"The wait was worth it," Tribune reporter David Condon wrote about the 1973 Sugar Bowl. "It was one of the greatest games ever played in college football."
Ara Parseghian vs. Paul "Bear" Bryant. North vs. South. Baptists vs. Catholics. Unbeaten vs. Unbeaten. Two of the nation's greatest programs playing each other not only for the first time, but also for the national title. In the Sugar Bowl on Dec. 31 in New Orleans. As Howard Cosell said, "At Notre Dame, football is a religion. At Alabama, it is a way of life."
On Monday, the two teams will meet again — and again a national championship is on the line. It could be the most-watched college football game ever, but it still has a way to go before it compares to the hype preceding that New Year's Eve matchup four decades ago.
Notre Dame started the 1973 season ranked No. 8. Behind linebacker Greg Collins, who had two solo tackles and 16 assists, they first pounded John Pont's Northwestern team 44-0 on Sept. 22. The tightest game came two weeks later in South Bend against Michigan State, when the Irish won 14-10. The biggest regular season matchup was Oct. 27 against No. 6 USC; behind star running back Eric Penick, who had an 85-yard TD run, ND beat the Trojans 23-14. Notre Dame ended its regular season with another 44-0 win, this time at Miami.
Alabama, meanwhile, plowed through its schedule, beating, among others, California 66-0 and Virginia Tech 77-6.
After that, the only question was which bowl game would land the Irish. The Orange Bowl offered Notre Dame the most money. But Bryant, whose team was No. 1, challenged Parseghian to bring his No. 3-ranked team to New Orleans. Parseghian took the dare. Oddsmakers had Alabama a six-point favorite.
Coverage in the weeks leading up to the game was breathless. Bryant, known for his trademark houndstooth hat, was in his 15th year at Alabama and had built one of the most dominant teams in college football. Notre Dame was the most storied program in the country: Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen, George "The Gipper" Gipp, Frank Leahy, Paul Hornung and Oak Park's Johnny Lattner.
"Tomorrow night's national championship duel has been ballyhooed with so many outlandish adjectives and labels that history will record it as the Superlative Bowl," Condon wrote for the Tribune's Dec. 31 edition. "New Orleans is wild. Bowl fever is everywhere. The Dixie gang looks at this game as a chance to get even with the Yankees. Notre Dame doesn't want to make this another Civil War, although one Irish fan said, 'If they want to fight us like we're Yankees, we'll fight them like they're Orangemen.'"
More than 85,000 people packed Tulane Stadium that Monday night. The weather was frigid and a light rain fell.
Notre Dame scored first with 3:19 to play in the first quarter, although a bobbled snap led to a missed extra point. Alabama then took the lead 7-6 midway through the second quarter. But on the next play, Notre Dame's Al Hunter returned the kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. Notre Dame went for two and led 14-7.
Alabama kicked a field goal right before the half to narrow the score to 14-10.
"It was suddenly cold," Condon wrote. "But the Irish and Tide football elevens were hot when they charged back from the halftime rest period. Alabama played its hot hand immediately."
They drove from their own 4, "filling the air with footballs between an occasional ground sortie," before finally scoring on a 5-yard TD run. 17-14 Alabama.
"Momentarily, it sounded as tho Gen. Sherman had been chased out of Dixie," Condon wrote.
But then a Crimson Tide fumble at its own 11 led to an Irish TD and the score going into the final quarter stood at 21-17.
"And that's the way it went into the final period, 15 minutes of tingling football that left the largest crowd in Sugar Bowl history on edge," Condon wrote.
Alabama retook the lead on a 25-yard pass play, but missed the extra point, a mistake that would come back to haunt the team. Notre Dame then drove to Alabama's 2, but on fourth down settled for a field go to regain the lead, 24-23, with 5:30 left.
"The final excitement was magnificent," Condon wrote.
After the kickoff, Alabama started its drive at its own 40, but after a third-down sack, was forced to punt. The kick pinned Notre Dame back on its own 1 yard line.
"Alabama could win it with a safety if the Irish were pushed back that slim yard," Condon wrote. "Alabama could win with a field goal if Notre Dame punted from the end zone.
"And it appeared that Bryant's strategy had a good chance of paying off as Notre Dame came up to third down on its own 3.
"Parseghian went for broke with his own strategy. Ara called for a suicide pass by (quarterback Tom) Clements and unheralded Robin Weber hauled it down on the Irish 39.
"Now the Irish merely had to run out the clock and restrain joyous Irishmen from running onto the field before the final gun sounded."
On Jan. 3, the Associated Press made it official, ranking Notre Dame No. 1, Parseghian's second career national championship. (Ohio State, which won the Rose Bowl, finished second. Oklahoma was third and Alabama fell to fourth.)
"It's beautiful," Parseghian said. "I want to enjoy this year for a while." Indeed, the victory was one of the sweetest of Parseghian's career and is still considered one of the greatest college bowl games ever. For the Crimson Tide, however, the 1973 Sugar Bowl defeat ranks as the most painful in the history of Alabama football.
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