How Alabama narrowly missed out on the 1977 national championship
Travel to a trailer park in Winston County, Alabama, or a high-rise office building in downtown Birmingham and you will probably find a book called The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football’s Most Elusive Prize resting on a shelf. Never truly satisfied with the number of national championships housed in the trophy case, Crimson Tide fans often fantasize about occasions when they could have won more, and this book by Keith Dunnavant hits the artery of this mania.
While to Alabama fans the missing ring of 1966 is the ultimate spit-in-your-face snub, the apex of Northern bias and privilege, there is another rebuff fans should be reminded of that was not quite as egregious but every bit as impactful. Before getting started, I’d like to point out two things. First, as you will remember Notre Dame was the benefactor of the Alabama’s royal blackball in ‘66. Secondly, just as you’ve circled ’66 in your calendars make sure the year 1977 is seared forever into your head. Because that year, to the chagrin of Alabama nation, No. 5 Notre Dame jumped No. 3 Alabama to steal yet another national title away from the Crimson Tide. Without question, 11-1 Alabama had as much a case as anybody that year, and one could certainly make an argument for another missing ring with the Irish once again as the culprit.
Please allow me offer two important points at this time. First, I do not necessarily believe that Notre Dame was undeserving of the 1977 national title. Secondly, history can be murky; I did not witness the unfolding of the 1977 championship in real time, for in the fall of that year I was only a tike, still dirtying his diapers. Therefore, I only see things through a writer’s and researcher’s point of view, looking retrospectively. Maybe Notre Dame was truly better than Alabama that season, maybe it wasn’t. But the fact remains: one-loss Alabama easily could have been named national champions in 1977.
Let’s examine that in more detail by first looking at the Irish.
In the 1970s, Notre Dame was at the pinnacle of its college football prowess. Consider this: forasmuch as Alabama dominated the decade of the 1970s, winning three national titles of its own, Notre Dame dominated Alabama during that time. Twice the Irish, led by head coach Ara Parseghian, defeated the Tide in the final game of the season: a 24-23 victory in 1973 and a 13-11 victory in 1975. Now coached by Dan Devine (you know, the coach who replaces Parseghian in the movie Rudy, played by the always-ornery Chelcie Ross), the 1977 Fighting Irish were loaded. To demonstrate how talented that team was, none of the seven All-Americans – Ross Browner, Ken MacAfee, Ted Burgmeier, Willie Fry, Ernie Hughes, Luther Bradley, and Bob Golic – would end up as lauded and highly decorated as their junior quarterback from Monongahela, Pennsylvania.
Before Joe Montana captured four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, he was a quarterback fighting for position— “far in the background,” as announcer Keith Jackson described—in the food chain in South Bend. In the preseason, he was listed as the third-string quarterback behind Rusty Lisch and Gary Forystek. As incredible as it may seem now, Montana watched from the sideline in September of ‘77 as his comrades dropped an early road game versus Ole Miss on an oppressively hot day in Jackson, Mississippi. When there was literally no one else for Dan Devine to turn to, Montana finally got the call when his team, on the verge of an average season at best, needed him most. Down 24-14 in the fourth quarter in Lafayette, Indiana, against in-state rival Purdue, Montana trotted onto the field and directed the Irish to 17 unanswered points in a 31-24 victory. This provided the spark for the team to turn its fortunes around, and Notre Dame reeled off the next 10 straight.
Another tipping point in the season occurred on October 22 against Southern California, a game now famously referred to as the “Green Jersey Game” when Notre Dame debuted said jerseys for the first time since 1963. Before the game, Notre Dame fans were in an absolute frenzy, students wearing buttons that read “Des-Troy USC” and Digger Phelps, the head basketball coach, giving a rousing pep rally speech.
But the Irish had another secret to unveil that day during pregame festivities. As the teams entered from their locker rooms, students dressed in togas wheeled a wooden replica of the Trojan horse onto the field. “I’ve never been in a situation like that,” said then-USC head coach John Robinson. “Part of the team was hidden in that horse. At the time, nobody knew anything about it and they came out with the green jerseys and it was a complete secret. The stadium was absolutely berserk.”
The speech, the jerseys, and the horse provided the fuel, and the Irish players furnished the horsepower. And no bigger factor in the Irish’s success existed than the man under center. Montana accounted for four touchdowns—two rushing and two through the air—as the Fighting Irish trounced USC, 49-19. “He killed us in South Bend,” Robinson said. “[Notre Dame] pretty much beat us all over the place. It was an extremely emotional game. That was Montana’s beginning and he had a great game.”
