Bear Bryant’s Alabama team went unbeaten, untied and uncrowned in 1966, and at least one former player wonders if not winning a national title that year didn’t hurt the Crimson Tide later.
Offensive lineman Byrd Williams, a senior on the 1966 team, recalled recently how disappointing it was that Alabama wasn’t voted No. 1 in either The Associated Press rankings or coaches’ poll. The Crimson Tide (11-0) was No. 3 behind No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State.
For the team, it was a bit of a realization that even Bear Bryant, college football’s greatest and most influential coach, couldn’t always sway everybody within his sport.
“The fact that we didn’t win in 1966 might’ve hurt Alabama in 1967 an ’68,” Williams said while on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “The truth is, we had great faith in Coach Bryant, and we always believed that if we did everything he told us to do, we would win the national championship.”
Both Notre Dame and Michigan State went unbeaten that year but tied each other 10-10. Neither team went to a bowl game. Notre Dame chose not to play bowls back then, and Michigan State was hurt by a Big Ten rule that didn’t allow teams to go to the Rose Bowl in consecutive years. Michigan State won the Big Ten that year, but the Spartans already had gone to the Rose Bowl the previous season. Runner-up Purdue went to Pasadena instead.
Williams said one moment in which he and his teammates had their faith in Bryant rewarded was at the end of the 1965 season. Alabama was fourth in the national rankings and about to play No. 3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. No. 2 Arkansas played LSU in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 1 Michigan State face UCLA in the Rose.
Arkansas was unbeaten and favored to beat a 7-3 LSU team coached by Charles “Cholly Mac” McClendon, a former player under Bryant at Kentucky. Michigan State was unbeaten, too, and favored by 14 points over UCLA.
Williams said that even against long odds, Bryant was predicting a national title for his team.
“The Rose Bowl was going to be during the day, and Coach Bryant told us that Michigan State would tire in the California sun,” Williams said, “and he said that Cholly Mac would beat Arkansas. That would mean that we would play Nebraska for the national title.”
Sure enough, LSU won 14-7, and UCLA won 14-12. Then Alabama beat Nebraska 39-28. The Crimson Tide led the whole way, including 24-7 at halftime and 39-20 until the Cornhuskers scored a late touchdown and 2-point conversion.
“Coach Bryant told us it would happen, and it did,” Williams said.
Note: As you probably can tell, I’ve been emptying my notebook this week after interviews for a story that will appear in Sunday’s Decatur Daily. Byrd Williams, who is retired and living in Birmingham, was a huge help with the story. Check it out at decaturdaily.com.