CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Memories of 1973 Sugar Bowl remain sweet and sour

The game endures as one of Notre Dame's greatest and one of Alabama's most painful.

It was the first meeting between college football's most powerful pillars. Alabama had already been named national champion by coaches voting in a United Press International poll, which made a final determination before the bowls.

"It was North vs. South, No. 1 vs. No. 2, Ara vs. Bear," recalled Mike Stock, Alabama's halfback that night. "And then the game lived up to its hype. It's amazing the shelf life of that game."

Notre Dame could have earned an extra $100,000 playing in the Orange Bowl but opted for the undefeated matchup against the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The Irish were actually No. 3 in the polls behind No. 2 Oklahoma, which was ineligible for a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.

"It's doubtful that any college bowl game ever featured two teams with such an itch to get at one another," Sports Illustrated reported. The setup could not have been more perfect. And the hurt on the losing end still penetrates.

"The thing I remember, not to take anything away from Notre Dame, is I thought we were the better team," Stock said. "I bet we would have beaten Notre Dame seven out of 10 times, but on that given night… God, it was a heartbreaker."

Stock has never been able to completely live the night down. He grew up in Elkhart, Ind., 15 miles east of South Bend and, as a kid, attended many Notre Dame games with his father.

Everyone expected Stock to play football under the Golden Dome. That was Stock's plan, too, until the man in the houndstooth hat walked into his world.

"Coach Bear Bryant personally came to recruit me," Stock said. "My God, if that guy is going to come to see me, I'm going to go play for him. When he came up, I'll tell you, the whole town was just in a buzz."

Stock, on that distant night 39 years ago, came close to being an Alabama folk hero for life.

In the fourth quarter, he took a handoff from quarterback Richard Todd and then threw it back to Todd, who raced 25 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. However, Alabama kicker Bill Davis missed the extra point leaving the Crimson Tide with only a two-point lead, 23-21.

On Notre Dame's next drive, Bob Thomas wobbled a short field goal over the cross bar to put the Irish up, 24-23, and set the stage for a dramatic finish.

After Weber made his catch deep inside the Bear's lair, he limped back to the huddle only to be immediately subbed out with a shoulder tap.

Weber ran to the sideline.

"Ara was looking right at me," Weber said. "He had a look of astonishment on his face. It was very, very rare for him. He hit me on the shoulder pad and then I went to the sidelines with all the other players and grabbed them. We were high-fiving each other."

Alabama's side was a tomb — a real hurt locker.

Bryant went over to Notre Dame's side to congratulate winning quarterback "Mark" Clements. Bear wasn't always good with names.

"I don't really consider it a loss; we just ran out of time," Bryant is quoted as saying in the book "The Last Coach," by Allen Barra.

Bryant thought the 1973 Alabama team might have been his best.

"I don't know how to describe it," Stock said of the loss. "I guess it was 'Thank God it was the last game of season.' It just kind of deflates you."

CHICAGO