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Teague caught Thomas at the Alabama 15, but he was not content to make a tackle. Reaching over Thomas's right shoulder with his right hand, he wrested the ball from Thomas, thereby effecting the most remarkable full-gallop fumble recovery in memory. An offside penalty against the Tide meant that Miami kept the ball—albeit 77 yards farther back. Deflated, the Hurricanes ended the possession three plays later with a punt. After the game, Thomas was moist-eyed but manful in assessing his humiliation. "That catch could have put us where we needed to be," he said.
Indeed, with more than 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kevin Williams reeled off a mind-bending, 78-yard punt return for a touchdown to cut the Tide lead to 27-13. But 'Bama responded on the next series with a five-minute, 12-play drive that ended with Lassic gliding into the end zone from four yards out for the touchdown that broke Miami's back.
What is Lassic, a native of Haverstraw, N.Y., doing in Tuscaloosa? Lassic has often asked himself the same thing. Several times he has packed his bags, but he has never gotten them to the car. Lassic wanted to play at a warm-weather school and snubbed recruiters from Syracuse, Penn State and Maryland, eventually choosing Alabama over Georgia Tech. In 1988, Lassic's first year on campus, Bill Curry, the Tide coach at the time, redshirted him. When star tailback Bobby Humphrey broke his foot in the second game of that season, Lassic wanted Curry to let him suit up, but the coach was unmoved. Out came the luggage. "I was all ready to go," he recalls. "About eight bags."
Preston Lassic got wind of his son's intentions and phoned him. "He said, 'As soon as you get home, you are to get a job,' " says Lassic." "And you aren't staying at your mother's place unless you pay some rent.' " Lassic unpacked.
On March 25, 1990, Lassic was in his room watching the NCAA basketball tournament while waiting for his girlfriend, Cherlintha Miles, who was driving from Montgomery to Tuscaloosa. Recalls Lassic, "A woman from the hospital called and said, 'Your friend was in an accident. Why don't you come over.' I was thinking something happened to the car and that she needed a ride home."
Miles, 20, had been killed in a one-car crash. Lassic did not leave his room for a week, even to eat meals, and he lost 20 pounds. Three days after Miles's funeral, which he could not bring himself to attend, his bags were again packed. Once more his father talked him into staying in school, this time more gently. Stallings, who had replaced Curry that January, and his staff made several trips to Lassic's room. "Derrick just wanted to lie in bed," says Stallings.
The day after the Sugar Bowl, when Stallings was asked why he didn't seem more overjoyed at having won the national championship, he explained that for him the joys of coaching do not lie primarily in victories. Where then, does this joy reside? "In seeing a kid like Derrick Lassic go 180 degrees," said Stallings.
The Tide coach has apparently evolved from Bear Disciple to Sensitive New Age Guy. Before the 1964 Sugar Bowl game against Ole Miss, Bryant had assembled his coaches. Joe Namath had been caught drinking: What discipline did they recommend? Everyone was in favor of a slap on the wrist—everyone except the defensive coordinator, Ol' Hangin' Judge Stallings. Bryant suspended Namath for the game.
Fast forward to last September. When returner-receiver David Palmer was arrested on charges of drunken driving for the second time in three months, Stallings consulted three psychologists, who advised him not to throw Palmer off the team. The young man had nothing else to fall back on, Stallings was told. Knowing that he would catch heat for appearing to coddle a star, Stallings suspended Palmer for three games, saying, "David needs the team more than the team needs David."
It was the decision of a man secure in his convictions and comfortable in his own skin. The shadow of the Bear? Not a problem for Stallings. The Crimson Tide is winning championships again. Stallings is casting a long shadow himself.