By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Mike Eckenrod sits on his couch in a living room that would make any Alabama football fan jealous.
In the corner is a cardboard cutout of Nick Saban donning a Santa hat and only the slightest hint of a grin, staring straight ahead at a case full of priceless Tide memorabilia. Amidst the figurines, ornaments, glasses and other trinkets are three signed Alabama footballs. The most coveted is autographed by every member of the 1973 Tide team.
On the dining room table are two oversized scrapbooks packed with history. There are newspaper clippings, programs and pictures from Eckenrod’s college playing days, as well as newsletters and personal correspondence from legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Roaming somewhere in the house are Eckenrod’s dogs — Ally (short for Alabama), Bryant (after Coach Bryant’s wife, Mary Harmon) and Bama. The trio misses their late pal, a pup cleverly named Jay Barker.
Just over Eckenrod’s shoulder is an authentic poster from the 1973 Sugar Bowl. On his left hand is a national championship ring from the same year. He wears it in place of a wedding band, telling his wife, Lisa, 31 years before he didn’t need a ring for anyone to know he was married.
Playing on the TV is a recording of the 1973 Sugar Bowl, the first-ever meeting between the tradition-rich programs of Alabama and Notre Dame. Both were undefeated. No. 1 versus No. 2. Winner take all.
It’s early in the first quarter, and the Fighting Irish are forced to punt. As the Tide’s special teams unit takes the field, Lisa giddily points out, “There he is, right there.”
He, of course, is Mike, or at least a version far younger, meaner and leaner than the president and owner of Cullman’s Eckenrod Ford Lincoln appears these days.
On the screen, Eckenrod is taking part in his very last college football game. On the couch, he’s taking a trip down memory lane.
‘The right choice’
Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., Eckenrod attended a private high school for Catholic students. It was called Notre Dame High School.
You really can’t make this stuff up.
Mike and his older brother, Pat, were always meant to play football at the University of Tennessee — their mother was a Volunteer graduate and their father was the proud owner of season tickets on the 50-yard line at the southern institution's famed Neyland Stadium for 25 years — yet neither of them did.
Pat’s college recruitment came to a close in late 1965 with a two-way race between Kentucky and Tennessee. Alabama had also shown heavy interest but missed out on the 6-foot-4, 230-pound tackle-center by not having an architectural program.
With Charlie Bradshaw as coach and new defensive line coach Charley Pell in charge of Pat’s recruitment, Kentucky sold Pat on becoming a Wildcat.
In a day and age when the frequency of recruiting visits wasn’t capped, Pell would pick up Pat and Mike from school once a week and take them out for a hearty steak lunch, which was always better than the alternative — brown-bagging it because the high school was brand new and still lacked a cafeteria.
Later those nights, the Albertville native and Tide graduate was welcomed into the Eckenrod household for home-cooked suppers complete with fresh vegetables and all the fixin’s “a country boy from Sand Mountain” could ever ask for. Before long, Pell won over the entire family.
“It was unusual because my father was a big Tennessee fan,” Mike said. “I guess he dreamed of having his two sons play there, but they let Pat make his own decision.”
Pat invited Pell, as well as Tennessee coach Doug Dickey and assistant coach Vince Gibson, to the house the night before signing day. He told all three he would go out to eat with the representatives from the school he had decided to commit to.
So when Pat let Dickey know he was going to dine with Pell and join Kentucky, the Vols’ head coach was understandably upset, but he let his anger go a little too far.
“Dickey spent two hours telling this 17-year-old kid he was making the biggest mistake of his life,” Mike said. “That kind of cut us from Tennessee because they felt like Pat was a traitor.”
When it came time for Mike to choose a college four years later, Dickey’s terrible tantrum remained fresh on the young man's mind. With the coach still ruling the roost in Knoxville, Mike was determined to play for a program that would beat the Vols.
