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Crimson Tide 1977 team still stung over championship snub

Former Sidney Lanier star Johnny Davis in action against Tennessee in 1977. That team was honored Saturday during the Crimson Tide’s win over Ole Miss. (Photo courtesy Paul Bear Bryant Museum)

By Tim Gayle
RRS Correspondent
(October 2, 2017)

Forty years later, the sting of getting beat in the public opinion poll as college football’s national champion hasn’t eased for members of Alabama’s 1977 football team.

They were honored in a pre-game ceremony at Bryant-Denny Stadium before Alabama’s 66-3 blowout win over Ole Miss on Saturday, recognition for the Southeastern Conference championship a talented group of players brought to the program.

There’s one banner that wasn’t raised for this group, however. Time doesn’t heal all wounds.

“We came into the season with the mindset of winning a national championship,” said Montgomery’s Johnny Davis, who represented the ‘77 players at the Bryant Museum on Saturday afternoon before taking the field as one of the honorary game captains.

“That’s the only mindset ‘Bear’ had entrenched in us, to win a national championship.”

And Alabama players thought they had done everything they needed to in order to win a national championship, saving their best game for last with a memorable 35-6 whipping of Woody Hayes’ Ohio State team in the Sugar Bowl.

“We had a great game, but people jumped over us (in the polls),” said nose guard Terry Jones, a strength and conditioning coach at his alma mater. “We feel like we got robbed. We played a good team and whipped them. The media picked somebody else. It isn’t like it is today.”

Actually, the media and coaches that voted in the Associated Press and United Press International polls raised plenty of eyebrows with their questionable voting in 1977. It all started with the first regular-season poll on Sept. 12. Oklahoma was No. 1 in the preseason poll, followed by Michigan, Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State and Alabama. But after the Sooners struggled to defeat Vanderbilt 25-23, they dropped to fifth in the next poll. Ohio State, which defeated a lowly Miami team 10-0, fell from fifth to sixth. Alabama took advantage of the lackluster play, blasting Ole Miss 34-13 in Birmingham and rising to fourth.

The celebration was short-lived. Jeff Rutledge threw five interceptions – the only five thrown by Alabama quarterbacks that season – in a 31-24 loss at Nebraska and dropped to 10th in the Sept. 19 poll.

The Crimson Tide would remain 10th for another week, then rose to seventh after Penn State and Texas A&M lost. Alabama went to Los Angeles and defeated top-ranked USC 21-20 and jumped back into the national championship picture at No. 4 in the Oct. 10 poll behind Michigan, Texas and Colorado.

Alabama rose to third after a 17-17 tie between Colorado and Kansas, then to second when Minnesota shut out Michigan 16-0. Notre Dame routed USC 49-19 that week as well and the Fighting Irish jumped back into the championship conversation at fifth after losing to Ole Miss 20-13 the same week Alabama was losing to Nebraska.

The top five would remain virtually unchanged through the remainder of the regular season – No. 1 Texas, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Notre Dame – until Michigan and Ohio State staged their climatic battle in Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines won the Big 10 by edging Ohio State 14-6, which would ultimately send the Buckeyes to the Sugar Bowl to face Alabama and elevate Michigan to No. 4.

Alabama, meanwhile, dropped to third in the final poll after thrashing Auburn 48-21. Apparently, beating the Tigers wasn’t nearly as impressive as Oklahoma’s win over 11th-ranked Nebraska 38-7, so the two teams swapped positions in the poll.

By the end of the year, Notre Dame had lost to Ole Miss, which had lost to Alabama, which had lost to Nebraska, which had lost to Oklahoma, which had lost to Texas, which was the only undefeated team.

Fifth-ranked Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl behind the passing of quarterback Joe Montana and some fortuitous injuries to Texas stars Earl Campbell and Johnny “Lam” Jones.

Second-ranked Oklahoma, favored by 18 points, was routed by No. 6 Arkansas 31-6, which had suspended several players prior to the game.

That should clear the way for Alabama, the players thought.

“We were frisked, robbed and mugged,” guard Lou Green said. “Everything that had to happen happened. We were No. 3 in the country and Texas got beat by Notre Dame and Arkansas knocked off Oklahoma. The Notre Dame coach (Dan Devine) said, ‘Well, we knocked off the No. 1 team in the nation so we should be No. 1.’ Well, we knocked off the No. 1 team (USC) in the middle of the season.

“We went out that night and thought we were No. 1 after the game. Then we got the bad news the next day.”

No. 4 Michigan was stunned 27-20 by Washington quarterback Warren Moon, leaving only two teams with any real claim on the top spot. But little did Alabama players know, that although the media and coaches could choose from among a half-dozen, once-defeated teams the overwhelming majority of them would side with Notre Dame.

When the ballots were counted, it wasn’t even close. Notre Dame had 37.3 votes, Alabama 19.3 and Arkansas 5.3, followed by Texas and Penn State in the Associated Press. The coaches gave the Fighting Irish 23 first-place votes, followed by the Crimson Tide (16), Arkansas (2) and Texas (1).

“We were No. 3 and Notre Dame jumped us,” said All-American Ozzie Newsome, now the general manager for the Baltimore Ravens. “Of course, I ended up not fulfilling that dream of being a part of a national championship team.”

When asked whether he thought he had been robbed of that honor in 1977, Newsome responded, “I still think that. But it was the catalyst for back-to-back national championships in 1978 and 1979.”

Paul “Bear” Bryant, delayed in his quest for a fifth national championship for another year, offered no public complaints.
“Naturally, I’m disappointed for our players and our staff because they did an outstanding job this year,” Bryant said. “We came so far this year against one of the toughest schedules in the country. Notre Dame has our congratulations.”

Davis, like his coach, never got over the feeling of getting short-changed by the pollsters, but took a philosophical approach to the final rankings.

“We really thought we had a good chance of being No. 1,” Davis said, “because we had put a whipping on Ohio State. That wasn’t a 14-7 game. I thought we should have been No. 1 myself, but that was a great year. We don’t like talking about being No. 2 but it was a great year. We gave it our all. We didn’t leave anything on the field. If we finished No. 2, so be it.”


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