In Paul W. Bryant’s inagural game as coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, the man the world knew as "the Bear" faced one of LSU’s most powerful squads. In that Sept. 27, 1958 contest, Bayou Bengals coach Paul Dietzel unveiled the Chinese Bandits defense and the Tigers earned a hard fought 13-3 victory in Mobile’s Ladd Stadium.
LSU finished the 1958 season undefeated and claimed the national championship. It would be six years before the Tide and the Tigers would meet on the gridiron again and, once again, the college football crown was on the line.
Bryant had returned to Tuscaloosa in 1958 to revive the football fortunes of his alma mater. Six years further on, the rebuilding effort had long since borne fruit. The Crimson Tide had improved each season under his leadership, claiming first bowl victories, then conference titles and, in 1961, the national championship itself.
Yet the two seasons that followed that high water mark had been marked by near misses and turmoil.
With a fearsome defense and a hotshot sophomore quarterback named Joe Namath, Alabama seemed primed to repeat as national champions in 1962. Although no opponent managed to score more than a single touchdown against them all season, the Crimson Tide fell 6-7 to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. It was enough to deny Alabama the SEC championship and knock them out of the running for the national title.
The next year brought chaos to Alabama. The state became the focus of the civil rights struggle and the nation watched transfixed as the terrible conflict was played out on its streets. The demonstrations began in Birmingham in the spring and protestors were set upon by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses.
The turmoil reached Tuscaloosa in June when Governor George Wallace made his "stand in the schoolhouse door" to block the admission of two black students into the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy intervened, federalizing the Alabama National guard and forced the state to comply.
The violence that gripped the state throughout the year culminated on the morning of Sept. 15 with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by members of the Klu Klux Klan. Four young girls who had been waiting in the basement of the building to begin Sunday school were killed. The country was horrified.
For Bryant, the year had proven personally tumultuous and his drama played out in front of the national media as well. It began in March when The Saturday Evening Post published a story claiming Bryant and Georgia coach Wally Butts had conspired to "fix" the Crimson Tide vs. Bulldog game the season prior (Alabama had won 35-0). Bryant and Butts then sued the magazine.
The trial occurred in Atlanta and lasted most of August, easily eclipsing the attention to the upcoming season. The jury found the Post had libeled Butts and was eventually awarded $460,000. Two months following the end of the 1963 season Bryant would settle his suit against the magazine out of court for $360,000.
For the Alabama football team the chaos proved to be insurmountable. Despite displaying the stout defense Bryant’s squads had become famous for the Crimson Tide were knocked out of contention for the conference title after falling to two opponents by slim margins; a 6-10 loss to Florida and an 8-10 trimming by arch-rival Auburn. Alabama wrapped up the 1963 season with a 12-7 victory over Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl and then set about putting the painful year behind them.
As LSU prepared for the 1964 season in Baton Rouge, the Bayou Bengals’ own title pedigree wasn't far out of mind either. Just six years prior the Tigers had won it all behind the Heisman Trophy-winning running back Billy Cannon and a stifling defense known far and wide as "the Chinese Bandits."
The future looked bright for the Purple and Gold when head coach Paul Dietzel turned down his dream job at Army at the end of the next season, saying, "I will never coach anywhere but LSU." Two years later those words came back to haunt him. The brass at West Point came calling again, and this time the former Black Knights’ assistant accepted the job.
The Tigers then turned to Dietzel's top assistant, Charlie McClendon, to lead the team. The forthright Arkansan known to most as "Cholly Mac" had played and coached under Bryant at Kentucky. In fact, McClendon was interviewing for the top spot in Lexington when he was offered the job at LSU.
Despite tempered expectations going into the 1962 season, the Tigers started off with a dominant 21-0 win against Texas A&M that set the tone for the rest of the campaign. LSU finished the year with a 9-1-1 record and a 13-0 win against No. 4 Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The one loss was a 15-7 battle against Johnny Vaught's still-powerful Ole Miss squad.
