On Jan. 10, 1958 Paul W. Bryant walked into his first team meeting as head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. He was preceded by his reputation and accompanied by that powerful charisma that forced people to pay attention when he entered a room and concentrate for all their worth when he began to speak. And Bryant has something very specific to tell his new team that winter morning.
"You are going to win the national championship for Alabama," he said.
Bryant's absolute conviction made it impossible for those in attendance to doubt he was dead serious but beyond those doors uncertainty carried a little bit more weight. In 1958 Alabama football had reached it's lowest possible point. Over the previous decade the Crimson Tide suffered no less than five losing seasons and, at one point, endured an agonizing 17-game losing streak.
At 44 years of age, Bryant had already earned a reputation as a miracle worker in rebuilding downtrodden programs such as Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M into powers. But he had never succeed in leading a team to the national championship. Yet four years after that fateful meeting - and half a century ago this year – eleven of the 89 freshmen in that room celebrated the first of six titles the man known as "the Bear" would bring to Tuscaloosa.
"In 1961 we had the best team in college football. Not the biggest, but the best," Bryant recalled in his autobiography. "We certainly weren't very big, and we got a lot of attention for that over the next few years. We did not deliberately go out looking for smaller players in those days, but we demanded quickness and it usually came in smaller packages. Bigness is in the heart, anyways."
That bigness didn’t come all at once. The three years leading up to the championship season were marked by continued progress but frustrating setbacks that made the prospect of the championship seem almost unattainable.
The first season under Bryant saw the Crimson Tide’s first winning season in five years and the next put them in a bowl game for the first time in six. The 1960 season Alabama earned an 8-1-2 record that was the best mark since the ten-win 1952 season but a frustrating 3-3 tie with Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl left the squad feeling there was unfinished business to attend to.
Alabama started the season ranked No. 3 in the AP poll behind Iowa and Ohio State. Bryant, according to sportswriter Clyde Bolton wasn't concerned about the high ranking but his reaction to the ranking had a ring modern Alabama fans would find familiar.
"I can't see how a fellow can sit in New York and Birmingham and tell how good a football team a thousand miles away that he hasn't seen will be," Bryant said. "I don't do the picking, just the coaching. I hope they know what they are talking about."
Maybe they did and maybe they didn't but the high poll ranking came in handy as the season progressed since, like any national championship, gaining the title depended a great deal on the fortunes of other teams vying for the prize over the course of the season. And the 1961 season was a rollercoaster for the frontrunners.
At the start of September Iowa was sitting pretty at No. 1 and the sportswriter's assessment seemed merited as the Hawkeyes ripped off four straight wins out of the gate. Then Iowa's championship hopes went awry when they hit the heart of their conference schedule and they dropped four straight. During the course of the '61 season both Ole Miss and Michigan State briefly held the top slot but each plummeted in the rankings after losses to LSU and Notre Dame, respectively.
The Crimson Tide's unexpected allies in the campaign for the national championship turned out to be a rather lightly-regarded TCU. The high hopes of Woody Hayes' Buckeyes going into the season as the No. 2 team in the land were stopped cold by a tie with the Horned Frogs in the season opener. Ohio State's rank remained respectable as the Buckeyes kept the "L" column empty but as long as Alabama kept winning the team from Columbus couldn't pass them in the polls.
Later in the year, Texas assumed the No. 1 ranking but, once again, Alabama got an assist from the team from Fort Worth as the Longhorns fell to TCU 6-0 in Austin. The loss ended Texas hopes for the title and prompted Texas' frustrated coach Darrell Royal to describe the Horned Frogs as "a bunch of cockroaches."
"It's not what they eat and tote off, it's what they fall into and mess up that hurts," he said.
Alabama certainly wasn't complaining about the pest problems in the Southwest Conference given their own concerns in the Southeast. Yet the Crimson Tide kept themselves busy rolling unimpeded through their own slate of games.
The Alabama offense, led by quarterback Pat Trammell, didn't set any sportswriters chasing metaphors to describe its brilliance. The highlight of the attack was the infamous "whoopee pass" where the halfback would move through the line and Trammel would sort of under-hand the ball to him. The quick kick, Sports Illustrated noted, was an offensive maneuver at Alabama.
Still, the Crimson Tide offense managed to average almost four touchdowns a game and the young man from Scottsboro picked up SEC Player of the Year honors despite his less-than-flashy style.
"He can't run, he can't pass, and he can't kick," Bryant said of his field general. "All he could do was beat you."
And beat them he did. The Crimson Tide never lost a game that Trammell started under center. But it was the defense that pushed the 61 squad into the ranks of the greatest to ever don the Crimson and White. Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan and tackle Billy Neighbors both earned All-American honors anchoring a defense that only allowed 25 points all season.
The Tide tended to line up in an eight-man front with three men back. Linebackers Jordan and Texas A&M transfer Darwin Holt often pulled back at the last moment before the snap. The result was a defense almost impossible to run against - opposing offenses averaged less than 45 yards a game - and damned difficult to pass on as well.
