Everything I know about college football I view through the prism of the 1979 Sugar Bowl. It is not my earliest memory, but it might as well be: In the pale yellow American Broadcasting Corporation graphics, in the fine-spun play-by-play of Keith Jackson,1 in the august pro-Dixie color analysis of longtime Arkansas coach Frank Broyles, in the stark clash of the two most elegant uniforms in college football with the lime sheen of the AstroTurf, in Bear Bryant's bold sartorial choices, in the futuristic electronic time clock of the Superdome … hell, I guess the 1979 Sugar Bowl is my own little hyperconcussive madeleine. It triggers memories of childhood anticipation and of childhood disappointment, of every fear and obstacle and potential triumph that lay ahead; even now, when I go back to the video, the whole thing just feels so incomprehensibly huge to me, so loaded with involuntary memory — not to mention the dread of knowing how the whole thing ends — that I have trouble watching more than a few minutes at a time before I find myself shutting it off.
I was 6 years old when the '79 Sugar Bowl was played, and at the time it felt like the biggest thing I had ever witnessed. Part of it was the timing: I'd moved to a college town a few months earlier, and the university in this particular town happened to be one of the two principals involved in this game, which — though it was not officially sanctioned as one of college football's myriad "Games of the Century" — was being billed as an unofficial national championship contest. And because the population of my college town was maybe one-tenth the size of Pittsburgh, this felt like our Super Bowl, multiplied 10 times over.
In the holiday season leading up to the '79 Sugar Bowl, this was all we talked about. I hardly left our basement, willing myself with a Nerf football into the bodies of Mike Guman, the Penn State tailback, and Scott Fitzkee, the Nittany Lions' wide receiver. I could not imagine that there was anyone in America who could possibly be pondering anything other than what thoughts might be brimming behind the formidable mustache of Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina. It was the first time that the result of a sporting event felt like it might somehow serve to define me.
And when Penn State lost, 14-7, when the Nittany Lions failed to push the ball across the goal line from one yard out in the fourth quarter, it felt like I had failed, too.
I know that sounds melodramatic (maybe even idiotic, given the hypocrisies inherent to college sports), and I know I am colored by my own partiality, and I know I've exaggerated the effect of this game in my mind. And yet I also know I am not alone in doing so. I know I am not alone in doing so because in 2002 ESPN.com ranked the 1979 Sugar Bowl as the greatest bowl game ever played, and because Joe Paterno once described the '79 Sugar Bowl as a disappointment that took him years to get over.2 And I know I am not alone in this because I recently spoke to a man named James Vautravers, who was 13 years old back then, who lived near a naval base in Omaha, Nebraska, and who was so convinced that the 1979 Sugar Bowl was the definitive national championship game of the era that he shouted down a girl from the neighborhood about it. "Of course Alabama deserved to be no. 1," he said. "They won the national championship game on a colossal goal-line stand."
That's how it felt to me, too, as much as it killed me to acknowledge it. And that's how I assumed it was, for more than three decades, until I started to look back again at the 1978 college football season, to study the facts of that season instead of filtering them through my memory. At which point I realized, not for the first time and not for the last time, that everything I thought I knew was utterly and completely colored by my own unreliable recollection of it.
This is how complicated it can get when you have a sport that relies on the perpetual Argument to determine its national champion: Sometimes the Argument bleeds over from one year to the next, and sometimes the Argument clouds the truth. In retrospect, it seems dubious that Alabama won the Associated Press national championship for the 1978 college football season, despite what the Crimson Tide did in the '79 Sugar Bowl; in retrospect, it seems clear that Southern California, which won the coaches' (UPI) poll, had a stronger case. Vautravers determined this years ago, when, after being challenged by that girl in the neighborhood, he went back and looked at both teams' schedules; he refined his argument years later, launching a website called TipTop25, which revises the Associated Press poll rankings year by year based on rationality and common sense rather than the whims of the moment.
And in 1978, Alabama won a national championship largely due to the whims of the moment.
