The 1980s were a dry stretch for the powerful Alabama football program. After closing the previous decade with national championships in 1978 and 1979, the Crimson Tide hadn’t reached a major bowl game since 1981. Bear Bryant retired the following year and Ray Perkins couldn’t keep the Tide in the national elite. Bill Curry got became head coach in 1987. A controversial hire, his first two years were rough. The 1989 Alabama football team stepped up and returned to the New Year’s stage, but a sour end to the season still spelled the end of another era.
Alabama was a balanced team. Their best player was All-American linebacker Keith McCants and all-conference performers dotted the lineup. Siran Stacy was a versatile running back. Stacy rushed for over 1,000 yards and caught 36 passes out of the backfield. His pass receptions went for over ten yards a pop, indicating bigger plays than the usual dump-offs that running backs caught.
Gary Hollinsworth was the All-SEC quarterback, with 60.5% completion rate and 7.0 yards-per-attempt. His TD-INT ratio was 14/16. While that wasn’t unheard of for this era, it was higher than the norm. And even allowing the SEC was not known for its quarterback play, Hollingsworth was a curious choice for all-conference. He relied on his backs—Kevin Turner, along with Stacy—and his tight end, Lamonde Russell to keep the passing game moving.
Defensively, the Tide had a couple ballhawks in the secondary with John Mangum and Efrum Thomas each picking off five passes and making all-conference. In the trenches, Willie Wyatt on defense, along with Terrell Chatman and Roger Schultz on offense were honored by SEC voters.
So ‘Bama had good talent, but not great—especially when measured by the Bryant era which was still in the fairly recent rearview mirror and by the Saban era that we now have as another measuring stick. The #16 national ranking they had to start the season seemed about right.
The Tide blew out lowly Memphis to start the season and then ground out a 15-3 win over a respectable Kentucky team. An uninspiring 20-14 escape at woeful Vanderbilt was followed by a trip to Ole Miss. This would be a pretty good Rebel team, one that would go 7-4 and earn a bowl trip. The Alabama offense opened up and blew them out, 62-27.
Alabama came home and had another uninspired win, 24-17 over UL-Lafayette. But uninspired wins were still wins, and at 5-0, the Crimson Tide had nudged up to #10 in the polls in time for a visit from Tennessee. The Vols were undefeated and ranked sixth in the country. They were the favorites to win the SEC and the Sugar Bowl bid that went with it. Instead, the Alabama offense put on a show.
Stacy did everything. He ran for 125 yards. He caught nine balls for 125 yards. One of those catches was a 75-yard touchdown pass. He ran for three more scores. Hollingsworth played his best game of the year, going 32/46 for 379 yards. By the third quarter, the Crimson Tide led 33-14 and they ended up winning 47-30.
There was no time to celebrate because a big non-conference date at Penn State was up next. The Nittany Lions had won two national championships in the 1980s and while ’89 wasn’t one of their great teams, it was still a pretty good one that came in ranked #14.
In a tough game on a sunny afternoon at State College, Stacy ran for 106 yards. Hollingsworth had his struggles and threw four interceptions. The costliest one came when Alabama led 17-16 with a little over five minutes to go and was driving for insurance. Penn State took over on their own 30 and drove to the threshold of the goal line. There was time for one more play. They sent on the field goal team. Curry sent on 6’7” Thomas Rayman for the play titled “Desperation Block.”
Rayman got up and did his job, blocking the field goal clean. Alabama had a great escape. They were headed into November ranked #5, undefeated and in serious position to talk about a national championship.
A 23-10 win over mediocre Mississippi State nudged them to #4. A 37-14 win over Southern Miss pushed the Tide’s record to 10-0 on November 18. They were off the following week while seventh-ranked Miami knocked off #1 Notre Dame. The results shook up the polls and was the break Alabama needed.
Colorado was the new #1 and in this era when bowl games were often locked up just before the final games of the season, the Buffs were in line to play Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. The Irish loss meant that game would not be winner-take-all for the national championship.
And the Tide were sitting pretty at #2. They simply needed to win out and hope Notre Dame could beat Colorado in the Orange Bowl (which the Irish were favored to do).
But “simply win out” wasn’t really that simple. There was still the fabled Iron Bowl game at Auburn. The Tigers, along with Tennessee, were a game back of Alabama in the conference race. While the Sugar Bowl had already committed to Alabama, an Auburn win would create tri-championship in the SEC. What’s more, the rivalry stakes in the Iron Bowl were even higher—1989 was the first time that Auburn would get to host this game on their own campus, at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Alabama did not play well. They fell behind 27-10 in the third quarter. A rally to pull to within 27-20 gave them a chance, but Auburn calmly drove for a lockup field goal in the final minute and it ended 30-20.
The polls dropped Alabama to #7 going into their Sugar Bowl date with the new #2, Miami. The Hurricanes were now the ones in position to benefit from a potential Notre Dame win over Colorado.
Miami and Notre Dame were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country and it showed on New Year’s Night. Alabama played from behind the entire evening. They fell behind 20-10 before a touchdown pass to Russell just before the half made it a game at 20-17. They fell behind 33-17 before a touchdown and two-point conversion with just less than three minutes to play gave some hope at 33-25. But the ensuing onside kick was recovered by Miami and the season ended. The ‘Canes claimed the national championship when Notre Dame beat Colorado.
Alabama finished the season ranked #9. A Top 10 finish and the program’s first major bowl appearance in eight years seemed like a breakthrough. The school didn’t see it that way. Curry’s contract was up for renewal and he was offered very unfavorable terms. Seeing the writing on the wall, Curry opted to leave and take the Kentucky job.
Curry never fit in at Alabama, where he lacked ties to Bryant and lacked a winning resume, having gone 31-43-4 at Georgia Tech prior and the seven ensuing years saw him post a 26-52 record in Lexington. He was, by the accounts of all he knew him, an honorable man. But this was a curious hire and the relationship was tenous from the outset.
Alabama hired Gene Stallings, a man with ties to the Bryant era. Three years later, the Tide had another national championship.