'Not afraid of the big, bad wolf': How Alabama football's last game against Miami returned the Crimson Tide to national championship glory

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama didn’t belong.

That’s the message Miami players tried to send leading up to the 1993 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. And that’s the message most analysts and pundits communicated, too, as most picked the mighty Hurricanes. And they were right; the Crimson Tide didn’t belong in the conversation with Miami.

Alabama belonged in a class of its own.

With coach Gene Stallings, Alabama routed Miami 34-13 to complete a perfect 13-0 season. In the process, it won the program’s first national championship since the Paul “Bear” Bryant era.  

The defense shut down Heisman winner Gino Torretta and the potent Miami offense, holding it without a touchdown. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide used a strong running game as Derrick Lassic and Sherman Williams combined for three touchdowns with blockers such as Roosevelt Patterson leading the way against a typically staunch Hurricanes defense.

The two programs haven’t faced each other since that day at the Louisiana Superdome, but that will change Sept. 4 when Miami and Alabama meet in Atlanta.

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Almost three decades have passed, but an important lesson remains: loudest does not mean best.

“We were not afraid of the big bad wolf,” UA defensive back Antonio Langham said. “Sometimes, the wolf can huff and puff, but can he really blow the house down?”

‘Who the (expletive) are you?’

Not long after arriving in New Orleans, Alabama players headed down to historic Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. The problem: Miami players did, too.

Before long, groups from both parties crossed paths. Add alcohol, pride and competitiveness to the equation, and it had potential for chaos quickly.

Miami speedster receiver Lamar Thomas was jawing in front of Alabama players when Patterson decided to step in and say something.

“Look, man, all this talk, it ain’t going to get us nowhere,” Patterson said. “We’re going to see who will be the champ at kickoff.”

“Man, who the (expletive) are you?” Miami's Rohan Marley replied.

“I turned to the short joker and said, “Man, you going to remember 77,” Patterson said.

Patterson gave the 5-foot-8 linebacker a reason to remember. Alabama receiver Prince Wimbley said Patterson went on to have the best game of his life.

“That really sparked it for me,” Patterson said. “These guys are talking all this smack. They’re going to see what is really going on during kickoff.”

University of Alabama head football coach Gene Stallings at the 1992 / 1993 Sugar Bowl vs. Miami.  Alabama won the National Championship by beating Miami

Marley, nicknamed “Rat” and the son of reggae icon Bob Marley, was one of many Hurricanes players not afraid to say what they thought. In the week leading up to the game, the younger Marley said anyone who didn’t like him mentioning that they would kick Alabama’s behinds could go to hell.  

“I don’t care if they see this on TV or read it in the newspapers,” Marley said.

Or hear it on Bourbon Street, apparently. Neither he nor many of his teammates held back on their message that the boys from Alabama didn’t belong there.

Shouting matches ensued. One such exchanging of strong words included Williams and Miami linebacker Jessie Armstead. They immediately recognized each other from having studied film. And they went toe-to-toe verbally, Williams said, in their first matchup of the week.

“We calmly let them know we’re not backing down,” Williams said. “We’re Alabama; you’re Miami; and we’re here to kick some butt.”

Words flew for no more than a few minutes. The standoff never became physical. Police intervened quickly.

“Thank God for the officers,” Wimbley said. “They got between us and kind of helped out as well.”

And players for the most part seemed to understand that if they decided to fight physically, they wouldn’t have a chance to take part in the fight on the much bigger stage later that week.  

“It was hard,” Wimbley said of keeping people in line. “You’ve got to understand, we’re college kids. Everybody’s got hormones. Everybody wants to beat their chest.”

Cooler heads doused the metaphorical fire that night, but Miami’s propensity for talking a bit too much started another.

Said Wimbley: “They threw gasoline on the fire on Bourbon Street.”

Motivation from Michael Rogers

Alabama had to face adversity early while preparing for the national championship.

On Christmas Eve, while everyone was home briefly for the holiday, linebacker Michael Rogers suffered a head injury in a car crash. 

Most players didn’t find out until they arrived in New Orleans.

“The team’s reaction was, first … we weren’t getting exact information … was he hurt?” safety Chris Donnelly said. “How bad was it? Your first reaction is his safety. The second reaction was, is he able to play? Without question he was a big force for us and an asset we couldn’t afford to lose.”

University of Alabama head football coach Gene Stallings at the 1992 / 1993 Sugar Bowl vs. Miami.  Alabama won the National Championship by beating Miami

Rogers was the team’s second-leading tackler. Williams called him the heart and soul of the defense. Langham described Rogers as aggressive, hard-nosed, able to run, and an integral part of the unit.

“So it was like, ‘Man, we’ve got somebody who can step in, but that’s Mike Rogers,’” Langham said.

