Alabama and Oklahoma share passion and a rich legacy of success, not to mention a genuine respect for each other.
"They've looked at it as a great opportunity to see where we're at against the elite program in college football," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said Sunday of his players. Stoops' counterpart at Alabama, Kirby Smart, said, "We've actually visited a lot of offseasons with their staff and their team."
When the No. 3 Tide and the No. 11 Sooners take the field Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it will be only the fifth time they have played one another in a history that spans 1,668 victories. Oklahoma has won 836 games, Alabama 832.
Alabama won six Associated Press national championships in the pre-BCS era. So did Oklahoma.
The Crimson Tide won three BCS titles, the Sooners one.
Oklahoma had Bud Wilkinson, Alabama had Bear Bryant.
Until Urban Meyer (.842) passed him late this season, former Sooners coach Barry Switzer had the best career winning percentage (.837) in FBS history (and if Ohio State loses the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, Switzer will be in first again).
In the last five seasons under Nick Saban, Alabama has gone 60-6 (.909), best in the FBS. If the Sooners upset the Tide, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops will join Joe Paterno and become only the second coach in FBS history to win every major bowl (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta). The programs even share colors: the Crimson Tide wears crimson and white. The Sooners wear crimson and cream. The only thing they haven't shared very often is a football field. But their connection covers almost the entire post-World War II era.
Wilkinson and Bryant had been friends for years, though they coached against each other only twice. In the 1951 Orange Bowl, Bryant's Kentucky Wildcats upset Oklahoma, which already had been named national champion, 13-7.
"And Bud Wilkinson taught me something that day," Bryant would write in his autobiography. "He showed me the class I wish I had. He came into our dressing room afterward and shook hands with me and as many of the players as he could reach. I had never done that before, or seen it done. But I've done it since."
The following year, Wilkinson helped Bryant install the Oklahoma split T offense for Kentucky quarterback Babe Parilli, who went on to have a long professional career.
Their teams didn't meet again until the first time that Oklahoma and Alabama played: the 1963 Orange Bowl, a game witnessed by President John F. Kennedy. Wilkinson, who served as the executive director of the President's Council on Youth Fitness, had developed a friendship with the president. Kennedy came by the Sooners' locker room before the game.
"Well, fellows, as you know, Bud is head of our physical fitness program," Kennedy said. "So I thought I'd drop by to see somebody who was physically fit."
Kennedy knew Bryant as well. The president had attended the College Football Hall of Fame dinner in December 1961, shortly after Bryant coached Alabama to his first national championship. Bryant, worried that Wilkinson would show him up, bought a new outfit to look good in front of the president.
In fact, Bryant and the Tide showed up the Sooners, 17-0. According to Jay Wilkinson, who wrote a memoir about his father, Wilkinson worked his team so hard before the game that Oklahoma had nothing left for the game.
Oklahoma and Alabama met again in the 1970 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl, a game that pretty much illustrated what mediocrities the Sooners and the Crimson Tide had become. Oklahoma (7-4-1) salvaged a 24-24 tie because kicker Bruce Derr made a 42-yard field goal with :59 to play and Alabama (6-5-1) kicker Richard Ciemny missed a 34-yarder with :01 to play.
The Sooners adopted the wishbone in the middle of the 1970 season. Bryant waited until the following offseason (both programs received help from Texas coach Darrell Royal, who had been the first college coach to use it). In 1971, both Oklahoma and Alabama soared into national contention, where they remained into the 1980s. Oklahoma won at least a share of the national championship under Switzer in 1974, 1975 and 1985; Alabama in 1973, 1978 and 1979.
In all these years, Oklahoma and Alabama have played only one home-and-home series, in 2002-2003. In the second game of the 2002 season, the No. 2 Sooners needed two late touchdowns at home to win 37-27, subduing a Tide team that would go on to win 10 games.
In the return match in Tuscaloosa, Oklahoma, the first No. 1 team to ever visit Bryant-Denny Stadium, turned the momentum of the game with a fake punt. Protecting a 13-10 lead, the Sooners had a fourth-and-11 at their own 31. Punter Blake Ferguson completed a pass to defensive back Michael Thompson, who took it for a 22-yard gain. Oklahoma ground out a 20-13 victory and made it to the BCS National Championship Game.
And that has been it. There is no reason, no animosity, no one program avoiding the other. They just haven't made a deal. Oklahoma has home-and-homes set up with Tennessee, Ohio State, UCLA and Nebraska. The Sooners are firming up dates with LSU. Alabama has agreed to neutral-site games with West Virginia and Wisconsin.
All of which makes the Sugar Bowl even more special. Expect a lot of crimson.