TOP SINGLE-SEASON TEAMS OF THE DECADES
19th Century: 1893 Princeton
1900s: 1901 Michigan
1910s: 1913 Washington
1920s: 1924 Notre Dame
1930s: 1932 Southern California
1940s: 1947 Notre Dame
1950s: 1956 Oklahoma
1960s: 1968 Ohio State
1970s: 1972 Southern California
1980s: 1987 Miami
1990s: 1995 Nebraska
2000s: 2004 Southern California
Princeton’s best team in the nineteenth century was their famed 1893 squad, although great teams at Penn a few years later helped shape the game, spreading its popularity. Once the twentieth century began, however, all bets were off. While the predecessors of the Ivy League – Princeton, Yale and Harvard - continued strong runs in the 1900s, it was coach Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost’s “point-a-minute” 1901 Michigan Wolverines, winners of consecutive national championships accorded by historical ratings services, that make the Wolverines the choice for this decade. The single decisive factor in favor of Michigan is their famed 49-0 pounding of Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
The 1917 national champion Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets under legendary coach John Heisman put the South on the map before Alabama came along. They shut out seven opponents, but oddly are not the best team Georgia Tech had. The once-tied 1916 team, which is not considered a consensus national champion, beat Cumberland by the largest score ever (222-0). In 1918 the ‘Jackets won games by scores of 118-0 and 123-0 over military teams. They defeated North Carolina State 128-0. But that 1918 season hardly counts because of World War and its effect on college rosters. Michigan has been accorded historical national championship status for the truncated 1918 campaign.
The 1913 Washington Huskies are the choice for best single-season team of the 1910s. It is hard not to pick them, even though their schedule was not as strong as Eastern and Midwestern teams. Auburn (8-0) was felt to be their equal that year. So too was Notre Dame, upset winners of Army and suddenly a major powerhouse on the national scene. Harvard (1912) was another contender.
The 1920s offer one of the most competitive fields ever when it comes to choosing the best single-season team of the decade. Whether the 1924 Notre Dame Fighting Irish really were or not takes a back seat to the fact they were the most heralded, famed Irish team perhaps of all time; made the school’s and coach Knute Rockne’s legend; and created much of the inspiration that changed collegiate football from “boola-boola” and fur coats into Saturday madness.
This was the Irish of “Four Horsemen” fame (Harry Stuhldreyer, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden). They beat Army at the Polo Grounds and, in a game that separates them from most pre-1969 Irish teams, went to a bowl. The Irish beat Ernie Nevers and Stanford, 27-10 in the Rose Bowl. This game was a major contest pitting powerhouses from the West and Midwest. Of just as much interest, it matched the great Glenn “Pop” Warner against the new superstar of the coaching ranks, Rockne.
The next best team of the decade was Howard Jones’s 1928 national champions, but two factors work against the Trojans. First, some systems rated Georgia Tech number one (not unusual; the Davis ratings saw Penn as the 1924 champs, and there was virtual no such thing as consensus in any single season). The second factor hurting USC was that, after the regular season ended, their natural path to the Rose Bowl was blocked by their own decision not to play in Pasadena. The facts are murky to this day, but a dispute arose and, for the first and last time in their history, Southern California did not accept a challenge. California went in their stead and, after “Wrong Way” Roy Riegels ran . . . the wrong way, they fell to Georgia Tech, 8-7.
Cal’s 1920 “Wonder Team” may well have beaten the 1924 Irish. Coach Andy Smith’s Golden Bears, led by superb end Brick Muller, was almost unbeatable; in fact they were unbeatable, for fifty games. Perhaps it is political, but Notre Dame’s historical reputation compared to Cal’s less-than-stellar one, on and off the field, gives the edge to Notre Dame.
In the 1930s, co-national champions Notre Dame and Alabama (1930) or Alabama and Minnesota (1934) all have good arguments to make. The 1930 Irish are considered one of Rockne’s greatest teams (not to mention his last; he died in a plane crash after the season). They featured the great quarterback Marchy Schwartz. In 1934, Don Hutson, one of the finest receivers ever, lined up opposite Bear Bryant.
Bernie Bierman’s Minnesota Golden Gophers were champions from 1934-1936. In the late 1930s great Southern teams competed with varying degrees of success and disappointment when national championships, or chances at them, were denied to Duke, Alabama and Tennessee by the polls, the California Golden Bears and the USC Trojans.
Bob Neyland’s Volunteers were powerhouses, as were the Alabama teams that transitioned from the era of Wallace Wade to that of Frank Thomas. Wade went on to coach the unbeaten, untied, unscored-on 1938 Duke Blue Devils who finally were scored on with a minute to go in their Rose Bowl loss to Southern California.
But Howard Jones’s’ 1932 “Thundering Herd” Trojans stand far above all other teams in this decade. They won eight games by shutout, beat Pittsburgh in the Rose Bowl, 35-0, and featured three All-Americans (Tay Brown, Aaron Rosenberg, Ernie Smith). All three are in the College Football Hall of Fame, as is teammate Cotton Warburton.
The 1940s were a replay of the 1930s, with numerous contenders. Again, reputation helps Notre Dame, but of course their reputation was built on solid achievement. That said, picking the 1947 Irish over the 1945 Army Black Knights or the 1948 Michigan Wolverines is not an easy sell. The Irish played in no bowl game, just as Army did not. In 1948 Michigan beat USC, 49-0 in the Rose Bowl. USC had tied undefeated Notre Dame, 14-14. Offensively both the 1948 Michigan and 1944-1945 Army juggernauts were more impressive than Notre Dame.
But in 1947, Notre Dame featured an incredible eight Hall of Famers. Quarterback Johnny Lujack won the Heisman Trophy and tackle George Connor was a consensus All-American selection. Lujack, Connor, Leon Hart, Ziggy Czaraboski, Moose Fischer, Red Sitko, Jim Martin and coach Frank Leahy are all in the College Football Hall of Fame. A record sixteen Notre Dame players were drafted.
