[Ed. As the rosters for the postseason games start to emerge I thought this piece from Steve “Dr. Sap” Sapardanis was timely. The QBs photo alone is worth it $.  This was an interesting point in history for college football and especially this region.  Beyond it being Leach’s final game, this was just days after Montana led Notre Dame to their classic Cotton Bowl comeback victory over Houston, and just a couple days after Woody Hayes was fired for punching a Clemson player.]

Guest post by Dr. Sap

When LSU football coach Charles McClendon was selected as head coach of the East All-Stars for the 1979 Hula Bowl, he knew he was going to have to address two problems: the first was how to stop the East’s two-game losing streak to the Western All-Stars in the Hawaii Classic.

The second problem centered around his quarterbacks. He had three of the most gifted signal-callers in the country, all with varied backgrounds. He had the best pure passer in Joe Montana of Notre Dame. He had the best dual-threat quarterback in Rick Leach of Michigan. And he had Chuck Fusina – Penn State’s runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1978.  

1979 Hula Bowl - Rick Leach, Chuck Fusina, Joe Montana (L-R Leach, Fusina, Montana) Photo Credit: Ken Sakamoto

But the old ball coach wasn’t sure who would start the game and how to best use their skills.

“Each day we’re catching on a little bit more to each other. They’ve all come from different systems and are all used to different alignments. I’m trying to put together a team that will take advantage of what the good Lord gave ‘em,” the LSU coach said before the game.

Montana got the start and actually scored a touchdown on a quarterback draw, but the TD was wiped out by a penalty and a missed field goal left the East team scoreless.
The Irish QB was in for a rough day. He would finish a woeful 3 of 12 passing, for a meager 51 yards.

In the second quarter, Fusina got the chance to show his stuff but did not fare much better. The Penn State QB produced no scoring drives and 3 for 10 passing that resulted in only 42 yards.

hula bowl program coverHula Bowl program cover via eBay 

With the East All-Stars backed up deep in the shadows of their own goalposts, the coach knew he needed to jump start his team, so he dug deep into the playbook.

He sent Michigan State wideout Kirk Gibson wide to the left and Michigan’s Rick Leach to the slot on the right side.


Going into the game, Leach’s passing skills were considered second-rate behind Montana and Fusina.  Some NFL experts even believed Michigan’s QB would be better suited as a receiver in the pro league.

So when Leach lined up as a slotback, everyone thought they’d finally see Leach catch a pass, not throw one.

But the Guts and Glue of the Maize and Blue took the handoff from Fusina on a reverse and the Wolverine QB threw a 79-yard rainbow to Gibson to give the East a chance for their first score of the game. Unfortunately the drive stalled with Fusina back in at QB and the East went into the locker room trailing 6-0 at the half.

In the third quarter, Leach got his turn under center and promptly guided the East team on a drive that looked like it would finally put some points on the board.   But an interception in the endzone left Leach disappointed and the old ball coach scratching his head.

McClendon kept Leach in at QB and the Flint Southwestern star showed everyone on TV and the 49,132 people in the stands why Bo Schembechler called him the best quarterback in the country.   After the West tallied two scoring runs to make it 24-14, Leach got back to work by mixing in runs and efficient throws and finally hit paydirt with a 10-yard TD toss to Gibby. [Ed. Gibby and Leach were later teammates again–on the Detroit Tigers].  A two-point conversion run by Leach cut the West lead to 24-22, with just under three minutes remaining in the game.

Here’s where things got interesting.

An odd Hula Bowl rule allowed the trailing team the option of receiving the kickoff after a score was made.  Naturally Coach McClendon took the option of receiving the kickoff and his red-hot southpaw QB drove the East All-Stars down the field for the winning score.

A 14-yard pass to Penn State’s Scott Fitzkee sealed the deal with 20 seconds left on the clock.

“I think the rule is good for the fans, the TV ratings and so on, but I think it was totally unfair to our players,” cried Arkansas’s Lou Holtz who served as the head coach of the West All-Star Team.

Leach finished the day going 7-12 for 187 yards and 2 TDs in the air, with another 52 yards on six carries on the ground.   His 4th quarter comeback that resulted in 23 points earned Leach co-MVP of the game and a little more national respect for his passing prowess.


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