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Countdown to kickoff: Back in ‘64, Joe Willie led the Tide to a national title

A legend was born.

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Alabama QB Joe Namath... SetNumber: X10399

The 1964 Alabama football team was the seventh under Paul “Bear” Bryant. The Tide came into the season ranked in the top ten with several returning starters from the 9-2 1963 squad. Among them was starting QB Joe Willie Namath, supremely talented but coming off an infamous suspension by Coach Bryant at the end of the 1963 campaign for staying out too late drinking.

The 1964 season was highly successful. The Tide rolled to a 10-0 record behind a defense that allowed only 6.7 points per game. The Namath-led offense got off to a roaring start as well, scoring 101 points in the first three games of the season. Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered against NC State in week 4 sent Joe to the bench for several games.

Backup Steve Sloan filled in admirably. leading the Tide to four consecutive wins before running into trouble against an elite Georgia Tech defense, when a gimpy Namath came off the bench in the second quarter of a scoreless game and provided a spark, leading a 24-7 victory. Namath would gut out another one the following week to key a 21-14 victory over Auburn, who had ended Alabama’s national title hopes in the previous season. This was the first Alabama-Auburn game to be shown on national TV, which further boosted Namath’s ascending star.

Alabama an invitation to face Texas in the Orange Bowl, to this day one of the most s discussed bowl games in Alabama history. With seven minutes to go in the game, a goal line stand by the Longhorns preserved a lead that became a 21-17 victory. Namath called his own number on fourth down and came oh-so-close to scoring as he met legendary LB Tommy Nobis at the goal line. In fact, some Alabama players say that they saw one official signal a touchdown and were universally convinced that Joe had scored.

As you might imagine, Texas players disagreed.

A few years later, one of the Texas tackles on that play, Diron Talbert, was playing for Washington in the N.F.L. and delighted in telling how Namath had shouted “touchdown.” But, Talbert insisted, he had made the famous Texas Hook ’em Horns signal with index finger and pinkie, moving the two fingers as close together as he could and telling Namath, “Sorry, Joe, you missed it by that much.” It made for a good story for Talbert.

The Alabama players were sure they had been cheated, but Bryant immediately told them on the sideline that the referees made the call, and that was that. Besides, there were seven minutes left in the game.

Namath’s view?

“I’ll go to my grave knowing I scored.”

In case you haven’t seen it before, you decide.

No matter, since final votes were tallied ahead of bowl games at the time, Alabama was named national champion by both the AP and UPI polls. That rule would be changed just a few years later, as many felt that an Arkansas squad that went 11-0 under Frank Broyles, including a victory over Texas, was more deserving. Namath would subsequently be drafted #1 overall by the New York Jets of the AFL and become the icon known as “Broadway Joe,” leading the Jets to their only Super Bowl title to date.

Only 64 days to kickoff.

Roll Tide.