1979 was a hell of a calendar year for the Crimson Tide.
It gave fans the final great Bryant defensive juggernaut. It was an Alabama defense that had five shutouts, only trailed twice and only let two teams reach double digits (both of those were to ranked rivals: 25-18 over No. 14 Auburn, and 27-17 over No. 14 Tennessee.) It was also a high-scoring team for the era, ringing up 30+ in seven of its 12 victories.
It was, at its heart, a team that could win in many ways. In addition to winning tight ones against the Tigers and Vols, the Crimson Tide also eked out a 3-0 defensive slobber-knocker in Death Valley. It opened the season by destroying Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and ‘Bama crushed Florida in a 40-0 shutout rout in the Swamp.
For an encore into the next decade? The very first day of the 1980s, the Crimson Tide easily dispatched the No. 6 team in the nation, Southwest Conference power Arkansas, in Bear’s second home at the Sugar Bowl.
Despite all those achievements, 1979 began even more amazingly, with this little play. You may have heard of it.
The 1979 season was Alabama’s seventh perfect season, and only the third undefeated, untied team of Bryant’s legendary career. Paul Bryant also won his sixth national title, all at the Capstone. It was the last truly great team he would coach. And, for Alabama, the season was the bookend to a spectacular, sometimes-tumultuous, two-decade run.
It was a 20-year span where Alabama changed offenses three times, including the seismic decision to adopt the wishbone. It also saw a sea-swell of the “the real world” intruding into the South’s comfortable football bubble.
Alabama had seen Gov. George Wallace stand in the doorway of Foster Auditorium. It would lose a national championship because of the state’s racial politics. The Tide would invite its first black walk-on players, play its first integrated team in Bryant-Denny, and then sign its first black players to scholarships.
A president had been murdered. His brother, the Attorney General of the United States and presumptive Democratic nominee, followed him to the grave. Several civil rights icons died in the region’s internecine guerilla wars against basic decency, including one of the South’s patron saints, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The U.S. had entered a catastrophic war adopted from the leftover scraps of colonialism abandoned after the World Wars. That war would tear the nation apart in a decade of social upheaval, pipe bombs, open warfare and bloodshed on the streets. The Republican party endured a Goldwater civil war over civil rights, even as the Democrats came to champion that cause. The parties realigned. The electoral map would begin its fait accompli towards our current balkanization as white voters began their exodus and migration accordingly.
The Soviet Union would put a dog, a monkey, a man, a woman in orbit, only to have the United States one-up them by placing a man on the moon. When the Crimson Tide was preparing for its final Bryant Sugar Bowl, the United States had begun work on its low orbit reentry vehicle, the iconic Space Shuttle that would take flight just 16 months later.
The Beatles. Watergate. The rise and fall of J. Edgar Hoover. The rise and fall of disco. The short, but influential era of punk. The first appearance of what would be the nation’s dual epidemics in the next decade: crack and Gay-Related Infectious Disease -- GRID, which we now know as AIDS. The loss of a modern secular Islamic republic to a fundamentalist movement openly hostile to the West. Embassy takeover and hostages would follow.
The era of terrorism that has shaped the modern world would begin. We would see the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Games. The continued hunt and extirpation of Nazis — the ones that the US and Soviets didn’t hire or pardon or install in provincial governments, at any rate.
The past is prologue. As Faulkner said, the past is not even the past.
In between it all, there was one constant: Alabama football. As it did in the tumult of the interwar years, the Heart of Dixie would retreat to its gridiron glories. And, ironically, even as the next two decades would see an era of optimism and economic growth for the nation, the football team Alabamians hold so dear would lose a legend and become mired in sporadic success.
On the cusp of Reagan’s declaration of a morning in America, little did most expect that 1979 would be the coda to an era, a point from which we could only look back, a fixed point in a life that goes on. Premonitions of that change were in the air, when Alabama hosted its first televised game from Bryant Denny Stadium.
But, for the moment, it was a time to celebrate.
In 1979, the school won its 11th national championship.
11 days ‘til Alabama football.