Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Threepeat Blues | by Jay

We know that if Southern Cal wins the National Championship it will be the first time in Division 1A history that a team has three-peated for the crown.

But recently, a couple of ink slingers have noted it shouldn't be the first time: an undefeated (and untied) Alabama team, the argument goes, was cruelly denied a third consecutive NC in 1966, when the dastardly AP and UPI writers mistakenly awarded it to Notre Dame.

An example of this claim, care of Scott Adamson of the Birmingham Post-Herald:

Trojans should be going after Tide's mark

Look at virtually any preseason college football magazine -- as well as the preseason polls -- and Southern California is at the top of the list.

Ranking the Trojans No. 1 and predicting they'll hold that position at the end of the season is a no-brainer. Pete Carroll's club is loaded, and the schedule is conducive to a run for the Bowl Championship Series title game at the Rose Bowl. Thus, if USC winds up the 2005 campaign with a 13-0 worksheet, it'll mark the first time in Division 1-A history a team has been awarded three consecutive national championships.

Such a feat is unprecedented, but it shouldn't be.

The honor should belong to Alabama, circa 1964-66...

Most fogies like me remember how and why Alabama was denied.

In 1966 Bryant's men had one close game -- an 11-10 victory over Tennessee in Knoxville. The Vols had a chance to win on a last-second field goal, but the short try from a tough angle sailed wide and Alabama remained unscathed.

They would remain that way the rest of the year, and absolutely steamrolled the opposition. When the regular season was completed, the Tide had outscored its foes 267-37 and recorded six shutouts. In fact, Alabama entered the Sugar Bowl against Nebraska with four consecutive goose eggs delivered by its defense.

But this was a year in which it really didn't matter who the pachyderms beat or how badly.

Notre Dame was destined for a No. 1 finish, and the Fighting Irish got it.

Ara Parseghian's club was anointed by the media as the greatest team to ever strap on the pads, and the Irish were expected to easily dispose of Michigan State in East Lansing. However, the game ended in a 10-10 draw, with Notre Dame opting to kill the clock late to preserve the tie.

Instead of Alabama vaulting to No. 1, Notre Dame and Michigan State stayed 1-2, respectively. Even though the Crimson Tide routed the Cornhuskers 34-7, when the polls were released Jan. 3 Alabama was still third.

Talk about the luck of the Irish.

Not only did Notre Dame have a blemish on its record, it still managed to finish ahead of a team that played it even for four quarters. Meanwhile, Bryant and company could only look on and seethe. It was arguably the best team in school history, yet the crimson gridders had to play third fiddle to a couple of teams with imperfect records.

As always Bryant had a classic response to the slight. When asked how he thought his team would fare against Notre Dame and Michigan State, he took a puff off his Chesterfield and never missed a beat:

"We'd like to play 'em both," Bryant said. "On the same day."
Dennis Dodd also gave his own Chatty-Cathy cord a pull, calling 1966 "one of the most heinous ripoffs in poll history."

Now, I didn't know much about the supposed screw-job of the Tide in '66. From my standpoint, and the standpoint of other Irish fans, the story sort of begins and ends with the fact that ND had a great team in '66 and was well-deserving of the crown. If any other team had a claim to the title, it was Michigan State (who actually did come out on top in a couple of polls).

For 'Bama fans, however, it's a festering sore that reopens on occasion -- like when another team is about to threepeat, for instance. If you google "1966 Alabama", you'll find all kinds of lamentations and melancholy about the title that never was.

So, was 'Bama really deserving of the 1966 National Championship, as Dodd, Adamson, and no doubt at least half the state of Alabama claim? The main arguments in favor of the elephant go like this.

• Alabama was the preseason AP #1, and won every game. What more did you want them to do?

While it's true they were ranked #1, Alabama's preseason hold on the top spot was tenuous at best and the voting was very, very close. Bama had 15 first-place votes to Michigan State's 12. In fact, that tenuousness gave way almost immediately, as they fell out of first place on September 19th, without even having played a game yet. Michigan State had just stomped NC State, and that was enough to vault them into the lead. (ND, by the way, was ranked down at #6 at the time.)

