Less than two weeks after a serious heart attack, the man who coached the Alabama Crimson Tide football team to the 1992 national championship plans to be back at Bryant-Denny Stadium, reunited with his players.
“It’s about doing what you say you’re going to do,” Gene Stallings said earlier this week.
That’s probably as good a theme as any for the reunion, which will honor the 1992 team at a variety of weekend ceremonies, including an appearance at the Alabama-Arkansas game on Saturday evening. The 1992 team may not have been the most spectacular of the many Crimson Tide national champions. There are other teams with Heisman winners. There are some that might have more electrifying highlight reels, although no team with David Palmer touching the football lacked for electricity. The 1992 team wasn’t out to fool anyone.
They just wanted to line up and beat you.
“We knew the defense was going to be so good,” recalls Jay Barker, the sophomore starting quarterback on that team. “We had five starters back on the offensive line. We had depth at the skill positions. There was a great amount of competition in practice.
“So Coach Stallings knew what we had. He didn’t do a lot of talking in the press, but in practice, every time we broke the huddle we would break on ‘1-2-3 national champions.’”
Not everyone outside the program was so certain. In the preseason Associated Press poll for 1992, Alabama was rated No. 9.
“Can you imagine that?” laughed Martin Houston, a fullback on the team. “I mean, can you seriously picture that. Think of a Nick Saban team that went 11-1 the year before, won its last nine games in a row (after a 35-0 loss to Florida early in the season) and returned their starting quarterback. Can you picture that team being ranked ninth today?
“That’s where they put us, though. We understood that. With a couple of exceptions, we weren’t a team with very many four-star and five-star guys. We were a bunch of two- and three-stars, a lot of whom were from (the state of) Alabama. But here was the thing. We had played a lot of football. Several of us had been redshirted. We weren’t afraid of anybody. So we had a sort of quiet confidence about us.”
For a generation of Alabama fans, that team was special precisely for that reason. In the two great coaching dynasties of the post-World War II era, the dominant years under Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Nick Saban, national championships, as great as they were, never came (or continue to come) as pleasant surprises. They are part of a firmly-fixed set of expectations. The 1992 team was unique in its style of play, but also in the rare chance for Alabama fans to pull for an underdog and be rewarded.
“I think it is a special team for a lot of people,” Barker said. “It came right in the middle between one great run and another great run. It was 13 years after Coach Bryant’s last championship, 17 years before Coach Saban’s first one. That’s a stretch of 30 years and that would have been a long stretch for Alabama fans if we hadn’t one that one.
“We had a great stretch, too, really from 1991 until 1996, but of course people are going to remember that championship.”
They also remember that Alabama didn’t dominate every opponent, at least on the scoreboard. That, too, was a reflection of the Stallings style.
“It was simple,” Barker said. “Play great defense, stop the run, run the football, be sound on special teams.”
“That was it,” Houston said. “So a lot of times, once we got that 14- or 17-point lead, that was it. Coach wasn’t going to take a bunch of chances. He was there to win the game.”
A week-by-week recapitulation of the season isn’t necessary. Alabama won, shutting down almost every offense along the way, including a second straight win over Auburn. Then came the first (and still the most important) SEC Championship Game, a 28-21 victory over Florida that avenged the previous year’s loss to Steve Spurrier’s Gators (“That was one of the things that motivated us all year,” Houston called that 1991 loss) and put Alabama in a position to play for a national title.
That game, against mighty Miami, was a reprise of the season-long theme, public skepticism countered by a quiet private optimism.
“Miami was the dominant program in college football,” Houston said. “They deserved that. They’d had great teams for years. But I knew the matchup was in our favor.
“On offense, (Heisman-winning quarterback Gino) Torretta liked to throw those little 1-yard passes and then let the receivers go 60 after the catch. Our defense was ready for that. Then, our offense against their defense, that was in our favor, too. Their defense had great talent, great speed and they’d try to outrun you. That didn’t bother us. We were going to come straight at you anyway. Their defense was like a bunch of Corvettes. But our offense was like the 18-wheeler coming down a hill at them.”
That result, a 34-13 Alabama win, will be celebrated Saturday at the Crimson Tide’s home stadium. More 90 players are expected to attend, along with most of the staff and administration from that time, including superstars like Antonio Langham, John Copeland, Eric Curry, the incomparable Palmer, George Teague, Derrick Lassic and more. Some are even more recognizable now than they were in their playing days, like Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, expected to come with Woody McCorvey, Danny Pearman and others who have Clemson and Alabama ties. A few – Mal Moore, the offensive coordinator, and John Mark Stallings, its emotional inspiration – will be honored in memory.
They will be honored for the wins. Especially, they will be honored for being the team that wasn’t the loudest or the flashiest, but did exactly what they said they would do.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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