The disappointment has lingered for six months. The sting will last a lifetime.
There’s just no way around it for the 2016 Alabama football team, which was one second away from repeating as national champions. Instead of being the second group of players under Nick Saban to win back-to-back titles, they’ll always be asked about the 35-31 loss to Clemson and wonder “What if?”
“It’s one of those, I’m sure, that’s not easily forgotten,” Jerry Duncan said.
The former Alabama offensive lineman was part of two national championship teams, 1964 and 1965. But he also knows what those players are going through. Duncan was still on the roster for the subsequent season, the one many Crimson Tide fans believe was robbed of its place in history.
“Undefeated, untied and uncrowned,” said Jimmy Carroll, one of Duncan’s former linemates.
At Alabama, championships are considered the most important benchmark of a team’s legacy. The 2016 team will always be remembered for its high level of talent and winning 14 consecutive games. But it will also forever draw comparisons to the 1973 Crimson Tide that lost to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, 24-23, and 2013 when an undefeated title run was derailed by the Kick 6 game at Auburn.
At least those setbacks came on the field. Last fall, Alabama celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the 1966 team, which despite going 11-0 never had the opportunity it felt it more than deserved.
As far as bitter pills are concerned, that one’s like acid. It still burns.
The 1966 Crimson Tide
In 1966, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s first dynasty at Alabama was at its peak, having won the 1961 national title and consecutive national championships in 1964-65 — although neither had been as clear cut. The Crimson Tide went 10-1 in 1964 and 9-1-1 the following year, benefiting in both cases from when voting was conducted for the final Associated Press poll.
After Alabama’s controversial 21-17 loss to Texas in the Orange Bowl following the 1964 season, the AP moved its final voting from before bowl games to after. In 1965, the Crimson Tide was ranked No. 4 at the end of the regular season when Bryant turned down an invitation to play in the Cotton Bowl to face No. 3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. His thinking was if No. 1 Michigan State lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl and No. 2 Arkansas was defeated by LSU in the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl would determine the national champion.
To the chagrin of the rest of college football, that’s exactly what happened after Alabama beat Nebraska, 39-28.
All the pieces were in place for another monster season in 1966. Alabama featured Kenny Stabler at quarterback, Ray Perkins and Dennis Homan at the end positions and an offensive line that would be tiny by the standards of today but clicked. In true Crimson Tide style, the defense was imposing and fully embraced the Bryant credo that you can’t lose if you don’t give up any points. Alabama shut out six opponents, including the last four it faced in the regular season — LSU, South Carolina, Southern Miss and Auburn.
Defensive lineman Richard Cole, offensive tackle Cecil Dowdy, defensive back Bobby Johns and Perkins were all named All-Americans, with guard John Calvert and back Dicky Thompson earning all-conference honors. End Wayne Cook and Duncan were tabbed second-team All-SEC.
But despite being named No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll and running the table, the two-time reigning champions were just No. 3 when it faced No. 6 Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch of the decisive title game from the previous season.
Yes, No. 3.
Here’s how it played out: With an unusual bye on Week 1, Alabama slipped down two slots before playing a game. Michigan State moved to the top slot after a 28-10 win over North Carolina State in its opener. A month later, Notre Dame jumped ahead of the Spartans after thumping No. 10 Oklahoma, 38-0, and the hype started building for their No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown on Nov. 19.
It was called the “Game of the Century,” but did not live up to that moniker because of the way that it ended. In one of the most controversial moves in college football history, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian opted to run out the clock during the final minutes, taking a 10-10 tie instead of going for the win.
After crushing No. 10 USC a week later, 51-0, Notre Dame retained its No. 1 ranking. Michigan State’s season was already over. Both teams were 9-0-1 and neither participated in bowl games. The Fighting Irish had a standing policy of not playing in bowl games because at the time its first semester ended in late January. The Big Ten had a rule preventing its schools from playing in consecutive Rose Bowls.
Meanwhile, Alabama destroyed every team it faced minus one, Tennessee, which it still came back to defeat 11-10 in the Knoxville rain. The close result caused it to drop to No. 4 in the subsequent poll, but the Crimson Tide kept churning out wins, each one arguably more impressive than the last. After the “Tie of the Century,” as some called it, Alabama closed out the regular season with a 31-0 victory against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
Alabama’s only chance was to leapfrog Michigan State and Notre Dame, and the players responded one final time. With Stabler throwing a 45-yard pass to Perkins on the first play from scrimmage to set up the first score, and Johns making 3 interceptions, Alabama crushed Nebraska in a 34-7 Sugar Bowl rout.