The USC game further propelled Notre Dame. The Irish took a big leap in the polls after the massacre in South Bend, moving six slots from 11th to fifth. After polishing off No. 15 Clemson in a tight road win, the Irish knocked down Air Force and Miami (Florida) in succession before accepting a bid to the Cotton Bowl to face No. 1 Texas. Led by head coach Fred Akers, the Longhorns featured the “Tyler Rose,” Heisman Trophy winning fullback Earl Campbell.
Now to Alabama. The 1977 Crimson Tide team was led by quarterback Jeff Rutledge, running backs Tony Nathan and Johnny Davis, tight end Ozzie Newsome, and offensive lineman Dwight Stephenson (both Newsome and Stephenson are in the NFL Hall of Fame, and Nathan inspired the movie Woodlawn). Although Alabama did not have as many wins against ranked opponents as Notre Dame in 1977, with road games at USC, Nebraska, and LSU, the argument could certainly be made that it had a much tougher schedule. As it turns out, the Tide won two out of those three contests, dropping only the road game in Lincoln, Nebraska, to Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers, 31-24. Although Alabama and Nebraska had faced one another several times in the postseason throughout the years, the ‘77 game was the first time the two powerhouses had met in the regular season. At the time, Osborne, who had followed legend Bob Devaney, was a young head coach in only his fifth season at Nebraska. But on this day he bested the more seasoned “Bear.”
If the USC game was Notre Dame’s tipping point, Nebraska was Alabama’s. Allowing 31 points forced the defense to wake up and Bryant to fine-tune his teaching.
After that early season meeting, Alabama had to turn around and travel to the West Coast three weeks later. On October 8, the Tide secured a big road win at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against Robinson’s No. 1-ranked Trojans, who unsuccessfully went for two with 35 seconds remaining in the game instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game at 21.
“I couldn’t come in here and look my team in the face after going for a tie,” Robinson told Sports Illustrated. “There’s just no way—it’s impossible. You play to win the game. That’s the only way. The kids play too hard out there and they don’t play to tie.
“I was very impressed with their defense and their team. It’s a privilege to play Alabama. They have a great history, a great team and a great university, and, my God, that was a great show out there today.”
After dispatching Southern Cal, Alabama was a new team. Dominant. Hungry. And one by one, teams began to fall. Tennessee, Louisville, Mississippi State, LSU, Miami (Florida), and Auburn all were felled by the master lumberjack of the Southeastern Conference.
Which leads us to the postseason. Here were the AP rankings heading into the bowl games:
- Notre Dame
Texas was undefeated, Oklahoma had one loss (to Texas), Alabama had one loss (at Nebraska), Michigan had one loss (at Minnesota), and Notre Dame had one loss (Ole Miss). Between the Week 11 (Nov. 21) and Week 12 (Nov. 28) polls, Oklahoma, coached by Barry Switzer, had leapfrogged No. 2 Alabama after defeating No. 11 Nebraska 38-7 in Norman, Oklahoma.
Because Alabama had a tie to the Sugar Bowl as Southeastern Conference champions, the Crimson Tide accepted a bid to play in New Orleans. One-loss Oklahoma, the Big 8 conference champion, would face the Southwest Conference’s second-place finisher, Arkansas, in the Orange Bowl. Michigan would face Pac-8 champion Washington and its aerial attack, led by quarterback Warren Moon, in the Rose Bowl. And Notre Dame went to the Cotton Bowl to face Texas.
The bowls were all set, and January 2 was D-Day.
The truth was, Alabama needed a little help to win the national title. Perched at No. 3, the Crimson Tide needed No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Oklahoma to lose (Texas absolutely had to lose, because no one would put a one-loss Alabama ahead of an undefeated Texas that had just stampeded Notre Dame). Theoretically, if those two teams lost and Alabama won, the Crimson Tide would have the national championship in the bag, right? Well, not exactly.
Bryant intimated to his team that 1977 might be the year for strange things. Crimson Tide linebacker Barry Krauss recalled a conversation Bryant had with the team that was later published in Mickey Herskowitz’s book, The Legend of Bear Bryant: “He said we had to beat Ohio State convincingly. He said Oklahoma would lose. Michigan would lose. And Notre Dame would beat Texas. We just looked at him, feeling it couldn’t happen like he said. Damned if it didn’t.”
