Before there was the gut check of the goal-line stand in the Sugar Bowl national championship game against Penn State, there was the gut check of the University of Alabama football team’s offseason under Coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant.
Everyone on the 1978 Crimson Tide knows exactly what that means, and will be talking about it this weekend when Alabama celebrates the 40-year anniversary of Bryant’s fifth national title.
It’s still the first thing that jumps out to E.J. Junior, who enjoyed the first of his three All-SEC seasons. The undersized defensive end went on to be a unanimous All-American selection in 1980 and was on the ballot for College Football Hall of Fame enshrinement last year.
“A gut check at that time was an unlimited scrimmage by Coach Bryant, anywhere from 50 to 175 plays,” Junior explained. “It was going to test your manhood. Most of that spring I had played safety and they moved me back to defensive end after the spring game.
“You went through as many plays as Coach Bryant wanted you to do against the first-, second- or third-team offense, where he could substitute anybody at will.”
At the time, Junior was a 215-pound sophomore looking to make his mark on a team that already had prominent names like defensive tackle Marty Lyons, linebacker Barry Krause, safety Murray Legg, linebacker Rich Wingo and defensive back Don McNeal.
When Bryant decided to see what Junior was made off, he kept him on the field for more than 120 plays, the equivalent of two-plus football games.
“Coach Bryant thought he had found another me,” Junior said. “[Assistant coach] Sylvester Croom was like, ‘Coach, that is EJ.’
“At that time I felt like I wanted to quit. Really. I felt like he was trying to embarrass me, trying to kill me. But it was a gut check and we had a couple of those. So when we went into that season it was determination to get back to where we were.”
That was the other thing about the 1978 season, the lingering bad taste of how the previous title run had ended. No. 3 Alabama knocked off No. 9 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl 35-6, only to see No. 5 Notre Dame leapfrog it in the final poll after defeating No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl (38-10, while No. 2 Oklahoma lost to No. 6 Arkansas in the Orange Bowl).
So there was a strong desire to get back to the Sugar Bowl, but the Crimson Tide also had a monster schedule to grapple with.
Alabama opened the season against No. 10 Nebraska at Legion Field in Birmingham. It subsequently played at No. 11 Missouri, vs. No. 7 USC, Vanderbilt and then traveled cross-country to Washington before hitting the meat of the SEC schedule.
“We had to be good early in the year,” said running back Major Ogilvie, who like Junior was looking to make his first contributions as a sophomore as he freshman ban was still in effect. “That team came a long way.”
Like usual, it began with the brutal offseason conditioning program, with trainer Jim Goostree putting everyone through the wringer and defensive coordinator Ken Donahue able to keep up and push a lot of players during distance runs around campus.
“Coach Goostree kind of reminded us of the Penguin on Batman,” Junior now admits with a laugh. Of course, no one was laughing then. Most players were sacred of both and Bryant.
Overall, the Crimson Tide had a lot of returning offensive talent, including quarterback Jeff Rutledge, running back Tony Nathan, tight end Rick Neal, tackle Jim Bunch and center Dwight Stephenson.
Avenging the previous-season’s loss to Nebraska got Alabama off to a good start, only to stumble when facing its third straight ranked opponent in as many games, USC, 24-14.
Led by the defense, Alabama didn’t suffer another setback, closing the regular season with a 34-16 victory against Auburn in the Iron Bowl to set up the No. 1 vs. No. 2 postseason showdown.
As the scoreless game approached halftime, Alabama was content to run out the clock when Penn State coach Joe Paterno called two timeouts in hopes of getting the ball back and taking a shot at some points. However, the strategy backfired when Nathan broke a 30-yard run and Rutledge found split end Bruce Bolton for a 30-yard touchdown with eight seconds remaining.
An interception helped the Nittany Lions tie the game in the third quarter, but Alabama again took the lead on an 8-yard touchdown run by Ogilvie.
Penn State, which Ogilvie called the hardest-hitting team the Crimson Tide faced that year, appeared to get a huge break with 7:57 remaining when Joe Lally landed on a misdirected pitchout at the Alabama 19. It wasn’t long before the Nittany Lions were on the verge of tying the game, with third-and-goal at the 1.
Although Penn State would finish with just 19 rushing yards, Paterno decided he wanted to try and run it in. After the third-down play came up short Lyons famously told Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina “You better pass,” but he said something else his teammates.
“Marty Lyons said ‘This is nothing but an old-fashioned gut check,’” Junior said. “That’s why when everybody talks about the famous goal-line stand and you see the term gut-check, it started that spring.
“We all understood. We weren’t tired. We wanted to leave everything on that field and give it everything we’ve got because we all had survived a gut check.”
The call was a run up the gut by Mike Guman, who instead of barging into the end zone was stopped cold. It’s since been considered the most famous play in Alabama history, but got some company with the 41-yard touchdown pass on second-and-26 last season.
“I was a surprised as anyone that they didn’t try and throw the ball,” said Junior, as Alabama hung on for the 14-7 victory.
The USC loss came back to bite the Crimson Tide a bit because the coaches poll awarded the Trojans its national championship while the Associated Press opted for Alabama.
It was a split national title, one that the 1979 team would successfully defend.
“The 1978 team was as fun of a team as you’d ever play on,” Ogilvie said. “We had good chemistry all year long.”