Texas and Alabama are two of college football’s historic programs and they played a memorable game at the 1982 Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day in Dallas. It was a big win for a Longhorn program that needed it, and it was the final major bowl appearance for legendary Crimson Tide head coach Bear Bryant. Here’s a look back on the road both Texas & Alabama traveled through the 1981 college football season to reach January 1 in Dallas.
The Longhorns had been struggling—at least by the standards of a national power since the regular season ended in 1977. Texas had concluded that year, the first season for head coach Fred Akers, undefeated and ranked #1 in the country. They were promptly blown out by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and over the next three seasons went 25-11.
Meanwhile, new contenders in the old Southwest Conference were rising. Houston went to consecutive Cotton Bowls and Baylor also reached the league’s showcase bowl game. SMU was moving on up, to say nothing of traditional power Arkansas. The ‘Horns were ranked #9 coming into the 1981 college football season and needed to reverse momentum.
Texas rolled over Rice and then looked sluggish in beating North Texas to start the season, but with upsets going down around the country, the Longhorns still rose to #4 in the polls. They beat Miami, a rising national power with Jim Kelly at quarterback, 14-7 at home. September ended with Texas ranked third in the nation and their traditional rivalry game with Oklahoma was next.
The Sooners would not have a good year in 1981, but they were still ranked #10 when the Red River Rivalry went down on October 10th. And Oklahoma started the game quickly, jumping out to a 14-3 lead at halftime.
Texas wasn’t ideally suited to make a comeback. Rick McIvor only completed 40 percent of his passes, and while the standards of 1981 were considerably different then today, this would still be the worst completion percentage of any quarterback of the ten teams who made major bowl games. Nor did McIvor make up for it with big plays, averaging a mediocre 6.6 yards-per-attempt.
The Longhorns did have a well-balanced rushing attack, with Jam Jones and John Walker each finishing in the top eight of the SWC in rush yardage, running behind an offensive line anchored by All-American tackle Terry Tausch. The defense was led by tackle Kenneth Sims, the best interior lineman in the country and soon-to-be #1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
It was Jones who stepped up and took over the Oklahoma game. He got the ball 36 times and gained 137 yards. Jones scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 14-10 and Texas never stopped. The game turned into a rout, 34-14 and when it was all over the Longhorns were ranked #1 in the country.
But it only last a week. Even though Arkansas would have a fairly average team and lose three league games, Lou Holtz had his Razorbacks ready for this one, and the hung a 42-11 shellacking on Texas. The Longhorns dropped all the way to #10.
SMU was ranked eighth in the country and undefeated when the Longhorns traveled to play the Mustangs. But SMU was also on probation. They could be ranked, and their games counted in the league standings, but the Mustangs were not eligible for the Cotton Bowl. Texas came up with a big 9-7 win, then came home to beat lowly Texas Tech 26-9.
It set up a big prime-time game at the Astrodome against Houston. Both teams, along with Arkansas, were fighting for the Cotton Bowl slot and ideally to do it by finishing ahead of SMU. The Longhorns fell behind the Cougars 14-3 in the fourth quarter. Once again, the team whose offense wasn’t built to come from behind did exactly that.
Walker ran for a touchdown and then threw a pass that converted the two-point play, cutting the lead to three points. With 2:40 left, kicker Raul Allegre, who would eventually kick for the New York Giants, hit a 47-yarder that tied the game 14-14. That’s where it ended. Texas was a game ahead of Houston and Arkansas, and a half-game back of SMU.
SMU’s probation made the end of the season a little anticlimactic. Texas beat up TCU and Baylor easily, the latter struggling to a 5-6 record after winning the conference in a runaway in 1980. When Arkansas lost to SMU it eliminated the Razorbacks. With one week to go, the Longhorns would not catch the Mustangs for the true league championship. But they worst that could happen would be a tie with Houston.
In that case, with head-to-head not able to settle the Cotton Bowl slot, the nod would likely go to Texas anyway, ranked #7 in the polls. Texas didn’t allow it to come to that, beating Texas A&M 21-13 on Thanksgiving and finishing outright in second place behind SMU.
Alabama wasn’t the same loaded team that had won back-to-back national titles in 1978-79. They had slipped a bit in 1980, though they still came to the Cotton Bowl and crushed Baylor. The offense lacked explosiveness. Starting quarterback Walter Lewis only threw 66 passes and the Tide relied on a rushing attack where five different backs, along with Lewis ran for between 300-400 yards on the season.
