Monday, July 18, 2011

1971: Bear and 'Bama's Renaissance

Its hard to believe but this fall will mark the 40th anniversary of Alabama football's revival as well as Bear Bryant's own revival as Alabama ended a four year period of mediocrity and running in place. The 1971 edition of the Crimson Tide won the SEC Championship but came up short in what amounted to a National Title match in Miami at the end of the season. Nonetheless that season marked the resurgence of the Tide and laid the foundation for a run through the decade of the '70's that has not and probably will not be matched again in SEC football.
Bear Bryant and a young defensive coach to his left, Pat Dye, size up an opposing offense in 1971

While Alabama's 6-5 mark in 1969 and 6-5-1 record in 1970 jump off the page, Alabama's slump actually went back to game one of 1967. 'Slump' of course is a relative term but considering that from 1961 through 1966 Alabama won three National Titles, four SEC titles and played in either the Sugar or Orange each year, an 8-2-1 mark in 1967 which ended in a loss to an unranked 6-4 Texas A&M team in the Cotton Bowl would be considered indeed a slump.The 11-0-0 1966 Tide that somehow was denied the National title (which should always silence any distractor wallowing in revisionist history questioning the '64 National Title with a bowl loss while Arkansas was in the old Southwest Conference was unbeaten and did win its bowl game) allowed only 37 points in the entire regular season. In game one of the 1967 season Alabama and Florida State tied 37-37. The Seminoles' point total was the most Alabama had given up since the Auburn game in 1957. Alabama did settle down on defense and the most they gave up after that was 24 to Tennessee. The defense did indeed bail Alabama out against LSU and Auburn as the Tide eked out 7-6 and 7-3 wins respectively where a bounce here or there could have ended the season 6-3-1.

The roots of the Tide's swoon went back to the 1967 season opener when Alabama and Florida State tied 37-37. The Seminoles' 37 points matched what the Tide gave up in the entire 1966 regular season

Alabama was 8-3 in 1968. Again, nothing wrong with '8-3.' And, the regular season included only two losses-- 10-8 to Ole Miss and Archie Manning in Jackson and 10-9 to Tennessee in Knoxville.However the season ended with a 35-10 loss to Missouri in the Gator Bowl handing Alabama its first three loss season since Bryant's first year in 1958. Missouri's quarterback Terry McMillan threw for only one touchdown -- an interception return for a touchdown by Donnie Sutton.McMillan's second interception led to the Tide's last points, a 25 yd field goal by LB Mike Dean who picked off the interception.Those were the only two passes "caught" from balls thrown by McMillan. But the Tigers rushed for an astonishing 404 yards.

Missouri QB Terry McMillan (18) rushed for 76 yards and three touchdowns as Mizzou walloped Alabama 35-10 in the '68 Gator Bowl.McMillan's only "touchdown pass" was an interception return by Alabama's Donnie Sutton

Things got worse in 1969. After a heart stopping 33-32 win over Manning and Ole Miss at Legion Field, 3-0 Alabama lost the following week in Nashville to 0-3 Vanderbilt, 14-10.Oddly enough Alabama took the field that night ranked #13 even though they were unbeaten with a win over the preseason choice for conference champ Rebels. The Tide had not been ranked in the top 10 since week game one of the '68 season even with an 8-2 regular season mark and narrow losses that season to eventual bowl teams.Others were starting to notice things amiss with the Tide,too.
Alabama's 1969 swoon started with au upest loss to Watson Brown (12) and Vanderbilt in Nashville, 14-10. The Tide and Commodores each had helmet decals with a football with "100" inscribed to commemorate college football's centennial

The next game was back at Legion Field vs Tennessee on "the third Saturday in October".Going back to Bryant's days as Kentucky's head coach he viewed the game vs the Vols as a measuring stick to gauge how well his team was playing.Any hope for any 'Bryant magic' or 'returning to Alabama football' never materialized as the 20th ranked Tide played the #7 Vols. Tennessee destroyed Alabama 41-14 taking a 21-0 lead after the first quarter and leading 34-0 in the fourth before emptying its bench enabling two late scores for the Tide. Two dubious 'firsts' took place that day. The Vandy - Vol losses were Bryant's first back to back losses since 'Mama called' in 1958 and the loss to Tennessee was the Tide's third straight to the Big Orange, the first time Bryant had lost three straight to the same team since he arrived back in Tuscaloosa.

'Smash mouth football' no longer applied to the Tide. Alabama had become more of a passing team and not gearing toward running as much and the Tide's defense was becoming an embarrassment. While the Vols didn't match Missouri's Gator Bowl rushing totals they did rush for 242 yards, totals that from 1964 through 1966 would have typically have taken three games for the Tide defense to yield. Of course Tennessee's special teams and defense joined in the scoring as well. Bobby Majors, Johnny's little brother, scored on a 71 yd punt return in the first quarter and a member of Tennessee's incredibly talented linebacking corp returned an errant Neb Hayden pitch out 27 yards for a touchdown.

Tennessee's Jackie Walker scored a touchdown vs Alabama at Legion Field 11 months before Southern Cal's Sam Cunningham did

The Vols' defense was led by All-Americans Steve Kiner and Jack Reynolds.The touchdown return was scored by a sophomore starting in his first varsity season, Jackie Walker, a black player. The Vols had two other blacks, Lester McClain a junior who started off and on at Wide Receiver and was Tennessee's first black letterman the year before and Andy Bennett.Alabama didn't have any blacks on its football team. Meanwhile the ever talkative Kiner shouted at the Tide offense as he was replaced by reserves in the fourth quarter.Kiner had thrived on playing Alabama and Bryant while at UT feeling they were the toughest and best they would face each year. He scolded his foes for letting Bryant down as he left the field.

