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TGS SEC RETROSPECTIVE...THE "MISSING RING" AT ALABAMA

                                      by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The roll call of Alabama national title winners has become almost too long to count. Indeed, the years and championships seem to run together. From afar, that is. Talk to any longtime Crimson Tide backer on the subject, however, and it will become apparent that the Bama faithful are still irked about one particular national title that got away...through no fault of the football team.

Indeed, it is hard to envision an Alabama team finishing a season unbeaten and not being awarded the national title. It happened, however, back in 1966, even prompting a compelling book entitled The Missing Ring written in 2007 by Keith Dunnavant that serves as not only an in-depth review of that memorable campaign but an inside, and often uncomfortable, look at the machinations of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s program, including the almost inhuman demands Bryant would make upon his players.

Among college football historians, mention of 1966 also conjures memories of the epic Notre Dame-Michigan State 10-10 tie in East Lansing, which still rates among the best in any “Game of the Century” rankings. Yet if Notre Dame-Michigan State was the Game of the Year (or Century) in 1966, it should only be listed as Game 1A in such recollections. Game 1B for 1966 was Bama-Tennessee, which warranted its own chapter (“Rocky Top”) in Dunnavant’s outstanding book.

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The mid ‘60s were indeed a glory era for the Tide, including two of the many Bama national titles in 1964 & ‘65. (Bryant had earned his first national title at Bama in 1961 with an 11-0 team featuring Pat Trammell at QB.) Though each of those mid-60s crowns deserve an asterisk, courtesy of some of the peculiar ratings mechanics of those days. In ‘64, when the final polls were all decided before the bowls, the Tide would be crowned the Associated Press national champ before Joe Namath-led Bama would lose an Orange Bowl thriller vs. Texas, 21-17 (as chronicled last year in another TGS Retrospective piece). Post-bowl, however, undefeated Arkansas would win the Grantland Rice Trophy, as awarded by the Football Writers of America Association.

The following ‘65 season, those peculiar ratings/bowl mechanics worked in Alabama’s favor, as for the first time, the final AP Poll would be conducted after the bowls. Top-ranked Michigan State’s 14-12 upset loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, coupled with second-ranked Arkansas losing 14-7 to LSU in the Cotton Bowl earlier in the day, would open the door for the Tide if it could knock off unbeaten and third-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Night. Which the Tide did, 39-28, behind a 296-yard passing effort from QB Steve Sloan. When the dust cleared, a 9-1-1 Bama side, which lost its opener 18-17 vs. Vince Dooley’s Georgia, would slip in the back door to at least grab the AP’s version of the ‘65 national crown.

That same back door, however, never opened for the Tide in the subsequent ‘66 season, partly because neither Notre Dame nor Michigan State, the two teams ranked ahead of Bama, would even participate in the bowls, the Fighting Irish still adhering to a decades-long no-bowl policy, while the Big Ten champion Spartans were banned from a return engagement at the Rose Bowl due to the Big Ten’s draconian “no-repeat” rule of the day.

To this day, some longtime Bama backers haven’t recovered from that odd set of circumstances. Their lasting satisfaction from ‘66 has thus been derived from a few wins...none of those more dramatic than the epic clash vs. the Volunteers.

Bama-Tennessee had long been a highlight game in the region. Established in 1901, the rivalry was simply referred to as “The Third Saturday in October.” The special feel of the game was reflected in the fashions, as both teams would wear their home jerseys, the distinctive UT orange and the familiar Alabama crimson, when clashing in that era.

With the Vols ascending under young HC Doug Dickey in the mid ‘60s, UT was also a national contender in its own right, and beginning in 1967 would embark upon a 4-year win streak over the Tide. Veteran Vol backers, however, think that streak should have been 5 long, or perhaps even 6, recalling missed opportunities in 1965 & ‘66.

The ‘65 titanic would be the other blemish on Bama’s AP-title season, a 7-7 draw at Birmingham’s Legion Field, a game the Tide probably deserved to win. The goat for Bama would turn out to be none other than soph QB Kenny Stabler, on in relief late for starter Sloan. Even at that early stage of his career, “The Snake” had already developed something of a reputation in Tuscaloosa. "You can never tell about left-handed quarterbacks and left-handed crapshooters," said Bryant.

Sure enough, Stabler had led a last-minute Tide drive deep into UT territory, and his 14-yard scramble to the Vol 4 seemed to set Bama up for the win. Stabler, however, had mistakenly believed his scramble had netted a first down; it didn’t, and the subsequent incompletion to stop the clock was actually a fourth-down play, not a first down as Stabler believed. Thus, with 6 seconds to play the ball turned over to UT, which gladly accepted the 7-7 draw.

