THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM DEREK JOHNSON'S 2007 BOOK, HUSKY FOOTBALL IN THE DON JAMES ERA. IT REFERS TO THE 1978 GAME BETWEEN WASHINGTON AND ALABAMA.
By Derek Johnson
It was at the Hyatt Hotel near Sea-Tac Airport, that the nervous young waitress approached the most famous coach in college football history. Paul "Bear" Bryant had just arrived in town with his legendary Alabama squad. This was to be the first and only time the Bear would bring a team into Seattle. Once again, his Crimson Tide was a contender for the national championship. "Excuse me Mr. Bryant," cooed the waitress. "There's a gentleman over there who considers you a living legend. Would you give him your autograph?"
Bear Bryant smiled and reached into his plaid sports jacket for a pen. "It would be my pleasure," he said in his growling Southern drawl. "You tell him I'm just not sure if I'm living or not."
When she blinked, he added, "I'm just an ordinary, worn-out old football coach."
With thinning hair, craggy face and a rumbling voice, the 65-year old Bryant was winding down his career. He arrived in the Pacific Northwest with the staggering career record of 276-77-16. And he would coach another five years, to break the all-time NCAA victory record with 315.
Now he was in Seattle, in an unfamiliar environment-- but within a familiar ritual: Awe-struck reporters were gathered around him the day before a game, to feverishly transcribe every word he uttered. Or at least, every word that was intelligible. Northwest reporters weren't used to the Southern drawl, nor the sentences that would start out loud and clear, but diminish to a monotone growl. As Seattle Times sports editor Georg N. Meyers described, it was "like listening to a tape recorder whose dying battery is coughing up its final volt."
Bryant was asked what the chances were of his team repeating the 52-0 rout of the Huskies, as occurred three years earlier in Tuscaloosa -- in Don James' first season at Washington.
"We don't anticipate anything like that, I hope," said Bryant. "It was a warm day, and it seemed like the more people we played, the more we'd score." Then he quickly added: "Any team that's in Don James' hands will be a good football team. He's an excellent football coach."
A record 60,975 fans crammed into Husky Stadium under overcast skies and moderate temperatures. Several hundred fans had purchased standing room only tickets. At 1:30 PM, the appointed time of kickoff, the Crimson Tide were intentionally delaying entering the tunnel, and remained in the visitors' locker room. Washington's opponent always ran out of the tunnel first. This infuriated Don James. The Huskies were forced to run out first, and then James made his way over to head official Charlie Moffett to protest what Bear Bryant was doing. Moffett agreed to have a word with Bryant, but refused to take any action against Alabama.
The crowd grew listless as the minutes passed. Finally, Alabama appeared. They ran from the tunnel in all-white uniforms, with crimson helmets and crimson trim. Husky fans reacted with a sense of awe in seeing the visitors from Dixie pour onto the field and reach the south sideline. The solidly-built Bryant ambled behind his players, wearing his trademark saw tooth hat and a gray sports jacket.
Alabama's intimidating wishbone offense was to be led by quarterback Jeff Rutledge, and All-American running back Tony Nathan (8.5 yards per carry) and backup Major Ogilvie (6.5 yards per carry).
From film study and coaching, Bear Bryant had instructed his defensive coaches to key on Husky running back Joe Steele. By now, Warren Moon had gone to the CFL, and Tom Porras was in his place as the Washington quarterback. Porras didn't possess the same commanding presence as Moon. He often stammered in the huddle when calling plays, and struggled with accuracy on his throws.
But Porras looked impressive against Alabama. Late in the first quarter, he dropped back and launched a long pass to speedster spider Gaines, who had gotten behind Bama's double coverage with startling ease. The result was a 74-yard touchdown. It was Washington 7, Alabama 0. Bedlam prevailed at Husky Stadium.
The two teams battled to a near standoff in the first half. Mid-way through the third quarter, Washington was clinging to a 10-7 lead, when a special teams error spelled possible doom. On fourth down from its own 26-yard line, punter Aaron Wilson took the snap. But in seeing the rush, he decided to take off running instead of kicking the football. Alabama defenders buried him at the 16-yard line.
Three plays later, Alabama broke huddle and approached the line of scrimmage. The Husky Stadium crowd was on its feet roaring in desperate support. But Rutledge quick-snapped and pitched the ball to the trailing Tony Nathan, who plunged across the goal line. Bama missed the PAT, but they still owned a 13-10 lead.
Alabama would soon add another touchdown, when they lined up in the I-formation, before Rutledge threw to a wide open Rick Neal in the end zone.
In the fourth quarter, the Huskies trailed 20-10. UW wide receiver Spider Gaines waited for the snap of the ball, then went out for a pass route. He made a move to the inside, fooling cornerback Murray Legg, before turning on the afterburners to catch a pass that resulted in a crowd-electrifying touchdown. It was now Alabama 20, Washington 17.
The Husky defense tightened, and promptly forced Alabama to punt. Washington took control of the football and began a determined-looking drive. A long pass to a wide-open Gaines bounced off his face mask. Gaines heard Murray Legg behind him shout, "Whew! That was close!"
A few plays later, Washington had driven to Alabama's 30-yard line with 1:41 left. Porras took the snap and handed off to running back Joe Steele. Steele ran up through a hole in the line, and got hit. While attempting to stretch his arm for an extra yard, a defender stepped on the ball, popping it loose. A mad scramble ensued. Suddenly the players in white jerseys with crimson helmets were jumping up and down in jubilation. The home crowd fell silent.
Alabama ran out the clock to preserve the 20-17 win. Players from both teams advanced onto the field and toward each other. Spider Gaines tracked down Bear Bryant to shake his hand. Then Don James met the Bear at midfield and offered congratulations. Bear Bryant told Don James that since the 1975 rout that occurred when they last played, Washington had made the biggest three-year improvement of any team he'd ever seen.
Addressing the media, James sadly shook his head each time he began to answer a question. "(Alabama) has been an explosive team this year," he said. "But I felt we took it away from them. We made them work for everything except when we mishandled punts. The thought is that I've done a poor job of coaching. We haven't had good kicks all year. When somebody rattles you and you don't kick good, then everybody is going to come at you. I'm the coach so it's up to me in the end."
In the Alabama locker room, the Crimson Tide players were whooping it up louder than Seattle reporters had seen a Husky opponent do in some time. Meanwhile, Bear Bryant was down the hallway, seated and sipping a can of soda. A cluster of reporters with microphones hovered near. He spoke slowly in his Southern drawl.
"Well, I don't have a lot to say other than Ah'm happy we came out a winnah," he said. "I think our players really won the hard way. [The Huskies] really made us look bad on some plays. They're a good, sound football team. They made that one defensive mistake."
Years later, Don James sat in an empty and quiet Husky Stadium. He was asked about that '78 game against Alabama.
"It was everything you would want in a college football game," James said. "It was very competitive, with some great hitting on both sides. It was a great opportunity to coach against a legend like Bear Bryant. The fans had a great time. There was mutual respect from each team to the other. In my entire career, it was probably the best I ever felt after a loss."