The hopes of the 1963 Bayou Bengals were quickly sidetracked by a wave of injuries including the loss of star passer Pat Screen. While a 21-12 loss to Rice was the only defeat over the first half of the season, LSU only found misery in Mississippi in November as the Tigers fell to Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The season ended with a 14-7 loss to Baylor in the Bluebonnet Bowl and an unsatisfying 7-4 record.
As the 1964 season approach, McClendon made a change to the Tigers offense in order to protect his once-injured quarterback; he ditched LSU’s power sweep attack for a wide open pro look that emphasized the pass. The change was kept under wraps all summer and unveiled in the season opener against Texas A&M. The new offense earned 293 yards against the stout Aggie defense but three fumbles kept the game close. In the end LSU earned the 9-6 victory and the momentum began to build.
The Tigers topped Rice 3-0 the next week in Houston and were slated to face off against Florida and the Gators' hot quarterback Steve Spurrier when Hurricane Hilda changed the plans. The game with the Gators was moved to the end of the season and LSU got an early bye week. Wins against North Carolina and Kentucky followed and the Tigers were ranked No. 7.
Despite a 3-3 tie with the Volunteers the next week, LSU remained in the AP top ten and when the first week in November arrived, they had regained the No. 8 slot as they prepared to face the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide in Birmingham.
Unlike the year before, the Crimson Tide had enjoyed a quiet offseason in 1964. As a result Alabama faithful were confident this was a squad that might be able to go all the way despite the No. 6 rankings in the pre-season poll. That belief seemed well founded when the Tide delivered a 31-3 beatdown of Georgia in the season opener.
Over the next two months the Crimson Tide blasted through the schedule with only one close game – a 17-14 edging of a visiting Florida squad. Yet there had been a serious setback to Alabama’s title aspirations. In the game against North Carolina State, Namath had been flushed from the pocket and fell awkwardly while scrambling for a few extra yards. The damage to his knee would bedevil him the rest of the season and, eventually, throughout his career.
"He moves like a human now," Bryant said after seeing his quarterback struggle against Florida. "He used to move like a cat."
As November began LSU was the only team standing between Alabama and the SEC Championship as well as the promise of the national title beyond. The Tigers arrived in Birmingham with their own designs on the conference crown and, with a win and a little luck, an outside shot at the national championship as well.
Both teams’ star quarterbacks were nursing injuries as the game approached. Namath's knee problems forced him to cede the starting slot and almost all the snaps to backup Steve Sloan. LSU’s Pat Screen was also nursing a leg injury and would only see limited playing time in lieu of understudy Billy Ezell.
On Nov. 7, 1964, a recently completed expansion to Legion Field pushed attendance to a capacity 68,000 - the largest crowd to ever see a football game in the state of Alabama. Despite the rainy conditions, spectators sat in the aisles, in temporary bleachers and filled the concourses to catch a glimpse of the highly-anticipated contest.
Even LSU fans noted a sense of impending drama as the kickoff approached. Longtime New Orleans Times-Picayune sportswriter Peter Finney described the scene thusly: "Dark clouds hunk over head and a misty rain fell - until Bryant made his entrance. Then, as if by magic, the clouds parted and sunshine cast a mantle of gold on the field."
The portent seemed less than providential four minutes into the game when LSU recovered a Crimson Tide fumble on the Alabama 21 yard line. Five plays later, Tiger quarterback Ezell tossed a 13-yard pass to flanker Doug Moreau in corner of the end zone. LSU was on the scoreboard but a missed extra point kick put their lead at 6-0.
Alabama then began a battle of field position when punter Buddy French boomed a 67-yarder to pin LSU on their five yard line. When the Tigers failed to convert, Alabama’s Ray Perkins returned the ensuing punt to the LSU 32.
