By Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
The premise, more than two decades later, is still so remarkable that even Chris Donnelly can’t tell the entire story to strangers.
“When people find out I played at Alabama and started at free safety on the 1992 national championship team, I leave out the Vanderbilt part,” Chris says.
The Vanderbilt part?
“If I tell them about the Vanderbilt part, they wouldn’t believe me,” Chris insists.
He’s right. Who would believe that someone who started at Vanderbilt in 1989-90 where the Commodores were a combined 2-20 overall and 1-13 in the SEC, would transfer to Alabama where he started for the 1992-93 teams that were a combined 22-3-1 and 13-2-1, and won national and SEC titles?
“I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Chris, who had three firm scholarship offers from Vanderbilt, Kentucky and the University of Memphis as an all-state quarterback/defensive back for Germantown (Tenn.) High in the Memphis suburbs. “If you would rewind back to when I graduated in high school and said `Let me tell you what the next four or five years would look like,’ I would have said you were crazy.”
“But things happen for a reason. Transferring to Alabama made me who I am. I met my wife at Alabama. I went into the medical business in Alabama. I live in Birmingham.”
Chris, 42 and married for 17 years with two boys ages 13 and 10, will be at home in front of the TV on Saturday watching his alma mater try and win its 23rd SEC championship. The defending national champ Crimson Tide takes on Georgia in the 21st league title game at the Georgia Dome.
For No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia both at 11-1, it’s all or nothing proposition. The winner plays No. 1 Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game on Jan. 7 in Miami. The loser plays in lesser bowl.
Chris can relate to that. In 1992, Alabama was No. 2 and 12-0 with a spotless 8-0 record when it was matched against Florida in the first SEC championship game in Birmingham’s Legion Field. The Gators were just 8-3.
An Alabama win meant a date in the Sugar Bowl to play No. 1 Miami for the national championship. A loss meant a ruined season.
“We’d won 11 games and we weren’t even SEC champs yet,” Chris says. “We weren’t even guaranteed to play in the Sugar Bowl. We had everything to lose and Florida had nothing to lose.”
The first two years of his college career playing for Vanderbilt, Chris learned a lot about losing.
In 1989 as a true freshman, Chris started and was named the SEC’s Freshman of the Year. He set Vanderbilt's single- game interception record with three against Alabama, and broke the school's single-season record for pass breakups with 14. He also led the team in interceptions with five.
“As a freshman, I was excited to be playing, excited to be starting, excited to be playing on TV in big stadiums,” he recalls.
But reality set in as a sophomore in ’90. Though he had 52 tackles, one interception and five pass breakups, he hurt his knee.
The physical pain could be mended. But the mental anguish of playing in a program that for years had been the doormat for the rest of the SEC finally got to Chris. When Vanderbilt coach Watson Brown was fired at the end of the season, Chris got his scholarship release so he could transfer.
“I reached a point where I stopped believing, and I’m one of those guys who had to believe to be all in,” Chris says. “I could have just been one of those guys that just rode it out, but I don’t know if I’d done that whether I would have been that good of a ballplayer. I always wondered if I could play at a bigger school. If I did it and succeeded, I knew the rewards were a lot higher.”
Chris’ list for his next college destination started and stopped with one school – Alabama – one of college football’s most successful and traditional programs.
“I had visited Alabama during recruiting the first time, and they offered an in-state safety their coaches thought was better than me,” Chris says. “But I loved the school on my visit.
“When I looked to transfer from Vanderbilt, I knew Randy Ross, the recruiting coordinator at Alabama, because he had been at Vanderbilt and helped recruit me there.”
Chris didn’t tell anyone where he was transferring until he actually made the move. Immediately, he was hit with a wave of skepticism.
Yo Chris, you really transferring from the worst program in the league to traditionally the best program? And you expect to play?
“I had friends in Memphis and at Vanderbilt who wanted to know why I would give up a $60,000 a year Vanderbilt education to ride the bench at Alabama. They all said, `You’ll never play there.’ That was all the fuel I needed.”
Chris sat out the 1991 season as redshirt in accordance with the NCAA transfer rule. While he toiled on the Crimson Tide scout squad, putting in time and learning the Alabama defensive system under famed coordinator Bill “Brother” Oliver, he saw the Grand Canyon-sized difference between winning and losing atmospheres.
''When you walked into the Alabama football complex, you’d see the pictures of the national championship teams and you see the pictures of the great Alabama players like Bart Starr, Joe Namath and Lee Roy Jordan,'' Chris recalls. “You felt the tradition. You talked to people around Tuscaloosa, and you understood the mystique of the program. There was more pressure, more of a responsibility to perform well, but it's was something I welcomed.
''At Vanderbilt, we went into games with the goal of just making the score close - if we made it close, it was a good game for us. If a big play was made against us, we'd drop our heads. At Alabama, you’re expected to win the national championship.
