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Team Speed Kills’ College Football Facts Countdown Series: Day 78

Or where “Bear” Bryant wins his 5th championship at Alabama

Birmingham News

We’re going to do something a little different with this post.

I enlisted my Dad, Phillip Waldrop, who’s a native of Tuscaloosa County and an alum of the university, to give his thoughts on the 1978 Alabama football squad that won Paul W. Bryant his 5th national championship.

The following is an email conversation he and I had.

JW: Starting broad, where were you in your life going into the fall of 1978?

Dad: Your Mom and I were newly married and I was beginning my 3rd year at Arkansas State—relatively new faculty member trying to carve out a niche in academia. I was still adjusting to being west of the Mississippi River where radio stations didn’t carry SEC football games, so having to endure Saturdays without hearing or seeing the games was torture. Picture your father trying to climb on top of the tallest available structures with a transistor radio (see ancient history books) to try and pick up a radio signal. I listened to games where you could only pick up about every 3rd word (if that) through the static. Fortunately, we played several teams that were highly ranked at the time so we did get on television a few times that year.

JW: Is there anything you recall about the 1977 season that gave you a reason to be excited about 1978?

Dad: As I recall, many of the players {from the ‘77 season} were returning. Traditionally, Alabama fans tended to think that every year was an impending disaster and couldn’t possibly match what we just gotten through. We had lived through the late 60’s when things went South (so to speak) so there was always the fear that certain death was just waiting around the corner. In our family, being despondent about the prospects was a traditional mystical protection against bad things actually happening.

JW: What were the prevailing sentiments of “Bear” Bryant at this point in his tenure with the school? How’d you feel about him?

Dad: As I said before, we had lived through the bad times in the late 60’s when there were even rumblings of time for Coach Bryant to retire—lost his touch, etc. After the return to prominence, fans were a bit leery of what had to be his retirement closing in. I was confident that we’d be o.k. while he was coaching, but had a wary eye toward the time he would be gone.

JW: Was there anything about the regular season schedule that year that stuck out to you?

Dad: The USC loss was a real downer. USC had a lot of players on that team that went to the NFL (e.g., Anthony Munoz, Charles White, Ronnie Lott), so there was no real reason to be surprised, I guess. We had squeaked by them in 1977, and were riding that undefeated streak. I always had a desire to make USC pay for my having to sit through the famous Sam Cunningham Birmingham humiliation in ’70. (I was sitting in Legion Field for that game and couldn’t let it go.) We started with a strong game against Nebraska and finished the regular season with a pretty good beat down of Auburn. Wins over those teams was always huge.

JW: Which ‘Bama players do you recall killing it that season?

Dad: There were a lot of solid players on that team. The defense as a whole, of course. Most people remember Barry Krauss, but they also had Marty Lyons and E.J. Junior. Major Ogilvie was a really good running back who often gets lost in the discussion. As always, no one piled up huge offensive statistics during that time at Alabama.

JW: Losing semi-annually to USC must've been frustrating as a fan. In your estimation, why could "Bear" not get over the hump with the McKay/Robinson teams?

Dad: It was frustrating! (see above). At that time, USC probably consistently had the most talent. In many ways, they were a little like Alabama since Saban’s arrival—just stocking up every year. And, of course, McKay and Robinson were excellent coaches. And perhaps there was witchcraft involved (or a communist plot!).

JW: What do you recall about the Sugar Bowl game against Penn State, namely that goal-line stand?

Dad: The whole game was one of those defensive gems that both coaches loved. It just didn’t seem like we could shake them. After blowing a chance and then having Penn State march down the field at the end, that desperate sinking feeling was setting in. They seemed to be so evenly matched and it looked like all momentum had swung toward Penn State. I was preparing for the worst with every down. Once they got down right on the goal line, I just assumed it was over. Then when Krauss came flying over the top, it was just the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I think Coach Bryant loved a good goal line stand more than anything (“gut check time” as he would say). And that one was the best!

JW: How does the 1978 championship team hold up to the others that have been won by the team since?

Dad: That’s hard to answer. I think Coach Bryant liked to take “ordinary” players and have them do extraordinary things. I’m not sure that the ’78 team had the raw talent that was available in ’92 and beyond. You very rarely, if ever, hear them mentioned when discussions of great Alabama teams come up. But they were very representative of the type of teams that Coach Bryant established as Alabama tradition. If you look at the stats from that year, nothing sticks out as noteworthy in comparison to teams that came later. There were some dominant wins, but it’s just different now.

Thanks, Dad