"We weren't a just a good defensive team," Bryant later remarked. "We were a great defensive team."
The Crimson Tide started the season by plowing through a trio of road games with Georgia, Tulane and Vanderbilt giving up just four field goals along the way. When North Carolina State scored a touchdown in the first half of the Oct. 14 contest at Denny Stadium it marked the first time the Tide fell behind that season. The Wolfpack wasn't able to enjoy it long as Alabama roared back in the second half and beat the NC State 26-7.
When Tennessee jumped out to a three-point lead the next week, it marked the last time a team would hold the lead against the Crimson Tide squad that year. The Volunteers didn’t get to enjoy the honor particularly long either as Alabama went on to crush them 34-3. In the locker room after the game Alabama trainer Jim Goostree, a graduate of Tennessee, handed out cigars to the Crimson Tide players creating one of the most famous traditions of the Third Saturday in October.
Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most infamous game during the 1961 season was the Georgia Tech contest on Nov. 18 at Legion Field. Alabama used a straight power game and dominating defense to best the Yellow Jackets in Birmingham. The Crimson Tide defense held Georgia Tech to 30 yards rushing, 66 yards passing and just six first downs.
Holt’s hit on Chick Granning during a kick return resulted in the Georgia Tech player suffering a concussion and broken jaw. The incident went unflagged and almost unnoticed during the game and wasn't mentioned for several days after (Sports Illustrated didn't even mention it in their weekly college football roundup). That calm was broken the next week when Atlanta papers plastered pictures of the injured Granning in his hospital bed on their front pages accusing Holt of intentionally causing the injury.
The result was a media feud between the Atlanta and Birmingham papers with the Georgia outlets alleging brutality on the part of Bryant’s players and Alabama journalists defending the coach’s methods. Throughout the ordeal Bryant steadfastly defended his team. Eventually he was forced to take legal action against the most egregious of his attackers in the media. The incident also led to a rift between Bryant and Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd that culminated with the Yellow Jackets withdrawing from the SEC.
Barely had tempers cooled than Los Angeles newspapers began kicking up a fuss over the Alabama football team. This time over the possibility of the Crimson Tide playing in the "The Grandaddy of them All." Organizers of the Rose Bowl game were considering inviting the team from the Yellowhammer State back to play in the New Year’s Day classic for the first time since 1946 in order to face the powerful Ohio State squad who remained undefeated (but bearing one tie on their record).
In anticipation of the invitation, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray traveled to Birmingham to see Alabama in action against Georgia Tech and penned a series of articles that were less concerned about allegations of brutality on field brutality than the inability of black players to gain access the Crimson Tide sideline.
The segregation of the Alabama team reflected the racial turmoil in the state, Murray alleged. That turmoil had captured the nation's attention earlier that year when a bus carrying integrated passengers was firebombed near Anniston and the riders aboard attacked by a mob.
"I came down to Birmingham not to find social injustice but to cover a football game," Murray wrote. "But the cross currents of our time are such the two are interrelated."
Murray’s columns nixed Alabama’s hopes of playing in Pasadena and earned him a lasting enmity on the part of the Crimson Tide faithful.
The Rose Bowl also lost out on No. 2 Ohio State when the Buckeyes turned down the invitation declaring that the school's emphasis on sports over academics was excessive. The students in Columbus saw it otherwise and rioted for two days.
Despite the controversies, the Alabama players stayed focused on their undefeated run through the regular season. One major hurdle remained, the annual meeting with arch-rival Auburn. The Plainsmen had only suffered a single loss that season, a 10-3 defeat at the hands of Tennessee in the season opener.
To handle the Tigers, Alabama altered the defensive alignment to a 4-4 set. It seemed to work as Auburn was never able to penetrate beyond the Crimson Tide 35-yard-line. The Tide crushed Auburn 34-0, earned the Southeast Conference Championship and earned a grudging compliment from Tiger coach Shug Jordan after the game.
"I don't know whether that's a great team but they were great today," he said. "I don't guess anybody has ever hit us quite as hard."
Two days later, on Dec. 4, Alabama was voted No. 1 in the final AP poll of the season receiving 26 of 48 first place votes cast. The Alabama Crimson Tide had won its first national championship under Paul W. Bryant.
With the possibility of playing in the Rose Bowl nipped in the bud, Alabama accepted the invitation to play No. 8 Arkansas in the 1962 Sugar Bowl. Despite an 8-2 record the Razorbacks were no pushovers having been named co-champions of the Southwest Conference along with Texas.
Alabama started off hot needing just six plays to score. The drive was highlighted by a 43-yard run by fullback Mike Fracchia and capped off by a 12-yard end around run by Trammel. It turned out those would be the easiest points scored all day as the game turned into a defensive slog from there on out.
Both team’s offenses were presented big breaks over the course of the rest of the game but the defenses kept rising to the challenge. Each side succeeded in eking out a field goal but neither could cross the opponent’s goal line. The Razorbacks final attempt to score ended with an incomplete pass as the clock finally ran out on the New Orleans contest to bring Alabama's undefeated national championship season to a close.