Dynasties rarely end with a crash - a spectacular fall that grabs everyone's attention. Rather, they die by erosion. The things that make dynasties great begin to erode and then inexorably the foundation dissolves.
I was a senior at The University of Alabama in 1980, the last time we heard the dynasty label used around the Tide as frequently as we hear it now. I was unaware of it then, but my time at the Capstone turned out to be the apex of Paul Bryant's coaching tenure.
Students somehow think that world history began approximately when they first set foot on campus and nothing before that time seems relevant. That time for me occurred in the fall of 1976. The Alabama Crimson Tide was a middle of the pack team in '76 by our standards, winning only nine games with conference losses to the Georgia Bulldogs and the Ole Miss Rebels. While Georgia was getting crushed by Pitt 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl we sat home with a Liberty Bowl trophy, not contending for a National Championship or even winning the SEC.
The late '70s were odd times to be a Tide fan. You would think the campus would have been electric on game day, but in most cases the campus was eerily quiet when Bama played. Bryant Denny Stadium only seated 62,000 at the time so all the big games were played 50 miles up the road in Legion Field, located on the west side of Birmingham.
There was practically no public parking at the stadium and 'respectable' folk didn't ride the bus, so everyone parked in the yards of houses surrounding Legion field. The predominately black neighborhoods teemed with thousands of loud, slightly inebriated and almost exclusively white Alabama fans for each home game. The families who lived in the area would turn their front and back lawns into parking lots, charging $5 to $10, based on proximity to the stadium.
Throngs of students, alumni and fans would inundate an area that on Sunday through Friday they fastidiously tried to avoid. The mixing of the locals and the fans was a marriage of convenience. Legion Field had practically no parking and the residents of the surrounding area could certainly use the money, so the practice of parking in front yards endured as long as Bama played in Birmingham.
There was always an uneasiness on game day in the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium. Less than three miles away and less than two decades before Sheriff Bull Connor had turned firehoses on some of the same folks standing on these porches and collecting five dollar bills from the fans. Memories like that die hard, but they were temporarily put aside when the Tide came to town.
The students on campus knew the three-year run of '77 thorough '79 was special. During those three years the Tide lost exactly two games. The sole loss in 1977 was at the Nebraska's Memorial Field. The Nebraska Cornhuskers ran past the Tide in a great test of wills between Bryant and Tom Osborne. After the loss in Lincoln the Tide ran the table, going undefeated in the SEC, and crushing the Ohio State Buckeyes 35-10 in the Sugar Bowl.
The 1978 team lost to USC (back then everyone still called them Southern Cal) and then ran the table, ending the year with a 14-7 victory over Joe Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions.
The 1979 Sugar Bowl was most memorable for a single play: the Goal Line Stand. Penn State, trailing 14-7 had driven to the one yard line but had been unable to push the ball across the line in three attempts. Mike Guman, the Penn State running back took the handoff and dove over the line in the final attempt to even the score. Barry Krauss, middle linebacker for the Tide struck Guman with such force that the facemask on the Penn State running back's helmet was jarred loose by the impact. The Goal Line Stand held, Alabama weathered the onslaught and held on for the victory. That single play and that stop by Barry Krauss is still revered as the single greatest defensive play in the history of Alabama football.
Based on the strong showing in the game, Alabama was awarded the AP national championship, even though they shared the same record with USC, who had defeated the Tide earlier in the season. Many outside the Alabama fan base feel that if the voters had the luxury of time to view this game in a more historical perspective their votes would have awarded USC the title. But the ballots were collected the evening the Sugar Bowl was played and the magnitude of the game swayed many votes in the Tide's favor.
There was no controversy in 1979. Bama rolled through the schedule with awesome power on offense and a crushing defense which allowed more than 7 points to only Tennessee and Auburn. By the end of the season the Tide had amassed a record of 20 straight wins.
The January 1980 Sugar Bowl was viewed as an opportunity to remove any doubt of who had a legitimate claim to the national championship. Alabama faced Lou Holtz' Arkansas Razorbacks. At the press conference prior to the Sugar Bowl, Holtz was asked why he was carrying a football. Holtz responded that he needed to have his own ball, because once the game began Bryant would not let Arkansas play with the game ball. Alabama went on to win the game with much less drama than the prior year's contest with Penn State.
Alabama had its second national championship in two years, but the celebration was not as spontaneous and ecstatic as before. We expected to win. The students and fans took to heart what Bryant told his players: "When you score a touchdown, act like you've been there before." There was a subtle sense of entitlement taking root in the players and fans approach to the program.
The 1980 season opened with the Tide receiving similar preseason accolades to the 2013 version of the team. Everyone praised Bryant as the greatest mind in the game. Fans of other schools doubted that the type of talent stockpiled on the Alabama sideline would be there without some extra benefits. There was lots of talk about repeating as national champs, but there was little candid analysis of how talented graduates would be replaced with inexperienced players.