After the game, a dejected Bryant would become enraged when the door to the Tide clubhouse was locked, demanding his accompanying Alabama state trooper, Joe Smelley, to “shoot the damn thing open.” Smelley demurred, reckoning a bullet ricochet could case injury to someone. The Bear would then order Smelley to get out of his way and proceeded to kick the door off of its hinges!

The Vols were thrilled with the tie, but their joy lasted only a short period of time, as two days later, three young assistants (Billy Majors, one of the famed family clan at UT, plus Bobby Jones and Charley Rash) were tragically killed when their automobile was struck by a train at a crossing in Knoxville. Memories of the three deceased coaches, whose last game was that 7-7 tie vs. the Tide, added extra fuel to the already-emotional Vols in preparation for the ‘66 clash at Neyland Stadium.

Bama, which would be ranked number one in the 1966 preseason polls, quickly fell behind Michigan State, UCLA, and Notre Dame in the rankings when the regular season commenced, though by mid-October had settled in at the three spot behind the Spartans and Fighting Irish. Bryant was relying upon a large number of juniors and even sophomores to play significant roles. (Freshmen were still ineligible for varsity competition until 1972.) Only 13 seniors remained on the ‘66 squad. The aforementioned Stabler, actually known more as a runner than a thrower at that stage of his career, was the heir apparent to Namath, and, from ‘65, Sloan, at QB, promising to add a different twist to the Bryant option offense which operated out of the I-formation.

The Tide, however, would not be helped by a suspect schedule that featured non-threatening Louisiana Tech in the opener, while bypassing top SEC contenders Georgia and Florida (in QB Steve Spurrier’s Heisman year). Maintaining a high national profile required wins over well-regarded Ole Miss, which Bryant earned by a 17-7 count in the second game, and the mid-October trip to Knoxville to face the fired-up Vols, who had stumbled 6-3 vs. a very good and Orange Bowl-bound Georgia Tech in the game prior to Bama, after being ranked 8th in the polls before the close loss to the Yellow Jackets. Still, UT had yet to allow a TD in its first three games, and would be ready for a kamikaze effort vs. the Tide.

Conditions in Knoxville for Tide-Vols, however, would be miserable at best. Hard rains pounded the Smokeys region that Saturday, and with artificial turf limited to only the Houston Astrodome in 1966, Bama-Tennessee would be played in a mud bath. The Neyland Stadium grass field was a soupy mess, which meant keeping balance, much less holding onto the slick football, would be a chore.

Considering the wet conditions, Bryant, preferring his hard-hitting defense to take the field first, was planning to defer the option if Bama won the opening coin toss, but game captain Tide OT Jerry Duncan, one of the Bear’s favorites, pleaded with the coach to accept the kickoff if given the opportunity. Bryant, admiring Duncan’s confidence, decided to take the kickoff in the driving rainstorm if Bama would win the coin toss...which it did.

The Bear, however, would soon regret his decision, as less than two minutes into the game, Stabler and FB Les Kelley would get their signals crossed and bobbled a handoff, which was recovered by UT at the Tide 23. Four plays later, Vol QB Dewey Warren would hit TE Austin Denney for a 6-yard TD pass to put UT into an early 7-0 lead. Later in the first quarter, after Bama could not move through the mud and was forced to punt from its own end zone, Warren was given another short field and capitalized with a 40-yard FG by PK Gary Wright.

Though 10 points would belong to the hosts, the first half was hardly an offensive showcase. The rains came with increasing intensity, and each team gained fewer than 100 yards. For the respective attacks, it was mostly an exercise in futility, though booming punts by the Vols’ Ron Widby, also a UT basketball player of note who would go on to a nice career as the punter for the Dallas Cowboys, would prove important, constantly forcing Bama punt returner Johnny Mosley to retreat and chase balls over his head. The Vols were thus able to win the field-position battle and maintain their lead throughout the half, repelling a lone Bama threat late in the 2nd Q after UT had fumbled on its own 31. Stabler, enduring a brutal afternoon, was able to navigate as far as the 6 yard-line before the wet pigskin would slip from his hands, recovered by Vol LB Paul Naumoff, a future Detroit Lion. The 10-0 lead would hold into the break.

Bryant lore would suggest that the coach would tear into his team at intermission after such a feeble first-half display, in which his team had fumbled an astounding six times (losing two of those), Stabler had not completed a pass, and Alabama had been able to muster little beyond two drives of a mere 25 yards. Instead of a typical lacing, however, the Bear decided on a different sort of approach and pep talk at the break.

