Hunter: the 1980s Alabama Crimson Tide

Tainted Love: The 1980s Tide
By Hunter Ford

Who could forget parachute pants, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” The Cosby Show, Oingo Boingo or Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” video?

While reading the recent comparisons of Paul Bryant and Nick Saban, I was reminded of Ray Perkins, the Tide coach who led Alabama in the mid 1980s. His tenure was sandwiched in between the twilight of Bryant’s career and the Bill Curry experiment.

For the purposes of educating the young’uns out there who have no memory of the 80s, and the oldtimers who may choose to forget this time, I’d like to explore the decade a little bit. These were my junior high and high school years (yours too, some of you) and a very important time in my development as a Crimson-bleeding Alabama fanatic.

The early 80s were still Bear’s Time. Although the 80, 81 and 82 teams fell way short of the precedents set in the 60s and 70s there were some historical moments to cherish. The 80 team fell to Mississippi State in a shocking upset then lost to Notre Dame. At 9-2, the 80 Tide went to the Cotton Bowl, at the time still prestigious, and stomped a mudhole in Southwestern Conference champ Baylor to finish 10-2.

The year 1981 was marred by a loss to one of the worst ever Georgia Tech teams and a tie with Southern Miss. Bill Curry coached Tech that year by the way.

But Alabama beat Penn State on the road and defeated Auburn to give Bryant his 315th victory, making him the winningest coach in college history until geezers from his own era, Paterno and Bowden eventually passed him. Bryant’s swan song was an emotional win over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl.

Enter Ray Perkins, to the theme music of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” The steely Perkins had none of the country boy charm of Bryant and immediately made mince meat of many things Tide fans held dear. He scrapped the wishbone, he tore down Bear’s tower for God’s sake!

Perkins also shook up sponsors, changing from Golden Flake to Lays and firing radio voice John Forney. Perkins also dismissed longtime assistant coaches, including Mal Moore, without blinking a gun-metal blue eye.

I’ve always thought Perkins got a bad rap, because if Bryant were in the same situation, taking over a program, I believe he would have done it his way or the highway too. (Saban kind of does that doesn’t he?)

Perkins’ legacy, to me at least, is that he held the ship together and kept Auburn from establishing dominance at a time when they had opportunity. Perkins was 2-2 against Pat Dye, but the balance of power could have shifted drastically, and it did when Perkins left.

Here were Perkins’ biggest achievements: A 28-7 win over fifth ranked SMU in 83 Sun Bowl; 17-15 win over Bo Jackson and Auburn in 84; “the Kick” win over Heisman Bo and Auburn in 85; a win over Ohio State in the 86 Kickoff Classic; a resounding throttling of Tennessee in 86 that started a long winning streak over the Vols, and the Tide’s first and only win over Notre Dame, also in 86. Perkins was 3-0 in bowl games also defeating Southern Cal and Washington.

Perkins personal legacy was not helped when his former quarterback and protoge Mike Shula coached the Tide incompetently prior to Saban’s arrival. The Perkins, Bill Belicheck, Saban chronology, is interesting however.

Former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant had an 80s hit with “Ship of Fools” and that music could have been playing in former Alabama president Joab Thomas’ head when he skipped over Bobby Bowden and hired Bill Curry. This was like Van Halen turning into Van Hagar. He was a bad fit, and Curry couldn’t beat Auburn if the Tigers were bundled in a sack and Curry had a baseball bat.

Curry lost to the Memphis Tigers, and dropped a homecoming game to Ole Miss. Yet he managed to skunk Paterno in three games and he continued the Tide streak against Tennessee.

In 1989, Curry led Alabama to a 10-0 record and share othe SEC crown. He had to share it with Auburn, when once again, Dye abused Curry like a two-dollar you-know-what.

That same year Neil Young released his seminal song “Rocking in the Free World.” Curry left for Kentucky. Alabama returned to its roots and hired Bryant disciple Gene Stallings to begin the voyage into the 90s. Young’s music inspired a growing “grunge scene” that took music away from the techno pop of Flock of Seagulls and back into raw-bones, power chord jams. Stallings’ Tide went back to the basics of stout defense and power running. After an introductory slump in the 90 season, Alabama finished strong by beating Tennesee and Auburn. Alabama went 11-1 in 91, and 13-0 in 92. The program that “still couldn’t find what it was looking for” to paraphrase U2, finally found it. Kind of like Alabama has again with Saban.

I have fond memories of the 80s. Walter Lewis, Joey Jones, Cornelius Bennett, Derek Thomas, Bobby Humphrey, Van Tiffin, Mike Shula (yeah), Al Bell, Wes Neighbors, and many others made some nice history for the Tide. Still, I can’t help thinking they are the “Lost Boys” of modern Alabama football.

(PS: Does anybody remember the Ponys Alabama used to wear in the 80s. Kids in my day actually wore Pony football shoes to school (the turf kind, back when we still had REAL Astro Turf) tried to get Breakfast Club reference in but couldn’t. Anybody out there with 80s memories?)