Now 3-2, the Tide regrouped with an easy win over Clemson and came into the Iron Bowl 6-3 with the only loss after Tennessee to top 10 LSU 20-15 in Baton Rouge.Auburn, 7-2 and ranked #12 was looking for its first win over 6-3 Alabama since 1963. The Bluebonnet Bowl bound Tigers were led by Pat Sullivan and had only lost to Tennessee and LSU, the top two teams in the SEC. The Tide, Liberty Bowl bound, was looking for one more shot at a win over a quality team.

Didn't happen. After scoring late in the first half to take a 14-10 lead into halftime, Auburn then exploded for 35 points in the second in a 49-26 rout of the Tide. Auburn's 49 points were the most any Alabama team had given up since Sewanee put up 54 in 1907. Alabama did put up 484 yards passing in the loss, but also gave up 349 yards rushing and 541 total.

Things didn't get any better in Memphis vs Colorado in the Liberty Bowl. The Tide did fight back from a 31-19 halftime deficit to take a 33-31 lead into the fourth quarter.Colorado went on to outscore the Tide 16-0 to win, 47-33. The Buffaloes rushed for 473 yards led by bowl MVP Bob Anderson's 254 yards.

One person of interest who attended that game was Bo Matthews, a HS senior running back from Huntsville that had committed to Bryant and Alabama to come to Tuscaloosa in the fall of 1970.Bryant had invited Matthews to Memphis for the bowl game to spend some time with the team and the young man complied.Nothing unusual about any of that in and of itself except one thing. Matthews was black.Unfortunately for Alabama and Bryant , Matthews spent most of his time with Colorado's seven black players and listened to them try to discourage him from being a 'pioneer' at Tuscaloosa. He soon changed his mind about Alabama and signed with Colorado and the Buffaloes going on to a good career and brief NFL career with the Chargers.

Huntsville's Bo Matthews was Bryant and Alabama's first black commitment but signed instead with Colorado and played in the NFL with San Diego

The off season after the 1969 campaign was rather active for Bryant and Alabama.First Bryant flirted with and almost took the Miami Dolphins' job. In fact he had told owner Joe Robbie he would pending working things out with Alabama in Tuscaloosa.Needless to say that never happened. Shortly thereafter at NCAA meeting in January of 1970 in Washington, D.C. the NCAA voted 162-98 to allow member schools to schedule an 11th regular season game starting with the '70 season ending the rule capping the schedule at ten games since 1954.Some schools decided since it wasn't mandatory and that their schedules were set,they'd wait until 1971 or later. Initially Bryant wasn't in favor of an 11th game but on a recruiting trip out West he scheduled a quick meeting at Western Airlines' Horizon Room at Los Angeles International Airport with an old friend of his John McKay of Southern California and the two agreed to two game 'home and home' to start immediately with game one in Birmingham on September 12th and a return game to Los Angeles on September 10, 1971. Also, Bryant and Alabama not only got a 'commitment' from a black recruit, but Wilbur Jackson of Ozark indeed signed with the Tide and would enroll that fall in Tuscaloosa.(Alabama's first black scholarship athlete, Wendell Hudson had signed with C.M. Newton's basketball team and would begin varsity play that fall as a sophomore.)

Bryant revealed in his autobiography,"Bear" that Southern Cal had been his dream job at one time.He was approached about his interest in December of 1950 about an opening at the time while in New Orleans with his Kentucky team preparing for #1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.The timing was not good as he told them he would have to pass because they wanted a quick answer and he wanted no distractions in preparation for the Sooners, whom the Wildcats stunned 13-7.

While this blog entry is about Alabama's 1971 season, there is no way to brush off the ramifications, rather real or imagined, about the 1970 Southern Cal - Alabama game in Birmingham. A literary cottage industry has sprung up on that game so there is no need to rehash every minute detail. Southern Cal won the opening game of the season 42-21 (the first game played on Astro Turf at Legion Field) and were led by quarterback Jimmy Jones and Sam Cunningham. Jones and Cunningham were black, making this the first time Alabama had faced a team with a starting black backfield. There were 23 Trojans who were black and Alabama had zero (Jackson was a freshman and freshmen were ineligible to play varsity until 1972).

Sam Cunningham rushed for 135 yards on 12 carries and had two touchdowns.Over time this game has been embellished as if Bryant had scheduled the game after watching the Selma March in '65 and with tears streaming down his face, 'Miss Mary Harmon' dialed McKay for him.Didn't happen that way as the game had only been in the works for 9 months.Somehow Cunningham's performance grew over time to 235 yards and three touchdowns.And the story goes Bryant went into the victorious Trojans' locker room took Cunningham to the Tide locker room and told his team, "Boys,this is what a football player looks like." Good stuff,but it didn't happen. Now, former Bryant player at UK and coach at Alabama under him , Jerry Claiborne, while preparing his VPI team the following week for the Tide has a comment attributed to him while with some hyperbole, had some validity, "Sam Cunningham did more for integration in the South in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King did in twenty years."Over time that quote has been attributed to Claiborne, as "an Alabama assistant."(Claiborne had played for Bryant at Kentucky and had coached for him, but had become a head coach in 1961) It was no secret after the recent beatings by Tennessee, Colorado and now Southern Cal with black players in key roles, Alabama would have to recruit,sign and accept black players. Regardless of the all ,how and why Bryant and McKay put that game together, quality team, large payday(s)(Southern Cal's payday in 1970 of $175,000 was at the time larger than any Rose Bowl payout they had received), unless one was on the Casey Anthony Jury its hard to dispute Southern Cal's domination of that game changed some minds about black players in Alabama and the South.