After losing to his heated rival 24-0 his freshman season, Mike and the Tide downed Tennessee 35-12, 17-10 and 42-21 their next three meetings.
“I picked the right place,” he said.
‘Like Mutt and Jeff’
Playing against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl for a national championship was the only fitting ending for Mike Eckenrod’s college football career.
It came on the biggest stage — a soggy, rain-soaked Tulane Stadium in New Orleans — featured the biggest coaches — Alabama’s Bryant and Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian — and showcased two of the sport’s biggest programs — both entered with eight titles apiece.
Eckenrod, however, was never the biggest player. Not even close. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he was a vastly undersized center, especially with brutes like John Hannah (273 pounds), Buddy Brown (309) and Jim Krapf (240) eating up playing time on the Tide’s talented offensive line.
“I remember going to the Iron Bowl in 1968. That was the year Mike Hall caught a tackle-eligible pass right at the end of the ballgame and Alabama won,” Eckenrod said of a recruiting visit. “I went into the locker room after and there wasn’t anybody that was any bigger than me. I was like, ‘Well, I can play with these guys.’
“But that was the same year they got Hannah, Brown and Krapf, a bunch of guys who were a whole lot bigger. With me weighing 195, it was kind of like Mutt and Jeff on the line.”
What Eckenrod lacked in size, he more than made up for in technique. While most linemen targeted opponents high, Eckenrod was at his best when he struck low, hitting defenders at the ankles and driving them backwards with surprising efficiency.
Freshmen weren’t eligible to suit up for the varsity squad in 1970, but Eckenrod splashed onto the scene as a backup tackle the following year. He was scheduled to start in the Tide’s season-opener against Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Southern California at Legion Field in Birmingham, but a tweaked shoulder relegated him to second-string status.
The injury only worsened as the season wore on, resulting in a redshirted 1971 for Eckenrod and a Frankenstein-esque surgery not for the faint of heart.
“That spring of ’71 was when I busted my shoulder all the way out,” he recalled. “I found out later I have a bolt and screw in my shoulder and then some staples on my chest where they put the sheet of muscles that goes over to hold my shoulder together.
“It was a pretty good operation,” Eckenrod added with a wry smile.
Eckenrod understandably spent a great deal of time on the sideline recovering from his shoulder setback in 1972 but returned as a valuable contributor for his fourth and final season.
By then, Sylvester Croom had taken over as the Tide’s starting center. At a stocky 6-foot, 230 pounds, he was much bigger than Eckenrod, but his attempts to keep Kentucky’s Bubba McCollum, who was the same height but 20 pounds heavier, out of the backfield by blocking high in Week 2 were unsuccessful.
Eckenrod had the answer for stopping the eventual All-American, though, attacking the hefty nose tackle low and keeping him at bay the rest of the way en route to a 28-14 victory in Alabama’s favor.
“I graded out real well, so the next game against Vanderbilt, Coach Bryant went ahead and started me,” Eckenrod said. “Which Sylvester became an All-American the next year, so I figured I did pretty good if I beat him out for a couple of games.”
The memories kept piling on in Eckenrod’s senior season. He had his hand in all phases of special teams, including long-snapping on punts, continued to split snaps at center with Croom and was chosen as one of the team’s captains by Coach Bryant for six or seven games, including the Iron Bowl.
All Tide seniors were technically captains for the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, but Eckenrod was tabbed as one of two players — the other was Mike Raines — to represent his squad at the coin toss. Eckenrod correctly called heads and the Tide tossed the Tigers aside 35-0, just one year after the infamous “Punt Bama Punt” debacle.
“Luckily we won, the coin toss and the game,” he said.
Luck of the Irish? No way. With Notre Dame looming, it was a turn of the Tide.
‘This game hurt’
Mother Nature literally rained on Alabama's parade on New Year's Eve of 1973. Torrential showers and thunderstorms left the field drenched by the beginning of the highly anticipated Sugar Bowl, making for a slippery artificial surface with puddles popping up all over the place.
