There are two popular memes about Alabama football that have pervaded over time. One is that Alabama fans are, by and large, "sidewalk fans," meaning that the majority of them have never gone to school at the University of Alabama. The other is that Alabama claims a number of illegitimate national championships.
I have never understood the criticism of fans who didn't attend The University of Alabama. My parents both went to Alabama, as did a number of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I was an Alabama football fan from an early age, and even if I had gone to college somewhere else, I feel pretty certain that I would have always had a place in my heart for the Capstone. Besides, have all Notre Dame fans matriculated at South Bend? Does everyone who cheers for Boise State hail from Idaho? I suppose that the criticism is really one that is directed at any fan of a successful team - the so-called front-runners who come out of the woodwork when things are going well. But does 'Bama hold a monopoly on bandwagon fans? I doubt it.
Now the national championships. Alabama claims 15. Every other fan base in the country knows that's way too many, right? So what are the disputes and why does Alabama claim the ones that they do? If fifteen isn't the right number, what is?
As we all know, the NCAA does not name a championship team in FBS (formerly Division I-A) football. The "mythical national championship" or MNC for more than a century was more or less a beauty contest, based on teams that most likely never played each other. The BCS, for all its flaws, has largely eliminated the era of numerous national champions. By pairing the (more-or-less) consensus top two teams in the country in a championship game, other teams rarely jump ahead to claim a share of the title. But, in the days before every team with a record above .500 made it to a bowl game, this was not the case. Rather than crowning a champion, bowls were regarded by many as postseason exhibition games. Notre Dame famously refused to accept a bowl invitation for 45 years, from 1924 to 1969. The Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) both initially chose national champs before bowl games were even played (Alabama actually contributed to both services changing their systems).
According to the College Football Data Warehouse (CFDW) web site (www.cfbdatawarehouse.com), Alabama's football team has been named national champion 28 different seasons by one or more services. CFDW lists fourteen of those titles as "Recognized." The NCAA web site lists 13 Alabama championships, relying on nine or ten major sources. The AP, which started naming a champion in 1936, has awarded the Tide nine titles. The UPI/Coaches Poll, which dates back to 1950, has selected Alabama eight times. So, which number is correct? Let's start by examining the titles that Alabama claims, and why they did so.
This article, which initially appeared in the Birmingham News prior to the 2010 BCS National Championship Game between Alabama and Texas, says that the mid-1980s was when Alabama laid claim to, at the time, 11 national championships. Wayne Atcheson, who served as SID at Alabama from 1983-1987, added five titles to what was then accepted as six titles, at least according to the 1982 Alabama media guide, the last one published under Coach Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. Bryant's teams won each of those six titles, awarded by the AP and UPI, between 1958 and his retirement in 1982. Our journey begins with these six.
- 1961 - Finished 11-0-0. Awarded by AP and UPI and National Football Foundation (NFF). This one is as ironclad as they come. The Tide won every game, including the 1962 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, although Ohio State (8-0-1; did not accept a bowl bid) was crowned by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). The Tide only allowed 25 total points by its opponents all season.
- 1964 - Finished 10-1-0. Awarded by AP and UPI. Alabama lost 21-17 against Texas in the Orange Bowl, although 'Bama fans swear that Joe Namath crossed the goal line to score the go-ahead touchdown. This game caused the AP to change its policy to award championships after the bowl games were played. Arkansas (11-0-0, FWAA, defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl) and Notre Dame (9-1-0, awarded by NFF but not claimed by Notre Dame, who lost to USC in final regular season game) are recognized by the NCAA as co-champions.
- 1965 - Finished 9-1-1. Awarded by AP, FWAA and National Championship Foundation (NCF). The Tide lost their season opener to Georgia and tied Tennessee 7-7 at midseason, then destroyed Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Michigan State (10-1-0) was awarded the title by the UPI, NFF and FWAA (tied with Alabama). The Spartans lost the Rose Bowl to UCLA.
- 1973 - Finished 11-1. Awarded by UPI. The Tide lost the Sugar Bowl 24-23 to Notre Dame, in what many hail as the greatest bowl game ever played. After this game, UPI changed their championship methodology to select after the bowl games were played. Notre Dame (11-0-0) was crowned by all the other major selectors.
- 1978 - Finished 11-1. Awarded by AP, FWAA, NFF, NCF. USC defeated 'Bama 24-14 in the third game of the season, and then lost to Arizona two weeks later. Alabama won the legendary 1979 Sugar Bowl over then-number one Penn State. The Trojans finished 12-1 and defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl. USC was selected as champ by UPI and NCF (Tied with Alabama).
- 1979 - Finished 12-0. Consensus champion. Alabama defeated Lou Holtz's Arkansas team in the Sugar Bowl, but the closest contest was a 25-18 victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which the Tide came from behind in the fourth quarter to win.
