Most college football fans are expecting Saturday night’s prime time Alabama-Ole Miss matchup to be a closely contested game, perhaps what TV folks would describe today as an “instant classic.”
But it will have to be something special indeed to match the 1969 game between the teams. It was a classic that, 46 years later, still is discussed … and dissected and absorbed. Alabama 33, Ole Miss 32. Legion Field, then known as the “Football Capital of the South.” Bear Bryant vs. Johnny Vaught. Archie Manning vs. Scott Hunter. No. 15 Alabama vs. No. 20 Ole Miss.
It was the first college football game ever televised in prime time, thanks to the foresight of ABC’s Roone Arledge. But it wasn’t all smooth: The kickoff was delayed until The Lawrence Welk Show was over.
Those who waited and watched got their money’s worth. And then some.
Highlights? Get out your notepad.
* Manning was 33-of-52 for 436 yards and two touchdowns, and he carried the ball 15 times for 103 yards and three more scores, on runs of 1, 2 and 17 yards.
* Hunter was 22-of-29 for 300 yards and a touchdown. He had just three carries for 3 yards but scored a touchdown as well.
* The teams combined for 65 points, 1,099 yards (609 by Ole Miss, 490 by Alabama; 736 yards passing, 363 rushing ), 53 first downs and 180 yards in kickoff, punt and interception (one) returns.
* Of the 10 scoring plays, six covered 2 or fewer yards and the longest scoring play was for 17 yards (two of them, one on a Manning run and other on a run by Alabama’s Bubba Sawyer) and seven of the scoring plays came via the run.
The game had a little of everything, and then some.
“That we lost,” Manning says when asked what he remembers most about the game. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Second, it’s kind of amazing to me that people still talk about it 46 years later. It was a great football game. Today, it would probably look like just another Big 12 game — Texas Tech and TCU, maybe. It would look like any other game.
“But what was so unique about it was in 1969, there were a lot of games that if I threw for 165 yards, 175 yards, that was a good game, that was a normal-type game. So it was a rare game for that era. And it was a rare game with those two coaches. Neither one of them was very proud of it. I think Coach Bryant was happy to get the win, but I was in a room with them, him and Coach Vaught, one time at a function and somebody came in and said, ‘That had to be one of the greatest games y’all have ever had.’ And almost simultaneously they said, ‘That was the worst (expletive) game I ever coached in my life.’ They weren’t proud of it.
“But it was a neat game for that era. It was a lot of fun to play in. We didn’t play in many games like that, where you go up and down the field, so from our standpoint, the offense’s standpoint, we had a lot of fun.”
Hunter said he felt, from start to finish, that he and his offensive teammates were going to have to make something happen each time they took the field.
“I just remember the back-and-forth of it all,” Hunter says. “We’d score a touchdown and I’d come over to the sidelines and have a Coke and talk with Coach Bryant, and then Ole Miss would score and we’d have to go back out there and score again. All I knew was when we got the ball back, we had to score. There wasn’t any being cagey about it — we had to go down and put the ball in the end zone because Archie sure was.
“Obviously, that’s why the game stands out so much, because it was on national television. It was an experiment to see if college football would fly during prime time, and of course they happened to hit a home run with that game.”
Manning and Hunter and their teammates indeed were ready for prime time. Alabama scored in every quarter, and Ole Miss scored in each quarter but the second. Both teams were clicking on offense and unable to stop the opponent on defense, leading to the disregard Bryant and Vaught — both of whom took pride in coaching teams with strong defenses — had for the game that fans and the players enjoyed so much.
David Cutcliffe — who would play at Alabama and later coach Manning sons Peyton as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee and Eli as head coach at Ole Miss — was in the stands. He was 15, a student at nearby Banks High, and was seated next to former Alabama All-America defensive back Bobby Johns, who was coaching at Banks at the time.
“Being there in Legion Field for that game, it was bigger than life to me,” Cutcliffe said in the book “Glory Days: Memorable Games in Alabama Football History.”
The presence of TV cameras helped magnify the matchup in particular and the game of college football in general.
“I think because it was televised – that makes such a difference. Like a president said one time, ‘If it didn’t happen on television, it didn’t happen,’ ” Hunter says. “Being on television, particularly in that day and time because it was unique to carry a football game on Saturday night, that made it special. There was only one of those and that was the one.”
“I remember the summer before, it was kind of a big topic,” he says. “A bunch of us took off to St. Louis for a baseball game and we were coming back home and I remember some people wanting to know if we were football players. And we said, ‘Yeah, watch us this year on a Saturday night.’
“It was rare to play on TV on a Saturday night. Back then, playing on TV was a big deal; you didn’t play on TV every Saturday. Other than a bowl game, we might have had two or three games on TV. I remember we were excited about that.”
Hunter once said he has had so many people tell him they were at that game that, if true, there would have been 100,000 people at then-63,000-seat Legion Field. But he recognizes that only serves to highlight the place the game has in the rivalry and in college football in the South.
“I always tell my boys you live to play in big games,” Manning says. “That doesn’t mean championships and it doesn’t mean playoffs, but you identify big games as you approach them, and that was a big game for us and I presume for them.”
As recently as Wednesday of this week, a fan mentioned the game to Hunter.
“Somebody talked to me about it today working out at the ‘Y’,” he says. “He came up and said, ‘I remember watching that game …’ I said, ‘Well, you probably saw more of it than I did because when they had the ball, I was on the sidelines looking at photographs of the secondary trying to figure out what we were going to do when we got the ball back.’ “
Recently, the rivalry has gained some momentum again, a momentum that carries into Saturday’s matchup. There’s more than a bit of pressure on both teams to produce Saturday, certainly if they intend for this season’s game to match the competitiveness of the 1969 game.
“Archie and I visited last year in Oxford,” Hunter says, admitting the 1969 game came up in the conversation. “He probably doesn’t like to talk about it as much as I do, but he had an incredible game. What more can a guy do? Run for something like 150 yards and throws for 425 or whatever it was; he was just a one-man show.
“I think he really made the game. I was more a dropback passer and we ran a pro-style offense. I was handing the ball off to Johnny Musso and throwing to great receivers. Archie was like a circus performer. He was the whole show.”
A prime-time, back-and-forth, shootout of a show.
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