52 years ago, Lawrence Welk and an Alabama-Ole Miss shootout paved way for primetime football | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Exciting storylines abound, including the battle of two of the nation’s best quarterbacks, as Alabama football’s Bryce Young and Mississippi’s Matt Corral will likely determine a definitive early front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. A shootout is expected, just as surely as if Rooster Cogburn had just bellowed out “Fill your hand!” to the dastardly villains at the end of “True Grit.”

But as college football history tends to repeat itself, this won’t be the first time the two schools have had red-hot quarterbacks. There was an offensive show that was far more unexpected in its era that stands as at least a piece in the timeline that has led us to the way we watch college football. 

The year was 1969. The site was Legion Field in Birmingham, filled to capacity. The quarterbacks were All-American Archie Manning for Ole Miss and future Green Bay Packers starter Scott Hunter for Alabama. The 33-32 Alabama win defied the conventional wisdom of how SEC  football could be played.

The performances may be equaled, the statistics surpassed in a new age of offense. The impact may never be quite the same.

ALABAMA VS. OLE MISS:Ole Miss football is 2-touchdown underdog vs Alabama. Here's why that is — and isn't — right

Alabama had played on national television before, going all the way back to 1951. The Crimson Tide had even played night games before, often in its Orange Bowl appearances. But prior to the season, Roone Arledge, head of ABC sports, Alabama coach and athletics director Paul “Bear” Bryant and Ole Miss coach and AD Johnny Vaught had come to an agreement to play a primetime night game.

There was just one problem: the time.

”Lawrence Welk was the No. 1 program on Saturday nights and had been for a long time,” Hunter recalled Monday. “I can remember my mother sitting us down in front of the television to watch the Lennon Sisters (the star vocal attraction of Welk’s orchestra). So Welk had the power and his contract had a non-pre-emption clause in it, so we were going to have to start after Lawrence Welk. 

“Well, that meant it was going to be pretty late, but it turned out to be the best possible thing,” Hunter continued. “Arledge said it was just an experiment, but ABC had the lead-in of the No. 1 Saturday show in the country and absolutely no other sports anywhere else on television. When I was in the NFL, I was talking to some ABC guys and they said ratings were phenomenal. In those days, they’d introduce the players individually: 'Scott Hunter, quarterback, Prichard, Alabama,' and so on. So kickoff wasn’t until about 8:20, but years later I’d meet New York cab drivers or (NFL) stadium clubhouse men who’d stay, ‘I stayed up until 1 o’clock watching that damn game.’"

Archie Manning speaks during the Manning Passing Academy press conference held at Nicholls in Thibodaux on July 16.

The game delivered. Alabama came in at 2-0 but “we were lucky to get out of Virginia Tech” with a 17-13 win, Hunter recalled. “Then Ole Miss didn’t really show anything on offense the week before and lost 10-9 to Kentucky, and I thought, “Well, they don’t do too much.”

Hunter, and America, found out differently.

“The first half was kind of mundane, maybe 14-7 in our favor,” Hunter said. “But in the second half, neither defense could stop the other one. Didn’t have a chance. Archie could do anything he wanted. I was on the sideline when the defense was on the field and coach (Ken) Donahue was trying to come up with something and (assistant coach) Jimmy Sharpe was like, 'Let’s just put five on (Manning) and see if that works, because we’ve got three on him and that’s not working.'"

FORGET SABAN VS. KIFFIN:Focus on Matt Corral vs. Bryce Young when Alabama faces Ole Miss

Manning wound up with 540 yards of total offense, a new SEC record that stood for years. Yet each time Ole Miss would pull ahead, Hunter and the Crimson Tide would answer.

Finally, trailing 32-27 with fewer than four minutes to go and a fourth-and-goal at the Ole Miss 14, the Crimson Tide faced the crucial moment. Bryant and his staff, especially assistant coach Steve Sloan in the press box, sought the perfect play call — and didn’t find it. 

“We stood over there for a while and then the head official came over and started guiding me with a hand on my shoulder saying, ‘Alabama captain, it’s time to play football.’ They weren’t going to rush coach Bryant, but it was time.

”So as I’m getting close to the huddle, I hear coach Bryant and I’m expecting a play. But he just says, ‘Hunter, run the best you’ve got.’”

Hunter went to the sideline and called the play himself: Fire Red Right 56 Max Protect.

”People really don’t realize it but Johnny Musso saved that game,” Hunter said. “His responsibility in max protect was really the left outside linebacker. But Ole Miss ran a twist with their defensive tackles, hadn’t run that all night, and one of them came free. I saw the guy coming and then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t there. Musso had seen what was happening and left the linebacker, just threw himself at the tackle and knocked him down. I didn’t even know where the guy had gone until we watched film the next day. But it was one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen a back make without the football. That was Johnny Musso.”

Saved from the rush, Hunter had time to find George Ranager for a 14-yard game-winning touchdown that simply capped one of the all-time SEC shootouts.

DEFENSIVE CHANGES FOR OLE MISS:Alabama football won't face same Ole Miss defense as last year. Here are the changes Nick Saban sees

The sport wasn’t entirely revolutionized that night, but the way people watched college football changed. Also, historical accuracy requires noting that it was one of the last televised games between two segregated teams. Within two years, Alabama had added John Mitchell to its defense. Ole Miss had signed Ben Williams and James Reed, the program’s first African-American players.

Time marches on. Bryant’s great-grandson, Paul Tyson, is a current Alabama quarterback. Nick Saban, like most of the rest of America’s coaches, is recruiting Manning’s grandson, Arch, who is expected to attend.

But since that night in 1969, the sport hasn’t been quite the same.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurtb