Poll Controversies Revisited: 1977 - The End Of An Ara

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  1. TedSlimmJr

    TedSlimmJr Hartselle Tigers (15-0) 5-A State Champ

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    When former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian died last August at the age of 94, he had been out of coaching for over forty years. A cynical religious Alabamian might figure that Ara lived as long as he did to prepare for a lost eternity because some way, somehow, Ara must have made a deal with the devil given the stronghold he seemed to have over Alabama glory. Ara Parseghian cost the University of Alabama no less than 3 1/2 national titles in a 12-year span by doing everything from playing for a tie to calling a daring high-risk pass play to arguing in favor of his old school simply because "they beat number one." Indeed, it could be argued that no other figure in the history of college football had a more widespread negative effect on Alabama's fortunes than did Ara Raoul Parseghian.

    Parseghian was in his third year as a broadcaster when the 1977 football season rolled around. The decade had seen nothing but blue blood or near blue blood champions: Nebraska, Texas, USC, Notre Dame, Alabama, Oklahoma. That changed in 1976 when the upstart Pitt Panthers, a team with no All-Americans and no winning seasons from 1964-1972 won the Heisman Trophy via Tony Dorsett and the national championship led by former Heisman runner-up Johnny Majors. Majors left Pitt after the Sugar Bowl to go resurrect his old school, Tennessee, in the middle of an 11-game losing streak to arch rival Alabama. The year also saw several important beginnings as Lou Holtz began his tenure at Arkansas, Jackie Sherrill took over for Majors at Pitt, Fred Akers replaced the legendary Darrell Royal at Texas, and Charley Pell began his checkered career as a head coach at Clemson. There would also be plenty of controversy when the season careened to its car crash of a conclusion.

    AP pollsters were very divided entering the season as nine different schools received first-place votes. The most votes went to pre-season #1 Oklahoma.

    PRE-SEASON POLL

    1) Oklahoma

    2) Michigan

    3) Notre Dame

    4) USC

    5) Ohio State

    6) Alabama

    7) Pitt

    8) Texas Tech

    9) Texas A/M

    10) Maryland

    Pitt began defense of their national championship by hosting Notre Dame, a rare first-game top ten matchup. Pitt roared down the field and QB Matt Cavanuagh threw a touchdown to give the Panthers the lead. On the play, however, Cavanaugh was hit and during the fall broke the forearm of his non-throwing hand, knocking him out until early October. Pitt fumbled four times and Notre Dame capitalized, escaping with a 19-9 victory. The polls began shifting almost immediately as Michigan unloaded on Illinois in the opener, 37-9, impressing the voters who immediately vaulted Michigan to the top spot and dropped Oklahoma (idle) all the way down to fifth. A stunning upset occurred in Lincoln at Washington State took care of the Cornhuskers, 19-10, as former Nebraska assistant Warren Powers won his debut replacing Jackie Sherrill with the Cougars. Alabama began the year by avenging their season opening 1976 loss to Ole Miss in resounding fashion, 34-13.

    It was week two, however, that set the course for the rest of the season.

    Playing for the first time ever in Lincoln, Alabama threw five interceptions yet still were in a tight 24-24 tie with Nebraska. The Huskers drove 80 yards to take a 31-24 lead and Jeff Rutledge tossed his final interception that sealed the game for Nebraska. In another stunner, Indiana scored two late TDs to shock LSU, who blew a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Neither could compare, however, to the stunner in Jackson, Mississippi, where hapless Ole Miss did what Bear Bryant never could do - stunned Notre Dame in a head-to-head football game. (One must pause to wonder what idiot at Ole Miss decided to play Alabama and then Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks). The Irish took a 13-10 lead with 4:53 remaining in a scorching heat. With their starting quarterback Bobby Garner suffering from dehydration, backup QB Tim Ellis came on and torched the Irish by passing for 68 yards of an 80-yard drive that put Ole Miss up, 17-13. A subsequent Irish fumble set up the Rebels to kick a field goal that gave them a 20-13 lead and after an interception, the Rebels had pulled off the shocker of the year. Alabama dropped six spots to ten while the Irish dropped eight spots to eleven. The potential Rose Bowl match of Michigan/USC stood 1/2 at the top of the polls after two weeks. But if week two was the upset of the year, week three gave us the game of the year in Columbus, Ohio.

    Oklahoma roared into the Horseshoe as the 3 vs 4 showdown promised a classic. It delivered. Oklahoma tore out to a quick 20-0 lead behind the rushing of Elvis Pea**** and future Heisman winner Billy Sims. After the lead, however, Oklahoma went into a funk and turned the ball over six times in their following eight possessions. Ohio St converted two of the fumbles into touchdowns but incredibly managed to get zero points on three other fumbles, all deep in OU territory. The game was so brutal that both starting QBs were knocked out. Ohio State continued the momentum and turned the 20-0 deficit into a 28-20 Buckeyes lead. The Sooners countered with a touchdown on a fourth and goal from the one but then botched the two-point conversion to trail, 28-26. With seconds left, Oklahoma gambled with an onsides kick that they recovered. After an 18-yard reception, Uwe von Schamann came on to kick a game-winning field goal to give the Sooners a 29-28 exciting win. Despite the sloppiness, OU moved up to the top spot in the polls while Ohio State only fell two spots to six.

    Yet another key game that didn't seem to be one at the time took place in Happy Valley as Kentucky, ineligible for the SEC title due to probation, upset Penn State, 24-20, led by two players from Camden, NJ that Joe Paterno's crack staff somehow failed to recruit. And Texas began to get a little bit of recognition just prior to the Red River Rivalry when they Longhorns thumped Rice, 72-15, and began to climb into the top five. The following week, however, would flip all the assumptions upside down.

    Thanks to an impressive 41-7 beating of Washington State, USC had replaced Oklahoma at #1. Alabama, now up to seven, came to Los Angeles and in an unforgettable classic, the Tide eked out a narrow 21-20 win when Wayne Hamilton forced a quick throw on a two-point conversion that future Tide legend Barry Krauss intercepted with 35 seconds left. Alabama had barely held on after roaring out to a 21-6 lead on the nation's top-ranked team. Meanwhile in Dallas, the Longhorns shocked the Sooners, 13-6. It was not a pretty win. Heisman candidate (and eventual winner) Earl Campbell got the proceedings off to a bad start when he threw an interception on a halfback option on the first play of the game, setting Oklahoma on the Texas 14 just six seconds into the game. The Longhorn D stiffened and forced a field goal and then just before halftime, Texas K Russell Erxleben popped a 64-yard field goal that gave Texas a 10-3 lead. With four minutes left, Oklahoma drove all the way to the Texas four needing a TD to tie (or win), but the Longhorns were up to the challenge, and the Sooners were beaten. The new poll had Michigan at number one, Texas second, Colorado quietly slipping into third and Alabama fourth. And then came further proof that the only three certainties in life are death, taxes, and Bo Schembechler choking when it counts.

    On October 22, Bo took his top-ranked Wolverines into Minneapolis to battle the Golden Gophers. Not only did Michigan not win, they didn't even score. Minnesota not only won, 16-0, but all sixteen points were scored by two players from Michigan recruited right out from under Bo. Tuesday's vote came and Texas was on top of the polls with Alabama second (but no first-place votes) and Ohio State third. Indeed, the rankings were a tad ridiculous, given that Ohio State was ranked one spot ahead of the same Sooners team that had beaten them just a month earlier. The same day saw Notre Dame unload on USC, 49-19, and re-enter the title picture.

    The rankings then held for an amazing month. In fact, the TOP NINE TEAMS in the polls all kept their spots with zero movement through four sets of polls. They inevitably moved in late November when Michigan and Ohio State met - yet again - for a "winner goes to the Rose Bowl" match in Ann Arbor. Michigan won, 14-6, when Ohio State QB Rod Gerald fumbled the game away in the final minute. So frustrated at the loss was Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes that he punched a sideline cameraman for ABC Sports. (In other words, folks, Hayes' 1978 firing was not a first offense).

    For some reason, the pollsters did not like Alabama very much in 1977. While the Tide had been ranked number two starting October 24, they never had more than one first-place vote at any time during that run. It got worse when Oklahoma vaulted over Alabama (and picked up five first-place votes) after the Sooners did what Alabama couldn't do - beat Nebraska and how, to the tune of 38-7. It should be noted at this point that the AP was FULLY justified in ranking Oklahoma ahead of Alabama by virtue of the Nebraska game. OU won, Alabama lost. OU had only lost to Texas, who was ranked ahead of them. It was their failure to note this later that would cause the grief. The final regular season polls were:

    1) Texas

    2) Oklahoma - only lost to Texas by seven

    3) Alabama - lost to Nebraska by 7

    4) Michigan - 16-point loss to Minnesota

    5) Notre Dame - 7-point loss to Ole Miss

    6) Arkansas - four-point loss to Texas
     
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  2. TedSlimmJr

    TedSlimmJr Hartselle Tigers (15-0) 5-A State Champ

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    PART 2:


    There were 13 bowl games in 1977. In those pre-Internet days of paying long distance calls by the minute, a mini-controversy erupted. Oklahoma was Orange Bowl bound as Big Eight champions. In those days, the Orange Bowl got to select an at large opponent for the Big Eight champion. The Rose Bowl was bound to the Big Ten and Pac Ten, the SEC was obligated to the Sugar Bowl, and the SWC champion was Cotton Bowl ready. Because bowl bids were due before the season ended - and the Orange Bowl wanted the best possible matchup - the Orange Bowl somewhat surprisingly chose SWC runner-up Arkansas over Penn State, mostly because they feared that Penn State would lose to Pitt, and the game would lose its luster. Penn State won, but it was too late. To make the public relations nightmare even worse, Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz had to deal with the kind of incident that could well have destroyed his team but, in fact, made it stronger.

    About ten days before the Orange Bowl, a group of ten male college students were in a dorm room with a partially nude female. Although later court testimony would say it was "playful," at one point (according to the Washington Post) the girl screamed and was heard by another co-ed, who called the police. By the time the police arrived, everyone had scattered. Holtz suspended the three football players, which included both his leading rusher and leading receiver. Though Holtz did have a checkered history regarding run-ins with the NCAA, his swift actions here likely saved the university multiple layers of grief. The female was considering filing charges until Holtz's swift actions of suspending the players persuaded her otherwise. In essence, Holtz plea bargained with the female victim. Of course, the controversy got louder when it was pointed out the three suspended players were all black while the woman in question was white. Other black players on the team considered boycotting the Orange Bowl to show solidarity with their suspended teammates. The three players filed an injunction to play that was rejected by Arkansas Attorney General (and future President) Bill Clinton. Although fully a dozen players threatened to boycott the game, none did. Of course, in one sense nobody really thought it mattered: OU were 18-point favorites expected to run roughshod over the Hawgs, and the point spread moved to 24 after the suspensions. But much as Bill Oliver did in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, Holtz and his talented staff that included future NFL coaches Monte Kiffin and Pete Carroll, designed a solitary game plan to upend Oklahoma's usual looks. But the story wasn't larger because nobody gave Arkansas much of a chance even before the suspensions.

    The bowl games were played on January 2 that year, thanks to January 1 falling on a Sunday. If Texas won by any margin - quite frankly, if they tied - the Longhorns would be the national champions. Notre Dame lucked into the game because the three non-Texas foes ahead of them all had obligations. Notre Dame crushed Texas, 38-10, forcing six turnovers and not having a single TD drive of longer than 50 yards. Later in the afternoon, Alabama squared off against #8 Ohio State, a matchup of the two winningest active coaches in the game. The Tide staked their claim to the title, blasting the Buckeyes 35-6, in what proved to be Woody Hayes's last New Year's Day bowl game. (In a cruel irony, Ara Parseghian was the analyst alongside Keith Jackson). Needing Arkansas to beat Oklahoma, the Tide left the Superdome field hopeful and ecstatic, already knowing that Texas had lost.

    Arkansas also benefited from the lackluster preparation of Barry Switzer. Not only did the OU coach push for Arkansas - his alma mater - to be included in the game, but he didn't even view game film until two days before the game, and the Sooners never had a full padded practice. Arkansas thumped the Sooners, 31-6, and the controversy began.

    Who should be number one? The top six teams in the nation all had one loss. In reality, only two teams had a realistic chance, Notre Dame and Alabama. It would have been difficult to justify voting for Arkansas, given that the Hawgs had lost to Texas, 13-9. One could not reasonably vote for Texas, either, given that they had just been pulverized, 38-10, in what was essentially a home game. Kentucky's probation ruled them out, and for some reason the AP saw no inconsistency in putting Penn State one spot ahead of Kentucky despite the fact that Penn State's only loss of the year came against the Wildcats. This likewise ruled out Penn State. So should the vote go to Notre Dame or to Alabama?

    The strength of schedule argument greatly favors Notre Dame. The Irish played nation's fourth toughest schedule that year. Of course, if SOS is the clinching argument then Penn State, who played the nation's most difficult schedule, should have won. In fact, Penn State has a better argument all the way around: their loss was not as bad as Notre Dame's loss to Ole Miss, their schedule was tougher (six teams with eight wins or more, four for the Irish), and they had the same 2-0 record against common opponents - Pitt and Miami - as the Irish).

    The worst loss category easily eliminated Notre Dame, whose loss came to a team with a losing record (5-6). Alabama thumped that same foe, 34-13, and both played USC. While it is true that Notre Dame beat USC by substantially more points, the Tide beat then #1 USC on the road in Los Angeles while Notre Dame got them two weeks after that loss at the Irish campus in South Bend. The two teams also mauled Miami, the Tide by 36 points in a shutout in Alabama, the Irish by 38 in Miami. It should be noted that the Irish, unlike Alabama - who played LSU the previous week - had a bye week prior to the Miami game.

    A closer look at the weekly polls shows something else: while it is true that Alabama never seemed to be a favorite of the polls in 1977 - never more than one first-place vote until the final tally - the same is essentially true of the Irish. After their loss to Ole Miss, Notre Dame spent every single week ranked lower than Alabama. Except for the pre-season poll, where Notre Dame got nine first-place votes to Alabama's one, the Irish only polled more first-place votes than Alabama in ONE poll, the vote on November 21, and that count was 1-0, hardly a testimonial to voters believing in the Irish.

    The final vote as published on January 3, 1978, was for the most part an utter travesty. Notre Dame got 37 1/3 votes to finish first, Alabama got 19 1/3 to finish second, while Arkansas got 5 1/3 to finish third. Even worse, Texas, who had just been blown out by Notre Dame, still collared two first-place votes. Ara Parseghian had at one point declared that Notre Dame should be number one because the Irish beat Texas head-to-head. This would be a clinching argument if all things were equal. But it's not as though Alabama was ducking Texas. In fact, Alabama absolutely mauled an Ohio State team that had played Oklahoma to about the same kind of standstill as Texas had. A round-robin tournament of those three teams would likely produce no clear winner, but the Tide owned Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl to about the same degree as Notre Dame owned Texas.

    But something deeper happened as well. First of all, the Southern-based votes in the AP poll appear to have split among the three Southern teams: Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. However, even if Alabama had collared all of those votes, it would not have been enough. It is also probable that nearly every voter in the AP poll was the same as had been voting since 1973. That could only have hurt Alabama with the pollsters. It shouldn't have but after all - they'd seen Notre Dame square off with Alabama three times, and the Irish had won all three games. It would have been normal for the voters to have thought that Alabama would have lost any head-to-head matchup with the Irish simply because they'd lost them all in recent years.

    What should the outcome have been? Well, how many times has the team that won the national championship with a loss had its sole loss to a team with a losing record (note: prior to 1977)? Just once, 1957 Ohio State - a team that would not have won the AP poll except for the fact that UPI unbeaten champion Auburn was on probation and ineligible.

    One of two things should have happened: a) Alabama should have won the title outright; or b) the two teams should have split the championship because they didn't settle it on the field. But in no way should Alabama have gone through the season they did and wound up watching Notre Dame celebrate yet again at what always seemed to be the Tide's expense.

    Alabama was not the only angry fan base over the 1977 vote. Lou Holtz got so angry that he went home and devised an eight-team playoff system that would have included the bowl games. Despite vocal support from Joe Paterno, who felt his unbeaten teams of 1968, 1969, and 1973 were snubbed, the proposal got nowhere. And Penn State had to sit idly by despite a stronger strength of schedule and watch Notre Dame win it all. The Irish, quite frankly, were the only team happy about the outcome of the 1977 season.
     
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  3. fishfanmiami

    fishfanmiami Grip it and rip it Moderator Finheaven VIP Donator

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    Interesting read slimm. Appreciate the effort.
    Wasn't into college football much in the 70's living in Miami. The local team wasn't very good and of course our Dolphin were so that's mainly the games i attended.
    That changed when Howard came to our program bringing some of Bear's and Shula's influence and ideas with him.
     
  4. TedSlimmJr

    TedSlimmJr Hartselle Tigers (15-0) 5-A State Champ

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    Well I didn't figure there were a lot in here that were familiar with the landscape of college football prior to the 80's.

    However, it'll get better because I'm going to move into some poll controversies during the 80's, 90's, and 2000's. I'm going to talk about Miami/Nebraska....all the Wide Rights....you name it.
     
  5. fishfanmiami

    fishfanmiami Grip it and rip it Moderator Finheaven VIP Donator

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    Excellent. i'll keep an eye out for it
     
  6. Namor

    Namor Pro Bowler Finheaven VIP

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    Damn,!!! Ted...I feel like me and you are the two old guys sitting in the balcony from "The Muppets Show" yelling and making fun of everybody.
    The 66 Bama team was the one that really got screwed.
     
  7. TedSlimmJr

    TedSlimmJr Hartselle Tigers (15-0) 5-A State Champ

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    [​IMG]
     
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