Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
The Notebook’s year-by-year study of the modern era (1976-Present) has focused on the best place to live as a sports fan in any calendar year. 1981 challenges that that paradigm. While California teams won the World Series (Dodgers) and Super Bowl (49ers), SoCal and NoCal are worlds apart. Indiana won the NCAA Tournament while Clemson’s Orange Bowl win gave them the national championship in football. The New York Islanders and Boston Celtics won titles in their sports. With titles all splintered out, was there any common theme? Yes, there was. The championships by both San Francisco and Clemson marked landmark wins in the football landscape, for two different reasons. Both were the first step in significant shifts in the power structure of the NFL and college football. The Notebook looks back at their autumn and winter rides to glory…
San Francisco had struggled to a 6-10 finish in 1980, finishing third in the four-team NFC West they shared with Atlanta, the LA Rams and the New Orleans Saints. Atlanta had gone 12-4 and Los Angeles was 11-5 the previous year, with both making the playoffs, but losing to perennial power Dallas. Head coach Bill Walsh was of a mind to change that, having already made a jump from two to six wins and now aiming for more. The godfather of the West Coast offense had his quarterback in place with Joe Montana and a good tandem of receivers in possession man Dwight Clark and deep threat Freddie Solomon. Defensively the Niners needed help and they were banking on three rookie defensive backs—Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Ronnie Lott to step in and make immediate impact. No one was thinking Super Bowl, but the 1981 49ers had reason to think the winning was around the corner.
Clemson had been a solid successful program, the best in the ACC at the time and just three years earlier had rolled to a 10-1 season. They had a great dual threat quarterback in Homer Jordan, who would go on to win all-ACC honors and a linebacker named Jeff Davis who was so dominant that he was named ACC MVP. A tough defensive front four’s most prominent name was William “The Refrigerator” Perry, but he was still just a freshman. Cornerback Terry Kinard was an All-American and a future starter on a Super Bowl champ in the NFL (NY Giants, 1986). But the ACC was considered a midmajor at the time, even more disrespected nationally then it is today and Clemson opened the season unranked.
CLEMSON LOOKS FOR RESPECT
Clemson opened the season with a pair of easy wins over Wofford and Tulane and got ready to host defending national champion Georgia, with its powerful sophomore running back Herschel Walker. By day’s end, Walker had been shut down and an aggressive Tiger defense forced nine turnovers in a 13-3 win. The victory got Clemson into the polls at #19. Five more wins over relatively non-descript competition kept them moving up the rankings by attrition. They won at Kentucky and Duke, and took home games with Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest. The latter came on the final day of October and saw head coach Danny Ford’s offense hang 82 points on the board. When it all was over, Clemson was #2 in the country, trailing only a Pitt team led by Dan Marino. They would still need help—in this day, there was not only no BCS title game, but no bowl were two uncommitted teams could match up, unless they wanted to forgo a January 1 payday. Most aggravating to Clemson had to be the presence of Georgia sitting at third in the polls, likely to get a crack at Pitt in the Sugar Bowl and be in position to vault over a team they had lost to. But, as the cliché goes, there was still of November to play and with big games against #9 North Carolina and in-state rival South Carolina, Ford’s team could ill-afford to be looking ahead.
SAN FRANCISCO MAKES A STATEMENT
San Francisco’s season didn’t start off quite as well. They lost their opener in Detroit and a Week 3 game at Atlanta gave absolutely no evidence that a changing of the guard in the NFC West in the offing. The Niners fell behind early, Montana did not play well and Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski carved up the young secondary in a 34-17 final. Consecutive wins over New Orleans and Washington got Walsh’s team to 3-2 and set up a mid-October home game with Dallas. No one was prepared for what happened in Candlestick Park. The 49ers had a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and the Cowboys never got back into the game. Montana was efficient and Clark racked up over 100 yards in receiving. The 45-14 final sent a clear message to the conference’s traditional power.