Southern Cal's Sam Cunningham in the famous/infamous 1970 Southern Cal-Alabama game at Legion Field

(Statistically, the black running back in that period who ran roughshod over all-white SEC team(s) wasn't Southern Cal's Cunningham,but Houston's Paul Gipson.In 1967 Gipson rushed for 229 yards out of the Cougars' famed 'Veer' --the other popular offense along with the Wishbone-- vs the #5 Georgia in a 15-14 win and another 87 yards a few weeks later vs the other SEC Bulldogs of Mississippi State in a 43-6 blowout. In 1968 Gipson rushed for 210 yards in Jackson in a 29-7 win over Ole Miss and 230 yards later in the season against eventual SEC Champion Georgia in a 10-10 tie in Athens. To show how truly dominating Gipson was in '67 and '68 vs SEC teams ,Ole Miss' Steve Hindman led the SEC with 829 yards rushing. In 1968 Tennessee's Richard Pickens led the SEC with 736 yards rushing. Those two average out to 783 yards. In four games against SEC teams in 1967 and 1968 Gipson rushed for 756 yards.For good measure, in the season opener which was also Texas' debut of the Wishbone, Gipson rushed for 173 yards in a 20-20 tie in Austin.)

Houston's Paul Gipson (46) rushing for 229 yards vs Georgia in 1967

Regardless of skin tone, for Alabama the 1970 season started off right where 1969 ended: A solid thrashing administered by an opponent scoring over 40 points and running at will on Bryant's once feared and famed defense.There was no shame in losing to the Trojans themselves.Southern Cal came into the game ranked #3 and had played in four straight Rose Bowls finishing second in the nation the prior two years after winning the National Title in 1967.But Alabama didn't hardly compete. The Trojans rushed for 485 yards ,punted only one time and led 32-7 late in the third quarter.

Alabama's passing offense remained the strength of the team .Quarterbacks Scott Hunter and Neb Hayden alternating at times and SE David Bailey's impressive career carried over into 1970 with big yards in the season opener with Alabama passing for 250 yards. But the Tide running game was almost as anemic as the defense was at stopping the run.The Tide's passing attack was the focus and the running game needed work. If the passing game didn't work, that also meant the beleaguered defense returned to the field much sooner,too.

The Tide bounced back with easy, high scoring routs of VPI 51-18 in Birmingham a week later and a 46-15 over #13 Florida and former coach Tennessee coach Doug Dickey in Tuscaloosa.With nearly 600 total yards against the Hokies and nearly 500 yards vs the Gators, it seemed that maybe Alabama was back to its old, winning ways.

The feeling of being 'back' went away a week later in Jackson's Mississippi Memorial Stadium with 4th ranked Ole Miss and Heisman candidate Archie Manning. After a solemn moment of silence and prior to kickoff in tribute to Wichita State players who were killed in a plane crash the night before near Denver en route to a game vs Utah State (the first of two plane crashes killing members of football teams that year, Marshall being the second later in the season),Ole Miss methodically got revenge from the heartbreaking 33-32 loss to the Tide in '69. As like the 1969 game, this one was on prime time national television and the Rebels romped 48-23.The Tide was hindered by Scott Hunter's injured shoulder late in the week in practice which precluded him from dressing out and Hayden was frazzled by the Rebs' defense all night.Manning was more methodical this night with modest passing stats and 171 yards passing. But the Rebels romped anyway and added a score on a 101 yard Vernon Studdard kickoff return for good measure.

The loss to Ole Miss put the Tide at 2-2 and they continued their up and down ways the rest of the year. The Tide blew out Vanderbilt , Mississippi State and Miami(Fla) and pulled off a gutty come from behind fourth quarter victory at #15 Houston.On the other side Tennessee handed Alabama its first shutout since 1959 in a 24-0 win as Hunter and Hayden combined for 8 interceptions. The Tide played eventual SEC Champion LSU tough in a 14-9 loss and closed the season with a 33-28 loss to Auburn after blowing an early 17-0 lead.Somewhat fittingly the season ended in a 24-24 tie back in Houston vs Oklahoma in the Bluebonnet Bowl as a modest 34 yard field goal by Richard Ciemny ,"The Kansas Cowboy" was deflected as time expired.

Somewhat fittingly the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl between Alabama and Oklahoma ended in a 24-24 tie . In 1971 with explosive Wishbone offenses, both teams played Nebraska, in effect, for the National Title.

Alabama needed to change some things up in a hurry if they were going to return to their dominate ways instead of continuing to wallow in mediocrity.On offense,the Tide was losing senior quarterbacks Scott Hunter and Neb Hayden.(The two also battled in the classroom,too. Hunter was SEC All-Academic QB in 1968 and 1969 and Hayden wrestled that away in 1970)While Hunter was the quarterback from 1968-1970 (with Hayden playing a good bit as back-up) the Tide's slide cannot be pinned on him.Hunter had a fine career in Tuscaloosa and his single game passing record of 482 yards vs Auburn in 1969 was also the SEC single game record until 1994 and even in this day and age of explosive offenses and passing game, his yardage vs Auburn remains the SEC's 10th all time highest.

Still in that era for Alabama, that may have been a case of "more is less". Through the 1987 season the quarterbacks in the SEC's top ten single game passing yardage list compiled only a 2-7-1 mark against those defenses they racked up those passing yards against.Hunter and Hayden were passing quarterbacks and the one returning quarterback, Terry Davis was more of a running quarterback.

Getting back to running more was one thing Bryant committed to do in the offseason.Recruiting was another. In addition to having Wilbur Jackson eligible for varsity play that fall, another black player would be joining the team, John Mitchell a junior college transfer from Mobile.The decision had been made that blacks would be recruited, no if ands an buts. Bryant had been ready himself since his days in Kentucky when he saw two black Lexington boys sign football scholarships with Big 10 teams, one even was the son of one the cooks in the UK athletic dining hall.(Kentucky would go on to sign the first black football player in the SEC Nat Northington in the spring of 1966)Bryant also would take a more firm approach in discipline as well as the type of players to recruit in the first place as he felt some of his 'lenient' decisions led to a moral decline which contributed to the team's decline.And the defense would have to improve and hopefully an improved running game would keep the defense off the field for longer stretches at a time.

There was no doubt the Alabama fanbase was starting to grumble and in some quarters suggest that maybe a changing of the guard at the top was in order. The great philosopher O.A. "Bum" Phillips, who would coach the Houston Oilers after among other stops coaching under Bryant at Texas A&M once opined, "He (Bryant) can take his'n and beat your'n. He can take your'n and beat his'n." Lately that wasn't the case as Alabama was beating only the have nots.

Enter Bryant's old friend, Texas' head coach Darrell Royal. Royal had faced similar circumstances three or four years earlier. The two had struck up a friendship when Royal was an assistant at the time at his alma mater, Oklahoma when Bryant ,then at Kentucky, spoke at coaching clinic.The two remained close. After a National Title in 1963 and a 10-1 record and Orange Bowl win after the 1964 season against Bryant's own 1964 National Title team, the Longhorns floundered into mediocrity.Royal had spread himself too thin and recruiting suffered, similar to Alabama and Bryant after the 1966 season.Similar to rumblings in Alabama, Royal heard the same in the Lone Star state that maybe the game had passed him by.

Texas' recruiting fortunes improved dramatically in 1967 and in particular at the running back position.As the 1968 season approached Royal wanted an offense where he could feature three running backs all at the same time. His offensive coordinator Emory Bellard developed a hybrid offense similar to the triple option. The triple option featured two backs so Bellard added a third back who would play fullback (and actually be involved as a runner unlike today's glorified guards wearing a jersey with a "40" on it) which looked like a 'Y' hence the term 'wishbone'.

Texas coach Darrell Royal explaining the wishbone offense

Royal kept the new offense under his hat but did call his good friend Bryant before the opening game vs Houston in '68 and told him about it.After an opening season tie and loss, the Longhorns went on to win 30 games in a row and National Titles in 1969 and 1970.

In the summer of 1971, Bryant called Royal. Bryant felt the wishbone offense was conducive to his returning offensive personnel.Royal accepted Bryant's request to come to Tuscaloosa with Bellard that August and teach Bryant and his staff Wishbone 1001. In a Holiday Inn meeting room in Tuscaloosa after speaking at Bryant's annual coaching clinic for high school coaches, Royal ,Bellard and Bryant and his staff spent all day going over the wishbone offense.Royal and Bellard explained the theory and mechanics of the offense and even went so far as to get down in stances to run plays and show blocking schemes to the Tide staff.

Holiday Inn North in Tuscaloosa where the private meeting with Royal and Emory Bellard, creator of the wishbone met with Bryant and his staff.All that was missing was the white smoke coming from the chimney

A few weeks later when the Tide arrived for fall practice they were greeted with the news about the wishbone.They were also instructed not to tell anyone about, friends,family and especially media.Even in 1971 before the internet, twitter, and cable news, Southern Cal coach John McKay got wind of the wishbone talk but passed it off as some type of decoy rumor.It wasn't until the Tide arrived in Los Angeles to face the Trojans that they found out indeed the wishbone would be THE offense they would run vs Southern Cal. No series or two, all or nothing. Bryant would sink or swim with the wishbone.

Starting the season with a new offense versus such a formiddable foe was risky in and of itself.After the easy win in Birmingham, the Trojans struggled to a 6-4-1 mark but along the way they tied eventual national champion Nebraska 21-21 and handed Notre Dame a regular season ending 38-28 loss for the Irish' lone loss in 1970 denying them the title.The Trojans were loaded again and many were saying this may be John McKay's best team ever, including National Title teams in 1962 and 1967.

September 10, 1971 was the rematch of the two game series between these two. September 10 was on a Friday in 1971. Through the 1981 season Southern Cal and UCLA shared the Los Angeles Coliseum. Unlike Birmingham's Legion Field when Alabama and Auburn played an occassional double-header or particulary Jackson's Mississippi Memorial Stadium where Ole Miss and Mississippi State played double-headers until the late 1980's, the Trojans and Bruins only played three double-headers from the inception of UCLA football in 1929 until they headed north to Pasadena in 1982. The last double header had been in 1942.On Saturday at the Coliseum UCLA would host Pittsburgh which had finished 5-5 the year before.

Today it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to see Alabama and Southern California play one another on a weeknight(besides a Saturday) to kickoff the college football season.However in 1971 teams could only be on television (and ABC was the only network which showed games) a limited time each season. This game would not be televised. A week before the new fall line-up on the three major networks ABC, the network of college football , had among other shows that Friday night, "The Brady Bunch visits ABC" where the Brady's up the road from the Coliseum in "City" would venture to the studio lot to see the new shows for the fall.ABC did kickoff its college football season the next night at Yankee Stadium with Grambling and Morgan State squaring off, the first time two all-black teams had been on network television.

In a sign of the times, with the '71 Tide-Trojan game on a Friday night, the home of college football at the time ,ABC showed "The Brady Bunch visits ABC". But when you throw in that the Brady Bunch got to meet the Jackson 5, The Brady's over Alabama and Bryant vs Southern Cal and McKay makes perfect sense

So 67,781,well below the anticipated 80,000. gathered at the Coliseum to see #5 Southern Cal take on #16 Alabama. To add to the intrigue of this game, 12 point underdog Alabama would hand Bear Bryant his 200th victory with a win ( a day before his 58th birthday to boot), something only five other coaches had done at the time. While on the big stage in Los Angeles, Alabama did just that ,oddly enough on a Friday night wearing white helmets and not the traditional crimson headgear, holding off Southern Cal 17-10.