So, it's not as if Bama was ranked #1 all season, and the voters pulled out the rug at the last second. In actual fact, Bama didn't have the #1 ranking even as they kicked off for their first game. By October 10th, ND had beaten very good teams in Purdue (9-2) and Army (8-2), and the Irish were up to #2. Bama, meanwhile, had feasted on non-Division-1A Louisiana Tech, a decent team in Mississippi, and mediocre Clemson, and consequently found themselves at #3, where they would remain for the rest of the year.

• Regardless of the rankings, Alabama's team was a powerhouse -- clearly, the best team in the country.

Alabama was indeed a powerhouse. Led by the Snake, Kenny Stabler, and eleven All-Americans, the Crimson Tide racked up 267 points in 10 games (excluding the win over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, which was after the AP & UPI voting), and only gave up 37. Simply amazing.

However, ND put up 362 points in 10 games, almost ten points better per game, and gave up only 38.

Furthermore, ND seems to have played a tougher schedule. Alabama's opponents had a collective losing record (41-50), while ND's opponents had a collective winning record (54-46). Both teams recorded six shutouts, although one shutout for Bama was against Louisiana Tech (a non-Division-1A team, as noted above). ND played and beat more ranked teams. ND beat the #7 (Purdue) & #18 (Southern Cal) teams in the country -- both ends of the Rose Bowl, as it turned out -- and tied the #2 team (more on that later). Alabama's only quality wins at the time of the voting were against Mississippi (#12) and Tennessee (#14).

One complaint often lodged against ND is that Ara ran it up in the last game to ice the #1 ranking, and it's true that we scrubbed the floor with the Trojans to the tune of 51-0. Still, USC wasn't a terrible team, and they did go on to play in the Rose Bowl with a 7-4 record.

Weighing heavily against Bama is the fact that they almost lost the Tennessee game, squeaking out a 11-10 win in just the fourth game of the season, and the voters punished them for it. ND, of course, had only one close game, but against a very high quality opponent -- the second best team in the land, as it turned out.

• Yeah, about that tie. It's a huge black mark. It means ND didn't win every one of their games, as Alabama did. Isn't 10-0 better than 9-0-1?

We all know about the Game of the Century, in which ND, with the ball on their own 30 and 1:10 to play, elected to run out the clock instead of trying for the end zone. After the game, Ara was excoriated for his supposed complacency, and he was quick to offer his rationale.
"I wasn't going to blow the game with an interception. The decision also was made in deference to [MSU placekicker] Dick Kenney's field goal ability... Earlier in the game, we would have had time to overcome a mistake. But with a minute and a half left we couldn't gamble. Strategy dictates that you don't take a chance on losing. We weren't playing for a tie as I think the 60 minutes of football we turned in proved it."
Often overlooked in this game is the fact that ND was missing its starting quarterback, Terry Hanratty, who was injured on the second series of the game; its starting running back, Nick Eddy, who exacerbated an injury stepping off the train in East Lansing; and its starting center, George Goeddeke, who left the game with an injury. In Hanratty's place was Coley O'Brien, a diabetic who was scarfing candy bars and gulping orange juice on the sideline to ward off a bout of insulin shock.

Ranked #1, in the second-to-last game of the season, with a minute left, a good kicker on the other team, and you with a not-completely-healthy backup QB at the reins, perhaps running out the clock was a good idea. Ara thought so. So did Rocky Bleier:
I've always defended Ara's reasoning. We'd been stripped of our offensive weapons, we'd come back from a 10-point deficit, our defense had kept MSU outside our 45-yard line in the second half. Then, the critics wanted us to throw long, desperate passes into a prevent defense that was specifically designed to intercept them. And consider our quarterback. Coley O'Brien is diabetic. He drank orange juice and ate candy bars on the sideline to maintain his insulin at a safe level. In this game, he was so tense that he recalls little or nothing of the action. Ara knew he'd done a great job bringing us back. He was not about to throw it all away with frivolous play-calling in the last minute.
Voters, of course, kept ND at the #1 slot after the game.

And yet, when Bama fans talk about the Game of the Century, they throw around terms like "blemish" and "black mark", as if the tie was as lousy and damning as a loss.