First, Bryant would pull aside head manager Sang Lyda and instruct him to pull out brand-new, clean uniforms for the second half. The Bear understood the psychological value of having his troops strip off the wet, muddy outfits so they could take the field clean and dry after intermission. If the players could be clean and dry for a only a few minutes, Bryant’s ploy suggested, maybe the Tide could also wipe away the lingering mental mud of the desultory first-half performance.

While the players gladly changed into a fresh set of costumes, and listened to their position coaches go over adjustments for the second half, most were still fearful of the verbal assault they were sure was coming from Bryant. In The Missing Ring, Dunnavant recalled a brief conversation between senior lineman Jimmy Fuller and soph DE Eddie Bo Rogers. “Just find yourself a corner and hide,” said Fuller to the soph. Meanwhile, C Jimmy Carroll took his seat in the back and kept his helmet on...just in case. “I thought for sure he was going to kill us," Carroll would later say.

When Bryant entered the room for the expected tongue-lashing, however, it was not the angry Bear that most players expected. The coach was upbeat, even singing a biblical tune as the door closed behind him. “What a friend we have in Je-sus!” rhapsodized the coach, though most of the players knew better, because Bryant signing a hymm would usually precede a serious butt-chewing. But this time the Bear kept the act going, clapping his hands as a cigarette dangled from his lips.

“This is perfect!,” roared the Bear. “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em!”

The puzzled players looked at one another, expecting the other shoe to drop any moment. After all, hadn’t the Tide played its worst half in years, trailing a good team 10-0, now forced to mount a comeback in a monsoon?

Bryant, however, was just getting started with his pep talk. “That was their half, and now this is our half coming up!,” the Bear exhorted his boys. “What a chance we’ve got! What a chance we’ve got to show ‘em what we’re made of!”

In The Missing Ring, Dunnavant would best sum up the unexpected Bryant halftime speech.

“The same relentless driver who spent so much of his life mashing his players into submission, making them feel vulnerable to his wrath, also understood how to make them feel invincible, and so now, just when they needed a jolt of bulletproof, he flipped the switch.

“At the most precarious moment of a magical season,“ Dunnavant added, “Bryant instinctively understood his players needed something stronger than fear. They hungered for inspiration.

“With a few simple words, he demonstrated his faith in them, and to the players in that room, his faith was a powerful thing, a force of nature capable of rivaling the mighty rain itself.

“A lesser coach might have leaned too heavy on the gas, perhaps offering up some sentimental gusher about their responsibility to live up to the legacy of all of those great Alabama teams of the past. But melodrama was not Bryant’s style.”

Counterpart Dickey, however, was able to sustain the lather the Vols had built prior to kickoff, and Bama continued to meet resistance after the break. Midway in the 3rd Q, Tennessee threatened to put the game out of reach with a solid drive from its 28 to the Bama 35 before the Tide “D” stiffened and forced a punt. From the shadow of their own goal, Stabler and the offense were able to swim near midfield on their next possession, denying the Vols the field position edge they enjoyed for much of the first half.

Halftime adjustments had given Bama a spark, as the Tide staff figured the Vols’ defensive strength might be able to work against them. In Tennessee's case, the Vols' two excellent LBs, Paul Naumoff and Doug Archibald, tended to take off after potential receivers when they smelled a pass. Alabama figured it could decoy deep with its regular receivers and then throw delays to others floating into the zones from which the linebackers flew. Throughout the second half, Alabama would get important gains on a handful of such Stabler passes, including to little-used TE Wayne Cook.

Late in the 3rd Q, the Tide defense created an opportunity, as LB Mike Hall laid a thunderous hit on UT HB Charlie Fulton, who fumbled into the mud. Bama DE Mike Ford recovered the ball at the Vol 46, and Stabler, confidence growing, was in business in UT territory. On first down, a 14-yard completion to WR Dennis Homan detonated the offense. Four plays later, and the game having moved into the 4th Q, Stabler would sneak across the goal line from the 1, narrowing the scoreline to 10-6 with 14:29 to play.

Bryant, however, was not thinking about kicking a PAT to get within 3 points. He would rather have a chance to eventually win the game with a field goal than need to score another TD vs. the rugged Volunteer defense. So, he gambled on a 2-point conversion that could reduce the deficit to 10-8. After conferring with backfield coach (and future San Francisco 49er HC) Ken Meyer, still kicking today at 91 years old, Bryant decided on “P-50,” a tight end-delay pass. Stabler would take the snap and rolled back slightly left, and before the pass rush would converge on him would loft a spinner to the aforementioned TE Cook, who would make the catch face-mask high. The 2-point conversion succeeded, and now within 10-8, the Tide needed only a field goal to take the lead.