In the 1950s, the choices come down to 1956 Oklahoma, 1955 Oklahoma and Oklahoma. Due to pre-bowl voting, only Michigan State (1952) can claim a worthy national championship between the 1950 and 1953 seasons. After Notre Dame finally ended the Sooners’ winning streak at forty-seven games in 1957, there were solid teams (Woody Hayes’s Ohio State Buckeyes in 1957, the famed LSU Tigers of the legendary Billy Cannon in 1958, and Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder’s 1959 national champs). But in the 1950s, it was all Bud Wilkinson and OU. His 1956 team, by virtue of winning the title for the second year in row while running their winning streak to forty, is the pick.
The 1960s offer a more disparate set of choices. Four teams competed for domination: USC, Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Who was the best? At first glance, and certainly in the minds of Alabamians, it was Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide. In 1961 they featured quarterback Pat Trammell (who later became a doctor before dying of cancer) and the legendary lineman Lee Roy Jordan. Bill Curry, who later coached the Tide, said this was the best team he ever saw. Their 1966 team, starring quarterback Kenny Stabler and receiver Ray Perkins, was probably Bear’s best in the 1960s, but for reasons gone over ad infinitum, they were not the national champions.
USC and Notre Dame battled each other, both rising after down periods. The best teams of the decade were the 1966 Irish and the 1968 Trojans. Neither is the “Team of the Decade” because, as Willie Mays once said when asked “whose gonna win the pennant this year?”, well, “Hey man, that’s why’s we’se plays the games.”
Notre Dame beat USC, 51-0 in 1966. They featured quarterback Terry Hanratty, end Jim Seymour, center George Goeddeke, tackle Bob Kuchenberg, running back Rocky Bleier, defensive lineman Alan Page, and linebacker Jim Lynch. An insane total of twelve Irish players earned some All-American recognition. “Team of the Decade” status is denied them, however, not just because they tied Michigan State, 10-10, but because Ara Parseghian played for the tie!
Great teams do not play for the tie!
In 1968, USC was looking to repeat their 1967 national championship with Heisman winner O. J. Simpson, wide receiver Bob Chandler, tackle Sid Smith, tight end Bob Klein, linemen Al Cowlings and Jimmy Gunn, and defensive back Mike Battle. Just as in 2005, when Troy arrived at the Rose Bowl knocking on history’s door, their most-publicized glamour team was upset by a team that may have been more of a team: Woody Hayes’s sophomore-laden Ohio State Buckeyes.
The 1969 Buckeyes were supposed to be better. After they beat TCU 62-0, Sports Illustratedtouted them as the best team ever, but Bo Schembechler and Michigan ended that dream. In later years, Pasadena, would more often than not be a graveyard for Ohio State, but on January 1, 1969 Woody was singing “California Dreamin’.” Led by quarterback Rex Kern, end Jan White, fullback Jim Otis, defensive lineman Jim Stillwagon, and all-everything defensive back Jack Tatum, the Bucks beat Troy, 27-16.
It looked like a Southern Cal day when O. J. ripped off an eighty-yard touchdown run. USC led, 10-0 before Ohio State took over. Trojan turnovers in the second half did them in, and history shall record that the 1968 Buckeyes were the best of this turbulent decade.
The 1970s offer two of the all-time best: the 1972 Trojans over the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Four other “close but no cigar” teams will not go down in history as national champions, but were better than many that did finish number one: the 1971 Oklahoma Sooners (who lost to Nebraska), the 1973 Alabama Crimson Tide (beaten in the Sugar Bowl by Notre Dame), the 1979 Trojans (tied by Stanford) and the 1979 Buckeyes (whose hearts were broken in the last minute by USC in the Rose Bowl).
Oklahoma (1974) was a flawed probationary juggernaut. Notre Dame (1977) plus 1978 co-national champions USC and Alabama each had losses. What about Notre Dame (1973), Pittsburgh (1976) and Alabama (1979)? Great teams, not as good as the 1972 Trojans or the 1971 Cornhuskers. In 1973 Notre Dame fielded one of their best teams. In 1976 Tony Dorsett had one of the most incredible seasons any player ever had. In 1979 ‘Bama was the best of all Bear Bryant teams. As AC/DC once famously stated, “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.” It was that kind of decade.
The first five years of the 1980s did not produce a great champion. Georgia, led by freshman running back sensation Herschel Walker, played slightly above their level in winning it all. Clemson was a survivor in 1981. Penn State finally delivered a title for Joe Paterno, but he probably had three or four better teams in the preceding fifteen years. Nebraska was a team for the ages until Miami created a demarcation point in the game’s history in 1983, knocking them off in the Orange Bowl. BYU, God bless ‘em, won it in 1984, but outside of Utah they are not much remembered.
The decade’s second half saw greatness. Of all those teams, Jimmy Johnson’s 1987 Miami Hurricanes were the best of the bunch. Quarterback Steve Walsh and wide receiver Michael Irvin were unstoppable. Defensive back Bennie Blades personified the newer, fast DBs of the era. They were the new faces of college football; renegades, attitude, “hip hop” warriors.
The 1988 Notre Dame Fighting Irish were the second best team of the decade. Three years after losing to Miami 58-7, they held off the Hurricanes by the barest of margins, 31-30 in a classic Notre Dame Stadium confrontation. That game was called the “Catholics vs. the convicts” because the Hurricanes featured, uh, a criminal element.
Linebackers Frank Stams and Mike Stonebreaker, and defensive back Todd Lyght, represented a return to old school Irish football: hard-nosed defense. Quarterback Tony Rice and receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail represented the new: fast, explosive. After derailing Southern California at the Coliseum 27-10, coach Lou Holtz’s team toppled unlikely Fiesta Bowl opponent West Virginia, 34-21 for the national championship.