Rogers couldn’t play, but he was able to make it to New Orleans. One day, he was in the meeting room waiting for his teammates. Everyone went over and hugged him.

“When you’ve got a brother in a bad situation and you don’t know if he’s going to pull through it, that kind of weighs on you,” Langham said. “For him to get there, that was just extra motivation.”

He was able to take part in meetings, joke around at times and join the team on the sideline.

In case his presence alone didn’t provide enough motivation, Rogers added a little more.

“He would plead with that defense,” Langham said. “‘Whatever you all do, win the championship for me.’”

‘3-1 Up’ to something

Alabama didn’t know who exactly could be watching practice at times, so it had to be careful. It wanted to keep 3-1 Up under wraps.

It ultimately translated to 11 defenders on or near the line of scrimmage with three linemen, one linebacker and seven defensive backs up in the offense's face. The call was something defensive coach Bill Oliver had devised ahead of the championship game.

“I literally would come and stand over the guard,” said Donnelly, a safety.  

They never lined up exactly that way while practicing in New Orleans, though. The Crimson Tide was going for the element of surprise, but more than opponents experienced surprise.

“I remember (defensive lineman) John Copeland, he knew we were doing something different, but I guess it just didn’t register to him that everybody was on the line,” Donnelly said. “I remember him looking at me, the first time we did it, and then looking back and going, ‘What are you doing?’”

University of Alabama head football coach Gene Stallings at the 1992 / 1993 Sugar Bowl vs. Miami.  Alabama won the National Championship by beating Miami

If Alabama players were confused initially, think about the Hurricanes.

The play wasn’t called more than a dozen times, but it served its purpose.

“Looking at Gino Torretta’s face when we were all lined up there,” defensive back George Teague said, “you could see him like, ‘What the heck is going on?’”

A fair question. Out of 3-1 Up, Alabama could send the house. Or defenders could bail. Much of that depended on whether Torretta was under center or in shotgun.

“The concept thought was, if he’s under center, we can get to him before he can get in his five-step drop,” Donnelly said. “We had speed guys. We had defensive backs.”

The 3-1 Up alignment was one ingredient in the confusion Alabama created for Torretta and the Hurricanes, which ultimately led to a dominant day for Alabama. The Hurricanes scored only one touchdown, off a punt return. Torretta threw three interceptions.

“We knew he was confused, and he was starting to stumble around and trying to figure out what to do with his feet,” Teague said. “That’s not a good thing when you’ve got Eric Curry, John Copeland, our linebacker crew and our secondary.”

The strip

The Sugar Bowl wouldn’t be played until later in the day, so hotel roommates Donnelly and Teague had time to kill. 

“We did talk about, if you can make a play in this game, you’ll be remembered for the rest of your life,” Donnelly said.

And Teague proved it. His third-quarter play has a nickname for a reason.  

“I remember vividly looking because I was calling it with my binoculars,” said Eli Gold, radio voice of the Crimson Tide. “I had to double-clutch just to make sure what I thought I saw, I really saw.”

Torretta rocketed a ball from the 1-yard line to his swift receiver, Thomas, streaking down the left sideline. Thomas sneaked behind coverage, caught the ball and had an easy path to the end zone.

“Here you have Lamar Thomas, who is supposed to be the fastest human being in college football,” Williams said. “If he got behind anybody, it was pretty much a touchdown. Automatic. The other defenders should just stop running because they’re not going to catch him.”

Unless they’re named George Teague.

Before Thomas could reach the end zone, Teague turned on the jets and caught him. Teague then managed to strip the ball and grab it himself. All at once.

“Once Lamar Thomas caught the ball, I saw Willie Gaston wasn’t going to tackle him, I truly panicked,” Teague said. “Uh oh. I’ve got to try and make a play. I just got to do my best track form man. I better hurry up and figure it out, or I’m going to get my butt chewed out on the sideline.”

Yes, he was playing that future sideline conversation in his head in real time because it was Teague’s fault. Gaston expected help over the top in Cover 2, but Teague inverted.

“I was kind of out of position,” Teague said. “Not kind of out of position: I was out of position.”

And yet he made the ultimate hustle play.

He was gassed after that, of course. He needed oxygen on the sideline. But he didn’t have much time.

“I was sitting on the bench,” Teague said, “and they’re like, ‘You’ve got to go back.’”

The play didn’t count.

Antonio London had jumped offside. So Miami got the ball back and Teague’s chase and strip got erased from the record books.

Not from the minds, though.

The nails had been put in the coffin, and even though they were removed, the holes to prove it remained.

“In the minds of everybody in that stadium and the guys on the field,” Gold said, “that really was one of the moments that further cemented that Alabama was going to win the ballgame.”

Contact Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly