SI Vault
John Underwood
October 24, 1966
Unbeaten Alabama came close to a cropper, but a cool snake named Stabler and a field goal topped Tennessee in a thriller
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October 24, 1966

Surge By The Tide

Unbeaten Alabama came close to a cropper, but a cool snake named Stabler and a field goal topped Tennessee in a thriller

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Here, now, comes Alabama. Tough Alabama, terribly swift Alabama, unnaturally persistent Alabama. Alabama always does something right. It is the fourth quarter against Tennessee, and Alabama is being led by a left-handed quarterback named Ken (Snake) Stabler who has ears that get out there and who likes to depress the rear ends of automobiles with wheel-stand fast starts so they can get out there, too—to make his speeding tickets worthwhile.

Once last year, when the Snake was a sophomore, he threw a fourth-down pass out of bounds to stop the clock—against, and to the benefit of, this same Tennessee team. Elephants remember. The Snake forgot that bonehead play almost the moment before he made it. The Snake is a cool one. "You can never tell about left-handed quarterbacks and left-handed crapshooters," says Paul (Bear) Bryant, the Alabama coach.

Now the Snake is trying to drive Alabama 75 yards to the Tennessee goal in the dwindling rain of the fourth quarter at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Stabler's mother is up there in the stands, shivering in her wet, wet clothes, but not budging. Nobody among the 56,368 people in there bumping umbrellas is budging. Mrs. Stabler forgot to bring her umbrella and her raincoat and has sat there drowning for three quarters in the rain storm that came spilling out of the Great Smoky Mountains 45 minutes before kickoff.

The score at this point is 10-8, Tennessee. While the 56,000 are losing their cool, Mrs. Stabler's young son is firmly in control of his, saying calmly in the Alabama huddle at the 25-yard line: "Keep your heads. Just keep your heads. No mistakes, and we'll get it."

It had been 10-0 at the half as Alabama fumbled around in the rain and was forcibly made to realize that Tennessee was probably the best team it will see all year. Stabler did not deserve to be so calm—he had not completed a pass in the first half, and Alabama had been able to muster only two drives of 25 yards. But that is another thing Alabama football teams are: nonphobic. Ruffle-resistant. Coach Bryant had walked into the Alabama dressing room at the half, calm as you please, and had begun his instruction by saying, "All right, gentlemen. The first half was theirs. This one will be ours." It was, too.

With nine minutes plus to play and Alabama on its 25, the rain stops, as if Bryant himself had passed a hand across the skies. It is a long way to the Tennessee goal wherever you are on the field, because until Alabama's touchdown about five minutes earlier no team this year had crossed the Vols' goal line.

So Stabler begins. First an incomplete pass. Then a pitchout to Les Kelley, the big running back. He gets six. Third down, four to go. Big down. Alabama cannot afford to give up the ball now. Strategy down.

In the study of opposing teams, football coaches search assiduously for tendencies, for clues to weaknesses. Sometimes when they are playing a friendly rival they search until the last minute. For example, on Friday at Knoxville, as Alabama limbered up on the field, Alabama Assistant Coach Dude Hennessey asked Tennessee Assistant Vince Gibson: "O.K., Vince, it's too late to change now. What have you been doing this week?" "Holding prayer meetings," replied Gibson.

If they are extra sharp, coaches will find that they can sometimes work an opponent's strength against him, as in judo and the wife-husband relationship. In Tennessee's case, the Volunteers' two excellent linebackers, Paul Naumoff and Doug Archibald, tended to take off after potential receivers when they smelled a pass. Alabama figured it could decoy deep with its regular receivers and then throw delays to others floating into the zones from which the linebackers flew. To set up its touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Alabama had gotten an important gain on such a pass to Tight End Wayne Cook, and then a two-point conversion on the very same play.

Now, as before, Stabler picks his spot beautifully—he sends his split end and wingback flying. When the Tennessee linebackers go after them, Kelley, after a moment's delay in faking a block, slips into the unprotected underbelly of the Vol defense, takes Stabler's pass and runs 14 yards to the Alabama 45. Next it is a cross pattern to Split End Ray Perkins, going down and cutting sharply to the middle. Twenty yards and another first down at the Tennessee 35.

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