As the football teams from Alabama and Notre Dame arrived in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, and the frothy hype of Monday’s College National Championship game begins, there appeared a wonderful story in yesterday’s editions of USA Today about college football dynasties. The trouble is, the most glaring factor was somehow omitted.
A dynasty – by some crazy definition – is now a team that wins three national championships within five years. If Alabama, a 10-point favorite over the Irish, wins the Bowl Championship Series title in what is being called the Discover Bowl in Miami on Jan. 7, then the Crimson Tide will become the fifth team in history to win three national titles within a five-year span.
Actually, Alabama could become the first major college team to win three in four years if ‘Bama wins next week and, if the football gods also smile upon them next season, could win four-in-five. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I need to tell you about one team that should have won four.
Since the polls were created and we began keeping records of such, Notre Dame’s teams from 1946-47 and 1949 first won three titles with a 36-0-2 record. Then the great Alabama teams of the early ‘60s came along and the Tide was 60-5-1 from 1961-66, winning titles in 1961, 1964 and 1965. Miami won three championships in 1987, 1989, and 1991, going 56-4 during that stretch, and Nebraska became the last three-time winner with the Great Tom Osborne teams in 1994, 1995 and 1997, winning 60 and losing 3!
But here’s the rub (and I’ll never forget it): In 1996, Alabama came into fall practice sporting those national championship rings from the year before, but all the preseason hype disappeared when No. 2 Michigan State whipped NC State the week before Alabama opened the season. UCLA also opened strong and Alabama – while playing valiantly -- was thrust into an unlikely game of hopelessly playing catch-up all year.
In mid-October, Notre Dame got into the mix with a 32-0 shutout over North Carolina the same day Alabama won an 11-10 nail-biter against UT. Then Notre Dame plummeted both No. 10 Oklahoma and a hapless Navy while Michigan State, Alabama, UCLA, Georgia Tech, Nebraska and Florida also went into that November undefeated.
The next two weeks saw Notre Dame strengthen its hold on No. 1, beating Pitt and Duke by a combined 104-0. Michigan State was also impressive but UCLA got beat while the worst scenario befell Alabama. The Tide, third-ranked, beat LSU 21-0 and then slammed the door on South Carolina, 24-0, but all the nation’s press gravitated to “The Game of the Century” - No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State in East Lansing. That game ended in a sickening 10-10 tie in what was the very first year of college football on TV in living color.
Back then there were two wire service polls and an enraged South watched the Associated Press deem Notre Dame No. 1 while the United Press International named Michigan State No. 1. Neither would budge for the rest of the year, despite Alabama whipping Southern Miss and routing Auburn (31-0).
Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan State went to bowl games that year but No. 3 Alabama capped a perfect 11-0 season with a crushing 34-7 win over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl at old Tulane Stadium. I was there but Alabama finished third in both polls behind the two teams that tied.
Get this, the Tide, led by Kenny Stabler and Ray Perkins, gave up just 37 points all year. Combine the unbeaten 1966 team with the national championship teams of 1961, 1964 and 1965 and Alabama had a 60-5-1 record during that time. No college team has ever equaled it. That is very much a dynasty and by every modern-day account, the 1966 team was robbed of the national title.
Now let me give you the clincher: In the late ‘60s the South struggled mightily with racial turmoil. Its focal point was the state of Alabama, where “Bull” Connor set loose dogs in Birmingham, they marched in Selma and white supremists bombed a house where Dr. Martin Luther King was thought to be staying in Montgomery. The stark truth is that as a nation watched in pity and horror, Bear Bryant’s greatest Alabama team couldn’t have bought a first-place vote with all the money on Wall Street.
Football dynasties … yeah, Nick Saban may be on the brink but the Crimson Tide in the early ‘60s, back when they played toe-to-toe with Tennessee and Auburn every year, was absolutely awesome and yesterday, as I saw where only four teams have ever won three national titles within five years, I knew there was one that should have won four -- if only our ugly prejudices and a vile thing called racism hadn’t gotten in the way.