“I don’t think it was that close,” Carroll said. “We held out hope until the last vote was in to determine the national champion. That would have been three in a row, which no one has ever done. No one had done before and no one has done since. That would have put us as a real special group.”
Alas, it didn’t happen. Alabama finished No. 3.
“At Alabama, we teach our men to win,” Bryant was quoted as saying. And numerous ranking services had the Crimson Tide at No. 1, but the school doesn’t claim it. Alabama fans later referred to 1966 as the one that got away or, as Keith Dunnavant titled his 2006 book on the subject, The Missing Ring.
‘Tough times in Tuscaloosa’
Duncan is among those who believe the state’s racial issues played a factor in the snubbing. Gov. George Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” the Rosa Parks bus incident in Montgomery and the Selma civil rights march made Alabama the focal point of a national debate.
Additionally, the Crimson Tide had yet to integrate the football team. Bryant publicly said the time wasn’t right, even as he helped black athletes land at other top programs — including, ironically, with Michigan State and his friend Duffy Daugherty.
“There were some tough times in Tuscaloosa,” said Duncan, who was originally from North Carolina and called the campus scene as sometimes “scary.”
“When the National Guard was on campus [in 1963], guys couldn’t get home,” former assistant coach Jimmy Sharpe recalled.
Yet Alabama kept winning, and winning big.
“I think [race] certainly had something to do with it,” Duncan said about the snub. “But also, even more that, having Coach Bryant win in ’64 and ’65, and nobody had ever won it three times in a row, I think that entered into it.”
Bryant’s message to the team was that it had done everything that it could, that the players shouldn’t be disappointed because the eventual outcome had been taken out of their hands. They had continued to be successful despite the overwhelming adversity.
That feeling still resonates. The real disappointment was that they never got their chance.
“If Notre Dame would have agreed to play us in a bowl game, it would have been established if we were the best or if they were the best,” Cole said. “I always felt like, and Coach Bryant did too, when they opted not to play us that it should have given us a nod over them. The voting didn’t turn out that way.
“It’s still frustrating. It always will be.”
Said Duncan: “There’s always a bitter feeling about Notre Dame, I can promise you that. We don’t like Notre Dame, period.
“We would have just loved to have played them. We wanted to find out if we were as good as we thought we were — and we were pretty good.”
The last big reunion
Laughter and the sounds from grandchildren running around were often heard during the reunion, which was held the weekend of the Kentucky game on Oct. 1. The spouses and children of those who had passed away were welcomed as long-lost friends, and warm embraces were commonplace.
“How you doing?” Carroll happily said after one. “Damn glad to see you.”
He then jokingly asked a teammate “Can you still write?” while getting a game ball signed for the Bryant Museum.
The sting of the ’66 season remains, but if anything, it’s made this team only tighter over the years.
Reminiscing and reconnecting were the main order of business, but at one table in the back, former defensive back John Mosley drew a small crowd while showing off a ring he and some other players had made in celebration of the ’66 team. It wasn’t so such an attempt at revisionist history, but something he wanted to share and give each of his grandchildren.
On the side there are three stones, which represent the back-to-back-back seasons. How they’re interpreted is left up to each person.
“That row should have been ours,” Sharpe said.
But Alabama did learn from the experience. Bryant scheduled more high-profile nonconference games so the Crimson Tide received more attention in big-media markets. One of those was the famous 1970 opener against USC, when Trojans running back Sam Cunningham’s performance helped pave the way to the team’s full integration.
That, in turn, helped lead to Bryant’s second dynasty, when Alabama went 103-16-1 during the 1970s and had another near-miss at the national championship trifecta, finishing a controversial No. 2 in 1977 and capturing back-to-back titles in 1978-79.
Duncan believes that something similar is the key to Alabama bouncing back from its loss last season, which appears to be ongoing.
“For the returning players, you want to make sure that you learn from that,” he said. “What can you do to make yourself better to make sure that never happens again?”
Perhaps 50 years from now, the 2016 team will have a similar reunion and hopefully those players will have similar stories as their predecessors, who didn’t let one setback overwhelm them or take anything away from the rest of their lives.
There was another notable moment during the reunion weekend, which no one on the ’66 team will ever forget. It came during their banquet, when coach Nick Saban addressed that uncrowned team and called the former players exactly what they were.
“I called them champions,” Saban said.