‘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.