Brian Bosworth’s 1985 Oklahoma Sooners, Paterno’s better 1980s Penn State team (1986) and the 1989 Hurricanes round out the other contenders. The best team looked to be Miami in 1986 behind Heisman quarterback Vinny Testaverde, but their 14-10 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl did to them what Alabama’s loss to Texas in the 1965 Orange Bowl, or Texas’s 1971 Cotton Bowl defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, should have done to them: eliminate the very possibility of thinking they were national champions. Instead of sulking over it, Miami (like ‘Bama in 1965) just went out there and earned it the next year.
Coming up with the best single-season team of the 1990s is a difficult exercise. Washington (1991) and Florida State (1999) are among the greatest teams of all times. Miami (1991), Penn State (1994), Florida (1996), Michigan (1997), Nebraska (1997) and Tennessee (1998) were all unbeaten champions that could make legitimate arguments they are among the best teams ever. When discussing such a thing, it is unfortunately inevitable such great teams as these do not get the recognition they deserve, but in a way this is what makes college football so wonderful. It is a game of fabulous teams, outstanding coaches, legendary players. The greatest of the 1990s are the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. They may have been the finest team ever assembled.
The 2000s, at least after a couple seasons, started to look different from the previous decade. Nebraska, Penn State, Miami and Florida State, sooner or later, experienced a drop from the incredibly high standards they had risen to. Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC and Texas all made dramatic comebacks to restore their good names in the hierarchy of college football. Virginia Tech and Kansas State, both teams that had knocked on the door, were not able to make it to the next level. Florida, the “third wheel” in the Sunshine State after coach Steve Spurrier’s departure to the NFL, climbed back to the top of the mountain.
The best team? Again, it was a team that lost in the end, the 2005 USC Trojans. But losing is not rewarded in this game, so they must step down and give it to somebody else. Their predecessors, the 2004 Trojans, rate as the best team of the 2000s. This is a decade that in its first five years produced three of the best five single-season teams in history. Texas (2005) and Miami (2001) are ranked close behind the 2004 Trojans. Such great teams in such a short time; the combination of traditional powers making comebacks; of USC dominating Notre Dame again after many years of suffering; of the Irish threatening in the years ahead to right those “wrongs,” as they see it; as new shifts take place and perhaps some new programs rise to the highest level; all of this makes this decade a new “golden age” of college football. The 2000s have proven to be the best, most competitive decade yet.
TEAMS OF THE DECADES
19th Century: Princeton
1920s: Notre Dame
1930s: Southern California
1940s: Notre Dame
1960s: Southern California
1970s: Southern California
2000s: Southern California
The best team of all decades in the nineteenth century was Princeton, hands down. If one were to attach no relativism to the Tigers’ record, without regard to modern logic, their numbers would dictate that this is the greatest dynasty in the history of collegiate football.
In the 1900s, Michigan’s great teams between 1901 and 1905 resulted in two national championships. They are also given worthy consideration from a number of the historical systems in several other years. That was the period in which the Midwest truly took to football. Minnesota and Chicago had champions, too. Michigan first played Notre Dame in 1887. The series was an irregular affair but scheduled consistently enough to establish a strong rivalry. Finally, in the 1980s it took as a yearly home-and-home arrangement, eventually without interruption.
The Wolverines began playing Ohio State in 1897. While their rivals were still getting their feet wet from a football standpoint, Michigan established themselves as the first national power that, to this day, is still a national power.
THROUGH THE DECADES
1900s Yale 100-4-5
1950s Oklahoma 105-9-6
1990s Florida State 109-13-1
1920S SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 88-13-2
1910s Washington 49-4-3
1990s Nebraska 108-16-1
1970s Alabama 103-16-1
1970s Oklahoma 101-12-2
1940s Notre Dame 82-9-6
1920s Notre Dame 81-12-4
1930s Alabama 79-11-5
1980s Nebraska 103-20
1980s Miami 99-20
1960s Alabama 89-16-4
2000s Oklahoma 79-14
2000s Texas 75-14
2000s Ohio State 70-18
2000s Southern California 69-19
The others – Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Penn – are Ivy League “small colleges.” Chicago no longer plays football. Minnesota has maintained major college status, but nobody would confuse the Golden Gophers of recent years with a “national power.”
In the 1910s, the so-called Ivy League maintained a strong presence. Great teams at Army, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech emerged. But the “Team of the Decade” was coach Gil Dobie’s Washington Huskies. The logging industry and general wanderlust drew hardy settlers to the Pacific Northwest. Ocean and train travel created a population boom. So, too, did the discovery of gold in Alaska. Seattle became a destination point, just as Omaha/Council Bluffs had when the trans-continental railroad was built. Los Angeles had gotten off to a slow start and would not grow until creation of their water aqueduct. Washington had all the fresh water they needed.
Washington, Washington State and Oregon all had powerful champions in the 1910s. The Pacific Coast Conference was formed, and the Rose Bowl resumed after a fourteen-year absence. The Huskies lost a game in 1907 and never lost another one until 1917, when the war had taken a major toll. They tied four games in that period, cranking out a 39-game winning streak between 1908 and 1914. The 1913 squad, considered a legitimate national champion (although services have recognized others, too), were the best of the lot. They beat Whitworth, 100-0. The schedule also consisted of some athletic clubs, Oregon State, Oregon and Washington. At seven games it was not as impressive as Midwestern or Ivy League teams, and for this reason historians discount Washington’s record slightly. But the temptation to play rugby in the years after President Theodore Roosevelt urged rules changes did not take. During this period Pacific Northwest teams went ahead of many others. When Washington State and Oregon won the first two Rose Bowls after the game was resumed on January 1, 1916 it demonstrated that in fact this region played the best brand of football at that time (better even than in California and particularly better than in southern California). It provides enough evidence to determine that the Huskies were the decade’s best team.