Can I explain? Because there is a rational explanation. There is a reason why Vautravers feels that Alabama may have been undeserving in 1978 — as does another retroactive pollster, Richard Billingsley — and it goes back to the question of whether Alabama was deserving in 1977. That was the year the top six teams finished the season with one loss; that was the year no. 3 Alabama crushed no. 9 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and no. 5 Notre Dame destroyed no. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and no. 6 Arkansas throttled no. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and no. 4 Michigan lost to no. 13 Washington team in the Rose Bowl. That was the year a Kentucky team on probation finished 10-1, and an 11-1 Penn State team (which had lost to Kentucky) won the Fiesta Bowl over no. 15 Arizona State.
That was, in other words, the year the college football endgame devolved into utter chaos. And as is often the case when there is a definitive answer to the Argument, the answer became "Notre Dame."
Was Alabama robbed of the 1977 national championship? Alabama partisans would say yes, because 5-6 Ole Miss handed Notre Dame its only loss that season (20-13), and Alabama beat Ole Miss 34-13; and because Alabama, ranked third in the pre-bowl poll, won its bowl game handily, just as fifth-ranked Notre Dame did. Notre Dame fans would say no, because the Irish defeated the no. 1 team in the country (Texas) in the Cotton Bowl by a score of 38-10, thereby deeming themselves worthy of leapfrogging, and because the Irish beat USC by 30 points while Alabama beat the Trojans by one. Billingsley's retroactive rankings have the Crimson Tide fourth in '77, behind Notre Dame, Texas, and Arkansas. Yet there was a sense that the Irish had crept ahead of Alabama in the final standings strictly due to politics. According to The Last Coach, author Allen Barra's biography of Bear Bryant, several Bama players publicly commented, "No one else but Notre Dame could have gone past us."
And I have to imagine those comments lingered in the minds of Associated Press voters; I have to imagine they saw the aging visage of Bear Bryant — who collapsed in the shower from congestive heart failure before the '77 season, and checked himself into alcohol rehab after the win over Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl — and thought to themselves, This may be the Bear's last chance.
Which, like everything else in this scenario, was an arbitrary (and ultimately untrue) assumption.3
Honestly, I have no real problem with split national championships. Given the impurities of the Argument, I think split national championships should probably have been awarded more often than they have been in the pre-playoff era; at some level, it made sense to split the national championship in '78, since Alabama defeated the consensus no. 1 team in the nation (as this panel of patronizing Touchdown Jesus Truthers argues at the start of this video),4 even if the Tide did not do so with the same finality that Notre Dame did the year before.
But it also made no sense at all. And this is because of what took place on September 23, 1978, in Birmingham, Alabama: USC 24, Alabama 14.
So, just to recap: The teams that split the national championship actually played each other during the regular season. And one team won definitively, and one team lost definitively.5
"To me, to break through that head-to-head loss," Vautravers said, "you'd have to have a performance advantage [over the course of the season]. And Alabama didn't."
And this didn't matter at all in the end.
Here is where we get into shades of gray and fall headlong into conspiracy theories and primordial Tuck Rule discussions. Here is where it starts to feel like the system is rigged, even if it's difficult for an impartial judge to tell for whom the system is rigged. Here is where we start to argue about luck, an impossible thing to argue about unless you believe luck is not actually luck but is actually evidence of some grand oligarchical design.
Three games in particular cloud the case for Southern Cal in the minds of skeptics. The first and most obvious is USC's 20-7 loss to an unranked Arizona State team, the Trojans' only blemish of the season. I will give you this, even if the Sun Devils, who finished 9-3, were not exactly the bottom-dwellers that you might assume. But beyond that, it is all based on hypotheticals, on what perhaps should have happened but did not happen.
Second, November 25, 1978: Notre Dame at USC. The Irish are trailing 24-6 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Irish have Joe Montana, and they take a 25-24 lead on a short Montana TD pass with 46 seconds to play. The Trojans get the ball back on their own 30, and quarterback Paul McDonald drops back to pass, and then ... well, since I can find no video evidence of this play online, here's a quote from the wire service report:
McDonald, trying to avoid a Notre Dame rush, seemed to fumble the football. But the officials ruled he had begun forward motion of his arm and called the play an incomplete pass.
