seven seasons with the Aggies from 1972-78, winning the Southwest Conference championship before moving on to Mississippi State in 1979.
Previous State coach Bob Tyler had left Bellard a nice array of defensive talent, but Bellard was lacking the perfect quarterback to run his Wishbone. In Bellard’s second recruiting class, he found Bond, a standout runner and smooth passer from football-crazy Valdosta. Ga.
John had Starkville ties – “I was born there,” he says – that kept him from being swayed by Alabama’s Bryant during a home visit.
“My Mom and Dad were big Alabama fans, so it was a hard decision,” John recalls. “But they both graduated from Mississippi State and my dad had been the dean of students. Kermit Davis, State’s basketball coach, had been our next door neighbor. I lived there until I was nine, so I always wanted to be a Bulldog.”
In Bellard’s second season at State in 1980 and with John in first college season, the Bulldogs started the year 6-2 overall and 2-1 in the 10-team SEC when league members played a six-game conference schedule.
By game nine preparing to play the mighty Crimson Tide, John was confident.
“I felt good about the game, because we had such a great defense,” Bond said. “I know because I worked my way from No. 7 to No. 2 on the depth chart and the No. 2 offense had to scrimmage against the No. 2 defense every day. That was horrible. We had people on defense that were animals.”
That State defense contained five future NFL players, including first-rounders Johnie Cooks and Glen Collins.
There was also the fact that Bellard, as the father of the Wishbone, knew how to make his baby behave.
“I remember Coach Bellard saying at a staff meeting that he gave birth to the Wishbone and he knew how to stop it,” says Stratton Karatassos, currently a State associate athletic director of development who had been a trainer for Bellard.
With State’s veteran defense shutting down Alabama, it was left up to John and a young offense to somehow manufacture enough points to win.
“Offensively between the 15-yard lines for both teams, it was great,” John remembers. “But once you got to the 15s, the defense stiffened.”
Because of the tight game, there was drama aplenty, even leading up to the game for Bond and the late Kent Hull, State’s center, who played 14 pro seasons (11 NFL, three USFL) and who died at age 50 last October from liver disease.
“The Thursday night before that Alabama game, I got in a scuffle because I’m sort of a wild child and I didn’t mind having a good time now and then,” Bond says. “So I really beat up my throwing hand. We’re driving home late that night and Kent looks at my hand and says, ‘J.B., you need stitches. We gotta go some place and get you stitched up.’
“But we don’t do it. We know if that happens, I won’t play Saturday. We got back to the dorm and wrap it as tight as we can. I get through Friday’s practice okay, but during the whole game on Saturday I’m bleeding all over Kent’s pants. Every time I put my hands under center, I bled on him. He was covered with my blood from his butt all the way down to his ankle”
There was more drama down the stretch. Alabama blocked a field goal and got possession near midfield for its final drive.
“I remember standing next to Coach Bellard when the field goal got blocked,” John laughs, “and him saying, `That’s probably a bad idea.’
“And then on that next (Alabama) series, Alabama had like a third-and-19 when the play clock ran out. They get whistled for delay-of-game and then the officials pick up the flag, because they claimed Alabama couldn’t hear signals.
“When you now hear a radio call of that game, you’ll hear (former State play-by-play announcer) Jack Cristil say, `Well, that was a delay-of-game, but it looks like it’s going to be third-and-19 again. I guess The Bear had a little talk with them (the officials).’ ”
It was John and Hull as the central characters in one last bit of intrigue in the Alabama upset. On the game’s final snap from the State 2, with John just wanting to take a knee and kill the clock, John says an Alabama defensive lineman reached over and slapped the ball just as Hull snapped.
“I never even got a hand on the ball,” John says. “The ball just flew past me. Before the play started, I was telling Kent, `Watch him (No. 50), he’s got something under his sleeve. He’s fixing to do something.