It is considered an article of faith that Notre Dame is the “Team of the 1920s” because they took two national championships (1924, 1929) and easily could have won more. Historians have touted Knute Rockne’s record in this decade as the greatest of periods. Of course, this also includes the unbeaten 1919 and 1930 campaigns. But based strictly on the 1920s, believe it or not, Southern California (88-13-2) had a better won-loss mark than the Irish (81-12-4). (Oklahoma, at 105-9-6, was far superior in the 1950s, for that matter.)
Nevertheless, the Irish are the “Team of the 1920s.” It was their popularity that spurred college football’s growth more than any other factor. Whether USC had a better record in the decade or not is immaterial to the fact that the world knows full well who Knute Rockne and George Gipp are. They have little knowledge of Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson and Morley Drury, even though the latter was known as the “Noblest Trojan of them all.” Howard Jones and his “Thundering Herd” are stamped into the football memory, to be sure, but much of their reputation is based on their games against Notre Dame!
Notre Dame played without a satisfactory stadium. They certainly had home games, but the really big contests were usually reserved for the Polo Grounds in New York City (beat Army 1924), Yankee Stadium (lost to Army 1925, beat Army 1926, 1928, 1929), Soldier Field in Chicago (beat Northwestern 1924, beat USC 1927, 1929, beat Navy 1928, beat Wisconsin 1919), Baltimore (beat Navy 1927, 1929), Philadelphia (beat Penn State 1928) or the L.A. Memorial Coliseum (beat USC 1926, lost to USC 1928). The demand for tickets could not be met in their South Bend facilities until 59,000-seat Notre Dame Stadium was built in 1930.
NOTRE DAME – 2 DECADES
NOTRE DAME – 3 DECADES
NOTRE DAME – 4 DECADES
Southern California – 2 decades
Alabama (back-to-back national champions in 1925-1926) and Stanford (co-champions in 1926) were powerhouses, but it is sad that history accords so little attention on California’s “Wonder Teams” of 1920-1924. It is almost as if, when the Vietnam War protesters took over in Berkeley, memory of Cal’s wonderful football history was erased as by Stalinist purge. If Cal could have maintained their long, almost glorious football tradition, perhaps the “Wonder Teams” would be as consistently mentioned as are USC’s “Thundering Herd” or other “wonder teams” at various schools.
ALABAMA – 2 DECADES
ALABAMA – 3 DECADES
They were 46-0-4, won three national championships and a Rose Bowl. Dan McMillan transferred from USC to Cal, making All-American and eventually the College Football Hall of Fame. They never lost to USC, a situation which got so bad in L.A. that “Gloomy Gus” Henderson was fired despite accomplishing the best record any Trojan coach ever had until Pete Carroll.
In all honesty, Cal should be the “Team of the 1920s.” They did not fall off the map after finally losing in 1925 for the first time since 1919. Falling to Georgia Tech on the ignominious “Wrong Way” Riegels run in the 1929 Rose Bowl, however, seemed to be the kind of thing that would never happen at Notre Dame. The rivalry with Stanford was red-hot and the Golden Bears were the pride of the Golden West, but in the end Rockne’s Irish star shines brighter.
USC earns “Team of the Decade” honors for the 1930s based on the fact that they were a dominant program in the first four years (1930-1933), which included two straight national titles and a 1932 team ranking as one of the greatest in history. Then, after a few down years, the Trojans were a powerhouse again, upending Duke in the 1939 Rose Bowl and Tennessee in the 1940 Rose Bowl. These are two of the greatest upsets ever and had a major effect on persuading the country that the most prestigious region was the West. Their 14-0 win over Bob Neyland and the Volunteers resulted in the Dickinson/Rockne system naming USC the 1939 national champions. In many ways, the systems were more accurate than the polls, since a majority of them rightly awarded their championships after bowls instead of prior to them. It was the bowls, not the polls, that really separated the “men from the boys.”
MICHIGAN – 2 DECADES
The late 1930s saw California beat Alabama, 13-0 in the 1938 Rose Bowl, earning the fourth and last national championship for a Golden Bear squad coached by Stub Allison, featuring Vic Bottari and Sam Chapman. Chapman later starred for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s baseball team.
Notre Dame lost momentum with the death of Knute Rockne in a 1931 plane crash that, interestingly enough, caused enough attention to help jump start creation of the Federal Aviation Administration. The Irish won the 1930 title and were excellent throughout most of the period, but captured no other national championships in the decade (the 1938 team received mention but Notre Dame does not recognize it as historically legitimate). Alabama under Frank Thomas continued to be a dominant power in the Southeastern Conference, with Rose Bowl victories accompanying both their titles (1930, 1934). Of course, Minnesota’s three-national championship run (1934-1936) is an incredible accomplishment, but they never played in a bowl game in any of those years. Stanford’s “Vow Boys” managed three straight wins over the Trojans (1933-1935) and a 1936 Rose Bowl victory over Southern Methodist, 7-0.
USC edges out the competition in this decade based in part on the fact that they were 4-0 in Rose Bowls against the most rugged competition available, with three national titles. Their 1932 team was bigger and faster than any other football team of the era, almost something from the future in terms of power and modern speed. USC was 5-4-1 against Notre Dame in the 1930s.
The easy pick for the 1940s is Notre Dame, winner of four national titles (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949). This despite the fact that Michigan (1948 national champions) and Army (1944-1945 repeat champs) enjoyed the best decades in their respective histories. Ohio State won their first national championship in 1942, a “shot over the bow” against rival Michigan, which until then looked down on the Buckeyes as inferior on the field, in the classroom, and in the alumni world. Minnesota earned two straight titles and Bruce Smith won the 1941 Heisman Trophy. Stanford under coach Clark Shaughnessy, who masterminded the T-formation, managed their last national title in 1940 with legendary left-handed quarterback Frankie Albert calling the signals.
As great as the college football scene was, World War II overshadowed the decade. Many players’ careers were broken up by military service. Programs were disrupted and in some cases took years to return to normalcy, if they ever did. Notre Dame appeared to be a program that figured out how to navigate the war years and, when the boys came marching home, were in perfect position to assume the dominant position. Three Irish players earned Heismans in the decade (Angelo Bertelli, 1943; Johnny Lujack, 1947; Leon Hart, 1949).
