The 1990 Paradise Bowl was the conclusion of the 1989-90 NCAA Division-I college football season, pitting the No. 1 Massachusetts Minutemen against the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide wound up winning 27-21 thanks to a fourth-quarter interception return by Eugene Tate that is immortalized as one of the greatest plays of all time.
The game was significant as 1989 was the final season only eleven games long - with the trend of 12-team conferences with divisions, the season was expanded to 12 games in 1990. The 1989 Alabama team was also the last SouthCo champion not decided in the SouthCo Championship Game, which was started in 1990 with the arrival of Texas to the conference.
1989 College Football Season
Massachusetts MinutemenThe Minutemen were, by far, the premier team in the nation entering the 1989 season. They had won twenty straight games entering the year thanks to their demolition of Dakota in the 1988 Citrus Bowl and their national championship victory in the 1989 Orange Bowl over Michigan. They entered the season as a dominant No. 1 in every major poll. Led by head coach Harrison Ford, U-Mass aimed for its second straight national title, third in four years and fourth of the decade in 1989.
Despite the graduation of Bosch-winning quarterback Kirk Fletcher, the Minutemen had one of the best defenses in the country, led by senior linebacker Kurt Houston and safeties Mariana Rodriguez and Casper Stevens. The new quarterback, Nick Pollack, had been a three-time All-American in high school and was regarded as the best junior signal caller in the nation, despite having never started a college game. The offensive line returned four starters from the previous season and veteran receivers Maurice Bryant-Brooks and Julian Perry looked prepared to make a tremendous impact along with running back Eddie Algerman.
The 1989 Minutemen coasted through the first seven games of the season before battling all the way into overtime with Pittsburgh on the road and escaping with a gutsy win. In their final game of the year, Massachusetts defeated fellow unbeaten No. 2 Aroostook in the first-ever game in which the arch-rivals were No.1 and No. 2 in what was referred to as "the national semifinal." U-Mass completed their season 11-0 and undefeated, and Kurt Houston became the second U-Mass linebacker to take home the Sarelli Award that decade after Nick Jung (1987).
Alabama Crimson TideThe Tide entered the season expecting to contend against SouthCo heavyweights Louisiana and Mississippi for the conference championship, opening at No. 11. Coach Chuck Sawyer had been with the program since 1984 and was looking for his first signature season with what promised to be the best Tide team since the 1960's and 1970's heyday of Alabama football under George Wallace. Quarterback Ken Jones was the first black quarterback in the history of Tide football, considered a major step forward, and the defense promised to be terrific, with standouts such as Jerome Halter, Steve Laws, Eugene Tate, and Antonio Harding.
The Tide flexed their muscles in the first weekend of November when they defeated No. 2 Louisiana and that season's future Bosch winner, Sugar Stevenson, 24-23 in Shreveport in what was called the "Shreveport Showdown." The win elevated the Tide to No. 3 and in excellent position to win the conference and possibly be the first SouthCo team to play in a national title game since 1979. They entered the Gentleman's War with No. 7 Mississippi on the last weekend of the season 10-0, and the knowledge was that should the Falcons defeat Alabama, it would force a three-way tie atop the standings with both teams as well as No. 4 Louisiana at 10-1. Alabama would defeat Mississippi at home to complete the team's second-ever undefeated season and a guaranteed spot in the national title game against Massachusetts, and gave Louisiana a second straight Sugar Bowl berth.
Pre-Game and Hype
The game initially started as a blowout as Massachusetts scored on their first two possessions to lead 14-0 going into the second quarter, but the Alabama defense adjusted and managed to stymie the Minutemen offense throughout the second quarter, prompting a scoreless affair for U-Mass while helping Ken Jones put his team in a position for two field goals, one of which sailed wide left. The score was 14-3 going into halftime and the ABC announcers generally agreed that Alabama was clearly overmatched.
However, on the first possession of the third quarter, Alabama marched downfield behind the arm of Ken Jones and he personally ran the ball in from four yards out to make the score 14-10. Shortly thereafter, Tide defensive end Jon Sambon recovered Eddie Algernman's fumble and the Tide kicked another field goal to make the score 14-13.
With barely any time left in the third quarter, Nick Pollack threw a long pass to tight end Jimmy Kitchener that was miraculously grabbed out of the air, and Kitchener danced into the end zone on the longest reception of the U-Mass season, 77 yards. The deficit was now 21-13.
On their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Tide managed to survive an all-out blitz on third down and Jones converted a short pass to Sammy McDonaghy to bring up a critical first down. Three plays later, Alabama running back Fredrick Simmons evaded Kurt Houston and scored on a twenty-yard scamper that sent the Alabama crowd into a frenzy. With the score 21-20, the Tide looked poised to pull off the upset.
Harrison Ford devised a clock-killing game plan based around the run as Pollack tried to guide the team downfield, but on third-and-6, Pollack as forced to throw in Julian Perry's direction. At the 26 yard line, Eugene Tate stepped in the way and nabbed the ball out of midair, then charged 84 yards along the sideline before zig-zagging twice across the field to avoid Minutemen pursuers and finally ended in the endzone, capping off the longest interception return in Paradise Bowl and national title game history and making the score 27-21 with only five minutes to go, a deficit U-Mass would never recover from. Alabama would win the game with the final score 27-21 and end the season a perfect 12-0 and with their second national championship.
MASS - Perry 13 yard TD pass from Pollack (Michaels extra point is Good)
MASS - Perry 19 yard TD pass from Pollack (Michaels extra point is Good)
BAMA - Hepler 39 yard Field Goal
BAMA - Jones 4 yard TD run (Hepler extra point is Good)
BAMA - Hepler 35 yard Field Goal
MASS - Kitchener 77 yard TD pass from Pollack (Michaels extra point is Good)
BAMA - Simmons 20 yard TD run (Hepler extra point is Good)
BAMA - Tate 84 yard Interception Return for TD (Hepler extra point is Good)
Aftermath and Legacy
The Patrick O'Brien National Championship Trophy was presented by former President Clyde Dawley to Alabama head coach Chuck Sawyer and the university President, Charles T. Miller. It was hailed as an upset as major as when Massachusetts themselves had knocked off mighty Texas in the 1984 Citrus Bowl or when Alabama's fellow SouthCo member Arkansas had defeated Michigan in the 1986 Rose Bowl.
Eugene Tate was named the game's MVP and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the next day with only the caption: Champion. Tate was named to the 1980's All-Decade Team and his interception return was rated the #1 Play of the Decade, the #4 Sports Moment of the 1980's, and the #13 Greatest Play of All Time in 2004. The defeat of Massachusetts by Alabama was regarded as the #3 Upset of All Time in 2004.
While the game was hailed as the death-blow to mighty Massachusetts, which graduated some of the final members of their unstoppable late-80's squads after the '89 and '90 seasons, and seen as something of a building of a new dynasty in Tuscaloosa, Alabama disappointed once the conference championship was added the next year and fell into the shadow of Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee throughout the 1990's, leading some to call the 1989 squad a "flash in the pan." Alabama would be hit hard with NCAA penalties in 1992 due to violations stemming from Sawyer's oft-controversial time in Tuscaloosa and the coach was dismissed soon thereafter, leading to a lengthy period of instability in Alabama and a lack of a winning season from 1993 until 2001, when Alabama went 6-6. Alabama would win back to back national titles in 2006 and 2007, but lose a chance for a third straight title in 2008 when they lost, ironically, to Massachusetts in the national title game following that season.