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Underdogs: 1980 Notre Dame and 1981 Alabama

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Bill Curry Led Tech To Two Massive Upsets In The Early 80s

1980 and 1981 were not good years for Georgia Tech football. Pepper Rodgers had been fired after the 1979 season and Bill Curry took over the team. Curry was a bold hire. He was only four years out of playing in the NFL and had only been an offensive line coach in the NFL. He had one season as an assistant at Tech in 1976, but one of his biggest qualifications seemed to be that he had played for Bobby Dodd in the 1960s.

Curry’s career got off to an inauspicious start. His 1980 team played 5 different quarterbacks on the way to a 1-9-1 season. His 1981 team may have been slightly better, but they still ended up just 1-10. At the time these were the 2 worst seasons in Tech history (The 1934 went 1-9) and these records have been challenged just once since, with the 1-10 1994 team. Even worse, two of Tech’s biggest rivals had won championships in those years (Georgia in 1980 and Clemson in 1981). It’s really hard to imagine a coach today surviving such a poor start to his career. Curry’s career was most likely saved by two things. First, schools in the 1980s gave coaches much more leash before firing them. Second, Curry coached Tech to two of the most stunning upsets in college football history.

1980 - Notre Dame

The 1980 Yellow Jackets got off to a rough start. 8 games into the season they were just 1-7 with the lone win against the woeful Memphis State Tigers. Worse yet, the final 3 games featured games against #1 Notre Dame and #2 Georgia. Even worse was the quarterback situation. Bill Curry was leading the team away from the wishbone and veer era into a pro-style offense, but he only had veer quarterbacks. Starter Mike Kelley had been on and off injured all season. Backup Ted Peeples was (minorly) injured and had really struggled with the new offense (he ended the season with 1 touchdown and 10 interceptions). Third-stringer Stu Rogers was also injured.

Notre Dame came to Grant Field a massive favorite, four or five touchdowns. Notre Dame came into the game undefeated and rolling. They had victories over top-15 teams Purdue, Michigan, and Miami. They were coming off three blowouts against Army, Arizona, and Navy. This should have been an easy win for Notre Dame. This should have been even easier when Kelley got hurt in the first quarter and Tech was forced to play freshman, walk-on, tight end Ken Whisenhunt at quarterback. But Tech’s defense stood up to the challenge and shut down Notre Dame’s offense.

Ken Whisenhunt led a drive in the second quarter that resulted in a field for the Yellow Jackets giving them a 3-0 lead. Notre Dame came right back with a drive that pushed all the way to the Georgia Tech 9 yard line before stalling. Their kicker then missed the 27 yard field goal (somehow off the crossbar?) keeping the lead with Georgia Tech. Until the fourth quarter things remained that way with both teams going nowhere on offense.

In the fourth quarter things got a little crazy. Ken Whisenhunt got injured forcing Curry to go back to the injured Ted Peeples at quarterback. Notre Dame lost three fumbles in the last period. The final fumble was recovered by Tech’s Robert Jaracz at the Notre Dame 12 yard line with 8:45 to go in the game. A touchdown there may have sealed the victory and even a field goal would have been huge given the offensive struggles of the Fighting Irish. Instead Peeples threw an interception. Notre Dame then drove from their own 10 yard line all the way down to the Georgia Tech 29 where their kicker was able to convert the 46 yard field goal to tie the game at 3-3. Neither team came close to scoring again and the game ended as a tie.

This was a shocking tie. Notre Dame was undefeated, ranked #1, and absolutely rolling. This tie knocked them off the top spot where they were replaced by undefeated Georgia. The Irish looked to be back on track the next week beating #5 Alabama at Legion Field, but they lost the final game of the season to USC to ruin their national championship hopes. They faced off against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and lost that too giving the Bulldogs the championship.

Tech ended the season with losses to a pretty good Navy team and Georgia. The team looked forward to the next season for an improvement as they got accustomed to Curry’s system

1981 - Alabama

Tech started off the 1981 season playing against #2 Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham. The Crimson Tide had already started the season with an easy win at LSU. They looked forward to what should have been an easy win at home against Tech. Unlike the Notre Dame game, this game was on ESPN and has since been put on Youtube so I actually got to watch it.

At quarterback GT returned Mike Kelley, but in this game he switches off a little bit with backup freshman Jim Bob Taylor. Ken Whisenhunt is back on the field, this time as the starting tight end. Alabama was also switching off their quarterback between a more experienced, steady hand (Ken Coley) and a younger, more mistake-prone, backup (Walter Lewis).