The war created new sensibilities, too. Integration began to occur, albeit slowly, in professional sports (Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in 1947) and the collegiate ranks. This would eventually be the prime reason USC, UCLA and Ohio State either returned to greatness or ascended to previously unheard of heights.
The war also helped make Catholicism mainstream. Many Catholics served in the military, spreading their love of Notre Dame football to fellow service members. Post-war population shifts created a suburban Catholic fan base, expanding beyond the cities Knute Rockne saw as Notre Dame’s natural “subway alumni” fan base. Former Irish star Frank Leahy took over the program and they were absolutely phenomenal.
Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners probably were better in the 1950s (not to mention the last few years of the 1940s) than any program ever was in a single decade. Notre Dame experienced some down years. USC and the PCC went through a ruinous scandal that saw the Trojans go on probation along with California, UCLA and Washington. It happened at a terrible time; just as UCLA had won their first (and only) national title (1954), Washington was strong, and Cal was still thought of as a power.
A shift to the South and the Southwest occurred in the 1950s. Oklahoma was simply unbeatable, featuring Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels (1952). Wilkinson’s Sooners mainly did it with teamwork and great defense, the cornerstone of championships. LSU and Auburn broke out from under the considerable shadows that had been cast by Tennessee and Alabama in previous decades.
Choosing USC as the “Team of the 1960s” is subjective, since there are statistics favoring other programs, but in the end the intangibles and a certain amount of common sense favor the Trojans. Alabama’s 89-16-4 record is better than USC’s 77-25-4. So is Texas’s 86-19-2 and Penn State’s 80-26-1. However, win-loss record is not the only worthy criteria in college football.
Jim Murray of the L.A. Times wrote disparagingly of Alabama’s social policies, stating that they needed to win more than the “Magnolia Bowl” if they wanted to be considered for national supremacy. While Murray’s point is well taken, Bear Bryant’s team was as good as anybody in these turbulent times.
“Alabama football was something we could be proud of,” said Taylor Watson, curator of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa. “Alabamians don’t have much to be proud of, but we could be proud of our football team.”
They most assuredly were. The Tide won in 1961, but in 1964 their dreams of greatness were upended. Quarterback Joe Namath, the best player (and probably the best all-around athlete) in the nation, was injured in the seventh game of the season. It eliminated his Heisman Trophy hopes. Notre Dame’s utilitarian John Huarte won it. The nature of how America looks at college football changed that year. First, the politics of Alabama could not help creep into the mindset of college football fans.
UCLA – 2 DECADES
Texas – 2 decades
PENN STATE – 2 DECADES
PENN STATE – 3 DECADES
OHIO STATE – 2 DECADES
The Alabama-Notre Dame rivalry, which was only partly about football, started when Tide fans resented the fact the Irish were ranked first every week despite Namath and Alabama appearing to be the better team. Namath’s injury had Alabamians gritting their teeth because it not only jeopardized their title and bowl chances, but of course denied them what would have been the only Heisman ever won by a ‘Bama player.
When USC knocked off the Irish, it was “happy days are here again” in Dixie. The polls went for ‘Bama and it all looked good. Then Texas beat them in the Orange Bowl and Arkansas won the Cotton Bowl. Glory was denied. Two years later, the 1966 imbroglio just hardened feelings. They called it the “poll bowls” and the “poll wars.” Alabama fans said that Alabama “plays football,” while Notre Dame “plays politics.” When Ara Parseghian went for a tie against Michigan State, they said that Bear Bryant “played to win, not to tie.”
Both Texas and Alabama could make a strong claim that they were each the “Team of the Decade.” Texas had two unbeaten, untied national championship seasons with Cotton Bowl wins over worthy Navy (Roger Staubach) and worthier Notre Dame (Joe Theismann) teams.
Alabama claims three titles, but of course one is the illegitimate 1964 version. The other comes in a 9-1-1 campaign in which the AP, for one year, reversed its policies as if manipulated by Bear Bryant. The UPI “crowned” Michigan State before they lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The 1966 season is viewed as The Missing Ring in Alabama by their fans, and is the name of a fine book on the subject by Keith Dunnavant.
Notre Dame claims the semi-tainted 1966 crown, although their team was a powerhouse that season. USC only won two national championships (1962, 1967). So why are the Trojans the best team of the 1960s? For this reason: they produced two Heisman Trophy winners (Mike Garrett in 1965 and O. J. Simpson in 1968). Probably the most egregious error in the history of the Heisman balloting was the awarding of the trophy to UCLA’s Gary Beban in 1967 instead of O. J. Their two titles came with wins over unbeaten Wisconsin (42-37 in the 1963 Rose Bowl) and Indiana (1968 Rose Bowl). The 1967 team produced a record five first round draft picks (including Outland Trophy winner Ron Yary) and most of their best players returned the next year. Yary was the overall first pick of the 1968 NFL Draft by Minnesota. O. J. was the number one pick in the entire 1969 draft by Buffalo. Two of the best teams they fielded in the 1960s were not national champions.
The 1968 Trojans may well have gone down in history as one of college football’s best teams had they not met their match in the form of Woody Hayes’s Ohio State Buckeyes on the green plains of Pasadena. The 1969 Trojans, known as the “Cardiac Kids,” were one of the most exciting teams ever assembled. They won miracle comebacks against Stanford and UCLA. Featuring a defensive front called “The Wild Bunch” after the Sam Peckinpah Western of that year, they were tied by Notre Dame, 14-14 at South Bend. When Texas and Penn State ran the table, it cost the Trojans a national championship. Ohio State, the presumptive champion, was beaten by Michigan. The Wolverines, full of themselves after defeating a team many had called the best ever, were stopped stone cold by “The Wild Bunch” in Pasadena, 10-3.
