For Bear Bryant and his Alabama Crimson Tide, last weekend's trip to New York was supposed to be a laugher. Friday's itinerary for the 68-man traveling squad included a tour of the Big Apple. Then on Saturday, for some real fun, the whole bunch would bus over to New Jersey's Meadowlands to play Rutgers University in a football game. That's right, Rutgers. Said Alabama kickoff specialist Tim Clark, "I first learned there was a Rutgers when I read it on the schedule before the season started."
Alabama-Rutgers did look like a mismatch. The Crimson Tide went to The Meadowlands riding a 25-game winning streak, ranked No. 1 in both the polls and well on its way to a record third straight national championship. The Scarlet Knights, on the other hand, still mix it up with a few of the Ivies, and they had never before played a No. 1 team, unless you count Lehigh, which was to become No. 1 in Division II even after losing to Rutgers back in 1977. The joke around Giants Stadium last week was that Penn State wasn't No. 1 when Rutgers played it to open that 1977 season, but the game sure gave the Nittany Lions a boost in that direction. That was the last time Rutgers had played a big-name opponent in the regular season in The Meadowlands, and at halftime of that game the Scarlet Knights trailed 38-0.
Well, a funny thing happened out there in the Jersey marsh last Saturday. As expected, Alabama won, but it certainly didn't win as expected. Which is to say that the final score was 17-13, and Rutgers could easily have come away with a tie had it not been for a mental boo-boo by the Scarlet Knights' coach, Frank Burns. At the end it was the Rutgers fans in the crowd of 58,107 who were standing and cheering as their team went down to defeat. And why not? In a curious twist, the loss should boost Rutgers' hopes of breaking into the Top 20, while Alabama's inability to squash this upstart should cost it voting power in the polls. It was Bryant who offered the best summation of the topsy-turvy affair. "We won the game," he said, "but Rutgers beat us."
If the result was disappointing for Bryant, it wasn't as bad as the first time he went to New York with an Alabama team. That was in 1933 when he was a sophomore end and the Tide suffered its only loss of the season, 2-0 to Fordham in the Polo Grounds. "That was the first time I'd been to New York and it was a big deal for me," Bryant said last week. "We came up on a train and got to see a little of the town. I remember large buildings."
That memory was one of the considerations that led Bryant to schedule last Saturday's game with Rutgers. "Most of these kids have never been to New York," he said. "They're from rural communities like I was. I like to take them places." On Friday morning he sent them on a 2½-hour bus tour of the city. They crossed the George Washington Bridge, rode past the United Nations and the Empire State Building and on down to Battery Park, where they disembarked to take a look at the Statue of Liberty. "What they really noticed, though," said C.D. Tatum Jr., the school's athletic business manager, "was old native New Yorkers—those winos with their bottles and the drunks lying in the gutter. They'd seen all those things in pictures and in the movies, but they thought that was just playacting."
Bryant himself passed up the tour. "I've been here plenty of times," he said, "and when I come to town I stay in my hotel and only go out to do my business. I'm afraid to walk those streets alone." No matter. New York came to the Bear. On Thursday night the Giants' head coach, Ray Perkins, an ex-Bryant player, visited him. Friday night it was Sonny Werblin, who owned the Jets when they signed Joe Namath out of Alabama, ran The Meadowlands for a while and now heads up Madison Square Garden. That same night George Steinbrenner offered to send a limousine to bring Bryant to the Yankees-Royals playoff game, but Bryant declined. "Bear'll stay home like he always does," said Alabama Assistant Athletic Director Charlie Thornton. "He doesn't want to get up here and be bigdogging it and overlook some detail."
It was Werblin who initiated the idea of a Rutgers-Alabama matchup back in the mid-'70s. Bryant was staying at Werblin's home in Golden Beach, Fla. and Sonny was showing him the architect's drawings for The Meadowlands, which was then under construction. "I can't wait to see Alabama play Rutgers in this stadium," said Werblin, who until recently was a trustee of the New Jersey school.
"You've got to be crazy," said Bryant. "Our schedules are made up 15 years in advance."
"Well, I know nobody would be stupid enough to turn down a game in front of 78,000 people at $10 a head," replied Werblin.
"Say those numbers again," said Bryant, and the game was on. Alabama dropped two games against Miami to make room on its schedule. Eventually Alabama agreed to a flat guarantee of $100,000 for Saturday's game, a top-rate visitor's check, and it will give Rutgers the same when the Scarlet Knights visit Birmingham next year. In both cases the home team makes the real bundle. It's a profitable marriage.