(Editor's. note: In each of the next two seasons vs. Tennessee, Bryant would also opt for 2-point conversions at key junctures when trailing in the 4th Q. Both tries, however, failed. Bama was unable to close the gap from 17-13 to 17-15 the next season in Birmingham before the Vols scored on a late interception by DB Albert Dorsey to sew up a 24-13 win, and in 1968, Bama's next visit to Knoxville, when the Tide missed a late 2-point PAT that would have given Bryant a familiar 11-10 scoreline and lead, but UT instead holding on for a 10-9 win.) 

After a couple of possesssion exchanges, Stabler would start a drive from his 25 with nine minutes to play. The rain, as if commanded by Bryant to stop, would suddenly cease. The Snake, displaying the chutzpah that would mark the rest of his career, transmitted that swagger to his teammates in the huddle. In his twangy voice, Stabler, almost matter-of-factly, laid down the law. “Alright, shut your mouths,” commanded The Snake. “We’re putting the ball in the end zone.”

“Kenny had this amazing presence in the huddle, which was just so calming, and you could see it in the way he handled things on that drive," said WR Ray Perkins, who would eventually succeed Bryant as the Tide’s head coach. “Kenny acted like we were already ahead,” said G Bruce Stephens.

The Snake was already burnishing his eventual legacy, in the midst of pulling his team out of a mighty hole, in the clutch, despite brutal conditions. “I didn’t have any doubt in my mind on that last drive,” Stabler would later say. “I never had any doubt at any other time, either.”

Stabler, heeding the tactical adjustments made at halftime, was now picking his spots beautifully. Sending the split end and wingback flying, and the UT LBs going after them, as planned,  FB Kelley, after a moment's delay in faking a block, slipped into the unprotected underbelly of the Vol defense, taking a Stabler pass and running 14 yards to the Alabama 45. Next, Stabler dialed up a crossing pattern to Split End Perkins, going downfield and cutting sharply to the middle. Twenty more yards and another first down at the Tennessee 35.

No more passes now, as Alabama was advancing into field-goal range. Furthermore, it believed it could ram the ball right at Tennessee's slanting, stunting defense. Stabler was now methodically moving Bama, mostly on the ground, closer to the Vol goal line. In addition to running the option left and right, planting his feet carefully in the treacherous mud, and handing off twice to HB Gene Raburn, The Snake kept calling FB Kelley’s number as the drive progressed. Kelley, who would be a first-round pick of the expansion Saints in the upcoming NFL Draft, kept slamming at the Vol defensive front en route to a career-high 26 carries.

After Stabler would slither, snake-like., outside for 11 yards to the Tennessee 15, it was Kelley time, pounding off the left side to the 12, then again—only the wet ball would pop out of his hands, though on one forward bounce it would fortunately land into the hands of teammate Perkins at the Tennessee seven! Lady luck, ever elusive, seemed now to also be smiling upon Bama.

Kelley would then bang to a first down at the five,  but in three subsequent smacks into the middle, the Crimson Tide was still a yard short of a touchdown as the rain had resumed. Earlier in the 4th Q, at the Vols' 45, Tennessee had stopped a fourth-and-one Alabama gamble quite coldly, and Bryant decided not to give the Vols a second chance. He ordered in his field-goal kicker Steve Davis.

Though the length of the field-goal try would only be 17 yards, it was not automatic, especially in the wet conditions. Davis was only three-for-five on his previous FG tries in ‘66. Moreover, the Bear had some questions regarding his holder. Normally, defensive back Bobby Johns held for Davis, but Bryant, discussing options with asst. HC Sam Bailey, who oversaw the kicking game, had a different idea.

“I think we should go with Johns, he’s got dry hands,” argued Bailey. Bryant, however, saw it differently, and preferred Stabler, by this time very used to handling the wet pigskin.

"If you've ever kicked one, kick one now," says Stabler to Davis in the huddle, and to the others: "If you've ever blocked, block now." Center Jimmy Carroll asked for a dry ball, though the referees refused. It would be wet ball or no ball.

The snap-back was low, a “wormburner” in snapper lexicon. Stabler momentarily fumbled with it and still had two hands on the slippery ball when Davis swung his foot into the soaked pigskin. "It couldn't have been more than a yard or two inside the left upright," said Stabler, and Davis was mobbed by red shirts.