USC went to the Rose Bowl four straight years and were one of the first teams to expand their schedule nationally when much of the rest of the country did not. John McKay’s team consistently went into Dixie when teams from Dixie stayed in Dixie. Bob Devaney’s Nebraska Cornhuskers went thirty-two games without a loss. The streak started after falling to Troy, 31-21 at home in 1969. The only tie: against USC the next season. The rivalry with Notre Dame heated up like never before. The Trojans started or continued rivalries with not one but four all-time great coaches and programs.
USC and college football fans were entertained by intense battles between McKay’s charges and those of Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian, UCLA’s Tommy Prothro, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler. No team had ever put themselves out there against so many of the best teams and coaches in such a short time. In the era of color television, the Trojans became the face of collegiate football. Images of their games on green Coliseum fields, under blue California skies, with pretty cheerleaders and sun-drenched fans, glamorized the collegiate game in a way that had not occurred since Rockne’s Irish.
That is why they were the “Team of the Decade.”
Nobody can say that Alabama is not the “Team of the 1970s” because they were no longer integrated. After USC traveled to Birmingham and laid waste to them in the first game of the decade, Bryant’s team did integrate (they already had Wilbur Jackson in school and John Mitchell was being recruited).
Record-wise, ‘Bama again had the best mark (103-16-1), followed by Oklahoma (101-12-2), Michigan (96-16-3), Nebraska (98-20-4), Penn State (96-22), Ohio State (91-20-3), Southern California (93-22-1), Notre Dame (91-22), and Texas (88-26-1). Based on this, it would certainly appear that Bryant’s program was the best of the 1970s. If not the Tide, then Oklahoma, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State . . .
Ask any fan of OU, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State or Ohio State if, given the totality of the decade, the glory of bowl victories, the Heismans and the hype, whether they would trade their better won-loss records of the 1970s for the decade enjoyed by USC.
The answer to that question is thought of, mulled over, analyzed, and answered: no. The boys play for national championships. Whatever formula exists resulting in national championships above all things, the Trojans – in this decade led by McKay and John Robinson – are usually better at it than anybody else. Forget Michigan and Ohio State. Every year, it seemed, they were 10-0 or some such gaudy record, averaging forty points per game or more. Then came January, the sight of those cardinal and gold uniforms, and with it defeat. Next . . .
Penn State? Joe Paterno’s team would win and win and win. John Capelletti’s 1973 Heisman Trophy was Something for Joey. They personified excellence, but when it came to ultimate glory, they were like the Allies when they tried to win World War II ahead of shedjuelunder the leadership of Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s ill-fated “Operation Market Garden” between D-Day and the Bulge: A Bridge Too Far away.
Oklahoma? Most of the time the Sooners looked virtually unbeatable, which they actually were between 1973 and 1975. Unfortunately, they are part of that “close but no cigar” group based on the fact that in 1971 they lost to Nebraska; in *1974 their co-national championship is asterisked by NCAA probation; their 1977 team blew it in the Orange Bowl to Lou Holtz and Arkansas; and the 1978 Sooners watched in frustration while voters decided USC and Alabama were better. The Sooners’ probations, their non-academic style, their wild coach, Barry Switzer; all of it would have made for a great Dan Jenkins novel, but in the end OU is a notch below.
OKLAHOMA – 2 DECADES
NEBRASKA – 2 DECADES
NEBRASKA – 3 DECADES
Nebraska? Win and win and win and win and win . . . then lose to OU. Next . . .
Texas? Everybody waited for them to build on the 1969 title and their 30-game winning streak, snapped in the 1971 Cotton Bowl by Notre Dame. They could not reach the promised land. In 1977, led by Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, it looked as if they would get there. When “The Eyes of Texas” – and everybody else – were upon the Longhorns, new coach Fred Akers’s’ team got stage fright in a way Darrell Royal’s teams had not.
Notre Dame? Six words and an exclamation point separate the Irish from the honor: the University of Southern California Trojans! Troy just beat them every year. If they did not, then Notre Dame won the national championship (1973, 1977). The battle for ultimate collegiate glory between the Irish and USC; between McKay and Parseghian; between John Robinson and Dan Devine; between Anthony Davis and Pat Haden and Joe Montana; in the end it is the defining reason why USC is again the “Team of the Decade” for the 1970s.
Alabama was good, no doubt. They integrated and America was better for it. The whole South changed; socially, politically and athletically. In 1971 Alabama was unbeaten before losing to the great Nebraska juggernaut in the Orange Bowl, 38-6. In 1972 they were again undefeated until Auburn knocked them off in the “iron bowl,” 17-16. In 1973 they were again unbeaten until Notre Dame took them in New Orleans, and they could no longer hide behind the AP’s pre-bowl vote, which did not stop them from hiding behind the UPI’s pre-bowl vote. Their claim of “three national championships” rings hollow. Alabama would be better off not even reminding people of their titles “won” in bowl defeat.
In the mid-1970s, Alabama seemed to go 11-1 every year, but fell short to OU, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame again. In the decade, they played USC four times. They lost twice at Legion Field (42-21 in 1970, 24-14 in 1978). They beat the Trojans twice at the Coliseum (17-10 when they broke out the veer in 1971, then stood off a furious USC fourth quarter comeback, 21-20 in 1977). In 1978 they were co-national champions with USC, but even though they were legitimate AP winners, details of that season leave the thinking reader, armed with common sense, logically convinced they should not have been. The facts are these: Alabama was 11-1 with a Sugar Bowl win. USC was 12-1 with a Rose Bowl win. Fair enough, a split title makes sense. Except . . .
On September 23, USC traveled to Birmingham’s Legion Field and beat the Crimson Tide, 24-14! Alabama came in ranked number one. It was a re-match of the 1970 Sam “Bam” Cunningham game, but the event was marked more by what it was not. It was not a day of racial firsts and breakthroughs. Instead, integration had by 1978 come so seamlessly in all phases of Southern life that news reports do not even mention its significance.
