33 years later, score remains State 6, Bama 3

Rick Cleveland 2007.jpg

Author’s note: About this time of year, every year, someone asks if I’ll reprint the column I wrote eight years ago on the 25-year anniversary of Mississippi State’s landmark victory over Alabama and Bear Bryant. Frankly, I always like to re-read it myself, because it brings back so many memories of so many splendid players and memorable plays. State was a 20-point underdog that day. The Bulldogs are a 26-point underdog to No. 1 ranked Bama Saturday night in Starkville.

Kent Hull played on teams that won four American Football Conference championship games. He played in four Super Bowls. He played for a Buffalo Bills team that once won a game after trailing 35-3 at halftime.

Tyrone Keys and Johnie Cooks played on teams that won Super Bowls.

But all three will tell you – and so will most of their former Mississippi State teammates – they never played in another game so magical or so meaningful as the one they played in 25 years ago Tuesday.

A quarter of a century later, the most improbable of scores remains:

State 6, Bama 3.

Yes, and if you listen closely on a quiet evening at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, you might still hear the faint echoes of cowbells clanging around the horseshoe. Never in this reporter’s memory have so many stayed so long and cheered so loudly after the deed was done.

But then, seldom have fans anywhere had such reason to cheer.

Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide, ranked No. 1 in the national polls, was a 20-point favorite. Mighty Alabama had won 28 consecutive games, 26 straight Southeastern Conference games and had defeated Mississippi State 22 straight times. Not a single Bulldogs player that day had been alive the last time State had beaten Bama.

Back then, Bryant’s Crimson juggernaut — so talented and so precise — lost football games about as often as America elected presidents. But the Tide lost on Nov. 1, 1980, three days before Ronald Reagan was elected the nation’s 40th president in a landslide defeat of Jimmy Carter.

By comparison, State’s victory over Bama was hardly a landslide, but Bryant, himself, called it “decisive.”

“It was a spirited, hard-hitting game, and most of the hard-hitting was done by them,” Bryant drawled.

You talk to those State players, many of them graying and with grown children of their own now, and they’ll tell you much of what made the victory so special was Bryant himself.

“I was – we all were – in awe of him,” Hull says. “If you grew up in the South at that time, it was almost like Bear Bryant had a halo around his head. He was it, he was the man.”

Says John Bond, State’s freshman quarterback that day, “Let’s just put it this way: When you saw Bear Bryant down there in that houndstooth hat, leaning against the goalpost before the game, it was pretty damned intimidating.”

•••

Bryant wore a blue sportscoat with his houndstooth hat that day. On the opposite sidelines from Bryant that day, wearing a white golf shirt with a maroon collar, was Emory Bellard. Bellard, a cocksure Texan, then in his second year as State’s head coach, was far from intimidated by any team or anybody, including the Bear. In fact, Bellard knew he had at least one edge on Bryant. Bellard had invented the Wishbone offense that Bama was running those days.

“I’ll never forget what Coach Bellard did that week,” says Glen Collins of Jackson, a 46-year-old father of four, who played defensive tackle for the Bulldogs. “He normally spent more time with the offense, but he called us together as a defense on Monday and he told us he was going to coach us that week. He told us he had invented the Wishbone and he knew how to stop it. He said if we listened to him and did what he said, we would shut them down.

“Well, we listened and we did what he told us and – guess what? – we shut them down.”

Bellard, now 78, lives just off the green of the third hole of a golf course in Georgetown, Texas, 20 miles north of Austin. He says he plays golf nearly every day and watches football on TV. He greets a reporter’s phone call the same way he did 25 years ago: “How ya doin’, podnuh?”

“Yeah, I did work the defense that week,” Bellard says. “I told ’em I knew more than anybody else did about the Wishbone, and I knew how to stop it if I had the right players, but you see that’s the key, having the right players. We had the right players at State and they listened and they did what they were told and they shut down a great team.”

Bellard did not lack for talent on that defense. Future pros Collins and Earnie Barnes were the tackles. Tall Tyrone Keys and “not-big-as-a-popcorn” Billy Jackson, as Bellard called him, were the Mutt and Jeff defensive ends. Johnie Cooks, a truly amazing blend of strength and speed, was the middle linebacker. Cooks made 20 tackles that day, mostly on plays up the middle, while Jackson and Keys stopped most every ball carrier that ran around end.

Collins says State’s defense gained confidence with each series of downs. It must have. Early in the fourth quarter, Alabama faced a fourth down at the State 37-yard line. The Tide needed 3 yards to make a first down. Bryant signalled for timeout to decide what to do. Cooks, Collins and safety Larry Friday tried to influence his decision. They took a few steps toward the Bama sideline.