The Tide took the opening kickoff and marched 59 yards with Johnny Musso taking a pitchout around right end 13 yards for a touchdown. A while later a Steve Wade interception of a Jimmy Jones' pass led to a Bill Davis 37 yard field goal to push the lead to 10-0.Early in the second quarter the Tide marched 91 yards in 11 plays with Musso again scoring,this time on an 8 yard run. Davis' second conversion made the score 17-0. That would be all of the scoring for the Crimson Tide.
Hard to believe Alabama's resurgence started on a Friday night, with white helmets in a game not televised. Here Terry Davis (10) hands off to Ellis Beck in the 17-10 win over Southern Cal

Southern Cal did all of its scoring in the second quarter.First, Jones hit Charles Young on a 7 yard touchdown pass to complete a 73 yard drive.Then Mike Rae booted a 37 yard field goal on the last play of the first half to cut Alabama's lead to 17-10.The halftime score would become the final score.

The Trojans didn't go down with out a fight. Three times in the fourth quarter they crossed midfield only to turn the ball over on a fumble, an interception and finally on downs.Future NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann returned a punt 57 yards to the Alabama 28 before finally being tackled by a diving David Bailey. But a few plays later a disputed personal foul penalty on the Trojans negated a first and ten at the Alabama 12 and the Trojans later turned the ball over on downs back at the Alabama 30.Shortly thereafter Musso, who had two touchdowns, rushed for five yards on fourth and three with 1:00 left in the game which enabled the Tide to run out the clock. The five yard run by Musso was hailed by the Tide staff as their biggest play in years.

The new offense was a success with Alabama rushing for 302 yards on 58 carries. The Tide had the ball for 64 plays compared to the Trojans' 57.Alabama's running game also enabled the defense to not have to spend as much time on the field,too.Terry Davis had a tremendous game in not only his first start at QB,but with the new offense passing for 38 yards and rushing for 47 yards himself. Southern Cal rushed for a solid 203 yards on 44 carries, but if was less than half of the 485 yards the Trojans racked up in Birmingham the prior year.This time none other than Lou Harris led Southern Cal in rushing with 116 yards.(Harris was a "good" running back for Southern Cal but not as celebrated as players immediately before him like OJ Simpson, Cunningham, Anthony Davis or Rickey Bell.He did play for five years in the Canadian Football League for the British Columbia Lions where he was a teammate with Johnny Musso in 1973 and 1974).

Musso had 85 yards rushing with two touchdowns and the huge fourth down conversion and was rewarded with the game ball in the jubulant Alabama dressing room.Musso promptly tossed the ball back to Bryant saying,"..we've had a year to think this game over." Southern Cal's McKay who all week had tried to warn fans and his own player that Alabama was "100% better" than last year said after the game the Tide was "200% better." He lamented his defense trying to tackle quarterback Terry Davis too soon allowing him to pitch the ball to a trailing running back --the very key element of the 'triple option' or 'wishbone'.

The victory seemed to also revive the more jovial Bryant with the media who after asking them where they had been the last few years said his team didn't play that well (vintage Bryant poormouthing), but did heap huge praise on them by adding,"this was oen of my most satisfying victories for an opener.I've been with better teams before ,but I've never been associated with a more prouder team."

Oddly enough, where it was very obvious Bryant had ditched his "pro-style" offense, looking to throw first which they had done over the better part of the last four years with only six passing attempts vs Southern Cal, very little was made about any 'new offense' and while Texas had become synonomous with "wishbone football" the term or usage of 'wishbone' to describe the Tide's offense was almost non-existent. References to the "newly installed Veer-T offense", or "wishbone T offense or triple option" described the offense in the aftermath of victory in Los Angeles gearing up for Southern Miss in the home opener in Tuscaloosa .

Southern Miss, coached by its own 'Bear', P.W. "Bear" Underwood in his third season back at his alma mater, had lost its opener to Florida State in week one. But Southern Miss usually played Alabama tough whether it be in Mobile,Montgomery or Tuscaloosa,the site of the 1971 game. The Golden Eagles led late in the '68 game before losing by 3. Also, just one year earlier Southern Miss shocked not only the Magnolia State but the whole college football world by defeating then #4 Ole Miss and Archie Manning 30-14 in Oxford, two weeks after the Rebels had crushed the Tide in Jackson.

There was no letdown for the Tide after the trip back from Los Angeles.Alabama did go three and out and punted on its first possession giving rise to angst about overconfidence but that was short lived as Alabama ,now in the top 10 at #9,dominated the Southerners, 42-6.Alabama rushed for 276 yards on 63 carries spread around 9 different running backs with Steve Bisceglia joining Musso with 65 yards. The Tide had 193 yards passing for 469 total yards.Southern Miss could only manage 147 total yards.

Next up was a trip to Gainesville to face Doug Dickey and the Florida Gators.Incredibly, it would be Alabama's first trip to Gainesville since 1949. Bryant had been there more recently having taken his Kentucky Wildcats there in 1952.SEC conference scheduling was all over the board with little guidance and guidelines as when to play a particular team. Until 1972 some teams played as few as 5 SEC games and some as many as 8 in a year.With Tulane and Georgia Tech's departure in the mid 1960's some teams were forced to play non-conference teams as "designated conference games." It wasn't unusual for a particular team to not play another particular team throughout the late 50's until schedule revamping took place in '72.When Alabama played Kentucky the following year in 1972, it would be the two team's first meeting since 1947 when Bryant was in Lexington.

Regardless, Alabama figured to win this game without too much trouble and were a ten point favorite at kickoff time. Now #8, the 2-0 Tide faced an 0-2 Gator squad.Three years earlier in 1968 Florida was the preseason pick for SEC Champ.The following year they went 9-1-1 and finished #13 in Ray Graves' final year. Now under former Gator QB and Tennessee head coach Doug Dickey, the Gators had started going the wrong way.While Florida did go 7-4 in '70 they lost their three SEC games to Alabama , Tennessee and Auburn by an average score of 49-12. Their two losses in '71 had been by a field goal each time, but the opponents were Duke and Mississippi State.

