Bear Bryant can be counted on to tell anyone interested that every football game is an important one. But on occasion even he concedes that some games mean more than others.
Recently, when the subject of Notre Dame came up, as he put it, "for the gillionth time," the man who invented football in this state made a rare concession: "I would rather not go to my grave," he said, "with a plaque saying, 'Here lies a man who never did beat Notre Dame.'"
Perhaps more than anything else, that statement has set the tone for this week on this campus, in this city and across this state. This isn't a football game, it's a crusade.
It is a crusade to remove the one black mark that stains Bryant's 22-year-record coaching at Alabama. He has faced Notre Dame three times. In the 1973 Sugar Bowl, with an 11-0 record ant the national title on the line, the Irish won, 24-23. In the 1975 Cotton Bowl, Alabama was 11-0 and ranked No. 1. Notre Dame won, 13-11. In 1976, in their first regular season meeting, Notre Dame was coming off an embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech.The Irish won, 21-18.
"I guess it's fair to say I haven't done too good a job coachin' against Notre Dame," Bryant said today. "Course you could say that about a lot of teams I've coached against."
But Notre Dame is special.
"Everyone around here just hates Notre Dame, it's that simple," defensive end John Mauro said. "Part of it is because they've beaten us out of so many national championships. But it isn't that simple. It's like southern pride against Yankee ingenuity. Down here, people have a lot of southern pride."
Those are strange words considering the source. Mauro grew up within four blocks of the Notre Dame campus. But he never wanted to go to Notre Dame.
"It was like everyone out there thought they were gods or something," Mauro said. "My father hated them. If you live with my father and he hates something, you learn to hate it pretty quick yourself."
So, Mauro grew up dreaming of playing for Bear Bryant.
"I always heard the Alabama scores on TV or radio and I always thought I'd love to play for Coach Bryant," he said. "When they offered me a scholarship, I jumped."
Mauro was a freshman in 1977 when Notre Dame went into the Cotton Bowl, beat top-ranked Texas and won the national title, although Alabama, which, like the Irish, had one defeat, destroyed Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
"One way or another they cost us three national titles in about a five-year period," said running back Major Oglivie, the second-leading rusher on his team but a national leader when it comes to intelligent insights. "Since the moment the Sugar Bowl ended last January about all any of us have heard from the fans is, 'Notre Dame, Notre Dame.' We definitely feel like we have something to make up for against them."
One of the games that rankles people here most was the 1966 Notre Dame Michigan State classic in which the Irish coach, Ara Parseghian, played for a tie and won the national title, even though Alabama finished that season 11-0.
"They went for a tie and benefitted by it," Oglivie said, voice laced with disgust. "Around here, we never even think about a thing like that. We play to win."
Until two weeks ago, this looked like a showdown between unbeatens, with the national title at stake. But Alabama was shocked, 6-3, two weeks ago by Mississippi State. Notre Dame replaced the Tide as No. 1 only to stumble into a 3-3 against lowly Georgia Tech.
Thus, in terms of the 1980 season, these teams are fighting for their lives.
Sugar Bowl officials already have said they will take the winner of this game to play Georgia, presuming Georgia beats Auburn Saturday. That means the winner still will have a shot at the national championship New Year's Day.
But around here, the import of this game goes far beyond mere bowl bids or rankings. To Alabamans, Notre Dame is an unrelenting tormentor.
Publicly, Bryant keeps insisting this is "just another big game." But he has closed practices this week.
"I don't feel any special pressure about this one," Bryant said. "Whatever happens I'm gonna wake up Sunday and go about my business. Or go about somebody's business, anyway."
Bryant always has maintained that players win and lose games. It also may be true, then, that players feel the extra pressure the week of a crusade.
"We all know Coach Bryant has never beaten Notre Dame," defensive end Gary DeNiro said. "We know we don't play Notre Dame for a few years after this (1986) so we'd really like to get this done now, make up for the past."
Only once did Bryant weaken long enough to reveal some of his true feelings about the visitors from the Midwest. When asked if he thought Saturday's loser would be eliminated from the national championship picture he skipped his usual long pause and shot back: "If we lose we'll certainly have no chance to win it."
Then came the pause and a trace of a smile. "Course you can never tell about Notre Dame and those things."
Rembmer 1966. Remember 1973, 1974, 1977. Around here they remember.
Alabama's quarterbacking corps is a mess. The veterans, Don Jacobs (ankle) and Ken Coley (hand), are listed as doubtful participants Saturday. Freshman Walter Lewis is running the first team in practice, backed up by freshman Paul Fields. Lewis probably will start; if he doesn't succeed, Jacobs will at least try to play.