Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Book Review: The Missing Ring

The dominant story of the 1966 college football season, as I'd heard it for basically my entire life resolved around Michigan State and Notre Dame, and their famous 10-10 tie in which Irish coach Ara Parseghian elected to take a knee rather than try to win the game outright, figuring that since his team was (i) Notre Dame, (ii) on the read, and (iii) already the #1 team in the polls, there was no need to do any other. He was vindicated by results, as Notre Dame finished 9-0-1 and ranked #1 in the polls.

There is also another story of the 1966 season, though, and it belongs to the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide finished #1 in the AP poll in 1964 and #1 in 1965 as well. They then went undefeated in 1966 and, despite ranking #1 in the preseason polls, finished the year ranked #3 overall, behind Michigan State and Notre Dame. The story of this "injustice" is told in The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football's Most Elusive Prize, by Keith Dunnavant. Dunnavant tells the story of that Alabama team and their season, and does that well. The book is also replete with those two other college football nostrumsm: whining about regional bias and the polls. The story, at least as told from Alabama's perspective, is that George Wallace is the reason Alabama didn't win 3 straight AP National Championships. It's a reasonably well done book, and if you're sympathetic to Dunnavant's clear bias, then it's probably worth reading if you're a college football fan.

Reading it as a college football fan who didn't share Dunnavant's perspective, though, the book gets pretty tiresome. First, part of Dunnavant's defense of Alabama is that George Wallace started out relatively liberal on matters of race, but moved more segregationist when he found it more politically expedient to do so. I'm confused as to how this is actually a defense for two reasons. First, it suggests that Wallace's ideas on the matters of race were not strongly held principles in favor of something akin to color-blindness, but instead were subject instead to political expediency. Second, it suggests that the problem was not George Wallace, but Alabamians in general. This, in my mind, makes the case Dunnavant is trying to make weaker, not stronger, since it suggests that Wallace is not an aberration whose faults should not be reflected upon the whole, but instead emblematic of a greater political problem.

Second, one of the demerits against Alabama was a relatively weak non-conference schedule. Their first game was a home game against a mediocre Louisiana Tech team. Dunnavant tells us that Alabama attempted to schedule a stronger team, but that they didn't want to visit Alabama because of the political climate, leaving LaTech as the best available option. Now, maybe I've been too acclimated to some crazy ideas, but a simple solution suggested itself: Alabama should travel to those schools instead, rather than them traveling to Alabama. Alas, this option is not considered in the book. And that apparent failure to consider other options was apparently a trend of Alabama football. After a 1946 visit to Boston College, Alabama did not play another game outside the old Confederacy until a return visit to Southern Cal in 1970.

Third, Dunnavant tells us that when Alabama integrated the team after the 1966 season, there were no difficulties. Fine, that's good. In fact, since Bear Bryant comes across in the book as only slightly removed from God, but much more present, and Bear said don't treat the black players any differently, that's just what we should expect. This also is only tangential to the story of "Alabama got screwed in 1966." In fact, Dunnavant tells us that Bryant when he was coaching at Kentucky wanted to integrate the team so that they could be more competitive, a decision rejected by the athletic director. Given his god-like status in Alabama, he could have broken the color barrier before 1966, chose not to, a decision that his Kentucky experience suggests was made in part because he thought he could win with an all-white team. Bear was thus (a) cowed by the segregationist attitudes of Alabamians and/or (b) didn't really think integration was a big deal.

Fourth, both of Alabama's previous championships, in both 1964 and 1965, were tainted. In 1964, Alabama had an undefeated regular season, then lost in the Orange Bowl to 9-1 Texas. Meanwhile, #2 Arkansas, which had beaten Texas and was also undefeated, won the Orange Bowl over Nebraska. Under a post-bowl voting system not then in place, Alabama finishes no higher than 3rd. Alas, the final AP poll was taken after the regular season and before the bowls, so Alabama finished #1.

In 1965, though, the AP made a change, and the final poll was taken after the bowls. Alabama that year had an 8-1-1 regular season, with a loss to a Georgia team that finished 6-4 and a tie against an 8-1-2 Tennessee team. In the final pre-bowl poll, Alabama was #4, behind undefeated Michigan State, Arkansas, and Nebraska. Alabama beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, though, while Arkansas lost to LSU in the Cotton Bowl, and Michigan State lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The AP Poll reacted in its natural fashion, placing greater weight on recent losses than on a team's corpus of work over the entire year, and boosted Alabama to #1, over three teams with a better record.

Had the pre-/post-bowl order been reversed in 1964 and 1965, Alabama would have won 0 national championships. Had polling taken place only either the bowls or before the bowls, Alabama would have won 1 national championship. Alabama, I believe, deserved, no more than 1 national championship from 1964 and 1965. That they won 2 is by far a greater injustice than anything that happened to a 1966 team which had at best an arguable claim.

Notwithstanding my criticism of the book's thesis, the book is well done, and didn't dissuade me from looking to read Dunnavant's The Fifty-Year Seduction, on college football's relationship with television, even though I suspect I'll disagree with his thesis there just as strongly.

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