Okay, those seem fairly straightforward to me. While some misguided individuals may argue that the 1965 and 1973 championships are something less than legitimate due to the bowl losses, the wire service titles are recognized by everyone. Before we get to the five added titles, we might as well get four more out of the way that no one seriously disputes.
- 1992 - Finished 13-0-0. Consensus champion. 'Bama defeated top-ranked Miami in dominating fashion in the Sugar Bowl, breaking a 29-game winning streak by the defending national champs. The Tide also won the first-ever SEC Championship Game over Florida to make it to the title game.
- 2009 - Finished 14-0-0. BCS Champion. Alabama defeated Texas 37-21 after knocking the Longhorns' starting quarterback, Colt McCoy, out of the game early. The Crimson Tide defeated six ranked teams, including defending national champ and number one Florida, during the season.
- 2011 - Finished 12-1-0. BCS Champion. After losing at home in overtime to the number one team in the country, Alabama got a rematch with the LSU Tigers in the title game and blanked them 21-0.
- 2012 - Finished 13-1-0. BCS Champion. Alabama lost to Texas A&M, led by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel the week after a heartstopping victory over LSU in Baton Rouge. The Tide later edged Georgia 32-28 in one of the best SEC Championship Games ever, then rolled Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS Championship Game.
So, now we're at ten national championships, and all of them are fairly undisputed "poll-era" titles. So let's dive into the last five that Alabama claims. The first question is, why were those titles added in the first place?
According to the previously-mentioned Birmingham News article, Taylor Watson - the curator of the Bryant Museum - said that the 1986 media guide was the first to mention the five additional titles. What you may not remember about 1986 is that Alabama began a two-season home-and-home series with Notre Dame that year. The Fighting Irish claim 11 national championships, but that number was ten at the time (the Irish later won the 1988 title). It's clear in hindsight that Wayne Atcheson went back over the Tide's history to find enough titles to edge out Notre Dame's ten. Hence, Alabama's number went to eleven national championships. So, what about those other five?
- 1925 - Finished 10-0-0. Most disputes about Alabama's national titles start with the fact that the title selectors who are recognized today didn't exist in 1925, so while NCF, Helms, Houlgate and the College Football Researchers Association (CFRA), among others, all awarded the Tide the 1925 title, they did so retroactively. However, that doesn't mean that the Tide wasn't the best team in the country. In these early days when the Rose Bowl was the only bowl game in America, Alabama was the first team from the South to be invited to the game. The Rose Bowl attempted to match the top team in the East and with the top team in the West, and Alabama played the champion of the Pacific Coast Conference (the predecessor to today's Pac-12), Washington. The Tide won 20-19, and was greeted with congratulatory crowds in every Southern train station on the return trip. Furthermore, this newspaper article from the next day makes it clear that the game was regarded as the national championship at the time. The 1925 Dartmouth Indians (8-0-0) were also recognized (retroactively, I might add) as national champions by a couple of selectors, although they are not recognized by the NCAA.
- 1926 - Finished 9-0-1. Alabama again finished the regular season undefeated and was invited to the Rose Bowl to play Stanford. The game ended in a 7-7 tie, and as such, Alabama and Stanford shared the 1926 national championship awarded by Helms and NCF, while CFRA awarded the title solely to the Tide.
- 1930 - Finished 10-0-0. The Tide's third Rose Bowl trip ended in a 24-0 thrashing of Washington State, and the CFRA retroactively awarded them the title. Notre Dame, which refused the Rose Bowl invitation and finished 10-0-0, also shared the national title, being awarded by the NCF and Helms (also retroactive).
- 1934 - Finished 10-0-0. Again Alabama traveled to Pasadena to face Stanford and defeated the Cardinal 29-13. A number of selectors retroactively selected the Tide as national champs, although the three that the NCAA chooses to recognize (NCF, Helms, and CFRA) retroactively selected Big Ten champion Minnesota, who finished 8-0-0 (no bowl game).
- 1941 - Finished 9-2-0. This is the title that is the hardest to justify. By this time, the AP had begun selecting national champions, and Alabama finished 20th in the poll. In addition, the Tide didn't even win the SEC, losing to eventual champion Mississippi State (in their only SEC title to date) as well as Vanderbilt. While the Tide was selected as a national champion by the Houlgate system, it's hard to see why.
There you have it. I believe a strong case can be made for every title that Alabama claims, except, perhaps, for the 1941 championship. That one is pretty sketchy, and clearly that is where the CFDW gets the fourteen "recognized" titles. On the other hand, there's nothing to say that a school can't claim a title that someone awards them, no matter how dubious. So, that's how Alabama got to fifteen. But what about those other thirteen titles that the CFDW lists, but that Alabama doesn't claim? Are any of those title claims legitimate? We'll take a look at the thirteen "lost championships" in Part II.
This is an article that I did for my blog, Internet Sports Guy.