Billed as the “glamour” matchup of the bowl season, Texas versus Notre Dame ended up being no contest at all, as the Fighting Irish, a 7-point ‘dog to the Longhorns, marched chest-forward into a burnt-orange-infested Dallas and slapped Texas around in a 38-10 rout. During the game, Texas could not have been more generous, turning the ball over a total of seven times.
Fortuitously for Notre Dame’s national championship prospects, the Irish had an admirer in the press box. Paul Hornung, the great Notre Dame halfback, was calling the TV broadcast alongside Lindsey Nelson and Paul Alexander. When Nelson prompted his colleague’s opinion on how the national championship should shake out, Hornung said, “Who beat Texas? That’s all I’m going to think about.”
After the game, Devine also lobbied for the Irish to be No.1. When being interviewed by CBS reporter Don Criqui, he said, “I honestly and sincerely believe we deserve it. We earned it on the field, and we should have it.” Later, he doubled down to the press: “This game puts us where Texas was. We played the team that was rated No. 1 and beat them. Are we No. 1? I leave that to the voters. Yes, I think we ought to be No. 1,” Devine was quoted in The New York Times.
Five hundred miles away, Alabama had already trounced No. 9 Ohio State (9-2), co-champions of the Big Ten. Writer Hal Hayes for The Tuscaloosa News had branded the game as a duel of coaching titans in his piece, “It’s Bear vs. Woody on Bourbon Street” but in the end, only Bryant was standing. The Crimson Tide’s stifling defense held the Buckeyes to 263 yards of total offense and only 13 first downs. On the other side of the ball, Alabama’s rushing attack, spearheaded by Nathan, Johnny Davis, and Major Ogilvie, was simply brilliant in a 35-6 steamrolling that prompted the fiery Hayes to say, “If Alabama isn’t No. 1, then nobody ever has been.”
Hayes continued, “Their fullback (Johnny Davis) ran more inside on us than anyone in a long time. And their offensive line came off the ball the best of anybody we’ve met this year. They’ve got a real fine blocking line.”
Before losing to Alabama, Ohio State had dropped only two games: Oklahoma and Michigan, and Hayes used his postgame remarks to contrast the Crimson Tide and the Sooners. “Alabama isn’t as fast as Oklahoma, but Oklahoma didn’t do as many things well against us as Alabama did. Alabama’s Wishbone functions much better than Oklahoma’s,” Hayes said.
Like Devine, Bryant also took the opportunity to lobby for his favorite team in his postgame comments. “I’ve got one vote in the coaches’ poll. Unless I see something to change my mind, I’m going to vote for us,” Bryant quipped.
Everyone seemed to want to weigh in. Even after a 31-6 loss to Arkansas in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer wasn’t afraid to give his opinion. “I think Alabama should be the national champion,” he said. “I don’t think anyone else but Notre Dame would jump from No. 5 to No. 1 by beating Texas.”
So it came down to Notre Dame and Alabama. In many voters’ minds, the deciding factor was which bowl game was more impressive, Alabama’s demolition of Ohio State or Notre Dame’s mauling of Texas? Notre Dame was criticized by at least one member of the national press for attempting to run up the score against Texas, running fly routes in the fourth quarter. “Blatantly, Notre Dame tried to run up the score with gaudy passes at the end. Devine, his cheek bulging, said the Irish were actually trying to give a Texas cornerback who hadn’t played much ‘some needed game experience,’” wrote Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood in an article entitled “Shake Down the Thunder.” “What he actually was trying to give was a prod to wire-service pollees who vote for the national championship. By now, of course, the votes are in and it has been determined if, indeed, the Irish jumped all the way from fifth to first to win it all, much the way Alabama did in a series of bowl upsets that ended the 1965 season.”
Looking at the entire profile, Notre Dame had the better bowl win, thrashing No. 1 Texas essentially on its home turf, but the Irish also had the worse loss, a demerit to 5-6 Ole Miss that Alabama had coincidentally hammered 34-13 the week prior. With respect to common opponents, Notre Dame blew out USC at home, while Alabama squeaked by the Trojans on the road, and both teams pummeled hapless Miami.
Given the fact that both Notre Dame and Alabama had been on national TV, voters did have the luxury of an eye-test, but because there was no DVR, no ESPN, no 300-plus-channel cable packages back in those days, the sample size was small. Notre Dame and Alabama did not play one another, and who’s better? was a matter of conjecture. There was no four-team playoff, no Bowl Championship Series, no method of determining a national champion outside of the fallible, often biased men who voted for it.
