Gary Hollingsworth, the latest Alabama quarterbacking sensation, heir to the job once held by Joe Willie and the Snake and all those other good ol' cover-boy types, is a tall, skinny kid whose approach to weightlifting, according to Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Homer Smith, is "reluctant." He's also so slow afoot that when he was once asked to run a 40-yard dash, he replied, "Does it all have to be in one day?" If folks from the land of the Bear find that hard to believe, let them hear this: Hollingsworth has always preferred pitching baseballs to footballs.
Yet Hollingsworth, all 6'4" and 187 pounds of him, has given Alabama quite a lift since midway through the second game of the season, when an injury to senior Jeff Dunn put Hollingsworth into the lineup. A senior who had never taken a varsity snap, he helped salvage that game, a 15-3 win over Kentucky. Two weeks later, against Mississippi, Hollingsworth passed for 363 yards and five touchdowns as Alabama overcame a 21-0 deficit to win 62-27. A so-so performance in a 24-17 win over Southwestern Louisiana was next.
However, last Saturday, a bright, breezy day at Birmingham's Legion Field, Hollingsworth set a school record for completions with 32 (in 46 attempts); had 379 passing yards, the second-highest total in Tide history; and threw for three touchdowns as Alabama commemorated coach Bill Curry's 47th birthday with a 47-30 win over Tennessee. The victory ended the Volunteers' 10-game winning streak and raised the Tide's record to 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the SEC. It also sparked hopes in the Heart of Dixie of Alabama's first Sugar Bowl trip since 1980.
Whether rolling out on play-action calls or working out of the shotgun, Hollingsworth used the short passing game to pick Tennessee apart and set up the running game for junior tailback Siran Stacy, who became the Tide's sole rushing threat after Murry Hill left the game with a first-quarter rib injury. Later, when Hollingsworth was asked how he felt about setting the school completion record, he didn't realize that the fellow posing the question was none other than Scott Hunter, the man who had established the previous mark—as well as the still-standing yardage record—in a 1969 game against Auburn. Hunter is now a sports anchor for WKRG-TV in Mobile. "I don't know about records," said Hollingsworth, who then dutifully praised his line and receivers.
"Gary Hollingsworth continues to amaze me," said Curry. "To come in here and start just four games and establish a school record.... He learns the offense really well, and he learns from a good football coach."
Curry, a modest type, was not talking about himself but about Smith, who's in his second year at Alabama but his 32nd as a coach. Smith has made Hollingsworth a personal project. Against the Vols, Smith also called the game's biggest play—a second-quarter shovel pass from Hollingsworth to Stacy, who dodged his way through the defense to score a 75-yard touchdown.
The play didn't bury the Volunteers—they rallied from a 16-7 deficit to trail 19-14 at halftime—but it proved that Alabama could score from anywhere on the field. The Tide broke the game open in a two-minute span early in the third quarter. Following an 11-yard touchdown pass from Hollingsworth to tight end Lamonde Russell, Tennessee fumbled the ensuing kickoff on its 19-yard line, and four plays later Stacy scored the second of his four TDs, on a five-yard run. That put Alabama ahead 33-14, and the Vols were left to ponder weaknesses in their offense that had been exposed by a Tide defense led by linebacker Keith McCants—who finished with 16 tackles—and wide-body noseguard Willie Wyatt.
To a great extent, though, Tennessee was the architect of its most glaring weakness. On Oct. 12 coach Johnny Majors threw tailback Reggie Cobb off the team for disciplinary reasons. It was widely reported that Cobb, who had been suspended from the squad last February until just before the start of this season for disciplinary reasons, had failed a drug test. Majors tried to put a good face on the situation, insisting that his players would pull together and be just as strong without Cobb, who had 616 yards and six TDs in five games before his exit. Majors also seemed certain that quarterback Sterling Henton would pass effectively against Alabama, something he had not heretofore been required to do because of the team's prowess on the ground.
Majors's confidence in Henton lasted all of two series. With 6:01 left in the first quarter, Majors banished Henton to the bench, from which he never returned. Henton's replacement, Andy Kelly, put up respectable numbers—completing 15 of 28 throws for 226 yards and two touchdowns—and gave Tennessee fans brief hope that the day, and a Sugar Bowl trip, might yet be saved. But it was not to be.
"We were really prepared for Henton," said Tide defensive back John Mangum afterward. "So we had to make some adjustments when Kelly came in. We had to start thinking about the great receivers they have."