There was no letdown afterward, as a win over Green Bay set up a game with Los Angeles. The 49ers again got off to fast start, leading 14-0 after a quarter. Montana and Ram quarterback Pat Haden—a future TV analyst and current USC athletic director—each played well, but Montana was able to play with a lead, Clark again had 100-plus receiving yards and San Fran churned out a 20-17 win. One week later it was the defense who took center stage in Pittsburgh. While the Steelers, the dominant team of the 1970s, had begun their decline the previous year and missed the playoffs, they were still respected and the 14-3 shutdown performance was yet another sign that Walsh had something special going by the Bay. In the meantime, Atlanta and Los Angeles were fading fast and would fall to 7-9 and 6-10 respectively. San Fran was able to coast home, winning both remaining games against its division rivals, finishing 13-3 and securing both the NFC West and the top seed in the playoffs. They and Dallas were light-years ahead of the rest of the NFC and the October win was the difference in making the road to the Super Bowl come through Frisco.
THE POPULIST REBELLION
Clemson went to Chapel Hill for their battle with North Carolina and it was every bit the war they expected. The Tigers were able to stop an early Tar Hell drive and hold them to a field goal. Clemson got a TD of their own, and even though they gave up a safety thanks to a botched point, they got a tough 10-8 win. The following week they beat Maryland, a team led by future Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and CBS commentator Boomer Esiason, 21-7. The Tigers sealed their unbeaten season with a 29-13 win over South Carolina. Clemson fell behind early in this one, trailing 7-6, but they scored off a blocked punt and led 15-13 by the half. Jordan and his mates opened it up after halftime producing two touchdown drives. They would be Orange Bowl-bound for a date with #4 Nebraska. The following week they got a huge break—Pitt, after jumping out to a 14-0 lead on rival Penn State, suddenly imploded and lost by an astonishing 48-14 score. Clemson would go to Miami ranked #1 in the country.
The establishment of college football figured Nebraska would handle the imposters from the ACC, the Tigers win over Georgia notwithstanding. The Bulldogs would still play Pitt in the Sugar Bowl, but now they needed help from Nebraska to win another title. Another SEC team in Alabama was #3 and lined up to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
On New Year’s afternoon, Alabama let a 12-0 lead get away in the fourth quarter and lost to Texas. The Sugar Bowl was going simultaneous to the Orange in prime-time and Marino gunned down Georgia with a touchdown pass in the final moments to win 24-20. That game finished ahead of the one in Miami, so it was down to Clemson-Nebraska for the national title.
The Tigers took an early 3-0 lead, but the Cornhuskers figured out a way to capitalize on Clemson’s aggressive defense and beat Kinard with a halfback option pass to make it 7-3. But Nebraska was having turnover problems and lost three fumbles. A field goal pulled Clemson to within a point and then they cashed in a turnover for a touchdown that left the game 12-7 after a failed two-point conversion. The short-sighted decision to go for two looked like a bigger deal with another Tiger field goal stretched the lead to 15-7—still within one score, and if the game ended tied, there was no overtime and while Clemson was the only unbeaten team left, there was no telling how many voters expected to see them win this game to validate their entire conference.
Clemson’s offense stepped up in the third quarter with a clock-chewing 75-yard drive and took a 22-7 lead. Nebraska came back with a touchdown run by a future San Francisco 49er running back in Roger Craig, and converted a two-pointer to make it 22-15. The Huskers then put Clemson in 3rd-and-23 and looked poised to get the ball back. Jordan then made the play of his life, scrambling for a first down. Clemson ran out the clock and they were national champs.
The national title for an upstart from the ACC was one part of a broader-based change in college football. The traditional powers were falling. Notre Dame and USC fell off the map and would stay that way for several years. Alabama was only a year away from doing the same. SMU had stepped up and won the old Southwest Conference over Texas and Arkansas, and only probation kept them from a Cotton Bowl date with the Crimson Tide. And the Michigan-Ohio State monopoly on the Big Ten crown was broken, when not only did Iowa win the Rose Bowl bid, but it was a head-to-head game with Wisconsin that settled the trip to Pasadena. Times were starting to change in college football and nowhere was that more visible than in Clemson’s unlikely national title.
THE DRIVE, THE CATCH & THE GOAL-LINE STAND
Two days after Clemson finished its run to the top, San Francisco took the field for their first playoff game, facing the New York Giants. The Niners again scored first. Their fast starts were no coincidence, as Walsh had instituted the practice of scripting the first 25 plays, regardless of down and distance and San Fran used its preparation to consistently get the early edge.