So USC keeps the ball, and McDonald completes a 35-yard pass on the next play, and the Trojans kick a field goal to win the game.
And it doesn't end there. Because on New Year's Day, USC plays Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and Charles White dives for the end zone from the 3-yard line, and the ball comes loose, and appears to have come loose well before White actually reaches the end zone. Michigan fans refer to it as the "Phantom Touchdown"; their indignation in this case appears to be well placed, as the officials were quite clearly confused in a way typically reserved for replacement referees. And this is where the conspiracy theorists find their grist: As Vautravers told me, even though the official who initially ruled in favor of USC was actually a Big Ten official from Chicago (Gil Marchman), the referee who made the final determination was a Californian (and Pac-8 official) named Paul Kamanski. And Kamanski, reportedly succumbing to Marchman's adamant objections about White's forward progress, ruled the play a touchdown.
And USC won, 17-10.
And Paul Kamanski, as it turned out, was the same referee who presided over the USC–Notre Dame game.6
We could play these little mind games forever if we wanted; here, for instance, is video of a blatant hold that was not called on one of Alabama's touchdowns in the '79 Sugar Bowl. But there are some things I am willing to admit here, even as a Penn State partisan. One is that, of the three teams in contention for the national championship that day, Penn State had played the weakest schedule;7 the other is that the Nittany Lions blew a clear opportunity to erase any doubt over the '78 season by failing to gain a single yard when they absolutely had to.
It really is a remarkable goal-line stand, when you look back at it. On second-and-goal, Fusina throws an out to Fitzkee, who appears to have a clear path to six points until cornerback Don McNeal streaks in from the deep blue of the Superdome end zone and railroads him out of bounds. On third down, Matt Suhey leaps over the top and goes nowhere. And then it's fourth down, and as Paterno wrote in his autobiography, "I called a time-out and told my coaches I wanted [Fusina] to fake a run and throw a little pop pass to the tight end."
But his coaches argued against him. His coaches argued for conservatism. His coaches said, If we can't gain a yard, we don't deserve the national championship, and Paterno acquiesced. He handed the ball to Mike Guman, and Guman leaped above the pile, high into the air, and was stood up by a linebacker named Barry Krauss, who pinched a nerve in his neck and broke a chip off his helmet and had no idea what happened on the play until his teammates told him. Years later, they still sell posters of Barry Krauss standing up Mike Guman on the goal line and ostensibly winning Alabama the national championship by a stretch of turf that Bryant later estimated, to a reporter, was "about the length of your tallywhacker."
I look back at that goal-line stand, and I like to think I learned all sorts of valuable lessons: that life cannot be lived conservatively, that failure must be accepted, that disappointment is inevitable. I look back at that goal-line stand and I wonder, sometimes, if it shaped my worldview more than I'd like to admit.
And so that game will always feel like a behemoth to me, even if I'm no longer convinced that Alabama deserved to win the national championship. All I can say for certain is that Penn State lost it. Even if the Nittany Lions score right there, with six minutes to play, and they choose to tie the game at 14, and they finish 11-0-1, it would have been nearly impossible to make the case against them; if Penn State gains one yard, there is no real debate at all about the '78 national champion.
(Sometimes there is no Argument at all. Sometimes you just lose.)
The goal-line stand, then, is Alabama's best case for a share of the title: When forced to face up directly against their own obsolescence, the Crimson Tide did not fold. That's all the argument of '78 is about. It is rooted in the persistence of memory. Go back and watch that commentary from an Alabama broadcaster after the release of the UPI poll: It begins with a callback to what happened the year before, in 1977, with Notre Dame, and to the idea that defeating a no. 1 team trumps even the idea of losing to the team that has equal claim to no. 1; it clings to the idea that "hype" (in the form of media credential requests, I guess) should play a central role, that a national championship game becomes a national championship game when it is made to feel like something larger than life. Which, in the end, is exactly how I remember it.