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A Rutgers Football history: past as prologue?

We’re in that in-between time in sports. You know, when there’s too much bad bowl football and not enough Rutgers anythingl. We’re here to help.

Indiana v Rutgers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Hey, it’s Christmas/Holiday/Festivus/Winter break. How was your [fill in holiday of choice] holiday? Did you get what you wanted for [fill in holiday of choice]? If you’re an adult, probably not.

Yes, it’s the break and bowl season. Or as the folks at the Worldwide Leader say, Capital One Bowl Mania. Unless you’re one of the, what? Six teams that didn’t make a bowl?

On December 31, the two CFP semifinal games will be played. At 3:00 pm, they play the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, featuring our No. 4 Washington Huskies vs. Darth Vader and No. 1 Alabama. The second game at 7:00 is the (and I really can’t believe I’m writing this) PlayStation Fiesta Bowl with our No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 2 Clemson.

Ah, but for the old days, when Rutgers played Alabama.

What? you say (“you” being anyone younger than about 45 years old). Rutgers played Alabama?

Yup, twice. And almost beat them in the Meadowlands.

Gather round, children, as Uncle Bob - not to be confused with Uncle Bob Mulcahy - regales you with the tale of that fateful 1980 contest.

Noted RU alum Sonny Werblin was running the Sports & Exposition Authority. He wanted to see RU be a major player in athletics. Sonny had made his money in the entertainment field and at one time was a co-owner of the Jets (he eas the guy who convinced Alabama's Joe Namath to spurn the NFL and sign with the AFL's Jets). He knew how to finesse a deal and create entertainment.

He thought it was a win-win if he could get a major football power to come up to his Meadowlands to play a game against his Rutgers. So he called Bear Bryant, the legendary head coach of the Crimson Tide. And you can imagine the conversation between the two. **

Werblin: Bear, I got a great idea. ‘Bama plays a game in the NYC metro area.

Bryant: Why?

Werblin: The publicity and - get this - the New York media market.

Bryant: Why would I care about the New.... Wait. Against who?

Werblin: Rutgers

Bryant: Why?

Werblin: I’ll write ya a nice big check.

Bryant: What time’s the game?

For the record, the game was at 1:00 on Oct. 11, 1980. Rutgers came in to the game at 4-0, having just crushed Cornell the week before. Right, Cornell. The other wins were over Temple, Cincinnati, and Princeton. The Tide, on the other hand, was the two-time defending national champion and strolled into Giants Stadium with a similar 4-0 record. Having beaten Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Kentucky. By a combined 171-38. And Ole Miss scored 35 of those 38.

The story in the next week’s issue of Sports Illustrated opened thusly:

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.”

The “laugher” was anything but that. In fact, Rutgers scored first, a 44-yard Alex Falcinelli field goal. Trailing late in the game, Rutgers went to the pass behind Ed McMichaels, at the time the second best efficiency passer in the nation. But it wasn’t to be, as ‘Bama’s heavy rush left the Scarlet on the short end of a 17-13 score. A pass just beyond the finger tips of a diving Tim Odell in the endzone sealed the win for the Crimson Tide.

The Sports Illustrated story on the RU-Alabama game was a four-page piece.

It’s funny how things happen. Sonny Werblin, friendly with Bryant, throws out the idea - and $100,000 - to entice them to play up north. Frank Burns, the winningest coach in Rutgers history, was in his eighth year at the helm and never thought he’d be coaching in the game. “When I was told six years ago that we would be playing Alabama in 1980, it didn’t bother me a damn bit because I figured by that time I’d be fired.” And Bear Bryant, even while others were anticipating the “laugher”, knew his team faced a pretty good Rutgers squad. In his post-game remarks, Bryant gave this assessment: “We won the game, but Rutgers beat us.”

Beat them so badly that they actually didn’t even win the SEC in 1980.

It’s unlikely Rutgers will play Alabama any time soon. Or any other SEC team. For one, the nine-game Big Ten schedule is grueling enough. Do you need the SEC on your schedule? I’m saying no, although that 7-11-2 record versus the SEC probably isn’t as bad as you would have imagined.

1980 had another memorable game, and On the Banks will look at that the not too distant future. I promise.

** The truth: there was no phone call. Bryant was visiting Werblin in Florida and Sonny showed Bear the plans for the Meadowlands stadium. Werblin supposedly said it would be great for Alabama and Rutgers to play there. The rest, though, is pretty much on point. Including the $100,000 guarantee Alabama and Rutgers each got for being the visiting team in 1980 and ‘81 respectively. For the record, RU paid New Mexico $900,000 for this year’s game. And it’s a good thing they did.