Alabama started the scoring in the first quarter with a Walter Lewis bomb to wide receiver Joey Jones for a touchdown. Things looked good for Alabama in the early second quarter getting down inside Tech’s 5 before settling for a field goal for the 10-0 lead. The next drive, Jim Bob Taylor gets his first action for Tech and leads a long touchdown drive, although he tosses two horrific pitches that GT is very lucky to recover. Freshman running back Robert Lavette makes some huge plays that drive, both on the ground and through the air. Alabama comes right back resulting in another field goal from THE Alabama Hawaiian sensation Peter Kim to give them a 13-7 lead. Alabama was driving with less than a minute in the first half when Walter Lewis threw an interception right to the chest of Tech safety Ted Thurson. Tech wasn’t able to do anything with the ball so the half ended 13-7.

In their first drive of the second half Alabama is easily driving on Tech. Running back Jeff Fagan picks up 10 yards and the first down, but the ball is poked out as he’s going down and the Yellow Jackets recover. Georgia Tech struggles to move the ball again, but Alabama extends the drive, first with a roughing the kicker and then with a pass interference on 3rd and long. These penalties moved Tech inside the 30 where they ran a screen to fullback Ronny Cone (you don’t see many of those anymore) for a touchdown to give the Jackets the 14-13 lead. On Tech’s next drive, Mike Kelley throws a wobbler that’s picked off by DB Jeremiah Castille and returned for a touchdown. There were penalties on the return so the touchdown doesn’t count, but Alabama soon punches it in and racks up a 2-point conversion to make it 21-14. Jim Bob Taylor comes back in the game and promptly fumbles again, this time dropping a snap. Luckily he’s able to fall on the ball.

At the start of the fourth quarter, Alabama has the ball. They run an option and Walter Lewis keeps it. As he’s getting tackled the ball gets ripped out of his hands and Tech recovers. This gives Tech a short field to work with. Kelley completes a pass to Whisenhunt inside the ten who then fumbles (it probably should have just been called incomplete), but Whisenhunt is somehow able to get the ball again in the mayhem. Tech stalls, but is close enough for the easy field goal (from “soccer style” kicker Ron Rice) to bring the score to 21-17. Georgia Tech’s next possession includes a long pass to Whisenhunt on the way to a Lavette punch-in touchdown to give GT the lead at 24-21 with just 4 minutes left in the game. Curry makes some questionable coaching decisions down the stretch to give Alabama a shot, but the Tide missed a long field goal as time expired to give Tech the victory.

Once again turnovers were a driving force in this game. By my count there were 7 fumbles in this game (4 by Tech and 3 by Alabama) and Tech recovered all 7. That’s crazy. After the game Bill Curry said that Tech made a handful of shoestring tackles that saved the game for them. This is very true. In the first quarter Lewis threw another pass to Jones that looked like it would be a touchdown, but Tech’s safety was just barely able to trip up Jones before he went another 50 yards. That drive ended in a field goal so the tackle saved 4 points directly. There were one or two other tackles that could easily have been touchdowns for Alabama.

Alabama didn’t fall apart after the loss. They had a pretty good season with the highlight beating #3 Penn State in Happy Valley. Their only other slip-ups were tying Southern Miss (who was actually pretty good that year) and losing a tight Citrus Bowl to #2 Texas.

Georgia Tech was not able to keep up the level of play. They dropped the last 10 games of the season only keeping it close against Tennessee and Navy. This game was a massive upset at the time of the game, but it looked even bigger in retrospect.

Both of these games were enormous upsets from Georgia Tech teams that were massive underdogs. These games may have been a preview of later successful GT teams under Bill Curry (namely the 1985 team that finished #19) and may have been a factor in Alabama hiring away Curry from Georgia Tech in 1987.

Notes

Both of these games were notable enough to get featured in the New York Times. The Notre Dame game got a full write-up while the Alabama win headlined the Times’ college football roundup. There are some fun things in these articles. They call Georgia Tech the Engineers. The 1980 article refers to the NYT’s computer rankings (I had no idea those went back that far).

The Alabama game on Youtube only shows the plays so it’s only about 45 minutes long and is a fun watch. You’ve got jazzy intro music, Bear Bryant prowling the sidelines, tearaway jerseys, the wishbone, and shots of the Birmingham skyline.