TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama football is set to honor the 1992 national championship team during homecoming against Arkansas on Saturday.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. ET on ESPN. Coach Gene Stallings and stars from that season are expected to attend the ceremony.
That team went a perfect 13-0 and won Alabama’s first national championship in the post-Bear Bryant era. It was the lone title won between the Bryant era and current Nick Saban era.
In anticipation, SEC Country caught up with 1992 starting quarterback Jay Barker. Barker is currently a host on “The Opening Drive” on WJOX 94.5 FM.
Walk me down memory lane. What do you remember about that season and that time? What made that year so magical?
Jay Barker: It was definitely magical. Coming off an 11-1 season the year before where we got beaten pretty badly in The Swamp by Florida, we all told ourselves we never wanted to have that feeling again. We ended up having a nice run all the way through the championship.
Coming into it, we realized our defense was going to be so strong. John Copeland had come in the year before as JUCO transfer. You had (Eric) Curry and Copeland as the bookends. We had a great linebacker group that was going to cover the leadership side of it with Derrick Oden and Michael Rodgers, who was an outstanding player. I think 10 of those guys off the defense ended up going pro.
Me coming in as a sophomore quarterback looking around at all of that and understanding what they wanted from me, my biggest thing was to be a leader. We did a lot of “check with me’s” in the run game. When we needed to pass it, we wanted to make a play and not turn the ball over. Put it in the hands of the defense and make teams have to drive 80-plus yards against us to score a touchdown.
We played very conservative, but some games we had to open it up and play a little more aggressive based on what we were going against. It was a magical year. When you think back on it, the [Louisiana] Tech game was a tough game for us. It was close, but if you look at their defense, they ended up being second in the nation that year behind our defense statistically.
We felt it as a team as we got down to the Sugar Bowl, but there was a lot of media doubting us, even here locally. It was like, “Oh, congratulations, but you’re about to go face Miami.” They had an unbelievable run, and were a great team that year, as well.
I remember one guy, Courtney Simpson, who voted for us all year. He felt like we were the best and should be ranked No. 1. Then we went in there and absolutely dominated that game with a 34-13 win.
It had been 10 years since coach Bear Bryant had retired when the ’92 season rolled around. Did you feel any pressure to return Alabama football to national championship glory, or did you even consider that?
Barker: Oh, most definitely. I grew up in Birmingham and I was a huge Alabama fan. I remember watching those ’78 and ’79 back-to-back national championships. From the time I was 5 years old, my dream was to play for Alabama and wear the Crimson jersey. I wanted to play for Coach Bryant. He passed away when I was in fifth grade. My teacher came in balling crying and told us. Every kid in the class had tears in their eyes because he meant so much to us. For me, you fast forward [nine] years later to 1992, I’m sitting there wearing the Crimson jersey and playing in the Sugar Bowl, a game that I watched on TV as a kid. That was an amazing feeling.
I think that was what was different about our group of players compared to the ones who’ve won it now. All of us lived in Bryant Hall and had Bryant posters in our dorm rooms. The majority of us grew up in Alabama or [are] from the Southeast and everybody knew about Coach Bryant.
We wanted to get Alabama back to what happened in ’78 and ’79 and that’s win championships. Our senior class, we were 44-5-1. We were the winningest senior class until coach Saban got there and some of the classes he’s had since then.
What did Gene Stallings mean to that team, and you personally?
Barker: He was like a father figure to all of us. He was tough on us when he needed to be tough, and he also showed a lot of compassion when he needed to. He was tougher on some of us than others. Coach Stallings and I had a great father-son relationship. We could be joking around, and the next minute, with our Type A personalities, we could be right in each other’s faces. I kind of felt like this was my team. At times he would be critical in practice, and I’d go to his office and say, “Look, you can’t do that in front of the team. You and I can talk about this afterwards, but this is my team.” But it was a great relationship. I think the combination of us with that team and all of the competitors is why we were so successful.
The thing I loved about Coach Stallings, and I still do, is, say we were in a team meeting for 30 minutes, he probably spent 25 minutes on life and five on the game and schemes. He wanted to tell stories about what was happening in his life or his family’s life with his kids. He talked about things from the past that he learned from whether it be from coaches or people. Those are the things we all carry with us and share with our kids. Those things helped shape us into the husbands and fathers that we are. I think a lot of those guys would say that. It created a close relationship with us all.
Is there a moment, time or play that you look back on and think ‘I can’t believe we pulled this off’ when you look back on that season?
Barker: There are so many of them. For instance, that La Tech game where David (Palmer) ran the punt back for a touchdown. That was a difference maker. We had to come back in the Tulane game. Coach Stallings would always say, “Man, you guys just aren’t ready.” Our team had a lot of personality and we would cut up sometimes in the locker room. The leaders and the captains would go to Coach Stallings and say, “Look, everything is good. We’re going to be ready and serious when we hit the field.” It was just our way of getting ready for the game and the camaraderie we had as a team.
I remember a throw I made to Prince Wimbley against Mississippi State. I had to fit it in right over the top of a corner and he made a diving catch that set up a score.
Those types of moments are special. Every Iron Bowl is special. I remember that year, [Auburn coach] Pat Dye retired before the game which probably gave them more ammunition. That ’92 team was so special. I look forward to seeing all the guys I haven’t seen in a while. We get to see each other every five or 10 years.
In terms of national championships, you guys are the bridge between the older history/Bryant era and the current Saban era. What does that mean to you and your teammates to be that marker between these two colossal eras?
Barker: It’s one of those things were there were 13 years [after Bryant’s last title] until we won it, and 17 years (before Saban’s first title) until they won it after we won it in 2009.
So there was a 30-year period where we were sort of on this island. For a lot of people hoping for one or remembering the ’92 championship, people still come up to me and say, “We’ve won so many championships in so many years, but gosh the ’92 team really stands out so much in my mind.” The reason it does is because it stands out sitting in that period of time that things weren’t so great for the program. A lot of disruption happened inside the program with coaches and other things like that.
I remember I was with one of the recent championship-winning quarterbacks and he said, “I didn’t even get a chance to enjoy mine. A few years later, another guy was winning it. You got 17 years to be The Guy.” That makes a lot of sense. I don’t love the fact that we didn’t win more championships, but we do love being that moment for people that gave Alabama a transition from Coach Bryant. Coach Stallings was just like coach Bryant. He talked like him, walked like him. He had all the stories. We were blessed to be able to be a part of that, and maybe be a bridge between two of the best coaches in college football history.