Alabama 11, Tennessee 10. Seventy-five yards in 14 plays, no mistakes. There was only 3:23 to play, and the Vols had done little since their drive into Tide territory early in the 3rd Q. Never before in the 65-year, 48-game history of the famed rivalry has one point decided the outcome, but the 11-10 lead appeared safe enough. Tennessee had lost the initiative in the second half, and had run only four plays for a minus eight yards to that point in the fourth quarter, twice punting CFL-style on third downs. Vol QB Warren, the “Swamp Rat” himself, had completed only 2 passes for 4 yards in the second half. After halftime, the aroused Bama defense was stonewalling anything that flew with fewer than two motors.

Tennessee, however, had not come this far to surrender without a fight. A short, bouncing kickoff would give the Vols possession at their own 27, and Warren would immediately fire up a drive, connecting on a 22-yard pass to TB Bill Baker. Needing one more big gain to get into field-goal range, Dickey dialed up a trick play. After taking a pitchout from Warren, and appearing ready to embark upon a sweep, HB Fulton, a converted QB, instead pulled up and lofted a pass for bruising, 234-lb. NFL-bound TE Denney, the scorer of the game's first TD and open downfield, looking for a moment as if he might score until Tide DB Johnny Mosley ran him down at the 13!

With only 1:53 to play, and now setting up for a game-winning FG try, the Vols would stay on the ground. Two powerful thrusts by FB Bob Mauriello against a suddenly yielding Alabama middle got the ball to the two for another first down. From there, however, TB Walter Chadwick was piled up, then Mauriello lost a yard and Tennessee called a timeout with 16 seconds to play.

The timeout, however, might have been called hastily, as there was still time for Warren, who did not call the timeout, to run another play and get the ball closer to the middle of the field to give PK Wright a better angle. Instead, with the ball on the right hash, and having exhausted their final timeout, the Vols had to go for the field goal on third down, and Wright would be kicking from a sharp angle.

The rain had all but stopped; unlike Bama’s last FG try, the center snap was almost perfect, and QB Warren's placement on the tee was true. Tide kick-blocker deluxe Donnie Johnston was bearing in from the edge, perhaps unnerving Wright, whose kick barely avoided being blocked.  Wright's kicks, which according to HC Dickey, would almost always go straight or bend to the right, bent even further right this time (perhaps due in part to Johnston's pressure), to the point where it seemed to pass directly high above the right goalpost.

Warren thought it was good; any Baltimore Colts fans who might have been in attendance would have thought so, too, after Don Chandler’s OT-forcing FG try, on a similar trajectory, was ruled good for the Packers the preceding December in the pulsating NFL Western Conference playoff. But PK Wright was not sure, because he had his head down. After a moment's hesitation, referee Charles W. Bowen of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. waved frantically to the right as he shook his head—no good!  Which took a lot of guts on Mr. Bowen's part, as he still had to get out of Knoxville after the game. After all, this was a series that was once suspended when a referee was stoned and chased to the streetcar after an unpopular decision.

In the postgame interviews, Bryant was asked about the last-second FG attempt by UT's Wright that had gone awry by mere inches.  "If he'd have kicked it straight we would have blocked it," chortled the Bear. 

The Tide had survived, but was almost too tired to celebrate after the game. There was more relief than joy in the Mudville of the Bama dressing room. "They play too much like we do to enjoy meeting them very much," said a worn-out RB Kelley. Legendary Crimson Tide play-by-play announcer John Forney was spent, too. “That game took more out of me as a broadcaster than any I can recall,” Forney would say afterward.

Bryant, however, had seen what he could not previously have known about his team, that it had a champion’s heart. "What would you have given for our chances at the half?" said the Bear, leaning against a wall and puffing on a cigar and smiling ever so slightly. "This bunch just hangs in there. They are a good football team right now." Indeed, his boys knew how to fight after all.

By the end of the ‘66 season, Bama was more than good. Perhaps sensing its plight in the polls, the Tide would take out its frustrations and destroy 6th-ranked Nebraska, 34-7, in the Sugar Bowl, a disturbing deja vu for the Cornhuskers after being battered by Bama the previous season in the Orange Bowl. Yet, even at 11-0 after the Nebraska beatdown, it wasn’t enough to leapfrog Notre Dame or Michigan State in the polls.

Tide backers would eventually be able to salve those emotional wounds with more national titles from Bryant., Gene Stallings, and Nick Saban over the subsequent 50 years, but for oldtimers, ‘66 still sticks in their craws something fierce, especially since Bear Bryant himself would often say it was his best team. Bama fans do, however, still have The Missing Ring book, and memories of the Sugar Bowl and 11-10 over Tennessee.

And, a half-century later, others like us at TGS still talking about it all!


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