It really did happen 35 years ago. . .
(Author’s note: It happened 35 years ago this week. Ole Miss defeated eventually national champion Notre Dame on a sweltering day at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Ten years ago, this was written for The Clarion Ledger on the 25th anniversary of the game. Reprinted with permission of the Clarion-Ledger.)
Much of college football’s appeal is that we never know what will happen. We may think we know, but we never really know. Coaches often say it like this: “On any given Saturday…”
This given Saturday happened 25 years ago today: Sept. 17, 1977. The circumstances seem more remarkable a quarter century later than on that hot, steamy day at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium when the scoreboard flashed the final, shocking score: Ole Miss 20, Notre Dame 13.
• Joe Montana, perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, never got off the Notre Dame bench. But Tim Ellis, Ole Miss’ third-string quarterback and a forgotten man at the time, threw the winning touchdown.
• That Ole Miss team, beaten by Alabama the week before and by Southern Miss the week afterward, would win only five games. Notre Dame, ranked No. 3 that day, would win 11 and the national championship.
• Notre Dame’s Dan Devine would win national coach of the year. Ole Miss coach Ken Cooper would be fired that November.
• Ole Miss tight end L.Q. Smith made the game’s biggest play, a 48-yard pass reception during the drive that led to the winning touchdown. And get this: It was the only pass he ever caught.
• Ellis’s game-winning pass was caught by James Storey, who was supposed to be blocking, not catching, on the play.
• Ole Miss linebacker Brian Moreland, featured by Sports Illustrated as the national defensive player of the week, played extensively only because Kem Coleman was hurt early in the game.
Much-fabled Notre Dame, the nation’s preeminent football power, was a three-touchdown favorite. Few gave the Rebels much of a chance, and that included at least one coach.
Jack Carlisle, now retired and living in Brandon, then coached quarterbacks and running backs at Ole Miss. Carlisle coached in nearly 600 games in 50 years as a coach, but none left so lasting an impression as that one 25 years ago today.
“I had watched every film of Notre Dame from the year before and I had watched their game with Pitt the week before,” Carlisle says. “I’ll tell you the truth. I was just hoping we wouldn’t get embarrassed. Size-wise and talent-wise, we weren’t in their class. I’m serious.”
His fears only worsened when Notre Dame came out for pre-game warmups. “They were so big I thought the field was going to tilt their way,” Carlisle says. “My gosh, they were huge. They made our guys look puny.”
Says Storey: “I don’t know how to explain what happened. I guess the best way to say it is the Lord has a will and purpose for all our lives. And sometimes, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
That day, the Lord outdid himself.
Mother Nature wore red and blue that day, just like the Rebels. Cooper, the head coach, called most of the Rebels’ offensive plays, but Carlisle says Cooper’s best call was weeks earlier.
“I remember Ken coming in to a staff meeting and telling us that he had gotten the Notre Dame game changed from a night game to a day game,” Carlisle says. “That was huge, because it was hot that day, and I mean hot. Those big Notre Dame boys weren’t used to that kind of heat.”
Records show that the high that day was 86 degrees and the humidity was 63 percent. Robert Fabris, an Ole Miss wide receiver who now lives in Houston, doesn’t buy it.
“It was by far the hottest weather I ever played in,” Fabris says. “It was brutal, like playing in a steam bath.”
What made it worse for the Fighting Irish is that they had just experienced two weeks of a rainy, cool snap in South Bend, Ind.
“You could see them wilt as the game went on,” Ellis says. “By the time I got in the game, they were throwing up on themselves.”
Says Robert Fabris: “You’d walk past them on the way back to the huddle and you could hear them gasping. They sounded like they were in an iron lung.”
Jackson-area Notre Dame alumni provided five big fans and 300 pounds of ice in an effort to combat the heat. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the ice melted just as fast as the Irish did.
And while the heat melted the Irish, the Ole Miss defense pounded them. Carlisle was an offensive coach, but he says his most poignant memory of that day remains the inspired play of the Rebels’ defense.
“Jim Carmody’s defensive plan was masterful,” Carlisle says. “His players knew just what to do.”
That wasn’t the first time, nor the last. Carmody, then the Ole Miss defensive coordinator, played roles in huge victories at Ole Miss, Mississippi State and USM.
Now a scout with the Arizona Cardinals, Carmody deflects credit to the Rebel defenders, particularly Moreland and defensive tackle Charlie Cage. Cage, from Natchez, made 17 tackles and consistently chased down Irish runners in their own backfield. Moreland was in on 12 tackles, recovered two fumbles and intercepted a pass.
“Charlie Cage might have had the best game of any defensive lineman I ever coached,” says Carmody, which is saying a lot. “Brian Moreland was just all over the field making plays.”
Defensive end George Plasketes, a converted quarterback, was in on 15 tackles and at least one inspiring pre-game speech.
“George was Catholic and from Chicago,” Ellis says. “He was pretty much raised on Notre Dame football, and he got up and told us how important it was to him for us to win that game.”
Plasketes, now a professor at Auburn, doesn’t remember the speech, but he does remember how much the victory meant – and still means.
“During that period at Ole Miss we lost a lot of close games and experienced a lot of disappointment, but that game was special, our shining moment,” Plasketes says.
Ole Miss led 3-0 after one quarter and 10-7 at half. After a scoreless third quarter, Notre Dame moved ahead 13-10 on two fourth-quarter field goals. After the second one, which came with 4 minutes, 53 seconds remaining, Carlisle knew a change was needed.
