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HomeSportsRevisiting SEC greatest upset - Mississippi State over Alabama in 1980

Revisiting SEC greatest upset – Mississippi State over Alabama in 1980

TYRONE KEYS AND Johnie Cooks were the last players out of the Mississippi State locker room on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1980.

The game had been over for nearly an hour, and the stands at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi, were still packed with delirious Bulldogs fans celebrating Mississippi State’s epic 6-3 win over Alabama, widely considered to this day to be the greatest win in Mississippi State history and one of the biggest upsets in SEC history.

Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant had assembled one of the most formidable winning machines ever in the SEC. Alabama had not lost a conference game since the first week of October 1978, winning 28 straight games overall and 27 straight in the league. The No. 1 Tide were vying for their third straight national championship and were a 20-point favorite over an extremely talented Mississippi State team that featured multiple players who would go on to have long NFL careers.

“Johnie and I walked out of the locker room, didn’t really say anything and just bumped fists,” Keys recalled. “Coach Bryant recruited me and Johnie, and I remember on signing day we were calling each other and making sure we were still both going to Mississippi State to try to build something there instead of going out of state.

“We had some great times together, all the guys on that team, but that game alone made it all worth it.”

The echoes from that game endure, and when Alabama and Mississippi State square off Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will mark the end of a 76-year streak in which the schools have met. They are separated by an 84-mile drive along Highway 82, which is the shortest distance between any schools in the SEC. But with Oklahoma and Texas joining the conference in 2024 and divisions being eliminated, the league office had to adjust the schedule, meaning Alabama and Mississippi State won’t meet in the regular season for the first time since 1947.

It’s a series Alabama has dominated, as Mississippi State has won just 10 times going back to the 1948 season. But the win in 1980 will forever resonate with Mississippi State fans and the players on that team. And, yes, it still gnaws at the Alabama players, who all these years later are less than thrilled any time the game is revisited — even those who had long pro careers.

“Oh gosh was it tough … really, really tough,” said Alabama linebacker and co-captain Randy Scott, who went on to play seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers.

“I remember Coach Bryant motivating us at halftime as only he could,” he said. “We’d won so many games, and even at the end of that one, knew we were going to find a way to win it. But we didn’t, and it affects you. There were so many expectations on an Alabama football player, to win every time you go out. That’s why I went there, and it hurts when you don’t. It still does.”


SCOTT AND FELLOW co-captain Major Ogilvie had never lost to an SEC opponent in their Alabama careers until that game. They were 44-4 overall.

“We knew what we were up against,” Keys said. “Those guys just didn’t lose, to anybody. But we had a belief that it was our time. It came down right to the end, and we kept telling each other that somebody had to make a play.”

That somebody was Keys, who grew up about three miles from the stadium and used to watch games there through a fence as a youngster. Mississippi State played its bigger games back then in Jackson, not Starkville.

“Southern Miss had embarrassed us three weeks earlier at home, and we had a players-only meeting and said we weren’t going to lose again,” Keys said. “The reporters all reminded us that we still had Alabama on the schedule, and we said that it didn’t matter.”

The Bulldogs also had their “secret weapon” on defense. Head coach Emory Bellard took over the defense that week. Alabama was running the wishbone offense, and Bellard was the father of the wishbone after implementing it at Texas in the late 1960s as an assistant. Bellard even tutored Bryant on the finer points of the wishbone before Alabama adopted it in the early 1970s.

“We have the horses to annihilate this offense, and I know what I’m talking about because I invented the wishbone,” Bellard told his defensive players, who held the nation’s highest-scoring team without a touchdown and to just 180 total yards.

Alabama hadn’t done anything on offense all day, and the sellout crowd of 50,891 — the largest ever to see a sporting event in the state of Mississippi at the time — had worked itself into a frenzy. But after Scott blocked a Mississippi State field goal attempt, Alabama still had life. The Tide drove to the Mississippi State 3-yard line in the final seconds thanks to the passing of quarterback Don Jacobs, including a third-and-21 completion to Ogilvie.