Six plays later Crimson Tide fullback Steve Bowman bullied he ball over the goal line from the one. With the extra point Alabama took the lead 7-6. LSU took it right back in their next possession with a 75-yard, 14-play drive that concluded with a 35-yard field goal, making the score 9-7.
In the second quarter Alabama threatened to score twice but was thwarted, the first with a fumble on the LSU 2 yard line and the second with a missed 37-yard field goal.
Alabama kicker David Ray began the fourth quarter avenging his earlier missed field goal with a successful 37-yard boot to give Alabama the lead again 10-9. The Bayou Bengals battled back on the next possession but Crimson Tide defender Hudson Harris snagged an errant Ezell pass and raced 34 yards for a touchdown.
With a 17-6 lead, Alabama fans began chanting "We’re No. 1" but the LSU team wasn’t about to concede the contest with half a quarter of play remaining in the game.
McClendon put his star signal caller Screen back in the game and the veteran QB took the Tigers to the Alabama 39 yard line when Ezell returned to the huddle. Two passes later LSU was at the 11 but that’s where the Alabama defense stiffened. The Tigers were forced to turn over the ball on downs.
Alabama was unable to convert the first down and LSU had one final chance with 3:53 left and the ball on their own 46. Once again, Ezell drove the Tigers to the Tide 11 yard line but LSU’s hopes for a final score were quashed with an end-zone interception with 24 seconds on the clock.
Tide tackle Frank McClendon, normally an offensive specialist, became the hero of the day batting down no less than four Ezell passes in Bayou Bengal’s final two drives. LSU's coach anticipated reporter’s questions concerning the Tide star by noting, "He ain’t no kin of mine," at the start of the post-game press conference.
Bryant also noted the importance of his tackle’s defensive play in the post game interview.
"We were real fortunate to win," the Alabama coach said. "Any one of those passes there at the end could have hit."
The Crimson Tide rushed for 148 yards all afternoon but used the running game and the superb punting of Buddy French to control the pace of the contest. LSU earned 174 yards in the air but the Alabama defense pressured the Tiger quarterbacks all afternoon. Ezell and Screen completed only 15 of 40 passes and threw three costly interceptions.
While the LSU coach lauded the Alabama squad and praised his own team’s effort, he admitted the loss was a tough one.
"Defeat is never good," he said. "You don’t play to lose, you play to win."
LSU remained in the top ten despite the loss and McClendon set about rallying his team for the season’s home stretch. The Bayou Bengals downed Mississippi State and then-arch-rival Tulane in successive weekends but finished the year facing the formidable Florida team in the game postponed from September. Even under the lights of Tiger Stadium, Steve Spurrier and the Gators proved too much for LSU. Florida won 20-6.
A hard-fought 13-10 victory over Syracuse in the Sugar Bowl gave LSU an 8-2-1 record for the season – good enough for a No. 7 ranking in the final AP poll.
Meanwhile, the victory over LSU clenched the Southeastern Conference championship for the Crimson Tide, and Alabama’s star continued to rise along with it's position in the polls. The victory prompted voters to put the Crimson Tide in the No. 2 slot behind the also undefeated Fighting Irish. Pundits pined for a bowl matchup of the two teams but doubted it would come to pass due to Notre Dame’s policy of bypassing post-season play.
The next week Alabama solidified their championship resume by traveling to Atlanta to down Bobby Dodd’s tenth-ranked Georgia Tech squad 24-7. The next season the Yellow Jackets would leave the SEC and a decade-and-a-half would pass before the two teams would meet again.
On Thanksgiving Day, Alabama downed arch rival Auburn 21-14 in Birmingham to finish the season undefeated. Two days later, Southern California felled No. 1 Notre Dame in a dramatic come-from-behind 20-17 victory. The next day the Associated Press put Alabama at the top spot in the final poll of the 1964 season giving the Crimson Tide the national championship.
"They should have been No. 1 all along," Bryant said later. "I might have lost confidence several times. I think I did. But these boys never lost theirs."