It was a time of jarring social and political turmoil in America: the pain of the civil rights movement still fresh, U.S. troops finally home from an unpopular war in Vietnam, a scandal known as Watergate on the verge of toppling the most powerful man in the free world.
Against that backdrop, Notre Dame and Alabama did something that rarely happens in sports.
They didn’t just live up the hype, they blew it away.
The game of the year became a game for the ages.
“It was Alabama vs. Notre Dame. It was the Baptists vs. the Catholics. It was Bear Bryant vs. yours truly,” said Parseghian, who coached the Fighting Irish for 11 years and now, approaching his 90th birthday, enjoys retirement at his winter home in Marco Island, Fla., right across the Everglades from Miami. “There were just a multitude of things that built it up. A huge viewing audience was the result.”
Indeed, while ESPN officials were hoping for record ratings in the BCS era when top-ranked Notre Dame met second-ranked Alabama on Monday night, there was little chance of approaching the massive audience that tuned in on New Year’s Eve 1973 for those same two teams in the Sugar Bowl, the game that would decide the national championship, a contest so momentous that ABC sent in Howard Cosell to join the regular college broadcast team of Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson.
“At Notre Dame, football is a religion,” Cosell would say that night. “At Alabama, it’s way of life.”
The game was worthy of even his extensive hyperbole _ and then some.
The lead changed hands six times. Notre Dame returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Alabama scored on a trick play. The Crimson Tide missed a crucial extra point in the fourth quarter. The Fighting Irish barely made a chip-shot field goal that provided the winning margin with less than 5 minutes remaining.
Mostly, the game will be remembered for Parseghian’s gutsy decision right at the end to call a deep pass out of his own end zone, the ball going to a little-used tight end who managed to make a juggling catch along the sideline before tumbling into the Alabama bench, right in front of the Bear.
“I am laying on my back, clutching the ball, looking up at a bunch of red helmets peering down at me and hearing a bunch of cuss words over the roar of the 80,000 people in the stadium,” said Robin Weber, the second-stringer who made the catch that lives on in Notre Dame lore.
“I get up from the sideline and flip the ball to the referee and, as I’m looking back downfield for penalty flags, here comes a very upset Bryant storming toward me almost in my face,” Weber added. “I see no flags and jump for joy because I know it is checkmate in a national championship game.”
Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23.
While the college kids who will play Monday night know little of what happened at rickety old Tulane Stadium long before they were born _ some will acknowledge they’re not even sure who won _ there is constant prodding from the old-timers.