Among all the hundreds of University of Alabama football games that have been played over more than a century, there are a relative few that have become touchstones, benchmarks that, with the passage of time, came to represent more than just one win, or an entire season. They become shorthand for an entire era, in the way that great battles come to define lengthy wars and, eventually, entire centuries.
Some games already belong entirely to the ages, surviving only in written accounts – the 1922 victory over Penn in Philadelphia that lifted the Crimson Tide program from a regional to a national profile is one example. Nearly all the Rose Bowl appearances from 1925 until 1945 have passed almost entirely from living memory, as far as the participants are concerned. At the opposite end of the spectrum are games like the 2009 SEC Championship Game victory over Florida or last season’s College Football Playoff championship victory over Clemson, which haven’t passed into history yet but are vital components of an era that is still being defined, chapters in a narrative still under construction.
Then there are the games in the middle ground, ones that many people still remember and talk about and debate over even after 50 years. The 1971 Alabama-Southern Cal game is, in its details, as well-known as a child’s bedtime story. Books have been written and documentaries filmed about that game (and its predecessor in 1970). Any informed Alabama fan knows the story of how the Crimson Tide practiced in secrecy and seclusion for three weeks, then surprised Southern Cal with a wishbone offense that carried Alabama to an amazing 17-10 win on a Friday night in Los Angeles.
It’s a game that confirms the image of the late Paul W. “Bear” Bryant as a great tactician, even more so because triple-option football became Alabama’s offensive identity for the next decade, helping the Crimson Tide dominate the Southeastern Conference. Those are the fundamentals of any story of that night, that month, as it has passed into legend.
But from a modern perspective, it’s possible to see that game not just as a confirmation of Bryant’s football acumen, his ability to see trends and utilize personnel. It’s a measure of his psychological genius as well.
Tuscaloosa has changed dramatically in the past 45 years, but one thing hasn’t changed at all: Alabama fans, from the most powerful down, expect success. In the current run of glory, with four national titles in seven years under Nick Saban, those expectations have grown to gigantic proportions, bigger than the bull elephant mascot itself. So everyone – every freshman on campus or every television fan at home on Saturday – can imagine what would happen if Alabama suddenly went 8-2-1 … then 8-3 … then 6-5 … then 6-5-1. That’s exactly what happened to Alabama after dominating the early 1960s. And while there was no internet, no talk radio and blogging wasn’t yet even a concept, people were talking.
“There was a lot of divisiveness,” said Bill Oliver, who in 1971 returned to Alabama, where he had played for Bryant, after two years as an assistant at Auburn. “People were saying all kinds of things. Even on the coaching staff, people were divided, with all kinds of ideas on what to do.”
The perception was that Alabama, and Bryant, was far past prime.
“When Alabama was recruiting me out of Memphis in 1968, there were coaches – I’m not going to name names, but you’d be surprised – telling us that Coach Bryant was finished, that he was fixing to retire,” recalled Joe LaBue, a Crimson Tide tailback of the era. “It upset me because I wanted to go to Alabama. I told my dad and he told Coach (Ken) Donahue. Coach Donahue told Coach Bryant and he got in touch, told us it wasn’t true. We weren’t the only ones hearing it. Finally, Coach Bryant came out on one of his television shows and told everybody he wasn’t going anywhere. That was how bad it had gotten.”
The popular mind sought a solution and decided, as it would today, that Alabama needed to go back somehow and do what had worked so well a few years ago. It seemed perfectly logical.
Bryant threw that out the window.
“We had a meeting and he went to the board and started drawing every formation he knew,” former Bryant assistant Pat Dye said recently on a radio interview with 102.5 FM in Tuscaloosa. “He went from the wing-T to the Notre Dame box and finally he put the wishbone up there and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.'”
There were skeptics.
“Not all the coaches thought it was a good idea,” Oliver said. “It was my first year back and I was coaching the defensive backs, so I decided to keep my mouth shut and do what Coach Donahue told me to do. And I trusted Coach Bryant. But it was a tremendous change, and a risk.”
Bryant informed the players at the beginning of preseason practice, just three weeks before the USC game.
“He just stood up at the board and drew it and said, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and that was that,” LaBue said. “It’s wasn’t entirely new to us. Go back and look at the 1969 Ole Miss game and you’ll see Scott Hunter pitching the ball on an option and we scored a touchdown on it. We didn’t call it the wishbone. It was something we used on the goal line, so we called it the going-in offense. But then we didn’t use it at all in 1970.
“He had an old University of Texas coaching film that showed the fundamentals of the thing, where to line up and so forth. He had a meeting with me, Terry (Davis), Johnny (Musso) and some of the other backs and drew up some plays. I think he met again with Terry and Butch (Hobson) and the other quarterbacks and that was it. Then we went to work.”
Secrecy was at a premium, but the change did not come to light.
“The man told you not to say anything,” Dye said. “So you didn’t say anything.”
The media was kept in the dark.
“The Skywriters (the old traveling junket of SEC sports writers) came in one day and we did something different that day,” LaBue recalled. “That was about all. Besides that, it was all business.
The story is well-known from that point. USC was taken unaware, further confused by one more Bryant wrinkle.
“Look at the film and you’ll see that the first two plays, we had Musso in at fullback,” LaBue said. “One of their linebackers was jumping up and down yelling, ‘Musso at fullback, Musso at fullback!’ So they made an adjustment and we switched away from that. They had no idea what to do.”
Alabama scored the first 17 points, then held on for a 17-10 win – and the attitude that had been seeping away for four seasons was suddenly restored.
“It was a battle,” LaBue said. “We knew it was going to be that way, but we were ready for them. We had that element of surprise.
“I have never experienced the feeling of total victory like that, before or since. It was really almost more than I could take. It really got to me. I’ll always remember Coach Bryant after the game, bless his heart. He was so happy, so happy for us. It really brought us together, gave us that air of confidence.
“It was just what we needed.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.