There was no SEC rule in those days against artificial noisemakers, and the clanging Mississippi State cowbells were deafening. Officials did, however, have the discretion to stop the clock if they deemed it was too loud for the offense to hear. Jacobs briefly stepped from under center and motioned he couldn’t hear, but the clock continued to tick.

Jacobs faked to the fullback and started an option play to the right. Keys shot through from his position at left end to hit Jacobs and knock the ball loose. Mississippi State’s Billy Jackson pounced on it with six seconds remaining.

Jacobs, a longtime coach at both the college and high school level, owned his miscue then and still does 40-plus years later. He’s probably been unfairly judged over the years because he left the game earlier with an injury, wasn’t 100 percent but returned anyway. Plus, his passing is what got the Tide in position to win the game in the first place.

“It was one play in a four-year career, and I know I’ll always be remembered for it,” Jacobs said. “They had the right call at the right time, and (Keys) made the right play. You watch the film, and if I had handed it off to our fullback, we win the ball game and you move on with life.”

Jacobs said he still catches flak for that play and joked that it’s part of life when you play quarterback at Alabama.

“Have you listened to the Alabama fans right now? They’ve lost one game and are trying to fire the quarterback and the offensive line left and right,” Jacobs said with a laugh. “You can’t allow one moment to define you, and I didn’t. I hated it for our team and hated it for our teammates, particularly our defense. They played their tails off, didn’t give up a touchdown and we lost the game.”

Bryant’s mantra of never being a quitter is part of SEC football lore, and Alabama didn’t quit even after Keys’ game-saving play. All the Bulldogs had to do was kneel on the ball, albeit from their own 2-yard line. Some of the Mississippi State players had already started to hoist Bellard on their shoulders. Quarterback John Bond stepped up under his center, Kent Hull, and called for the snap. But Scott moved right over the top of Hull’s helmet and had other ideas.

Scott was able to tap the ball just as Hull snapped it, getting enough of the ball that it sailed right past Bond’s helmet.

“It wasn’t planned. I had seen it in high school,” Scott said. “I slid my nose guard over and stepped right in the gap. I just told myself, ‘I’m going to try it,’ anything not to lose that game.”

Bond was panicking. All he knew was there was a huge pileup and that he didn’t have the ball.

“Who’s got the ball? Kent, you got the ball?” Bond screamed to Hull, who went on to play on the Buffalo Bills teams that went to four consecutive Super Bowls.

At the bottom of the scrum, Mississippi State fullback Donald Ray King was clinging to the ball. And even if the play may not have been legal, Bond admires Scott’s willingness to do whatever it took to win that game.

“Hey, he was trying to win a football game. I don’t blame him,” Bond said. “I would have been pissed at my teammates if they didn’t try it.”

Rick Cleveland, a Mississippi Hall of Fame sportswriter who was covering the game that day for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, remembers the umpire throwing a flag on the play, but the whole ending of the game was chaotic. The officials immediately raced to the exit, which fortunately for them, was on the Mississippi State side of the field.

The euphoria of winning the game for the Bulldogs was topped only by what happened afterward, when the legendary Bryant visited the Mississippi State locker room to congratulate the players.

Bond said the players were spraying Cokes on each other, high-fiving and soaking up the monumental victory.

All of a sudden, he said, a wave of quiet spread across the locker room. Bond looked up, and Bryant was standing there with a state trooper beside him.

“You could hear a pin drop. The players took a knee,” Bond said, “I mean, it was Bear Bryant, a legend, in our locker room right after we’d beaten them.”

Cleveland, in his second season as a Mississippi State beat writer, was in the locker room interviewing players and vividly remembers the shock of seeing Bryant.

“He was already feeble, and the highway patrolman helped him up onto a folding chair,” Cleveland said. “He didn’t say a lot, other than to tell the State players, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you this was an upset. You whipped us. You were the better football team and deserved to win.'”

Keys still gets chills when he thinks about Bryant’s visit.

“All those fans were cursing him and yelling at him, and he made it a point to come all the way across to our locker room,” said Keys, a member of the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl championship team. “It’s the greatest act of sportsmanship I’ve ever witnessed in my life.”