This would be the Gators' first home game as the Duke game was played in Tampa.The game vs Alabama would be Florida's first game with the newly installed Astro-Turf.The Gators took the opening kickoff and marched to the Tide 9 where Dickey eschewed a field goal attempt on 4th and four where Alabama stopped All-America candidate quarterback John Reaves cold.The Tide then moved to the Gator 11 and settled for a Bill Davis field goal.The 3-0 lead would be all Alabama needed but Musso became the first Tider since 1950 to score 4 touchdowns and Alabama led 31-0 after the first drive of the third quarter as Bryant pulled the starters.Alabama only threw four passes and completed two. One of those was an 11 yard pass from reserve Billy Sexton to Dexter Wood to close out the scoring and make the final score 38-0.

Alabama rushed for 363 yards on 66 carries. Florida just did get over 200 yards total offense for the entire game. The Gators' Tommy Durrance, a fine player in his own right, played his first game after being injured in the offseason but was held to 21 yards on 9 carries. Reaves had a terrible game throwning three interceptions and was lifted for Chan Gailey who would go on to be the head coach of the Birmingham Fire of the WLAF, Samford, Dallas Cowboys, Georgia Tech and Buffalo Bills.The blanking of the Gators was Alabama's first shutout since 1967 when they blanked South Carolina 17-0. (that 1967 shutout was the Tide's second in two weeks. Earlier, Alabama blanked Mississippi State 13-0 as a particular SEC vintage blogger's tenth grade geometry teacher was crowned Homecoming Queen.)

Now ranked #7 ,the Ole Miss Rebels were up next in the Tide's first trip to Legion Field in Birmingham.Ole Miss had some new faces from the ones Alabama had faced in the past, especially over the last three years.Archie Manning who had an amazing three year career in Oxford and was 2-1 vs the Tide with the one loss the epic 33-32 game was now a New Orleans Saint.And the head coach was Billy Kinard replacing the legendary John Vaught,one of the best coaches in SEC history.Unfortunately his career basically paralled Bear Bryant's which took a lot of attention and superlatives away from him but didn't diminish any of his accomplishments.

The Rebels came into the game 3-0 themselves with wins over some lighweights. A then record crowd of 72,871 at Legion Field saw the two teams battle to a 6-6 tie near halftime before Terry Davis completed one of his three passes for the day to David Bailey for an 11 yard touchdown with :08 left in the half for a 13-6 Alabama lead.

Ole Miss took the second half kickoff and moved to the Tide 11 but missed a field goal under heavy pressure.And that was it for the Rebels, at least in a good way.Alabama then went 80 yards in seven plays with Joe LaBue scoring from 29 yards out.On their next possession Musso went over from the seven and tied the SEC scoring mark and the third quarter ended with Alabama up 27-6.

The rout was on as Alabama scored twice more to win 40-6.The only concern was for quarterback and holder Terry Davis, who rushed 18 times for 74 yards, was leveled by Ole Miss All-SEC tackle Elmer Allen on the conversion try at 33-6.Problem was the ball hadn't been snapped yet.Allen was ejected and future Boston Red Sox player Butch Hobson spelled Davis in the fourth quarter.
Musso and Alabama ran all over Ole Miss in a 40-6 rout at Legion Field

The Tide was for real. Alabama set a school record at the time, as well as conference record in a game with opposing SEC schools, with 531 yards rushing on 73 carries. Against the Rebels the year before Alabama had 27 yards rushing.The Tide only punted one time in complete domination. The Tide defense got in on the act holding then conference rushing leader Randy Reed of Ole Miss to 19 yards on 11 carries.Musso had 193 yards on 22 carries.

Next up was a trip to Nashville and Vanderbilt.The Tide's last trip to Music City resulted in a stunning 14-10 loss.This trip resulted in a methodical 42-0 win. Alabama led only 13-0 at haltime as Vandy moved nine men to the line of scrimmage making it difficult to run wide. Musso ,with 113 yards on 21 carries,did score one touchdown in the first half giving him sole possesion of the SEC touchdown record from Georgia's Charley Trippi.Alabama solved the Commodores' strategy of defending a wide field by running up the middle more and passing more and wound up gaining 353 yards on the ground.The Tide's passing wasn't anything record setting, but productive. While Alabama only completed 8 passes they were spread around to four receivers for 72 yards and a 9 yard average.The defense was superb holding Vandy to only one field goal try by Taylor Stokes, Vanderbilt's first black football player, that missed badly from the Alabama 30.

Now the famed Third Saturday in October would be where Alabama hoped to end its four game losing skid vs Tennessee and also defeat the Vols in Birmingham for the first time since 1963.Tennessee came to town ranked #14 and 3-1 with only a 10-9 loss to unbeaten Auburn, whom the Tide had just supplanted as #4 in the country. UT was coached by Bill Battle, in his second year in Knoxville and had been a starting end at Alabama on Bryant's first National title team in 1961.

The 1971 game would start a new streak in the series which at kickoff time was tied at 23-23-7 in the overall series. Alabama won a wild, "rock 'em, sock 'em" game 32-15 that while the Tide was seemingly in control for most of the game, they did score 10 points in the final :57 to make the margin what it was.After a hard hitting first quarter where both squads turned the ball over twice on fumbles, the Tide trailed for the first time all year, 7-6 when George Hunt booted an extra point after a Curt Watson touchdown run.(Hunt would conclude his collegiate career later in January at the 'Lions American Bowl' in Tampa, one of many "All-Star" games in that era in addition to the Senior Bowl in Mobile.The American Bowl in Tampa was a "North" vs "South" match-up.Tennessee's Hunt, who grew up in nearby Clearwater, Fl played for the North.The South was coached by Florida's Doug Dickey who had recruited Hunt to Knoxville while still at Tennessee and was his coach in 1969 on the varsity. Hunt wasn't too thrilled about reuniting with his old coach and was granted the switch.)

