Alabama Football Eras: Bear Bryant’s 1971-1980 ten season run

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 21: Fans cheer as they celebrate in the final seconds of the Alabama Crimson Tide 45-7 win over the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 21: Fans cheer as they celebrate in the final seconds of the Alabama Crimson Tide 45-7 win over the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Most Alabama football fans believe the 2008-2017 run of Nick Saban seasons is the greatest ten-years in Crimson Tide history. Looking back, the Bryant 1970’s run was not far behind.

Alabama football fans have long memories – filled with joy and despair. Memories of championships won and almost won linger the longest. The 2008-2017 Saban, ten-year run is no doubt the greatest in Alabama football history. Five national championships in nine seasons is an unparalleled achievement. Alabama football fans firmly believe it is the Greatest CFB Dynasty in the history of the game.

Some of us have been blessed to live through other Alabama football dynastic eras. The memories are still strong and the history is worth recounting. Crimson Tide fans born after the mid-1970’s may know the history but they did not get to experience how great was Bryant’s 1971-1980 run.

Knowledge of the history cannot fully convey just how far Crimson Tide fortunes fell in 1969 and 1970. The actual fall from a national powerhouse began with the first game of the 1967 season and did not end until the first game of the 1971 season.

The downward slide began in 1967

In September 1967, a mediocre FSU team tied Alabama in Birmingham. The Tide’s 1966 team deserved to be named national champion after an 11-0 season. What followed was four seasons of poor performance culminating in back-to-back, five-loss seasons in 1969 and 1970.

Many Alabama football fans wanted a new coach. The University of Alabama athletic director, Paul Bryant, was also unsatisfied with Bear Bryant, the coach. Bryant called on his old friend, Texas coach Darrell Royal, to teach the Alabama football staff the wishbone offense.

Bryant took the wishbone and refined it to include explosive, long passing plays. Opposing teams, loaded the box to counter wishbone runs and were left vulnerable in the deep secondary. The overall result was three national championships during an interval of seven seasons.

The almost national championship in 1974

Not as well remembered is how close Bryant’s Tide came to other national championships. At the end of the 1974 season, Oklahoma was ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll but was barred from a bowl game because of NCAA probation. The Tide was undefeated and ranked No. 2 going into the bowl season.

The 1975 Orange Bowl was one of the games where downfield Tide passing could not counter a loaded defensive box. Still, the Tide made a late comeback and was in field goal range for a win. Bryant chose to gain more yards and it backfired. Crimson Tide QB, Richard Todd rolled to his right and could have run for a first down. Todd also had two open receivers, one in the end zone. Perhaps unsure which throw to make, he badly missed on his pass. A Notre Dame player, in between the two open receivers but not effectively guarding either one, was gifted an interception without having to move. Time ran out and a national championship went away in a 13-11 loss.

USC beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and jumped over the Tide for the 1974 UPI (Coaches Poll) National Championship. Most Alabama football fans know the 1975 loss was the second straight bowl loss to the Irish. The two losses were by a total of three points. The difference in the 1973 season was the UPI Poll was awarded before the bowl season. The 1973 Sugar Bowl loss did not cost the Tide a 1973 co-National Championship.

Two more misses in 1975 and 1977

In 1975, Alabama football finished ranked No. 3 after beating Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide could not overcome an inexplicable opening game loss to Missouri in Birmingham. In 1977, the Crimson Tide finished the season No. 2 after destroying Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl 35-6. Another early season loss, this one by a touchdown to Nebraska in Lincoln, cost the Tide another national championship.

In 1974, 1975 and 1977 the Crimson Tide was so close to winning national championships. A mere handful of plays in 1975 against Notre Dame and in 1977 against Nebraska cost the Tide two national championships.

The three national championships won by Bryant in the1970’s do not match the recent Saban run of five. What ifs can also be cited for at least one more Saban national championship. The ten-year records of the two periods are identical in one statistic. From 1971-1980, Bryant’s Tide lost 13 games. From 2008-2017, Saban’s Tide had the same number of losses.

Next: Without defensive stops, no 17th Championship

There are at least two other great eras for Alabama football during the Bryant and Wallace Wade tenures. The Frank Thomas and Gene Stallings eras are not far behind.