Was the greatest and most memorable game in Rutgers football history a 17-13 loss?
Most Rutgers fans will tell you that the 2006 meeting between Rutgers and Louisville was the greatest game in the history of Rutgers football. Both teams were 8-0 and highly ranked when they played at Rutgers Stadium.
Rutgers won the game 28-25 and a huge Thursday night ESPN audience watched the remarkable ending.
As exciting and meaningful as this game was, it may not have been the greatest game in Rutgers' history. It may not have had a greater impact on the Rutgers program than the 1980 meeting between Rutgers and Alabama.
Saturday, October 11 was cold and overcast. I'm happy to say that on that fourth weekend of the 1980 college football season, I was one of the 65,000 who poured into the Meadowlands to see Rutgers play host to the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Only four years earlier Rutgers had completed an 11-0 season, and with the help of some generous voters, Rutgers finished ranked in the top twenty.
In 1976, the schedule was pretty weak. It included the likes of Bucknell, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Lehigh, and Colgate. Colgate was the final game of the season and Rutgers struggled to defeat the Red Raiders 17-9 in front of 30,000 fans who left their Thanksgiving dinners early to make it to the Meadowlands.
1976 was when the powers that be, heavily influenced by Sonny Werblin, decided the Scarlet Knights were ready to make the step up to the world of big-time college football.
In 1977 Rutgers boldly opened the season against Penn State in a sold-out Meadowlands. Penn State won 45-7.
Rutgers finished 8-3 in 1977 while losing to Colgate, 9-3 in 1978 while losing to Colgate again, and in 1979 they finished 8-3 and had gone down to Knoxville to upset Tennessee 13-7. It was homecoming for the Volunteers and along with expecting Rutgers to be homecoming meat, their students were collectively asking "What's a Rutgers?"
Along comes 1980 and Rutgers starts the season with four straight wins as it readied itself for Alabama in the Meadowlands. Alabama was 4-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The Crimson Tide was coming off a 41-0 shutout of Vanderbilt and a 45-0 shutout of Kentucky.
When I entered the stadium, besides noticing the huge clouds hovering low enough for the lights to be on (it was a 1:00 start), I saw the hat.
I saw the houndstooth hat and the man who wore it in a pre-game chat with Frank Burns, Rutgers head football coach.
Rutgers took a 3-0 lead on a long field goal in the first quarter. My friend said "take a picture of the scoreboard, it will be valuable some day."
The game remained close, but Alabama opened up a lead and it looked like the onslaught was imminent.
Rutgers clawed its way back and found themselves trailing 17-13 with a couple of minutes left in the game. They had the ball and were driving from deep in their own territory.
All through the second half the Scarlet was manhandling Alabama and they were moving the ball on this last prayer of a drive.
The game ended with Rutgers attempting a pass from the Alabama 30-yard line.
Bear Bryant, the man with the hat, was quoted as saying "We won the the game, but Rutgers beat us."
The next day ESPN kept Alabama at No. 1 in their rankings and ranked Rutgers No. 5 in the nation.
This game put Rutgers football on the map. In two short years, they went from losing for the second year in a row to Colgate, to almost knocking off the No. 1 team in the country.