Getting all dressed up and stepping out for a New Year's Day football party is old hat to Alabama. It happens almost every year. Well, not quite, but it makes for an imposing statistic in that this will be its 43rd bowl appearance, easily an intercollegiate record, when it answers the pre-game introductions at the Fiesta Bowl.
Across the field, looking to enhance its modest reputation, will be what used to be known as little ole Louisville, a team that has never before experienced the attention and prestige that goes with appearing in a major bowl extravaganza.
Louisville played in the Sun Bowl in 1958, beating Drake; in the defunct Pasadena Bowl in 1970, tying Long Beach State; and in the Independence Bowl in 1977, losing to Louisiana Tech. So it is 1-1-1 in three tries, which amounts to 40 fewer bowl invitations than have been bestowed upon its upcoming rival, Alabama.
It seems more fantasy than fact that Louisville finds itself in such a pivotal position. The university's remarkable football renaissance has been directed by a true Southern gentleman, one Howard Schnellenberger, who was coaching the Baltimore Colts in 1974 until the owner of the team tried to tell him what quarterback he should play.
But good things happened to Schnellenberger shortly after that woeful incident. He took the head coaching job at Miami, when its fortunes were down, and in four years won the national championship. At Louisville, he has made impressive strides in six seasons. The 9-1-1 showing in 1990 that earned a ticket to the Fiesta Bowl means as an independent Louisville doesn't have to share any of the $2.5 million it is to contracted to receive.
Alabama, a member of the Southeastern Conference, represents much higher league. Louisville lost to Southern Mississippi, which also beat Alabama, and was tied in its opener by San Jose State. Alabama, meanwhile, lost its first three games under new coach Gene Stallings before blazing to a strong seven-out-of-eight finish.
For the Cardinals of Louisville, it's their most important game since the school commenced with football in 1912. It is stepping way up in class, which is what Schnellenberger promised when he got there in 1985. He was Louisville-born, an All-America end at Kentucky. Getting the position with the Cardinals represented an awesome challenge.
Howard was among home folks and it seemed as if he might have been out in the sun too long, or was making promises that couldn't possibly be fulfilled. Hadn't Louisville traditionally been a place where the emphasis was on basketball and football got scant attention?
Louisville, it's true, had once graduated Johnny Unitas to the Baltimore Colts and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But when Unitas captained the team in 1955, the best it could do was beat Morehead, Centre and Evansville while losing to a frightening lineup of Murray, Wayne, Florida State, Dayton, Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky.
The only "horse" it had was Unitas, which caused the publicity department to put a huge sign outside the stadium that read: "Come See Unitas' Pass." But, college students, being the innovative, mischievous types they are, took the "P" off the word "pass," which gave it all a different connotation. But maybe it was true in the sense that most afternoons Johnny U. was being dumped on his posterior while taking a painful but uncomplaining physical pounding.
Schnellenberger and the lads of Louisville are ecstatic about playing Alabama. It's a game that has more importance for them than it does for the favored Crimson Tide. The quiet demeanor of the coach is being tested to such a provocative point that he said, "This is the kind of thing movies are made about. Our first chance to be on national TV, our first to play in a major bowl. To be doing it against a traditional Southern power is very exciting."
After playing in the Canadian League, Schnellenberger later was a coaching assistant to Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama. He had a strong hand in the team's success and is credited with convincing a young quarterback in Beaver Falls, Pa., who had failed to qualify academically for Maryland, that the next best place he could go would be Tuscaloosa.
That's how Joe Namath became a star who fell on Alabama -- somewhat reluctantly. But all that is in Schnellenberger's past. If his Louisville team finds a way to win, despite the odds, it will be able to savor a measure of pleasure it has never remotely approached.