When the polls were released on Tuesday, January 3, the AP voting went like this: Notre Dame received 37 ½ first place votes and 1,180 total points to Alabama’s 19 ½ first place votes and 1,132 total points. As a result, Notre Dame was the Associated Press’s national champion.
The UPI voting went similarly: Notre Dame received 23 first place votes and 365 total points to Alabama’s 13 first place votes and 354 total points. The coaches’ vote made Notre Dame the consensus national champion for the 1977 season.
Disappointment rang from Heart of Dixie. “Naturally, I’m disappointed for our players and our staff, because they did an outstanding job this year. We came so far this year against one of the toughest schedules in the country. Notre Dame has our congratulations,” Bryant said in a statement.
He added, “I think Notre Dame is the only team that could have jumped over us. I think we’re as good as anybody and Notre Dame winning it is just some opinion.”
Al Browning, who covered Alabama for The Tuscaloosa News, had a busy early January. His postseason lede after the Irish had been awarded the title was entitled “Dameit! Notre Dame wins crown.” Indeed it was tongue-in-cheek, but behind that droll façade were somber faces of Crimson Tide fans. In another column, Browning proffered his argument for the Crimson Tide over Notre Dame: “Sure, that was an impressive Cotton Bowl Notre Dame played in beating Texas. But the losing Longhorns were downright charitable at Dallas, turning the ball over five times leading to touchdowns. Alabama was not so fortunate against Ohio State. The Crimson Tide drove 84, 76, 76, and 67 yards for its touchdowns and against the Buckeyes, that is like driving in a rainstorm.”
Perhaps no one was as dejected as the Alabama players. Quarterback Rutledge looked at things in more simplistic terms. “Mathematically, No. 1 got beat, two got beat, then three ought to move up,” said Rutledge. “We talked about it all the way home today. I thought we had a shot at it. But I also thought they’d give it to Notre Dame, them being Notre Dame.”
Rutledge had struck an important point. Did the voters lean toward Notre Dame because of Notre Dame’s history against Alabama in the 1970s? After all, twice the Irish had defeated the Tide in championship-caliber games, so was Notre Dame the media darling?
Keith Dunnavant sheds some light on the subject. “The awarding of the 1977 title was significantly impacted by the Notre Dame mystique. No other team would have jumped from No. 5 to No. 1, over a higher-ranked team,” Dunnavant said. “The situation was similar to 1966, but in this case, you were talking about a pair of one-loss teams essentially competing in a beauty contest with the voters…as opposed to a team in ’66 which achieved perfection. The 1977 outcome was very painful for Bama fans. There was a popular bumper sticker: Ask Ole Miss Who’s No. 1?”
Browning concluded his column in The Tuscaloosa News thusly: “Cries of 1966 will certainly be heard again now; “Alabama plays football. Notre Dame plays politics. In your heart, you know the Crimson Tide is No. 1.”
The salve for Alabama failing to win a national title in ’77 was the back-to-back national titles in 1978 and ’79. In ‘78, Bryant had grown smarter. As the Sugar Bowl was deciding which team to send an invitation, he lobbied to play the top-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. It was a lesson he’d learned a year earlier.
During the game, Alabama pinned Penn State down at the goal line—the famous “Goal Line Stand”— to salvage a 14-7 victory and secure the Tide’s 10th national title in school history. This time, the AP voters would be more gracious, awarding the national championship to the Tide over Southern Cal, a team with an identical 11-1 record but that had defeated the Crimson Tide 24-14 at Legion Field in Birmingham on September 23. The Trojans took home the UPI national title that year.
The Crimson Tide went undefeated in 1979 and defeated Arkansas 24-9 in the Sugar Bowl for its 11th national title. Since then, Alabama has won six more, one with Gene Stallings in 1992 and five under present head coach Nick Saban.
Across the years, Alabama haters, reveling in finding chinks in the armor, point to certain years in which the Crimson Tide probably should not claim national titles, the year 1941 being at the top of the list when the 9-2 Tide captured the national championship by the Houlgate voting system.
Regardless of opinion, Alabama has won 11 AP national titles, the most in the country. Notre Dame comes in second with eight AP titles.
In the final analysis, the missing rings and the disputed national titles for Alabama probably even themselves out, but this doesn’t stop Crimson Tide fans from talking about the ones that got away. H&A
Cover photo courtesy Alabama Department of Archives & History