Alabama was filled with just as many fast, skilled black athletes as the Trojans. The long-held “quiet advantage” McKay used to propel his program back to the top no longer existed. Still, USC put it to ‘Bama on that steamy Saturday, behind Charles White’s 199 yards. After the bowls, the AP voted for Alabama, the UPI for USC. It was not an illegitimate national championship like the Tide’s 1964 and 1973 claims.
That said, USC was robbed by the Associated Press. Rarely in the pre-BCS era have the voters been given the opportunity to judge the number one teams based on the fact that they actually played each other. When one team – USC – goes to the other guys’ place and beats them soundly in front of their fans – and the season ends with no other discernible advantage in record weighing the difference, common sense dictates that the team who beat the other is the deserving champion. The UPI got it right, the AP did not.
‘Bama fans make the fair argument that they defeated unbeaten, top-ranked Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. USC beat 10-1 Michigan in Pasadena. The logic works this way: Michigan was a less impressive opponent because, despite great regular season records, they always lost in the Rose Bowl. Yeah, they always did lose . . . to USC! That is like discrediting Ty Cobb’s batting championships because he always beat out “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker who, if the argument is extended, were not so good because they never won the batting championships . . . that Cobb always won, often with a .400 average.
Hey man, Charlie White and Troy smoked ‘Bama in their house. They should have won the AP title as well as the UPI version. In 1979 unbeaten and untied Alabama won it outright.
The Trojans had off years in the 1970s that Alabama did not have (except for 1970). They were only 6-4-1 in both 1970 and 1971, but when they shined, they shined brighter than anybody. The 1972 team is the finest in the history of the game.
The 1974 national championship Trojans are probably the most exciting college team in history. Anthony Davis’s performances against Notre Dame in both 1972 and 1974 rate as two of the three greatest days any collegian ever had. Year after year, they beat Notre Dame in L.A. and South Bend.
Pitt may have been the 1976 national champion, but USC, after losing to Missouri in the season opener in John Robinson’s first year, won eleven straight. Many pundits felt that had the two teams played, USC would have prevailed. The 1976 Trojans (11-1) were named national champions by no less than six services after smoking Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, or Michigan would have stuck it in their media guide trying to promote the idea that it was, as it could have been in USC’s case, their twelfth national title. USC does not try and legitimize it, since the true consensus national champion of 1976 was Pitt. A game behind Tony Dorsett’s Panthers and Ricky Bell’s Trojans? Wow!
Then there is 1979. That year’s USC team is likely, with the possible exception of the 2005 Trojans, to be the finest team not to win a national title. USC’s Charlie White won the Heisman Trophy in 1979. Anthony Munoz blocked for him. So did Lombardi Award winner Brad Budde. Quarterback Paul McDonald was an All-American. They beat unbeaten Ohio State, the number one team in the nation, to win a thrilling Rose Bowl, 17-16. Yes, Alabama went all the way, beating Arkansas, 24-9 in the Sugar Bowl to finish 12-0 with Bryant’s last national championship. Bravo.
The 1979 Trojans (11-0-1) were also named national champions by the College Football Researchers Association after Ohio State fell to them in the manner by then well accustomed to. No, the school does not count this as their thirteenth title, either, even though the team was supposed to be the best ever, and a fair number of people still believe they were the finest in USC history. Alabama was the legitimate number one team. Therefore, while Alabama claims three titles and two are legit, they really should only have one. USC earned three with a Heisman (plus the 1978-1979 “Heisman teammate” duo of White and Marcus Allen, the 1981 winner).
Add to that the glamour of TV, the height of Notre Dame match-ups with Parseghian, Devine and Montana; the continued battles with UCLA’s Pepper Rodgers, Terry Donahue and John Sciarra, Washington’s Don James and Warren Moon, Stanford’s Jim Plunkett and Bill Walsh, California’s Steve Bartkowski and Chuck Muncie, Arizona State’s Frank Kush and Mark Malone, Oregon’s Dan Fouts; Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Archie Griffin, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Rick Leach, Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty and Kirk Gibson; Nebraska’s Bob Devaney and Johnny Rodgers, Oklahoma’s Chuck Fairbanks, Lee Roy Selmon and Barry Switzer; Arkansas’ Frank Broyles and Joe Ferguson; Pitt’s Tony Dorsett; plus LSU at “Death Valley,” Texas A&M in the South (twice) and of course Bear Bryant and the whole state of Alabama . . . the fact is that in this new “golden age” of college football they were a team with greater mystique and panache, took on bigger challenges, traveled more widely, and performed more spectacularly than any other. The Trojans are 1970’s “Team of the Decade.”
In the 1980s, Miami wins it hands down: three national championship, and two other years (1986, 1988) in which they just missed. Vinny Testaverde won the 1986 Heisman Trophy and the team reeled off a 36-game regular season winning streak while starting their historic 58-game home winning skein. In the Pac-10, a new power shift took place. UCLA beat USC three years in a row (1982-1984) and won three Rose Bowls. Washington rose under coach Don James. Arizona State beat Michigan, 22-15 in the 1987 Rose Bowl. Overall, the conference fell with the demise of USC but continued general dominance over the Big 10.
Penn State won two national championships (1982, 1986) and Notre Dame one (1988) while falling just short of a second one (1989). New coach Lou Holtz took over a program that had seen down times under Gerry Faust. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he returned them to the top of the college football mountain. They began a run of eleven straight wins over USC in 1983.
FLORIDA STATE – 2 DECADES
WASHINGTON – 2 DECADES
Nebraska’s 1983 team looked like it was going to go down in history as the best ever until coach Tom Osborne went for two against Miami in the Orange Bowl. He failed and the ‘Huskers lost 31-30, but it was a courageous move by Osborne. There were no overtimes in those days. Had he tied the game Nebraska would have won the national championship but lost its claim to be “history’s best team.” He decided not to go the route of Ara Parseghian in 1966 and looked noble in defeat.