Musso ,headed towards Johnny's little brother Bobby Majors , rushed for over 100 yards vs the SEC's leader in total defense at the time

Tennessee came into the game leading the SEC in total defense and rushing defense allowing only 80 yards a game.Alabama rushed for 283 yards on 76 carries with Musso leading the charge with 115 yards on 22 carries. The Tide defense was just as impressive. Tennessee,with a solid ground game themselves led by Watson, was held to just 53 yards on 37 carries.UT passed for 108 yards completing only 5, but one was for 57 yards setting up Tennessee's final points to narrow the lead to 22-15.After the Vols' failed on a fourth down attempt inside their own 25, Bill Davis booted a field goal with :57 left to make the lead 25-15.On Tennessee's first play after the kickoff, a harried Dennis Chadwick fumbled on his own five and Robin Parkhouse recovered for Alabama. Musso busted in on the next play to make the final 32-15.

On his Sunday show following the Tennessee game, Bryant declared Musso the best player in the country as well as Birmingham needed to expand Legion Field

After the game,Bryant was downright giddy. He knew this team was special and a win over a quality Tennessee team was always satisfying to him. Bryant used his show to campaign for Johnny Musso for the 1971 Heisman Trophy.And, with a new attendance record at Legion Field at 73,828 for the second Alabama game in a row in Birmingham, Bryant also encouraged the city leaders to expand the stadium to 80 or even 90,000 as the Tide had some "big games coming up in the next few years."Legion Field was increased to nearly 78,000 for the 1978 season when heavyweights Nebraska and Southern Cal came to town.

Now 6-0 and ranked 4th in the nation behind Nebraska, Oklahoma and Michigan, the Tide could start thinking about playing for a national championship an addition to an SEC championship.Having played Ole Miss and Tennessee in Birmingham, the Tide had one game left at Legion Field: Auburn, who also was unbeaten and ranked one spot below Alabama at 5th.But both squads had work to do before a late November showdown. Alabama's next game was against a very talented Houston team.

Houston at the time was an independent and was granted acceptance into the Southwest Conference that summer but wasn't to begin play until 1976.The Cougars' offense, the "Veer" was somewhat similar to the wishbone but with only two running backs. Houston coach Bill Yeoman invented it and perfected it. Three years earlier they put up 100 on Tulsa and had shut out SEC foe Mississippi State 74-0 in 1969 along with a two touchdown win over Manning and Ole Miss.

But the Tide was too much in 1971 and won 34-20.Statisically Houston was impressive actually outrushing Alabama 300-258 and having more total yards. But after tying up the game 7-7 early in the second quarter, the Tide would go on to stretch its lead to 26-7 at one time and 34-14 before a late Cougar score made the final 34-20. WR David Bailey, an All-SEC selection in 1970 but not looked to nearly as much with the ever impressive wishbone got in on the act with two touchdowns including a fingertip 25 yard reception.Mississippi State fell the next weekend in Jackson 41-17 in game two of a double-header in Jackson where in game one Ole Miss upset the Tide's next opponent LSU, 24-22.

The Tide won over #18 LSU in Baton Rouge, 14-7 in a tight one. In another reflection of that era vs today's, this would be Alabama's first game on television all year and it would be at night on ABC.All season long Bryant knew eventually someone would key on Terry Davis and make him beat them. Until Alabama took on LSU, it hadn't happened. The Tigers keyed on Davis repeatedly denying backs the opportunity to get pitches.At halftime it was 6-0 on two Bill Davis field goals. Finally in the third, Alabama put togethor a quick 4 play 52 yd drive where Musso laid a perfect block for Terry Davis who ran 16 yards for a touchdown and 14-0 lead. LSU scored on its next possession, a 16 yard drive that ended in a 7 yd touchdown pass from Paul Lyons to Andy Hamilton. Alabama only got one more first down the rest of the way, but the closest LSU could get was the Alabama 43 with 2:00 left and the Tide left atop Baton Rouge with a hard earned victory.

Even with Musso sidelined for Miami,the Tide was a 24 pt favorite.Miami fell at homecoming in Tuscaloosa, 31-3. The Hurricanes actually scored first after an Alabama fumble on the game's first play. Wilbur Jackson started in place of Musso rushing for 90 yards which included a 67 yard touchdown run, the longest run of any Tider in 1971.

The Tide was unbeaten and 10-0 with one game left, Auburn. Earlier that afternoon in a game between two unbeatens, Auburn behind their own Heisman candidate Pat Sullivan pulled away from #7 Georgia, 35-20. Now the 1971 Iron Bowl would be for more than just state bragging rights, the winner would win the SEC and then have a shot at the National Title.Had Georgia won, the Bulldogs would have gained at least a share of the SEC title. Now whoever won between Alabama and Auburn would win the league title outright.

Alabama and Auburn were unbelievably two of six teams at that point of the season that were unbeaten along with #1 Nebraska, #2 Oklahoma, #3 Michigan and #6 Penn State.All would certainly play in one of the 'Big Four' bowls as the BCS and its forerunner, Bowl Alliance were 21 years away.The question was where would each team go? Michigan was tied to the Rose Bowl, but no other unbeaten team had a conference tie-in where the champion would play in a particular bowl.It just seemed like the then Big 8 champion went to the Orange Bowl and the SEC champion went to the Sugar Bowl.All of the unbeatens had games left and wanted to know before their final regular season game where they would be going.

