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Slimantics: 1980: Champions of the world

 

Slim Smith

 

I find myself a solitary footnote of a figure in Mississippi State football history. 

 

Apparently, I was the only MSU student in 1980 who was not in the stadium on that momentous day in Jackson when State upset No. 1 Alabama, 6 to 3. 

 

Instead, I was in Tupelo, availing myself of the free laundry service provided by Mattie Jewel Smith, my mom. 

 

I do recall listening to the game on the radio, though, and sweating out the tense final moments of the game, when Alabama was in the shadow of the MSU goal-line, only a couple of yards away from yet another victory over MSU. 

 

Then it happened. A hit. A fumble. MSU recovers. The clock hits zero and the rest, as they say, is history. 

 

I ran out of the house and sprinted up and down the street screaming for a few minutes, an act that brought old Mrs. Savage out on her porch, drying her hands on her apron, staring at me, puzzled, wondering if I had just seen Jesus or something. 

 

I was not able to rally Mrs. Savage or anyone else in the neighborhood to celebrate the event and it's not much fun to run around like a lunatic all by yourself. 

 

So I quickly gathered my laundry, jumped into my 1974 Ford Thunderbird and flew toward Starkville. 

 

It was still daylight when I arrived. I remember throwing my stuff into my dorm room and heading out toward Scott Field, where a few hundred students had gathered to happily scream in each other's faces. Someone had cranked up Queen's "We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You" on his car tape deck. That song has become something of a cliché now, a perfunctory tune that is played after every championship from PeeWee to the NFL. Back then, it was still pretty fresh. 

 

That tune blared out of every car radio on campus until 2 or 3 Sunday morning. 

 

"We are the champions, my friend.'' 

 

As each hour passed, more and more students -- the ones who had actually made the trip to Jackson for the game -- began to arrive on campus and join the crowd.  

 

"And we'll keep on fighting to the end." 

 

By 10 p.m., thousands of students had gathered and we moved like a procession of human millipedes all around campus. We stopped at the old student union, the cafeteria, the Chapel of Memories, the football stadium and over to nearby McArthur Hall, which at the time was the athletic dormitory. Players emerged in their jerseys and were swallowed up in the sea of celebration that flowed across campus and finally toward the President's Mansion, where we all began to chant and call out to Dr. McComas. 

 

I don't remember if Dr. McComas ever came out to acknowledge the crowd. Not that it mattered.  

 

"We are the champions, we are the champions.'' 

 

By virtue of good planning, the students had made the run to the county line to procure beer, which at the time could not be purchased in Starkville. The line of east-bound cars out on old Highway 82 (It was just Highway 82, since there wasn't a "new'' 82 at the time) was thick with people racing out to Mayhew before beer sales ended at midnight. 

 

"No time for losers..." 

 

Incredibly, the whole episode happened again Sunday night when the rest of the student body arrived on campus after the weekend. 

 

Again, the procession moved to the President's Mansion. The chant went up to cancel Monday's classes, but our pleas went unheeded. It didn't really matter. Hardly anyone went to Monday classes anyway, including some of the professors, as it turned out. 

 

"Cause we are the champions of the world!" 

 

Well, it turns out that was a bit of an overstatement. MSU didn't win the national championship or even the SEC title that year. But as wins go, there were none bigger than the 1980 win over Alabama. 

 

Saturday, State plays Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Again, Alabama is top-ranked and unbeaten. MSU, also unbeaten and ranked 13th, is believed to have its best team in more than a decade. 

 

Naturally, comparisons to that 1980 game have emerged. Few aside from the most fervent Bulldog fans believed State had a chance to win back then. Few, non-MSU folks expect it to happen this year, either. The latest odds have the Tide favored by 22 points. In 1980, Alabama was favored by 20, so there is that. 

 

Most likely, though, Alabama will win. The Tide reminds me of one of those machines that I once saw driving pilings into the Mississippi Gulf when they were putting in the first casinos. Alabama's football team is like that -- methodical, merciless, unrelenting.  

 

But I suspect MSU has the edge in enthusiasm, for what it's worth. 

 

I think Alabama will win in a close contest. As is always the case, it will come down to Ohio. Or Florida, possibly. 

 

But even if the Tide does win, I think it's more fun to be an MSU fan. Let's face it: Rooting for Alabama is like cheering for Big Oil, to paraphrase the old saying. 

 

When State wins, it is a joyous event. When Alabama wins, it's often little more than a sigh of relief. 

 

As in 1980, I won't be at the game Saturday night, but I do intend to be in Starkville. 

 

You know, just in case.

 

Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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