Forty years ago this month, a sophomore quarterback — playing his first season of varsity college football — led his Ole Miss Rebels to a 34-17 victory over Virginia Tech in the 10th annual Liberty Bowl (and fourth played in Memphis). That quarterback's name was Archie Manning.
What stands out in your memories from your first bowl game?
Coach [John] Vaught had a run of going to bowl games, so we were happy to continue that. Steve Ehrhart [with the Liberty Bowl] doesn't like it when I share this, but it was the coldest game I played in my entire life. Sunny skies, but just really cold, and windy. I put a sweatshirt on underneath my shoulder pads and it kind of hindered me. But when I took it off, I thought, no, I'm gonna freeze to death. It was hard to throw the ball.
We played a tough Virginia Tech team. I didn't know this till years later, but they had a safety on their team named Frank Beamer [now the coach of the Hokies for 22 years]. They pulled a trick play or two on us and, like that, it was 17-0.
We only had a handful of seniors on that team, but they were good leaders. Steve Hindman was a running back and ran for a long touchdown. H.N. Shows was a tight end and caught a touchdown pass. And Robert Bailey ran back an interception. They held us together. We just fought back. I tell you what was really exciting to me. Back then, there weren't nearly as many bowl games as there are now. But if we couldn't go to the Orange, Sugar, or Cotton, I preferred the Liberty Bowl. I liked Memphis. And the game was played on December 14th, so we got to go home for Christmas.
The Liberty Bowl was only three years old when you played there. What were your impressions of the new stadium?
My first game was actually there, when we opened the season against Memphis State [a 21-7 Rebel win on September 21, 1968]. I grew up in Drew, Mississippi, and our stadium didn't hold more than 1,200 or 1,500 people. The first stadium I ever played in was the high school all-star game in Jackson, Mississippi. But Memphis was the first time I ever played in front of a real crowd. The year before had been the first time Memphis State ever beat Ole Miss. [Tiger coach] Spook Murphy's teams were just as physical as any SEC teams we played.
1968 was a troubled time in Memphis. What are your memories of the city during your stay here?
We stayed in the [Holiday Inn] Rivermont. At that point in my sophomore year, we didn't go to Memphis as much as I did during my junior and senior years. I told someone not long ago that I was in Memphis so much I used to get mail at the Rendezvous.
Growing up, Memphis was the city to me. My sister had allergies, and she had to go to Memphis to see doctors. My mother would take us up and we'd make a day of it. We didn't have donuts in Drew, and my mother would always stop to get donuts. And we'd stop at The Peabody to see the ducks. My dad and I always watched Memphis basketball. They were good even back then.
Is it true that you came to Memphis to watch the 1969 Liberty Bowl from the stands, just days before playing in the Sugar Bowl?
As a high school junior, I went to the 1965 Liberty Bowl between Ole Miss and Auburn. And yeah, I saw the games the next two years [after we played]. I had a friend or two on the ['69] Alabama team.
In 1968, there were nine bowl games. This season there will be 34. Has the significance of winning a bowl game dropped as dramatically as those numbers suggest?
Not the significance of winning one; maybe the significance of playing in one. Bowls are a great reward for not only the players and coaches, but for the families and the athletic departments that make a football season happen. And the bowls do a wonderful job of entertaining. I love the bowl system. I've never had a problem with people arguing about who's number-one.
Before they started winning Super Bowls, Peyton and Eli each lost regular-season games at the Liberty Bowl. Any thoughts?
You know, in Peyton's four years as a starter at Tennessee, he only lost six games. And that [Memphis game in 1996] was the only upset. Eli threw four touchdown passes but had a ball dropped that would have iced the game [in 2003], then Memphis came back and scored. That was a heckuva game.