It was going to be just another Liberty Bowl. Good, not great. It was
Alabama, football’s most dominant program in the Seventies, but in 1982,
’Bama would be entering the game coming off three straight season-ending
losses. And it was Illinois, 7-4 in the Big 10, with a potent offense
and an exciting offensive-minded 46-year-old coach, Mike White. Illinois
was reappearing on the bowl scene after a 19-year absence and was
undefeated in bowl play.
But on December 15th, three weeks after they were invited to Memphis for
the game on December 29th, it become The One and Only Bowl – the only
post-season game that really mattered that year. The stunning
announcement shook football: The Bear said he was going into permanent
hibernation. Nobody could believe it. The man who had won more games
coaching college football than anyone else was quitting. Paul W. Bryant
would step aside after the Liberty Bowl as Alabama’s football coach and
would turn over the reins to one of his favorite students, Ray Perkins.
Bear Bryant was a legend, a folk hero, and a living monument all rolled
into one. No one had a greater impact in a profession than Bryant had in
football. In the late 1930s, Bryant left Moro Bottom, Arkansas, about
seven miles from the big city of Fordyce, to go to Alabama to play
football. He became an all-American, then got his coaching start as an
assistant at Vanderbilt. From there, he made three stops as a head coach
before he heard “Mama” calling and went back to take over at Tuscaloosa
Bryant’s retirement created a ticket demand the Liberty Bowl had only
dreamed about in all its previous years. With one startling
announcement, the Liberty became the bowl nobody wanted to miss. The
demand for media credentials was overwhelming: so crushing that the
Liberty had to hire Bryant’s former sports publicist at Alabama, Charley
Thornton – by then associate athletic director at Texas A&M – to set up
a sort of Liberty Bowl News Center.
Thornton was accustomed to dealing with huge games and important people,
games such as Alabama vs. Notre Dame for the national championship in
the Sugar Bowl, people like Joe Namath at the Orange Bowl. The Liberty
had to leave it to Thornton to determine which members of the media got
seats in the way-too-small press box and who had to be relegated to seats
outside on what would be a bitterly cold night.
Thornton set up a schedule of post-practice press conferences, and he
ordered a heated press tent set up near the Alabama locker room to house
the media for post-game interviews.
All the networks sent news crews to Memphis. So did practically every
major newspaper in the country. Alabama’s practice sessions at what then
was known as the Kennedy Complex at Memphis State were like a zoo.
Bryant was mobbed by autograph seekers wherever he went, but especially
when he arrived and left practice each day. Fathers carrying their
little sons begged Bryant to sign something, anything. Moms holding
little daughters were just as determined. Every day Bryant signed for as
long as he could.
He was a little embarrassed at all the hullabaloo. The Liberty Bowl
wanted to present him with a going-away gift at the annual luncheon.
Bryant nixed the idea. Then they wanted to give him a big present at the
black-tie party. Bryant nixed that, too. But he was aware that this was
a historical event, and maybe that explains why he sent friends signed
and dated lithographs. Lots of famous people have them hanging on their
walls even now.
Nobody knew for sure why Bryant had picked that year to hang it up. He
was 69 years old, had looked 79 for at least 10 years, but was still
But Bryant knew. In a private meeting in his suite at the Holiday Inn
Rivermont after practice two days before the game, Bryant poured a drink
for himself, plopped into an easy chair, and said he wanted to talk.
“There was a time when we’d hardly ever lose a game to a team we were
supposed to beat,” he began. “Until last year, I remember it happening
only two or three times. We lost to Georgia Tech in the Sixties when we
had the better team, and old Bill Pace’s team at Vanderbilt really
embarrassed us when they whipped us up in Nashville. But lately, it
seems like we’ve been losing a bunch of times to teams we ought to beat.
Georgia Tech last year. Southern Mississippi this year. We got more than
500 yards on Auburn this year and still couldn’t win. When you lose to
teams you are supposed to beat, that’s the coach’s fault. I found I
couldn’t rally my players anymore.”
He talked that way for about an hour-and-a-half, remembering all the
good times and the few bad ones. He looked tired, even older. He got up,
said he had to rest, and ever so slowly walked into his bedroom. Billy
Varner, a University of Alabama campus policeman who was Bryant’s
chauffeur, said he was worried about the old man. “I just don’t know
what’s going to happen to him,” Varner said. “He won’t make it without
coaching. That’s what he lives for.”
In the Liberty Bowl, Ricky Moore started the scoring with a 4 yard
touchdown run in the first quarter. After an Illinois touchdown on a 1
yard Joe Curtis run and failed extra point in the second quarter, the
Tide took the lead into the locker room 7-6. In the third quarter Jesse
Bendross ran it in from 8 yards out to put Bama up 14-6 (video). But, Illinois
rallied behind quarterback Tony Eason to take the lead on a two yard
pass from Eason to Oliver Williams and a 23 yard Mike Bass field goal.
In the final quarter Craig "Touchdown" Turner lived up to his nickname
and scored the last touchdown for Bama in the game on a 1 yard run. The
final was 21-15. Alabama won the game despite giving up 444 yards of
total offense and surviving a Liberty Bowl record, 423 yards of passing
from Eason. Alabama's bruising ground attack mustered 217 yards and that
proved to be the difference. Bama's Jerimiah Castille was named the
game's MVP thanks to 3 interceptions.
With the win, the Crimson Tide ended its 1982 campaign with an 8-4
record. An upset loss to Tennessee and three disappointing November
setbacks spoiled what could have been a national championship-type
season, but the win over Illinois provided college football’s greatest
coach one of his most cherished memories. The win gave Coach Bryant a
final record of 323-85-17, unmatched in intercollegiate football
history. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant died on January 26, 1983, less than
four weeks following the Liberty Bowl (video).