The 1990s come down to two teams: Nebraska and Florida State. Nebraska, winner of three national titles (1994, 1995, 1997) gets the nod over Florida State with two (1993, 1999). When Bobby Bowden defeated Tom Osborne in the 1994 Orange Bowl, 18-16, Osborne faced great criticism from the “Cornhusker nation” because, despite great records since taking over from Bob Devaney in 1973, he consistently lost the “big one” in the form of bowl defeats or Oklahoma games. Chief among his most disappointing efforts were the 1984 Orange Bowl loss to Miami and now, one decade later, the loss to Florida State. His heroic “go for two” against the Hurricanes was by then worn thin. ‘Husker fans wanted the national championship that Devaney had delivered two years in a row (1970-1971).
After that, however, Osborne’s team made him into a legend. His 1994-1995 champions may be the best two-year run ever. In 1997 he split the title with unbeaten Michigan. The Wolverines were very good, but most feel had the teams played, Nebraska would have prevailed.
The 2000s belong to Pete Carroll and USC. The numbers are staggering: thirty-four wins in a row (2003-2006), 45-1 (2002-2006), 51-2 (2002-2006), two straight national championships, thirty-three straight weeks ranked number one, perhaps the best-ever two year run (2003-2004), the best three-year run (2003-2005), inches removed from an unprecedented third straight title (2005) and a shot at Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak. All of this comes replete with a number one draft choice (Carson Palmer, 2003), seven first round selections, three Heisman Trophy winners (Palmer, 2002; Matt Leinart; 2004; Reggie Bush; 2005), five straight national-best recruiting classes (2003-2007), eleven NFL draftees (2006) and sixteen All-Americans in five seasons. There is no competition for the honor, so dominant has Troy been in the new century.
They ran their winning streak to seven against UCLA and five with Notre Dame. They won five straight Pac-10 titles, went to five straight BCS bowls (4-1), won two Rose Bowls and finished in the top four in five consecutive seasons. They did it all in the BCS era, which is like adding an extra national title to their record. Had the BCS not existed in 2005, USC would have beaten Penn State something like 75-2 in the Rose Bowl, leaving unbeaten Texas to complain that they never had their shot at the title.
Entering 2007, Carroll was 67–12 in six seasons, but wait. Of those twelve losses, only one has been by more than seven points (27–16 at Notre Dame in 2001). Ten of them have been on the road or in a bowl game. In 2001 he lost to Kansas State (home, 10–6), Oregon (road, 24–22), Stanford (home, 21–16), Washington (road, 27–24), and Utah (Las Vegas Bowl, 10–6).
In 2002 he lost to Kansas State (road, 27–20) and Washington State (road, 30–27 in overtime). In 2003 he lost to California (road, 34–31 in three overtimes). In 2006, he lost to Texas (Rose Bowl, 41–38). In 2006 he lost to Oregon State (road, 33-31) and UCLA (road, 13-9). That is twelve losses by a total of fifty-one points. Take away the Notre Dame defeat and it is eleven losses by forty, an average of less than four points per loss!
In other words, with luck and a few good bounces, Pete Carroll’s record could be 76–1! If so, he could have five or six national championships, not two. If his 2001 team had won all those close games, finishing 10–1 at the end of the regular season, they might have gotten the nod over once-beaten Nebraska to play against Miami in the BCS Rose Bowl. Once-beaten Oregon was barely edged out as it was.
In 2002, both losses were by the slimmest of margins, so obviously if Troy were 12–0 (with the toughest schedule in the nation that year), they would have finished ahead of both Miami and Ohio State in the BCS standings going into the Fiesta Bowl.
In 2003, once-beaten USC was ranked number one by the Associated Press anyway in a season with no unbeatens. The 2006 Rose Bowl loss spoke for itself. All that need be said about USC in the 2000s is that the 2006 team was 11-2; won the Pac-10 title; beat Brady Quinn and Notre Dame by twenty points; beat Michigan (undefeated going into the “Game of the Century” with Ohio State), 32-18; were the junior year of a 2003 recruiting class considered the best of all time; had the number one recruiting class in the country for the fifth straight year; were led by a quarterback who would enter the following season the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy and a back-up who was the former Parade magazine National High School Player of the Year; were the odds-on early favorites to win their third national championship of the decade in 2007; and . . . were the worst USC team under Carroll in five seasons!
If all of that were not enough, when the season ended, Arkansas’ freshman quarterback sensation Mitch Mustain, a potential Heisman-caliber star, transferred to USC! Carroll and Southern California entered the elite status of Knute Rockne’s Irish of the 1920s, Frank Leahy’s Notre Dame teams of the 1940s, and Bud Wilkinson’s record at Oklahoma in the 1950s. Rockne (with the exception of the 1925 Rose Bowl win over Stanford) and Leahy had done it without the hassle of an end-of-the-season bowl challenge. Wilkinson’s Sooners reeled off forty-seven straight and two titles, one without a bowl game to muck up the works. The BCS system, in place since 1998, had created a higher standard, but USC owned it.
In January of 2007, Ohio State thought they were making a bid for “Team of the Decade” when they carried their unbeaten record into the BCS championship game against Florida at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The subsequent pounding they received at the hands of the Gators eliminated the very hint that Ohio State deserved to be mentioned in the same breath with Carroll’s Trojans.
Through the travail of ages
Notre Dame 63-7-6
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 88-13-2
Notre Dame 81-12-4
Southern California 73-25-9
Notre Dame 65-20-5
Notre Dame 82-9-6
1943 (no team/WW II)
Michigan State 68-17-1
Penn State 80-26-1
Southern California 76-25-4
Notre Dame 62-34-4
Ohio State 68-21-2
Penn State 96-22
Ohio State 91-20-3
Southern California 93-22-1
Notre Dame 91-22
Penn State 89-21-2
Florida State 87-29-5
Southern California 78-36-3
Notre Dame 76-39-2
Florida State 109-13-1
Ohio State 70-18
Southern California 69-19
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism