GORDON WHITE: Happy New Year: Charting the Course of College Bowl Games
Thirty years ago tomorrow, Tony Dorsett played his 47th and final game for the University of Pittsburgh with a Sugar Bowl record of 202 yards rushing against Georgia as unbeaten Pitt won, 27-3, to nail down the 1976 national championship by a unanimous vote.
Exactly two years later on New Year's Day of 1979, Alabama upset a previously undefeated Penn State, 14-7, also in the Sugar Bowl and did it with the best goal-line stand ever executed in a bowl game. This enabled the Crimson Tide to get three of the four votes needed for the 1978 national championship.
Alabama was a unanimous selection as the national champion one year later after whipping Arkansas, 24-9, in the Jan. 1, 1980, Sugar Bowl for the Crimson Tide's fifth national title under coach Bear Bryant.
I was fortunate enough to work all three of those championship games in the Superdome back when two or possibly three of the four major bowls on New Year's Day -- Rose, Cotton, Orange and Sugar -- might play a part in deciding the unofficial national championship of major college football. Now, under the Bowl Championship Series system, one game decides that outcome.
The champion this winter may well be controversial. If Florida upsets Ohio State in the BCS game, do you give the title to Florida or to the winner of the Michigan-Southern California Rose Bowl game?
For many years four groups voted on the national title team the day after the four major bowl games were played. These groups were the Associated Press poll of writers, the United Press International poll of coaches, all members of the Football Writers Association of America and the officers of the Football Foundation and Hall of Fame.
There was a constant outcry for a playoff to determine the National Champion in major college football. That is true to this day as the BCS is just as messy and uncertain as the old voting method. If there is to be a true champion for major college football there should be a playoff. Every other NCAA sport has one.
Back in the days of voting, the choice was usually an easy one. Such was the case when Dorsett, winner of the 1976 Heisman Trophy, became the first player to run for 200 yards in a Sugar Bowl game as coach Johnny Majors' Pitt team easily whipped Georgia for a 12-0 mark and the big title. After watching and charting this strong effort by Pittsburgh, I wrote:
"This served as a grand finale to the four-year careers of Tony Dorsett, the greatest running back in the modern history of college football, and Johnny Majors, the man who coached the Panthers from near oblivion to the No. 1 ranking in the time it takes a student to get a bachelor's degree."
Majors and Dorsett both joined Pitt for the 1973 season and both left after that 1977 Sugar Bowl game -- Dorsett to the NFL and Majors to coach his alma mater, Tennessee.
Alabama stonewalled Penn State with the most important and unforgiving goal-line stand that I ever witnessed in covering about 600 college football games, including more than 60 bowl games. It occurred midway through the fourth quarter of the Jan. 1, 1979, Sugar Bowl with Penn State about three inches from the Alabama goal line.
Penn State was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation prior to the Sugar Bowl game and once-beaten Alabama was ranked No. 2.
That day I wrote, "Barry Krauss, the 6-foot 3-inch senior linebacker for Alabama, was the hero of that goal-line stand when Penn State got within inches of the Crimson end zone on a second-down play. Twice the Nittany Lions went at the middle and twice the Crimson thwarted the charge by stopping Matt Suhey, the fullback, and then Mike Guman, the tailback. Krauss went underneath to halt Guman on the fourth-down play that left Penn State short of a touchdown and short of the national championship."
But the next day's voting saw Alabama endorsed by the AP, the FWAA and the Football Foundation as champion for 1978 while Southern California was the UPI choice -- thus a split decision. That is why there should be a playoff.
Reporters are often asked how they keep track of what goes on during games so that when it comes time to write, they have a clear memory of what occurred. After all, during most games of baseball, basketball, football, etc, there is so much action that one has to keep something of a short-hand record of events in order to put it all together for the reader.
Actually, there are a number of ways of keeping track of a football game. I charted the football games on sheets of paper that resembled gridirons. I used a solid line for a run, a broken line for a pass, a waving line for a kick and a few other hieroglyphics. I used one sheet for each quarter of a game and kept copious, supplemental notes in a reporter's notebook.
Some reporters keep only written notes on each play. Others pound out play by play on typewriters or computers.
I always felt that a chart gave a good picture of the ebb and flow of a game, quickly showing if a team dominated a portion or all of a game on offense or defense. This could be garnered by a quick glance at the chart.
The notebooks pictured here are two examples of how I charted a game.
One is the fourth quarter of the Alabama-Penn State Sugar Bowl game, Jan. 1, 1979, depicting the goal line stand by Alabama that concluded with 6 minutes and 39 seconds to go in the game. The other chart page printed here is the second quarter of the Pittsburgh-Georgia Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1, 1977, that shows Matt Cavanaugh's 59-yard touchdown pass and Tony Dorsett's 11-yard run around right end for Pitt's third touchdown of the game.
Notice that the fourth quarter of the Alabama-Penn State game is not charted to completion. That is because I had to start writing my lead to make a first edition and Penn State was going nowhere in those final few moments.
Do not try to interpret my scribbling. I would have made a good MD since my handwriting resembles prescriptions from physicians I have known.
I kept hundreds of these charts of football games. They are among my best reminders of what I witnessed years and years ago.
Even though I worked every Jan. 1 at some bowl or other, I always had a Happy New Year, just like the one I wish for all of you.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com
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