While Penn State had indeed gone unbeaten in 1968 and 1969 with Orange Bowl victories, the Nittany Lions still had the stigma in 1971 of playing soft competition and with so many other unbeaten teams, they fell down the pecking order of desirability. The Orange Bowl held the cards with their lucrative contract with NBC. The Orange did have a tie-in with the Big Eight from 1954 through the 1964 Orange (where oddly enough Nebraska played Auburn) but now they in effect had two 'at large' teams.(The Orange and Big 8 would officially reunite starting with the 1976 Orange Bowl a few years later.) The Sugar Bowl could pick whomever,too, but its contract with ABC wasn't as generous and it limited the payout to the teams. The Sugar was often the first game on New Year's Day and viewers would often turnover to CBS' Cotton Bowl once it started. The Orange and NBC had New Year's night to themselves.

Nebraska let the Orange know it wanted to return to Miami where they had beaten LSU to win the 1970 National Title after a crazy New Year's Day filled with upsets. The Sugar quickly gobbled up Oklahoma. The Huskers and Sooners would meet in Norman Thanksgiving Day. Barring a tie the winner would be #1 headed into the bowl game.So the Orange and Sugar had a potential #1 lined up. Their opponent could very well be #2. But where would Alabama and Auburn go ? The Tide would go to the Orange and the Tigers would go to the Sugar.(Penn State would go on to the Cotton Bowl as SWC Champion Texas' opponent even as the Lions' lost their final game badly to Tennessee in an early December game) Depending on the final games, the Sugar or Orange could indeed have a battle for the National Title.

In the what amounted to the first semifinal game in the Final Four, the Orange breathed a sigh of relier as #1 Nebraska defeated #2 Oklahoma 35-31 in a 'Game of the Century' that truly lived up to its billing and is still discussed 40 yrs later. Later that evening during the halftime of another thriller, this one between Georgia and Georgia Tech, ABC television showed the presentation of the 1971 Heisman Trophy to Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan.(Alabama's Musso finished 4th)

Never has an Iron Bowl had such pre-game drama as the 1971 game. Both teams unbeaten and untied and the winner could very well play for the National Title, at least the AP title (The UPI poll, which was the coach's poll at the time awarded Nebraska the title after the regular season) and now the Heisman winner would be quarterbacking one of the teams.

Auburn came into the game 9-0. The Tigers would not schedule 11 regular season games until the 1973 season.Regardless, the Tigers had an outstanding team themselves. In fact due in part to their 9-2 overall record in 1970, they started out the 1971 season ranked above Oklahoma and Alabama, two teams ranked ahead of them at the start of game week. Yet after rising to 4th in the polls after a road win over Tennessee,Auburn would slip to fifth the following week and vacillate between sixth and fifth the rest of the season.But with so many unbeaten teams even the huge road win over unbeaten Georgia didn't help Auburn make up much ground.

But unlike the Nebraska-Oklahoma game two days earlier which lived up to its hype a nationally televised audience and sell out crowd at Legion Field saw the Tide, er roll to a surprisingly easy 31-7 win over Auburn. The Tide's gameplan was to try and keep Sullivan (whom had torched Alabama in 1969 and 1970) off the field as much as possible. The plan worked to perfection as the Tide rushed for 278 yards while the potent Auburn passing game only had 152 yards and one touchdown, and that was on a 31 yard pass from Harry Unger, a running back. Even with two shutouts during the season, considering the quality of the opponent, this was Alabama's finest game. The gameplan to keep Sullivan silent worked incredibly well. In addition to the rushing yardage, Alabama ran 81 plays to Auburn's 43 and held the ball an amazing 41:19 to Auburn's 18:11. This was the same Auburn that put up 35 points on #7 and unbeaten Georgia in Athens two weeks earlier as the Bulldogs came into the game with the SEC's second best defense statistically behind Alabama.

The scoreboard actually indicated a close game through three quarters as Alabama's 14-0 first quarter lead was reduced to 14-7 on the first play of the second quarter and stayed that way at the start of the fourth quarter.But the 4th was all Alabama as Johnny Musso scored two touchdowns for good measure as Sullivan 119 yards passing was his lowest total in his career and only the second time he didn't throw a touchdown.(starting with the Heisman presentation in 1972, the award was presented once the regular season was completed.)

Sports Illustrated had Alabama and Musso on the cover following the Iron Bowl win instead of Nebraska and Johnny Rodgers' stirring win over Oklahoma

Now it was on to Miami for the Orange Bowl against #1 Nebraska. Oddly enough while the regular season concluded with Auburn who hadn't taken advantage of the 11 game schedule yet, the Cornhuskers would come into the bowl having played 12 games. In addition to the 11 game schedule Nebraska ended its regular season in Honolulu taking advantage of the NCAA's "extra game" rule with a 45-3 rout of Hawaii.

After upsets in the Cotton and Rose on New Year's Day 1966, the Orange Bowl that night between Alabama and Nebraska became the National Title game.This one was for all the marbles from the start with #2 Alabama vs #1 Nebraska

But all of the laughter turned to sorrow on the first day of 1972. The clock struck 12 on Alabama's brilliant season as Nebraksa romped over Alabama 38-6 to win its second straight national title and the Huskers' tremendous coach Bob Devaney's first bowl win over Bryant after two crushing back to back losses after the 1965 and 1966 seasons. The Tide trailed 28-0 at halftime as the Huskers were propelled by Johnny Rodgers' 77 yd punt return in the first quarter to give Nebraska a 14-0 lead. (Rodgers would go on to win the 1972 Heisman Trophy).

As in the epic 'Game of the Century' that Thanksgiving between #1 Nebraska and #2 Oklahoma, the 1972 Orange Bowl had and electrifying punt return by Johnny Rodgers between #1 Nebraska and #2 Alabama

But the foundation was laid for the rest of the decade of the 1970's. In addition to the SEC title in '71, Alabama would win the league title every year through 1979 except for 1976. The Tide would also win a share of the National Title in 1973 and 1978 and was consensus champion in 1979.The Tide had near National title misses in 1974 , 1975 and 1977 as well.

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