Sylvester Croom was an assistant coach on that Alabama team and played under Bryant at the school. He didn’t know at the time that his coach visited the Mississippi State locker room, but wasn’t surprised when he heard.

“That’s what made Coach Bryant unique,” Croom said. “He was as tough as nails mentally and physically, but he was a loving-hearted man who had a tremendous respect for the game and people.”

Bryant’s health was failing at that point — he would die after a massive heart attack a little more than a month after he retired from coaching two years later — and Alabama was never as dominant on his watch after that loss. The Crimson Tide lost two weeks later to Notre Dame, were upset by an eventual 1-10 Georgia Tech team in Week 2 of 1981 (although Alabama tied for the SEC title that year), then lost four games in Bryant’s final season in 1982, including the last three games of the regular season.

In the summer leading up to the 1980 season, Ogilvie said Bryant missed a week of two-a-day practices.

“We really didn’t know what it was, just that it was health problems, and it wasn’t his nature to discuss things like that with us,” Ogilvie said. “Coach Bryant was one of those people you just couldn’t imagine life without him.”

For Mississippi State defensive tackle Glen Collins, the game itself was a blur. Collins played a great game, and Ogilvie said the Bulldogs’ tackles were the key to shutting down the Tide’s wishbone.

The morning before the game, Collins’ fiancée was murdered in Jackson. Collins didn’t find out until later in the day.

“It’s so bittersweet when I think about it now,” said Collins, who was a first-round draft pick in 1982 by the Cincinnati Bengals. “I remember my aunt calling me in the room and telling me what happened. It was devastating. They all told me it was my decision if I wanted to play. I never thought about not playing. I knew she would have not wanted me not to play.”


THE TALES OF what happened after that game have become as legendary as what transpired on the field, one of those transcendent sporting events where thousands claim to have been in attendance even if they weren’t.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me over the years and told me they were at the game,” Keys said. “Even the doctor who delivered my daughter’s baby talked about it for an hour. He said, ‘I was in the band that day and will never forget it.'”

Bellard told Cleveland that he was awakened at his house about 3 o’clock in the morning by a bunch of fans celebrating right outside his window. Asked if he joined them, Bellard told Cleveland, “You better believe it, pardner.”

Bond, a highly recruited freshman, was the admitted free spirit on the team and showed up on campus driving a new Corvette and sporting long flowing hair.

“Damn, Kent, we’re going to beat these people’s ass,” Bond told his center that week.

Bond backed up his confidence by having one of the team managers drive his Corvette to Jackson and park it behind the locker room at the stadium.

“And have it full of Budweiser,” Bond instructed him.

Bond had already gone a round or two outside a bar the Thursday before the game, when he got into a scrape and punched somebody. His hand was bloodied, and he made a late-night visit to see the trainer at his home.

“He told me I needed stitches,” Bond said. “I said, ‘I can’t play with stitches,’ so he taped it up and I bled all over Kent’s ass the whole game. Everybody thought he’s the one who had gotten hurt, but it was me.”

The Bulldogs finished 5-1 in the SEC that season, which remains the best league record they’ve had since 1980.

“We were a couple bounces away from being in the national title picture that year,” Bond said.

Keys’ postgame escapades were a bit more tame. And as he grows older, especially over the last few months, he’s thought about that game often, precipitated in large part by Cooks’ death in July. Cooks, one of the greatest players ever at Mississippi State, had 20 tackles that day against the Tide.

“I remember him going his way and me going my way after we came out of the locker room,” said Keys, who hung around to sign autographs and take pictures with fans.

Keys’ parents had already left the stadium, and he soon realized the team bus had too. So he started to walk home. A fan stopped to give him a ride and dropped him off at the house of his high school defensive line coach, Odell Jenkins, who had been a close mentor to Keys. Jenkins died in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keys said he will never forget the warm smile on Jenkins’ face or what Keys’ first words were as he walked in the door.

“Coach, we did it. I told you we were going to get them.”

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