On the hangover day of his Orange Bowl loss to Notre Dame, Bear Bryant entered his name on the side of justice, brotherhood and the significance of bowl games. He voted for USC as the top team in the nation. "And you can quote me," said Bryant, raising his voice. It was one of the few times he had not mumbled in a week.
The vote went into the hopper of United Press International's poll of college coaches and came out as one of those that got USC elected national champion. Having beaten, by a hair and a couple of hairy Pat Haden passes, Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, USC emerged, finally, much like the spindly bodybuilder who has come to the end of the 90-day miracle course to discover all the swells and golden ripples the ads promised. It was the best team still playing when the season came to a head New Year's Day.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, won the Associated Press' version of the championship. No surprise there. From the perspective of the AP's balloters—63 media types—the bowls proved nothing. The status was irreversibly quo. It was a dandy way to show they were more liberal than the coaches. Oklahoma had been stricken from the UPI ballot this season because the brotherhood elected to exclude teams on NCAA probation (there were five, including Oklahoma) from championship consideration.
But there are other, sounder reasons to exalt USC, reasons beyond the obvious ones: that coaches know more about football than sportswriters and sportscasters; and that Oklahoma barely got by Texas, which was crushed by Auburn in the Gator Bowl, that in the fourth quarter it led Baylor only 7-5 and the Bears were trounced by Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, and that no matter how good Oklahoma is it cannot be presumed a victor in a game it did not play. The same goes for Michigan.
The catch phrase is "still playing." Ara Parseghian, the resigning Notre Dame coach who recently experienced a day with USC that will haunt him often enough during the sabbatical he is taking before ascending to the pro gold mine in the sky, cast his vote for Michigan, perhaps without spite (USC beat Notre Dame 55-24). But Michigan was also locked out of the postseason. It is not USC's fault that Oklahoma and Michigan were not given the chance to lose on New Year's Day. There is, after all, something to be said for trial.
To polish off the point, consider poor error-ridden, Ara-rattled Alabama, which has come a blustering to the threshold of the national championship three straight years now only to wind up dry (with the exception of the UPI vote before last year's loss to Notre Dame). Oklahoma does not deserve the national championship any more than Alabama would if it had announced after its 11-0 season that it was giving up bowl games (something it might be tempted to do anyway) and taking its national championship on home, thank y'all very much.
In effect, you could say Alabama was penalized for not being on probation. Which you would not really want to say. And Notre Dame, having won one for The Ara just before his sunset ride (he was so emotional in the dressing room afterward that he could barely address the team), thus granted UPI's tabulators a chance to produce a logical order of finish to a season of illogical finishers. Which it did: 1) USC, 2) Alabama, 3) Ohio State, 4) Notre Dame.
One hundred and nine days before the Rose Bowl, USC's Pat Haden threw four interceptions as the Trojans lost their first game of the season to Arkansas in Little Rock, an upset that sent Razorback fans hog calling far into the night. The headline in the next morning's Los Angeles Times sports section said, TROJANS' DREAM OF NO. 1 IS JUST HOGWASH, 22-7. On New Year's Day the hogwash turned into champagne.
With his team trailing Ohio State 17-10 and just over two minutes left on the clock, Haden, an English major who was named a Rhodes scholar 11 days before, connected with his close friend Johnny McKay on a 38-yard touchdown pass play, then drilled a two-point pass to Shelton Diggs for a thrilling 18-17 victory. That, coupled with Notre Dame's 13-11 win over Alabama, gave USC the national championship.
For Johnny's dad, Coach John McKay, it was the fourth national title. It was also his fifth Rose Bowl victory in eight trips. He and his team did it despite having Tailback Anthony Davis sit out the second half with injured ribs, despite having a punter who took a snap, stepped forward smartly, kicked and all but missed the football, and despite trading away a 39-yard field goal for a mere first down. And a pretty important final despite—playing against a fine Ohio State team that indeed was only one point worse than the national champion.