“I remember watching game film after the second game I played for Alabama in 1992. There was a play where I came up and made a tackle to stop a running back. He gained seven yards on first down to make it second-and-three.
“Coach Oliver looks at the film and shows me that if my footwork would have been better, I would have reacted quicker and stopped the running back to make it a two-yard gain for second-and-eight.
He told me, `If you come up and make tackles like you did, we’ll win games, but we can’t win championships. We win championships when it’s second-and-eight.’
“That was Coach Oliver’s way of saying that we were there to win championships, and it always comes down to do doing the little things right.”
Chris did those things. HHHe had 52 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups on that ’92 defense that is considered the best modern day unit in SEC history.
Four players from the ’92defense were first-round NFL draft choices and three others were also drafted. Three were first-team all-Americans and six players were first-team All-SEC.
The ’92 Tide defense allowed just 55 yards per game, a mere 194.7 yards total offense and just 9.4 points. Not until last year’s Alabama defense (72.2 rushing yards allowed, 183.6 yards total offense allowed and 8.2 points allowed) had the SEC seen anything like the Tide’s ’92 defense.
The last two Alabama national championship teams last season and in 2009 averaged 34.8 points and 32.1 points respectively, giving those defenses more support and margin for error. The ’92 national champions averaged 28.2 points.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an Alabama defense that was under the pressure we were in ’92,” Donnelly says, “because we didn’t have a lot of offensive help. We had a young quarterback (Jay Barker) and it was (Alabama) Coach (Gene) Stallings philosophy to run the ball a lot.
“We could never afford to give up any big plays, and get down 7-0 or 10-0. And later that season, we felt like we had to score touchdowns as a defense.”
It wasn’t an accident that the ’92 defense scored on interception returns in Alabama’s last three games of the season – a 17-0 shutout of Auburn, the 28-21 win over Florida in that aforementioned first SEC championship game and in the 34-13 Sugar Bowl win over top-ranked Miami to win the national championship.
“I remember we were tied 0-0 against Auburn at halftime,” Chris recalls. “Coach Oliver comes in the dressing room and pulls across this divider that separated the offense and defense meetings.
“He says, `Guys, I can’t ask you to play any better than you’ve been playing now. You’re playing as well as I’ve ever seen you play. But those guys over there (Alabama’s offense) are not scoring.
“If we want to win the game, we’ve got to do something more. That means you’re going to have to find a way to score.’
“So that’s what we did. Antonio (Langham) goes out, picks off a pass in the third quarter and returns it for a score and 7-0 lead.”
It was also Langham who immortalized himself in Alabama football lore by intercepting a pass thrown by Florida quarterback Shane Matthews and returning it 27 yards with 3:16 left to play for the game-winning score in the ’92 SEC title game.
“I still kid Antonio about that play, because we were in Cover 2 coverage and he was supposed to help me on the corner route, and then break back on the hitch,” Chris says. “When the ball was snapped, he didn’t give me any help.
“I had to cover the post and the corner, while he squatted in the hitch. The rest is history. I always tell him, `All you had to do was squat. My sister could have done that.’ ”
Although Chris had a solid senior season in 1993 and even returned an interception 76 yards for a TD against Louisiana Tech – “I got mobbed, but all I wanted was oxygen and water,” he remembers -- he was never part of a better gameplan that what Oliver designed to beat Miami and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Gino Torretta for the ’92 national championship.
Chris had five tackles against Miami’s thoroughly confused offense, with Torretta throwing three interceptions. The Miami QB never knew how many defensive backs he was facing, what type of pass coverage he was reading and how many pass rushers to expect.
Oliver played seven defensive backs. He played an 11-man front, daring Torretta to throw over it. He played zone coverage, he played man coverage. He had linemen and linebackers in various stunts. He ran his personnel on and off the field like there was a revolving door on the sideline.
“The craziest thing is that we never practiced those defenses as a complete unit,” Chris says. “We practiced lining up in our separate groups – linemen, linebackers and defensive backs – on different parts of the practice field. We didn’t want word to get out what we were doing, especially when we got to New Orleans and started practicing.
“The first time we were in those alignments was actually in the game. I remember the first time in the game we called one of those alignments. Here, I am, the free safety, getting in a three-point stance between the guard and center. John Copeland, who’s playing defensive tackle, looks back at me like `What the heck?’ I said, `Don’t worry about it.’ But it occurred to me at that point he was shocked, because we all had never lined up that way until that moment.”
After all these years, Chris sometimes wonders what would have happened if he had never transferred from Vanderbilt, if he had never left his comfort zone and taken a risk.
Apparently, he still feels the same way. Just two weeks ago, after spending 15 years as a regional manager for a respected medical company in Birmingham, Chris resigned to take a start-up position in Minneapolis-St. Paul based company Torax Medical.
“It just like 22 years ago,” Chris says with a laugh. “I could have rode what I had out, and it was a good, well-respected position. Or I could roll the dice and see what happens.”
Well, it did work rather well the first time.