Starting quarterback Bobby Garner had played a splendid game, running the Rebels’ option offense. But he was battered, bruised and, worst of all, dehydrated. He would need intravenous drips to recover.
“We need to go with our best throwing quarterback,” Cooper remembers saying, and he also remembers Carlisle’s response:
Ellis wore Archie Manning’s jersey, No. 18, and had once been considered the Rebels’ quarterback of the future. He was tall, lanky, smart and could throw. But he had been relegated to the bench when the Rebels switched to the option offense.
Here’s how bad it had gotten for Ellis: Ole Miss held a pep rally at Highland Village the night before. Each senior got up and addressed the huge crowd. When it came time for Ellis, he began this way: “Hi, I’m Tim Ellis. Remember me?”
“Everybody needs to know we wouldn’t have won that game without Bobby Garner,” Carlisle says. “Bobby played a great game. But we sure as heck wouldn’t have won it without Tim.”
Ole Miss got the ball back at its own 20, needing three points to tie and a touchdown to win.
“To tell you the truth, against that defense, we were hoping for a field goal,” Carlisle says.
Ellis got them much more. His first pass fell incomplete but his second, to tight end Curtis Weathers, went for 10 yards and a first down.
Cooper then sent L.Q. Smith in with a play, which Carlisle calls “a stroke of genius.”
Notre Dame was expecting sideline passes to stop the clock. The call was for Smith to fake to the sideline, then go over the middle.
Ellis hit him at the Ole Miss 40 and Smith zigged and zagged all the way to the Notre Dame 22. Fabris knocked down two Irish defenders with one block.
“After that, we just knew we would score,” Ellis says.
Storey ripped up the middle for 12 yards to the 10 and then came the touchdown. The play was called “8-66 flood pick” – a rollout pass to the right with a wide receiver setting what was then a legal screen for a running back.
The back was supposed to be Roger Gordon, sent in by Carlisle because, says Carlisle, “Roger had the best hands of any running back. Storey was a great fullback, but Roger had better hands.”
Storey was supposed to switch sides in the backfield with Gordon. But when they lined up, Storey either didn’t hear the call or just decided not to switch.
“Let’s just say I knew which back was supposed to get the ball,” Storey says with a chuckle.
Storey found himself all alone. Ellis threw slightly behind him, but Storey reached back with his right hand and brought the ball into his body.
“It was a fabulous catch,” Ellis says.
When Notre Dame got the ball back, running back Jerome Heavens fumbled on the first play and Moreland recovered. One more field goal, and the game was won.
Those Rebels are now spread far and wide. Robert Fabris is a successful oilman in Houston. His brother, Jon, who was an Ole Miss defensive back, is an assistant coach at Georgia. Jon Fabris coached one year at Notre Dame. “Everywhere you go up there, they have banners of the national championship teams,” he says. “The banners list all the scores. So I saw it all the time: Ole Miss 20, Notre Dame 13. I still get chills.”
Storey, who got a brief tryout with the Saints, has worked in education since graduating from Ole Miss. He now serves as a middle school principal in his hometown of Ripley.
Moreland coaches high school football in Austin. “Every two or three years when we’re really overmatched, I’ll break out the Notre Dame film and show them what can happen if a team believes in itself,” Moreland says.
“No,” he answers, laughing, “it’s never worked.”
Plasketes, a journalism major, is now Dr. Plasketes, a professor of radio, TV, film and pop culture at Auburn. (No, he doesn’t go to the football games there, although his office is across from Jordan-Hare Stadium.)
Bobby Garner, whose son, Bobby Jr., plays tight end for USM, is a Waffle House regional manager.
Charlie Cage, probably the most unsung hero of the victory, could not be located for this story.
Ken Cooper is retired from BellSouth and living in Savannah, Ga. He never coached again.
Perhaps most interesting of all, Oxford native L.Q. Smith recently moved from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. He refers to himself as a “retired hair stylist.”
Tim Ellis, father of three sons, lives in northeast Jackson and travels the U.S. as a regional vice president of a money management firm. Ellis says rarely a day passes when someone doesn’t bring up that game.
He laughs. “Nine plays,” he says. “That’s how much I played. Nine plays. But those nine plays were pretty much a defining moment for me, at least athletically. I know this. Those nine plays have gotten me a lot more attention than I deserve.”
Tim and Vicki Ellis had been married for three months before Sept. 17, 1977. Vicki was in the stadium for most of that day. But, midway through the fourth quarter, she headed back to Oxford. A sellout crowd of 48,200 became 48,199.
“Things weren’t going well for Ole Miss, and Tim wasn’t playing,” she says. “I knew he was going to be disappointed with losing and mad because he didn’t play. I wanted to beat the buses home and be there.”
When Tim threw the game-winning pass, Vicki was pulled over at the Madison exit, listening to the game, hollering and pounding on her steering wheel.
“Since that day, I’ve probably had 200,000 people come up to me and tell me they were there,” Tim Ellis says. “Funny thing is, the person who mattered most to me wasn’t there.”
Among the Ellis family’s most prized photos is one of Tim throwing a pass, while a certain Notre Dame player named Montana watches in the background. Notre Dame discovered Joe Montana the next week and reeled off 10 straight victories, including a 38-10 trouncing of Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
But on that one broiling afternoon, a forgotten quarterback provided the most lasting memories.
(On Oct. 16, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum will hold its first annual roast, featuring Jack Carlisle. One of the roasters will be Tim Ellis, the forgotten quarterback Carlisle insisted on playing in the final minutes.)