Much like the weather, Alabama's offense was disastrous in the first quarter. The Tide finished the opening 15 minutes with less yards than they started with and a 6-0 deficit, prompting a change in footwear to allow for better traction.
“It made a big difference,” Eckenrod said of the switch.
Eckenrod didn't make his grand entrance on offense until Alabama's first scoring drive in the second quarter but found his way into living rooms all across the country shortly before kickoff. Each team's 11 starters were quickly featured as part of the national television broadcast, and even though Croom was selected to start at center, a 12th introduction was added to include Eckenrod.
“It was pretty neat,” he said. “I got my picture on TV.”
With Eckenrod on the O-line for the first time, the Tide's vaunted offense finally showed up, needing just seven plays, 2 minutes and 40 seconds to drive 52 yards for their first lead.
It only lasted about 13 seconds, however, as Notre Dame's Al Hunter returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for the go-ahead score. The Fighting Irish then converted a 2-point pass to go up 14-7.
From there, the battle between college football's creams of the crop transformed into a back-and-forth affair.
Kicker Bill Davis closed Alabama's gap to four with a 39-yard field goal right before halftime, and Wilbur Jackson put the Tide back on top with a 5-yard touchdown run not long into the third quarter.
Eric Penick responded with a six-point play of his own on the ground, giving Notre Dame a 21-17 advantage heading into the decisive fourth quarter, only to see Alabama answer with a perfectly timed trick play.
After receiving the handoff from quarterback Richard Todd, running back Mike Stock tossed the ball back to his signal-caller in the left flat, who sprinted 25 yards down the sideline and into the end zone.
Davis missed the extra-point attempt wide left, though, and the Tide's lead stood at just 23-21 with close to 10 minutes left on the clock.
The play proved costly.
“Bill Davis was a great kicker,” Eckenrod said. “I don't think he missed an extra point all year, but he missed one in this game. It had rained all that day, and it was still misty. The field was really slick.”
The Fighting Irish proceeded to march 79 yards in 5 minutes and 13 seconds, ending its lengthy possession with a successful 19-yard field goal by Bob Thomas.
The score was 24-23 in Notre Dame's favor, and only 4:26 remained in regulation. Time was running out for Alabama.
The Tide O failed to make much happen when they took over and were forced to boot the ball back to the Fighting Irish on fourth-and-20. Eckenrod downed Greg Gantt's booming 69-yard punt at the 1, and Bryant declined a 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty, deciding to put the game in the hands of his defense rather than try his luck on fourth-and-5 near midfield.
After two short running plays, everything was going according to the coach’s plan, and tight end Dave Casper only helped matters by jumping offside to send Notre Dame back to its own 3 facing a crucial third-and-9 attempt.
The wind was soon knocked out of Alabama's sails for good, however, as Irish quarterback Tom Clements completed a gutsy 55-yard heave out of his own end zone to his second option, rarely used tight end Robin Weber.
“He had only caught one pass all season, and that was his second,” Eckenrod said of Notre Dame's unlikely hero. “The ball floated to the guy, then it just hit him right in the hands. He caught it, fell down, and that was the end of the ballgame.”
Despite the respective 66-, 44-, 71-, 35-, 30- and 35-point thrashings Alabama had handed out to California, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State, Miami (Fla.) and Auburn earlier in the year, nothing could erase the Tide's lone loss in the single-biggest game of the 1973 season.
Eckenrod was crushed — and understandably so.
“You know, this game hurt. We hadn't lost. The defense was stout, but the offense set records that still stand today,” he said. “I still feel to this day we had a better team, but on that particular night, they won.
“I would've liked to have had another shot at these guys.”
‘A ring to show for it’
Lisa Eckenrod was a sophomore in high school when the man she would one day meet and marry was a fifth-year senior at Alabama battling in the trenches against Notre Dame in the most important football game of his life.
