Alabama Football: When Bear Bryant cost the Tide a National Championship

Bear Bryant decisions cost Alabama Football a National Championship

Criticizing former Alabama football, Head Coach, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant is uncommon. The fact he coached segregated Alabama football teams for over a decade does not sit well with some. In that failing, Bryant was joined by many southern head coaches. But given Bryant was probably more popular than George Wallace, it is fair to claim he failed to do enough to force the pace of integration.

Putting politics and southern history aside, Bryant is nearly universally acclaimed. Finding fault with anything Bryant did while coaching a game, is almost nonexistent. But, he was human and he did make mistakes.

One of those mistakes cost his Alabama football team the 1962 National Championship. In November 1962, the No. 1 ranked Crimson Tide played the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Grant Field in Atlanta. The game was near the end of a rivalry that except for breaks resulting from the Great Depression and World War II, went back to 1922.

The reason the rivalry would end after the 1964 game was a single play in the 1961 game. On a punt, Darwin Holt blocked Georgia Tech’s Chick Graning. Sports Illustrated described the action,

Darwin Holt smashed Graning in the face with his left elbow and forearm … when an Alabama teammate signaled for a fair catch… Holt hit Graning, rising off his feet as he drove his arm up … Graning was helped off the field with injuries diagnosed later as 1) fracture of the alveolar process (facial bones), 2) five missing upper front teeth, 3) fracture of the nasal bone, 4) fracture of the right maxillary sinus and the sinus filled with blood, 5) fracture of the right zygomatic process (bone beneath the right eye), 6) cerebral concussion and 7) possible fracture of the base of the skull.

The play caused widespread condemnation of Paul Bryant’s hard-nosed, physical style of football. When the contract between the schools ended in 1964, the Crimson Tide and the Yellow Jackets would not play again until 1979.

The 1962 Crimson Tide was the prohibitive favorite against the 5-2-1 Yellow Jackets. The Tide was on a 26-game unbeaten streak, going back to the 1960 season. Georgia Tech won 7-6.

Well known to many Alabama football fans is Bryant being unwilling to play for a tie. A fourth quarter, Tide touchdown, cut the Georgia Tech lead to 7-6. Bryant went for two and the Tide failed. A final Tide drive ended with a Joe Namath interception.

Bryant’s two-point decision was commendable. Was Bear’s choice a mistake? Even if it was, the two-point conversion, failure did not cost the Crimson Tide the 1962 National Championship. Against Tech, Bryant’s damaging error was drastically changing his team’s offensive strategy. What he changed it to was very un-Bear like.

On the first Tide possession, Joe Namath threw a first-down pass – from a shotgun formation. The shotgun was a new Tide wrinkle. Namath threw 38 passes in the game. Four were intercepted. The result of the new strategy was the lowest Crimson Tide point output since the 1960 Bluebonnet Bowl. For perspective, consider this – in the entire 1961 season the Crimson Tide threw a total of 139 passes. In 11, 1962 games, the Tide would throw the ball only 177 times.

Paul Bryant was simply trying to win against what he knew would be a highly motivated Georgia Tech team. Joe Namath had magic in his arm. Why not use it to its fullest? Bryant’s ploy is understandable. But it cost his team a repeat National Championship. The 1962 Tide would finish 10-1, ranked No. 5 in the nation.

For many Alabama football fans, 1962 is ancient history. That does not automatically make it irrelevant. Another tidbit of Tide history – on May 31, Joe Willie turned 77.