Well, when you're talking about the two best teams in the country playing to a 10-10 tie, it's not a blemish, it's a measure of equality. It's value-neutral. It means you weren't any better than the other team that day, but they weren't any better than you, either. And, it says nothing about the strength of your team vis-à-vis a third party.

Let's try a little syllogism. Ned and Mike are two tall guys who are the same height. A third guy, Al, is 6'3". Therefore, Al is taller than Ned.

(If you answered "True", you might be a Tide fan.)

Big deal. Everybody knows the press had it out for Alabama, and their anti-Southern bias clearly shone through. Moreover, Notre Dame was a media darling that unfairly capitalized on its warm relationship with the national press.

Given the climate of the South in the Civil Rights 60s, there actually might be something to this. Per the Bear Bryant Museum archives:
When it comes right down to it, many people have speculated that sports writers and the wire service polls were biased against Alabama. After all, this was the Alabama of George Wallace, “Bull” Conner’s police dogs and fire hoses, and the Montgomery bus boycotts among other things. On top of that the Crimson Tide itself was still an all-white team. By this time, both Notre Dame and Michigan State had African-American players.

Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize winning sports writer for the LA Times, was severely critical of Alabama. Speaking in a 1966 article, Murray suggested that Alabama “change the lyrics (of “Dixie”) ever so slightly like “do the folks keep segregatin’ – till I ca’int win no polls.” And again, in 1970 when USC traveled to Birmingham to play Alabama, Murray wrote, “they thought they only had to beat Georgia Tech. What they had to beat was 100 years of history.” He claimed “the only black guy in the place was carrying towels.”
Dodd documents a little of the flavor of the times as well.
Turns out another kind of outrage might have been working. It played itself out on TV every night on the nightly news. No one can say for sure if The Movement crossed paths with The Polls, but [Alabama historian Phillip] Shanks certainly thinks so.

"I'm awful afraid politics got involved in it," said Shanks, who is writing a history of Alabama football. "Alabama was not getting a lot of (good) publicity back then. (Former governor) George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. We had an all-white team.

"I was living through it here, every night on TV. It was embarrassing, we hated for that to impact our football team."

In the fall of 1966, the civil rights movement was in full flower changing a state, a nation and minds. Alabama was its stage. No one can say for sure but for one season, it seems that the noble struggle for equal rights and football intermingled.

Was Alabama the football team punished in the polls for being Alabama, the state of intolerance?

"Coach Bryant told us the fact that we didn't have any votes on the East Coast was his fault," said Jim Fuller, a defensive tackle on that '66 team. "We didn't have the integration of the other teams. He said, 'I'll never let that happen again.'"
And Notre Dame had the opposite situation...a lot of love, and maybe too much for some people. Time magazine put Hanratty and Seymour on the cover that season, only the second time in the 60s that a college football player appeared (trivia time: name the player who graced the other cover).

But you know, to prove a conspiracy, or even a complacent, insidious bias, you first have to show evidence that Alabama was clearly deserving on merit over every other team in the country. And as shown above, that just wasn't the case -- based on stats and scores, it isn't clear-cut. Both ND and Michigan state had very strong claims on #1, both in terms of statistical output and strength-of-schedule. It's perfectly reasonable to assume voters deemed ND the best team based on measurable benchmarks, and not fuzzy political agendas.

Here's how the final vote came down:
  • 1 - Notre Dame, 41 1st-place votes, 506 points
  • 2 - Michigan State, 8 1st-place votes, 471 points
  • 3 - Alabama, 7 1st-place votes, 428 points
While Bama may have been undefeated, clearly most voters thought ND was just simply a better team (and Michigan State a better team than Alabama, too, for that matter). The simple truth is that Alabama lost its #1 ranking right out of the gate, and did nothing terribly outstanding the rest of the season to prove they should have had it back.

That said, I can sympathize with Tide fans who feel some claim on the '66 title, as the Irish have also been been upset in pursuit of the threepeat. In 1948, ND seesawed through the season with Michigan for the top spot and a chance at the triple-whammy, when a late-season tie against Southern Cal opened the door for Michigan to claim the crown. Historically, however, ND has played the spoiler in couple of possible threepeats (Army in '46, Oklahoma in '57).

And come to think of it...we've got a chance at another spoiler this year, too...