Browner recalls 1973 title game

The only 50-yard line seat Ross Browner will have Monday for the NCAA national championship football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be in front of a television.

It won’t be quite the same experience Browner enjoyed when he was on the field when the teams met for the national title 39 years ago at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve. Browner was a freshman defensive end for the Irish, who claimed the crown with a dramatic 24-23 win in what was the “Game of the Century” at the time.

“It was one of them,” Browner said when asked if the game ranks high on his list of memorable moments. “I really enjoyed it because Alabama was 10-0, and we were 10-0 and there were two famous and historical coaches – (Notre Dame’s) Ara Parseghian and (Alabama’s) Bear Bryant. Bear had some good players on the other side of the football.”

It turned out to be the second straight season in which Browner played for a title. In 1972 he was a defensive end/tight end for Warren Western Reserve High School, which won the Class AAA state crown in the first-ever playoffs with a 37-6 victory over Cincinnati Princeton.

“It was special because I was coming from playing in the state championship game in ’72,” he said. “Then a year later to go to the national championship game was awesome.”

Browner wasn’t an ordinary freshman at Notre Dame. He was a defensive force that would go on to win the Outland, Lombardi and Maxwell Trophies the latter symbolic of the nation’s top player. In the championship game against the Crimson Tide, Browner had two sacks and nearly blocked a punt late in the game with the Irish clinging to a one-point lead.

Browner was penalized for roughing the kicker on the punt, turning a fourth-and-20 into a fourth-and-5 situation for the Crimson Tide. Bryant had to decide whether to go for the first down with about three minutes to play or take the punt. He chose the latter option because the punt had pinned the Irish at their 1-yard line.

That set up a sequence of plays that still resonate loud and clear in Notre Dame history. Knowing the Irish weren’t going to get a first down by running the ball and not wanting to give the Tide good field position on a punt, Parseghian surprised all of the 85,000 fans in attendance when he had quarterback Tom Clements pass out of the end zone to tight end Robin Weber on third down.

It was a brilliant call as Weber, the backup to the more-heralded Dave Casper, caught the pass for a gain of 36 yards. With just 2:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, there was nothing Bryant could do but watch the final seconds tick off the clock.

“It was his first catch of the season and the most important catch of the season,” Browner said.

There were other memorable plays on what was a windy night (there was a tornado warning in the area earlier in the day). One came when Tide running back Mike Stock took a handoff from quarterback Richard Todd, rolled to his right and then threw back to the left side to a wide-open Todd, who scored on a 25-yard play.

Browner remembers Parseghian telling the defensive players to be aware of that exact play during practices. Browner was glad that he wasn’t the defensive end that was caught napping when Todd discreetly rolled to the left side of the field.

“I can remember coach Ara yelling (in practice), ‘Browner, get on that man,’ ” Browner said. “I said, ‘It will never happen again, sir.’

“As a defensive end, when you see a quarterback rolling out and he continues to roll out, you stay with him. That becomes your receiver. You become like a defensive back.”

A big play that helped spark the Irish came when Al Hunter, Browner’s roommate, took a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give Notre Dame a 14-10 halftime lead.

“They took it back all the way, and that’s when we knew we had the fire and vigor going for us,” Browner said

The game would have fit in perfectly in today’s world of over-hyped sporting events. ABC, which televised the event, added famed NFL broadcaster Howard Cosell to its top tandem of Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson.

Browner was recognized by Cosell when he sacked Clements on the play before the punt that pinned the Irish at their 1.

“What a day; what a night he has had,” Cosell said. “His pursuit was extraordinary. We didn’t get an opportunity to mention it some minutes ago. Earlier you saw him make an unassisted tackle. He’s been great.”

Browner showed his greatness at the start of training camp in a scrimmage between the varsity and freshmen. Browner and cornerback Luther Bradley performed so well that they were promoted to first-team status.

“I came in as a freshman and that was the first year of freshmen eligibility,” Browner said. “I was trying to make the kickoff squad so I can hit (someone). Luckily our first scrimmage between the varsity and the freshmen they couldn’t move the ball on us, and that’s when some of us got promoted.”

Browner would go on to become one of the Irish’s best defensive players ever and add a second national championship with coach Dan Devine in 1977. He was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals eighth overall in the 1978 draft. In 1999 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, which is located in South Bend, Ind.

The Irish have had many rough times in recent decades, but coach Brian Kelly has stirred the ghosts and re-energized the tradition this season. It’s a beautiful sight for an ex-player like Browner.

“It makes us feel great and wonderful,” Browner said. “We’ve been down in ranks for about a good 15 years or so. The last time we were in a national championship game was 1988. I’m proud of all the lads because they are playing Notre Dame football the way we like to play.”

It’s the way Browner played almost 40 years ago.