Defensively, the Tide had two players that got All-American recognition, defensive back Tommy Wilcox and linebacker Tom Boyd. And the respect the Bear commanded still had Alabama ranked fourth to start the season, even as SEC rival and defending national champion Georgia—with much more talent in the cupboard—was ranked tenth.
Alabama opened the season at LSU, though the Tigers weren’t very good at this time and the result was an easy 24-7 win. It moved the Tide to #2. No one could have expected what happened next. Georgia Tech was a terrible team in 1981 and they won only one game. That game was their September 12 visit to Alabama, a 24-21 shocker that shook up the polls (top-ranked Michigan lost the same day). The Tide were down to #10.
Pedestrian victories over bad teams in Kentucky and Vanderbilt followed, and a 38-7 blowout of Ole Miss, another shaky team, lifted ‘Bama to #7. But their second visit outside the SEC went almost as bad as the first. Alabama played Southern Miss, a team that would finish the year with a losing record, to a 13-13 tie and plummeted back to #15.
A game with Tennessee, a pretty good team that would make a bowl game at a time when such was a bigger accomplishment than it is today now loomed even bigger. Alabama got back on track with a 38-19 win. Normally, a non-conference home win over Rutgers wouldn’t mean much, but given the way non-conference games had gone for ‘Bama, this 31-7 victory surely brought relief. It also got them back into the Top 10.
Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State were all unbeaten in conference play on October 31, and the Tide would host seventh-ranked Mississippi State. One year earlier, MSU, coached by former Bryant assistant Emory Bellard, had upset the Tide. And this game would be another tough battle.
Tough should not be equated with well-played, and there were a combined 13 turnovers. Alabama clung to a 13-10 lead when Bulldog quarterback John Bond suddenly rifled three straight completions for a combined 69 yards and put Mississippi State on the Alabama 9-yard line in the closing seconds. Bond stepped back one more time. This time Wilcox was waiting and his interception at the one-yard line preserved the win.
After a week off, Alabama traveled to face fifth-ranked Penn State, who was still in the national championship picture. History was also in the making. All season long, Bryant’s pursuit of the career victories record held by Amos Alonzo Stagg had been on the front-burner of media coverage. The old head coach was only two wins away…and there were only two games left in the regular season.
The Tide did their coach proud, defeating the Lions with surprising ease, 31-16. The respect Bryant commanded was made apparent when he left the field and Penn State fans crowded around the tunnel to give him an ovation as he left.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving that Alabama hosted Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tide was playing for at least a share of the SEC title with Georgia. The Tigers were 5-5 and playing for a winning season. To say nothing of the rivalry stakes. But the nation was watching to see if Bear would break the record, and he did with a 28-17 win.
Alabama and Georgia were both unbeaten in league play, and the Tide had to play one more conference game (7-0 vs 6-0), but with winning percentage being tied and the Bulldogs ranked #2, while the Tide were #3, it was Georgia chosen for the Sugar Bowl. Alabama still went to the Cotton Bowl hoping for the right confluence of circumstances to win a national championship.
Those circumstances were that if Alabama could beat Texas, the Tide needed to hope for Georgia to lose to Pitt and #1-ranked Clemson to lose to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Those games would take place in prime-time, while the Cotton Bowl was in the early time slot. So the hope for the Tide was to get a win and then sit back and hope for chaos at night.
For three quarters in Dallas, Alabama looked the part of a team that had a lot on the line, and Texas looked like a team that needed the probation of a rival to be here. The Tide were moving it up and down the field, but couldn’t put the game away. Alan Gray, who shared quarterback time with Lewis killed one drive with a fumble on the Longhorn 15-yard line. Consequently, the score was only 10-0 when the fourth quarter began.
It was fitting end for Texas, in a year where they came from behind to beat Oklahoma and to tie Houston. They “whipped”, to use Bryant’s postgame words, the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback Robert Brewer got the opportunity here and while he threw for over 200 yards, helping the comeback cause, his biggest play came with his feet. With the lead cut to 10-7, and Texas on the Alabama 30-yard line, Brewer took off on a quarterback draw for a touchdown.
The Tide still rallied, with the final drive starting with a big kickoff return. Longhorn defensive back William Graham led the team with seven interceptions this season and the last one came on the one-yard line to preserve the win. After a voluntary safety by Texas, the game ended 14-12.
Texas ended up rising all the way to #2 in the final polls, after Georgia lost to Pitt (Clemson would beat Nebraska for the national championship). It was the biggest bowl win in Akers’ career, coming as Bryant made his last appearance on the New Year’s stage.