On September 20, 1980 the Tide played Ole Miss in Memorial Stadium in Jackson, MS. The Rebels scored 35 points on Alabama, the most points allowed since Nebraska rolled over the tide 38-6 in the 1972 Orange Bowl. Bama won the game against Ole Miss, but the fans were angry. It was as if Bryant and the players had committed an offense against them personally.
There were letters to the editor in the Birmingham News and Mobile Press Register complaining about the lack of aggressiveness of the defense. Bryant apologized for the defensive showing on the Sunday evening Bear Bryant show, a show which only a true fan could love. Bryant told John Forney, the Alabama Radio play-by-play announcer and co-host of the Bear Bryant show, that he was personally responsible for the players lack of preparation. He guaranteed that they would be more ready to play next week against Vanderbilt.
The grumbling subsided when Alabama reeled off four consecutive shut-out victories, including conference wins against Vandy, Kentucky and Tennessee. Fans believed the team was now invincible and the third consecutive national championship was a foregone conclusion.
Game day had changed. Everyone still showed up but the focus was not on the game. Games became simply a component of the weekend plans, shoehorned in between the fraternity band parties on Friday and Saturday nights. The stands at Legion field became a more subdued place, with many of the alums vocally complaining if a fan on a lower row had the audacity to stand and yell, thereby blocking their view. The high point of many games were the inevitable intra-fraternity fights that erupted between navy sports coat clad greeks on the frontier between their blocks of reserved seats.
Shorty Price was always there. The Montgomery lawyer and erstwhile roommate of George Wallace would stagger in to the student section hugging coeds and accepting free alcohol. Sometimes entire offensive or defensive possessions were missed watching Shorty's antics.
No one thought the streak would end. Everyone thought we had a divine right to roll over a procession of our vanquished foes.
Mississippi State did not share that sentiment.
When Alabama returned for the second time in 1980 to Memorial Stadium in Jackson to face the Bulldogs they had won 28 consecutive games. It had been over 22 years since MSU had beaten Alabama, longer than any of the current players could remember.
Alabama entered the November 1 game with little fanfare. Honestly, there was more conversation about the election the following Tuesday, and whether Ronald Reagan would be able to defeat Jimmy Carter and return the White House to a Republican. The hostage crisis in Iran had been going on for 363 days and football, even Alabama football, wasn't the top priority that day.
The team looked flat that Saturday. John Forney tried to paint the team in a good light, but it was easy to tell that MSU was hitting harder and trying harder than the Tide. Still, everyone assumed that Bama would win, after all it was State and we always won.
The game came down to a final drive. With two minutes to go Alabama had the ball near midfield. Lined up in the wishbone formation, the Tide attempted to sweep left but the unexpected happened - MSU's defense beat our line and dropped the ball carriers for two consecutive losses. The fan's doubts began to rise - we could actually lose this game!
After Quarterback Don Jacobs was flagged for delay of game the angst of the fans and the team was visible. No longer wearing a mantle of invincibility, the Tide offensive was losing individual battles all along the line.
Jacobs completed two quick passes to Major Ogilvie out of the backfield and wide receiver Jesse Bendross to the MSU five yard line. The fans sat back and relaxed. Now Bama would do what they always did: drive the defense back and exert their will on the line.
Except this time was different.
Jacobs moved under center with less than one minute remaining, the ball near the MSU five yard line. Jacobs was visibly rattled, complaining to the referees about the noise of thousands of cowbells ringing in the end zone immediately behind the Bulldogs defense.
The last offensive play of Alabama's unbeaten streak began when Jacobs received the ball from center and rolled right. The difference this time was that Tyrone Keys, the MSU defensive tackle, won the battle. The tackle shot through and dislodged the ball from Jacobs. State fell on the ball and the Alabama offense walked off the field, dejected.
The team was not vanquished in a clash of titans. They simply lost the individual battles. This would be the last time Alabama was ranked No. 1 in a regular season AP poll until Saban's first National Championship run at the Capstone in 2009.
Alabama lost again two weeks later, in a shutout to Notre Dame. Two games in three weeks with less than 7 points scored. The team had lost its center and spun down to earth. Fans were demoralized and had no idea how to cope with a better-than-average team who had been denied the end zone twice in one month.
The current streak in Tuscaloosa is fun, but it will end. They always do. When the end comes the fans will once again argue about what caused the fall, but the answers given will vary.
The real answer will lie within the players. Desire will be replaced by expectation. Hunger will be replaced with entitlement. Time with the media will replace time with game film. The underlying cause will be how the players conceptualize victory and defeat. When the crop of players on a team has no personal experience with how bad the losing team feels each week when the final whistle blows, then they lose the sense of urgency necessary to sustain a championship run for an entire season.
It's easier to lose when the concept is so foreign that you can't see it coming. It may happen this year at Alabama, or maybe next, but it will happen. We fans will be shocked wondering what the team did wrong. It's hard to comprehend that in the end they were still doing the right things, they just forgot how it feels to lose.
ed.- Bumped. Great story.