“I get up under him and I say again, `Kent, what’s he doing?’ He says, `I don’t know.’ I’m getting all these words of wisdom from a sophomore center. I call the snap count, No. 50 slaps it and the ball went right by me. It landed about the 1-yard line as the clock runs out
“There’s a pile of bodies. I’m screaming, `Who’s got the ball?’ Under all these players, I hear our fullback Donald Ray King say, “I got it J.B., I got it, I got it.’ The refs started to unpile us, then they ran off the field. Alabama’s defense was jumping around. But when the refs left, I said, `I’m outta here.’ ”
State’s post-game loud, long locker room celebration was momentarily silenced by a pounding on the door. It swung open and in marched two Alabama state police followed by Bear Bryant and Bryant’s driver.
“To this day, I get chills thinking about it,” Karatassos says. “The first thing he did was reach up and pull off his hat. They pull a folding chair for him to stand on in the middle of the room. He says, `The best team won today, fellas. Don’t let anybody tell you any differently.’
“He put on his hat, looked at Coach Bellard and tipped his hat. And he turned around and walked out. What a class act!”
A couple of days later on his weekly coaches’ TV show, Bryant lamented that he could tell his team wasn’t ready for the State game.
“It was one of the most beautiful days of football I’ve ever seen,” Bryant told co-host Charlie Thornton. “But the whole organization, starting with me, didn’t do very well. Friday night, I didn’t think we were ready, because the (team) bus I was riding on was carrying on lot of foolishness, like somebody just escaped from the idiot house or something.”
By the time Bryant said that, the celebration was in full swing in Starkville. Hundreds of fans gathered outside of Bellard’s house that Saturday night to greet him upon his return.
Meanwhile, John had hopped in his Corvette with a friend from Atlanta and pointed his hot set of wheels toward Georgia. John’s plan was to follow one of the game officials all the way back to Atlanta and then keep driving to the University of Georgia where he was dating a girl and where he was friends with quarterbacks Buck Belue and John Latsinger, and a freshman running back named Herschel Walker.
“I got there about midnight in time to party in the Kappa Sig house,” John says. “The only time I stopped was when the official stopped to get something to eat ironically in Tuscaloosa and I pulled off, too. Didn’t seem like there was much going on there.
“By the time I got to Athens, I wasn’t moving too well. I’d gotten a hip pointer in the game getting hit by (Alabama’s) Tommy Wilcox and I didn’t realize because I was full of adrenaline. But I looked down on my hip and I had this big blue blop growing on me.
“I still tell Buck and John and all my Georgia buddies they wouldn’t have won the 1980 national championship if we hadn’t beaten Alabama.”
Over the years, State’s upset of Alabama has continually ranked as one of the 10 greatest SEC games of all-time. Karatassos, who has been working for State since 1973 and is one of a handful of people left in the athletic department who remembers the 1980 team, characterizes them as “a special group of people, and not just because of what they did on the field.”
An example came in February 2010 when John’s 20-year old son Andrew, a beautiful boy with a heart of gold who constantly served on mission trips, died in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel.
“I’m at my son’s funeral in Valdosta and Kent, without even calling me, just drives all the way from Greenwood, Miss., and shows up,” John says. “He walks right up to me, he grabs me by the neck and says, `I love you, brother.’ Then when the service was over, he turned around and drove home.”
Andrew lives on in a foundation John started called Andrew’s Mission (andrewsmission.org), which finances kids serving on mission trips. And John just became the father of a five-week old boy that he and his wife took to State’s game last week against Middle Tennessee.
“I called (former Alabama QB) Jay Barker when my most recent son was born,’ ” John says, “and said, `Jay, I named him after an Alabama quarterback’
`Jay says, `You named him Jay?’
“I said, `I named him John Parker (the same name as former Tide QB John Parker Wilson).’
Jay says, `You blankety-blank.’
John howls laughing telling that story. Seems like anything related to Alabama always brings back good memories.