Says Cooks, the father of three, now semi-retired and living in Starkville: “I was yelling, `You’re the Bear. Y’all are Number One. You got to go for it. You know you got to go for it.’ “

Bama went for it. Jackson, the undersized freshman defensive end, sacked the quarterback before he could set up to throw.

Says Kent Hull, who lives on a farm in Greenwood, “Billy Jackson was the strongest man, pound for pound, I ever saw. He was all muscle.”

Jackson also recovered the fumble that ended Alabama’s last drive. Coincidentally, all three men directly involved in the game’s deciding play, Jackson, Keys and Alabama quarterback Don Jacobs, now live in Tampa.

Alabama had possession, facing first-and-goal at the State 4-yard line, with 22 seconds left. The noise was such that you couldn’t hear yourself screaming. Jacobs, who had passed the Tide down the field against the clock, turned to the referee asking for some relief from the cowbells State fans clanged incessantly in the stands. He got none. So Jacobs took the snap and went down the line to his right, executing the Tide’s favorite play, the triple option. His first option was to hand the ball to the fullback, but he did not. Bad mistake.

Because Keys, all 6 feet, 7 inches and 260 pounds of him, blew past the guy who was supposed to block him and slammed into Jacobs before he had a chance to pitch the ball. Jacobs fumbled and Billy Jackson, trailing the play from the other side, recovered for State.

•••

State players began celebrating wildly. Alabama players acted as if they couldn’t believe what had happened.

“I kept waiting for something else to happen,” Alabama tackle Bill Searcy said after the game. “I don’t know what it feels like to lose.”

Something else almost did happen. State had to run one play, and Alabama wasn’t going down without a fight. Just as Hull snapped the ball to Bond, an Alabama player slapped at the ball, knocking it away from Bond’s waiting hands. There was a wild scramble. Down at the bottom of the pile, State fullback Donald Ray King was cradling the ball – not that it mattered.

“The umpire saw what had happened,” Hull says. “He had thrown a flag.”

Twenty-five years later, Bond didn’t know that until he was told. Bond always thought Donald Ray King had saved the game.

On the Alabama sideline that day was one of Bryant’s favorites, a 28-year-old preacher’s son named Sylvester Croom, who coached Alabama linebackers at the time.

“I remember two really good teams playing a really physical, hard-fought game,” Croom says. “In games like that, it usually comes down to one play and that one did. It was that play at the end. The quarterback should have given the ball to the fullback. The fullback would have scored. That play cost Alabama the national championship.

“The game came down to one play and they made the play. Wait a second,” Croom says, chuckling in that deep baritone of his, “I mean we made the play. Mississippi State made the play.”

State made scores of plays that day. That’s what it took to beat Alabama and Bear Byrant.

Twenty-five years later, State’s players still marvel at the sportsmanship shown by Alabama’s coach, who would die of a heart attack two years and two months later. Bond, now a father of two living in Starkville, had been recruited hard by Bryant and Croom. He still says that saying “no” to the Bear was “the hardest thing I ever had to do.” Bond will never forget the scene in the State locker room afterwards.

“Everybody was going crazy, yelling and jumping up and down, spraying Cokes on each other,” Bond says. “And then there was a hush that kind of rolled across the locker room and I looked up to see what it was. There was Coach Bryant, a highway patrolman helping him up on a metal chair, and he told us that we deserved to win and don’t let anybody ever tell us differently.”

“The classiest thing I ever saw in all my years of football,” says Tyrone Keys. “Who else would have done that?”

Bear Bryant did, and Bellard wasn’t surprised. “That’s the kind of man he was,” Bellard says. “He appreciated the kind of effort and performance our young men showed that day. They were not going to be denied.”

Looking back, Bellard realizes that he didn’t truly appreciate what the victory meant to State people.

“I hadn’t gone through all that anguish they had,” Bellard says. “I didn’t have the full impact of the occasion until a couple of hours after the game when I finally got through with all the interviews and came out of the locker room. The people, thousands of them, were still there, still in the stands, still yelling and screaming. They would not go home.”

At 4 a.m. the next morning, Bellard had finally gotten home and in bed and had just fallen asleep when “I heard all this ruckus out in my front yard.”

Bellard went to the door and saw hundreds of State students, cheering as if it was the fourth quarter and the game was still on the line.

“They were having a pep rally in my front yard,” Bellard says. “I couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears. Man, they were having a party.”

And did Bellard join in the fun?

“You better believe I did, podnuh,” the 78-year-old ex-coach says. “You just better believe I did.”

•••

You can watch the last few seconds of the game and hear Jack Cristil’s call on our kiosks here at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

2 thoughts on “33 years later, score remains State 6, Bama 3”

  1. Rick, my alma mater, the East Union Epic Urchins now have a football team and have won their first playoff game. Go Epic Urchins!! Billy Long

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