Monday, August 11, 2014

it's been 20 years since 1994

My original title for this was "The Year of Jay Barker." Because really, for Alabama fans — particularly Alabama fans in the eighth grade who spent Sunday mornings and evenings arguing about football with people at Sunday School and youth group — 1994 was about Jay Barker, as much as it was anything else.

It's funny to me now that more people don't talk about the 1994 football season. It was a strange time to be an Alabama fan — the national championship season of '92 wasn't so much a topic that summer as the '93 season, a mostly unhappy year in which the Tide had a) ended a long-running winning streak vs. Tennessee (the Vols outplayed 'Bama, which somehow managed to salvage a tie); b) lost a 28-game winning streak at home to a pretty lousy LSU squad; c) spent most of the year playing in the shadow of the AUmazings in East Alabama, who went undefeated under first-year head coach Terry Bowden (including a 22-14 win over 'Bama at Jordan-Hare that wasn't televised, due to an NCAA-imposed TV ban against Auburn that has not, to my knowledge, been repeated).
In any case, when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the 1994 squad, quarterback play was hardly among them. It's easy to forget this now — since Barker's face is so visible in local television ads and his voice is so prominent on local radio (and, since his second marriage to Sara Evans has basically made him the sweetheart of most of the middle-aged mamas in the state — but most fans usually viewed Jay Barker as a placeholder quarterback. Gene Stallings, in essence, asked Barker to just not screw things up: The rugged and all-consuming defense, in Stallings' book, was good enough to carry the load, and the offense's only real job was to stay out of the way*.
* A number of people — including me — may equate the Stallings way of doing things with Nick Saban's, and there are some similarities. But at virtually no point did Stallings' teams impose their will on inferior opponents the way Saban's do. The famous blowout of Miami in the '93 Sugar Bowl was virtually the only time Alabama beat anybody by a margin larger than 10.
Even at a relatively young age, I always wondered when Barker would finally give way to one of the more promising quarterbacks on the roster — Brian Burgdorf and Freddie Kitchens were both superior talents, and there was some speculation that one of them might assume starting duties in '93, usurping the position from the guy who'd just won the national championship*.
* In retrospect, we all probably should've realized something was amiss in '93 — Barker missed several games that season with a shoulder injury, and the coaching staff showed so much faith in the Burgdorf/Kitchens combo that the majority of the snaps in those games went to David Palmer.

There was another wrinkle for Barker and savvy Bama fans coming into 1994: Homer Smith. One of the game's true offensive innovators, Smith had worked as offensive coordinator under Stallings' predecessor, Bill Curry. After an unhappy 1993 season, Stallings jettisoned play-caller Mal Moore (yes, that Mal Moore) and brought in Smith, which seemed like a curious move for two reasons:
1. Smith is, as I said, an offensive innovator. Few people believed his offense would mesh with Stallings' close-to-the-vest style.
2. As one of the top assistants on Curry's staff in 1989, Smith had passed on Barker, then a senior at Hewitt-Trussville.

Barker's moment didn't come until the fifth game of the season, in a night game vs. Georgia. Since video highlights of the game endure, we might as well pause a moment.
Understand, this was the nightmare scenario for any rational Alabama fan (sometimes we're few and far between, but we're out there). We all knew the goal of every game was for the offense to stay out of the way and the defense to carry things ... but, well, what if the defense wasn't up to the challenge? What happens when a supremely talented QB like Eric Zeier catches fire and we suddenly can't stop him? What happens when the team needs its offense to win a shootout?
That Barker came through that night — on a national stage, against the SEC's all-time leading passer, on a night when the defense was playing on its heels — was like seeing a kid grow up in front of you. I had no idea he was capable of this! Is this really the Jay we know? This is incredible*!
* If we're being honest, we should note that Georgia's defense played as much a starring role in the game as Barker. Specifically, on the two TD passes to Toderick Malone, the Dawgs either completely ignored Alabama's best receiver, or simply couldn't cover him. Even so, it was remarkable to watch.
Barker made himself a hero to youth group kids after the game, spouting off 1 Peter 5:6 during his interview with ESPN.
"I guess this was just due time for me," he said.
Here we must pause and explain how important that was to the Alabama fan base. Remember that a great many fans — too many, really — tend to view college football as some sort of larger culture battle, one that's meant to determine not just the best players and coaching staffs, but the better way of life. For Alabama fans, to see Jay Barker grow up on national television, then make intelligent use of Scripture in the postgame, was a galvanizing moment: He's one of the good guys, and he plays for us.

The rest of the season played out in a similar fashion: Alabama would spend three quarters screwing around, enter the fourth trailing ... and then the magic would happen. My favorite of those games was the November trip to Mississippi State — Bama was thoroughly outplayed for three quarters in a hostile environment, couldn't cover Eric Moulds and trailed by 10 in the fourth. Barker threw a ridiculous pass to Sherman Williams to key the game-winning drive, because of course he did. The Tide entered the season-ending contest with Auburn 10-0.
Auburn had spent most of the season soaking up the bulk of the attention — one season after their undefeated run, the Tigers won the ridiculous "Interception Game" vs. LSU, went to Gainesville and beat Steve Spurrier's Florida team (again) and remained unblemished until November, when Georgia rallied in the final quarter to tie them. The two teams entered the season-ending game that promised to be one of the more memorable in the history of the series.
It was either memorable or infamous, depending on your side.
Barker threw two TD passes as part of a 21-0 run early; after the half, Auburn staved off elimination — Bama threw an interception in Auburn's end zone on the first drive of the second half — and got the ball with a chance to tie with 2 minutes to play. Bryne Diehl unleashed one of the greatest punts I've ever seen — seriously, the thing hit at the 1-yard line and bounced sideways twice before our boys downed it — and Auburn methodically drove it all the way to Bama's 30-yard line before facing a fourth-and-2.
And honestly, I remember watching the sequence at our house in Troy and mentally conceding the first down. I was wracking my brain thinking how the defense would keep them out of the end zone — that Auburn might not get a first down never crossed my mind, at least not until Keith Jackson shouted, "He didn't get it!" right after Sam Shade's hit on Frank Sanders.
My friend Jim Cooley and I have been arguing about that spot ever since the game was played. It was apparently so close that Patrick Nix was attempting to call a play even before the official made a determination (drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in his rage after the ref pointed in the opposite direction). I still am not sure whether he should've had the first down*.
* Considering Auburn got the call back in the following year's game on Curtis Brown's play in the end zone, we'll call it even.

The magic ran out the following week in Atlanta, when Florida stymied Alabama's drive by intercepting Barker to preserve a 24-23 win*.
* It's unclear whether Alabama would have won a national vote even if it had finished undefeated. That was the same season Nebraska and Penn State both finished undefeated, playing on opposite ends of the country — Nebraska won the Orange Bowl, Penn State the Rose — and Bama was firmly entrenched in third. We probably would've claimed some form of a title, anyway.
Nevertheless, Barker felt the love from around the country — he was the winningest starting QB in Alabama history (he has since been surpassed), he won the Unitas Golden Arm Award and was actually invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. No, really — he finished fifth in the voting. I have no idea who won the award, but who cares? An Alabama quarterback who, as recently as two months prior to the ceremony, was nothing more than a caretaker ... and he was invited to the Heisman ceremony? Really?
It shouldn't have come as a shock, then, that the season ended with Barker leading a drive to beat Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl in the final two minutes. And his last pass as a starter at Alabama was a touchdown.
Of course it was.