In this game, Giant quarterback Scott Brunner wiped out the early deficit with a 72-yard strike to Earnest Gray, but the 49ers kicked into another gear for the second quarter, scoring 17 points, including a 58-yard pass from Montana to Solomon. The day of long scoring passes continued when Brunner completed a 59-yard play to cut the margin back to 24-14, but ultimately the Giant signal-caller was not efficient, completing only 16 of 37 passes, while Montana was a cool 20-for-31. The final was 38-24 and when Dallas destroyed Tampa Bay in the other divisional game, the NFC title showdown was set.
The 1981 NFC Championship Game was about more than who would play in the Super Bowl. It was about one proud traditional power looking to keep what it saw as their rightful place atop the conference, and another up-and-comer looking to change the landscape. The game itself was worthy of those stakes. San Francisco—have you heard this before?—struck first and took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but Dallas scored 10 points before the quarter was out. The teams traded TDs and the lead in the second quarter and it was 17-14 Cowboys at the half.
San Francisco was nursing a 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter when Dallas quarterback Danny White found tight end Doug Cosbie for a touchdown. With San Fran pinned on their own 12 and only 4:54 left, it looked like the Old Guard would hold on.
Dallas went to its softer coverages, and Walsh took advantage by running sweeps—without blitzing or constant penetration, the pulling guards could get good blocking angles, and San Fran ran its way out of the shadow of their end zone. They eventually worked their way down to the Dallas 6-yard line with less than a minute to go, facing third-and-goal. Montana rolled right, under pressure. He decided to throw the ball away, but didn’t quite get it out of the end zone. It was Clark who skied and snared the ball by his fingertips. An epic Sports Illustrated cover caught Clark’s catch at its apex and it went into NFL lore as simply “The Catch.”
The game didn’t end there. A Cowboy field goal could still undo The Catch and White hit Drew Pearson over the middle and got to the 50-yard line. Pearson nearly pulled away, but Eric Wright grabbed the receiver’s jersey and hung on for dear life. One play later, gut pressure forced White into both a sack and fumble and San Francisco had won.
San Francisco’s win had already ensured a changing of the guard in the NFL. A new team was coming out of the AFC as well, with Cincinnati validating its #1 seed with two home playoff wins over Buffalo and San Diego, the latter played in frigid and windy temperatures. The Super Bowl would be the first one played at a non-warm weather city. Detroit, with the old Pontiac Silverdome would host the game.
Continuing their pattern, Montana’s offense got on the board with a first-quarter touchdown and with the Bengals suffering turnover problems, San Fran added another TD in the second quarter and followed it up with two field goals to take a 20-0 lead into the locker room. The lead could’ve been larger, as the Bengal defense had stiffened near the goal line on the last two scoring drives. But it was nothing compared to what the Frisco defense had in store for the nation.
Cincinnati cut the lead to 20-7 and then drove to the 1-yard-line for a 1st-and-goal. Big fullback Pete Johnson was one of the best short-yardage bruisers in the league. He went into the line once and was stopped. He went into the line again and was stopped. On third down, Cincinnati threw a swing pass to the goal line, but an outstanding tackle saved the touchdown. On fourth and less than a yard, Johnson tried again. And again was stopped. Even though the Bengals did cut the lead to 20-14, the momentum seemed clearly in San Francisco’s direction.
The Niners used that momentum for a pair of time-consuming drives that both ended in field goals from veteran kicker Ray Wersching. The Bengals got another late touchdown to make it 26-21 but when Frisco covered the onside kick, it was all over.
Not only were two new teams in the Super Bowl, but San Francisco’s win ushered in a new dynasty. The 49ers would win three more championships with Montana at the helm, another with Steve Young in 1994, while Walsh’s successor George Seifert would lead the way to two of those rings. Walsh’s West Coast offense revolutionized the game and his “Coaching Tree” of assistants became the most successful ever spawned. It all began in 1981, with The Drive, The Catch & The Goal-Line Stand.