On Jan. 7 almost four decades to the day, she'll be right by his side at Sun Life Stadium in Miami to witness the two storied football teams' seventh all-time meeting and first with national championship implications since the 1973 Sugar Bowl.
Once again, it's No. 1 versus No. 2 — though the undefeated Irish hold the honors this time around. The coaches are still bigger than life — rockstar Nick Saban for the Tide and Brian Kelly for Notre Dame. And so are the football programs — Bama seeks its third title in four years, while the Fighting Irish are looking to end a 24-year drought.
Those sound like all the ingredients for a classic, but Mike is fairly confident the Irish won't be able to hang with his alma mater.
“I just think we have so much talent. And don't get me wrong, Notre Dame has a lot of good players,” he said. “I think we'll have the depth, we'll be able to run the ball and if AJ has any kind of a game, I don't think it'll be that close. I know oddsmakers have Alabama at a 9 1/2-point favorite, but I could see them winning by 21 points.”
Lisa attends almost every Tide game and wouldn't miss seeing their latest and biggest matchup in person. Mike, on the other hand, has far different reasons for wanting to be there.
“Normally, I like to watch them on TV, but it's been 39 years,” he said. “That was my last game, and I’m Catholic, so I've got a lot of stake in the game.”
Wait, what about watching for the possibility of paying back the Irish for spoiling his grand finale as a proud member of the Crimson Tide football team?
Well, there's that, too.
“I don't want to say it would be revenge, but it's good anytime Alabama can win a national championship,” Eckenrod said. “Even though I went to Notre Dame High School, I'm Catholic and I had the opportunity to go to Notre Dame, I still think I picked the right place in Alabama and playing for Coach Bryant.
“It was a special time in my life. I certainly don't have any regrets. And I have a ring to show for it.”
How Eckenrod landed that piece of hardware is an interesting story in and of itself.
At the time, two national championships were handed out each year, one by the UPI (United Press International) before bowl season began and the other by the AP (Associated Press) after the postseason had concluded.
In 1973, the UPI awarded the Tide the title and ranked Notre Dame fourth, while the Fighting Irish leapfrogged Alabama for the AP’s top prize with their one-point thriller in the Sugar Bowl. Needless to say, that was the last season the UPI voted before the extra slate of games were even played.
One look at the snazzy ring on Eckenrod’s left hand, and it’s impossible to tell it’s a replacement. The local legend in the auto industry won’t reveal how he lost the original, only saying it’s a “long story.”
Lisa surprised Mike with a replacement ring their first Christmas together, but the original was eventually recovered and returned by a piano teacher in Montgomery. While sweeping her walk, she noticed an object fly by and bent down to pick it up. She didn’t know what it was and took to to her neighbor, who was well aware of its value. They delivered the ring, which had been slightly sliced and dented by a lawn mower blade, to the university, which then ensured a safe arrival back to its rightful owner.
Mike and Lisa had the damaged ring repaired and gave it to their daughter, Katie, on her 16th birthday.
Lisa is also to thank for many of Mike’s other most-prized Tide possessions, including a large, framed 1973 Sugar Bowl bumper sticker, the authentic poster from the big game and the recording of the epic matchup.
To acquire that last one, she spent a month making phone calls and being passed around before ultimately reaching the office of Roone Arledge, the broadcasting pioneer who headed ABC Sports at the time. He told Lisa there was a man with a copy in Pelham, so she met up with the stranger, had the recording transferred to Betamax and gave it to Mike as his “big Christmas gift that year.” It has since been converted to DVD.
“That was real important, to me and to Mike,” Lisa said. “I try to do things for Mike that are special.”
Back on the couch
As the 2012 BCS title game draws closer by the day, Mike Eckenrod sits on his couch soaking in the 1973 Sugar Bowl.
The result will never end in the Tide’s favor, but by his side is his wife, Lisa, in a living room with a lifetime’s worth of love and memories that would make anyone jealous — Alabama football fan or not.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.