Daily Dose of Crimson Tide: 1971 Alabama vs. USC and the Wishbone Surprise

Christopher Walsh

Even though the integration of the football program was already well under way by 1971, Coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant knew that more dramatic changes were needed, especially if the Crimson Tide was going to keep up with its competition.

After Alabama’s amazing attempt to become the first program in college football to win three consecutive national championships from 1964-66, the following years weren’t as kind and didn’t bring anywhere near the same level of success. As the Crimson Tide’s record went from 11-0 in 1966, to 8-2-1, 8-3, 6-5, and 6-5-1, many thought the game might be passing the coach by. 

Instead one of the greatest reinventions of a football program’s identity was at hand.

During the summer, Bryant quietly slipped out of Tuscaloosa to go visit his friend Darrell Royal at Texas, who taught him the wishbone offense. In a complete contrast in style and philosophy, the confusing system was designed to give the quarterback the option of handing off, throwing, running the ball himself, or pitching out to a running back.

Without a pure passer on the roster, it would be the Crimson Tide’s new offensive scheme. Players and coaches were sworn to absolute secrecy because Alabama’s first game would be a rematch with Southern California, which the year before crushed Alabama 42-21 when Sam Cunningham ran all over it.

Bryant even went to the extreme of having campus security and Tuscaloosa police check on the apartments across the street from practice, had any students watching from the rooftops chased off, and told any local reporters who knew of the switch that there would be consequences if they wrote about the wishbone. 

Somehow word didn’t leak out.

When Alabama arrived in Los Angeles, USC was caught completely unaware. Combined with a renewed emphasis on hard-hitting defense and bigger offensive linemen, the Crimson Tide surprised and shocked the heavily-favored Trojans to score two early touchdowns, and held on for a 17-10 victory.

It also served notice to the rest of college football: ’Bama and Bryant weren't going anywhere for a while.

From there, the Crimson Tide rolled through the regular season, with impressive victories over nationally-ranked Ole Miss (40-6), Houston (34-20), Tennessee (32-15), and LSU (14-7). 

For the first time, both Alabama and Auburn entered the Iron Bowl undefeated, and the Tigers were led by quarterback Pat Sullivan, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy, but behind running back Johnny Musso the Crimson Tide pounded out a 31-7 victory on national television.

“I know one thing, I’d rather die now than to have died this morning and missed this game,” Bryant said afterward.

Alabama didn’t win the national championship, thanks to a 48-6 loss to Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, but captured the first of eight Southeastern Conference titles in the decade, a stretch during which the Crimson Tide would claim three more national titles.

Bryant, who enjoyed career win No. 200 against USC on the day before his 58th birthday, was fittingly named national coach of the year.

Some of this post originated from "100 Things Crimson tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die," published by Triumph Books

Comments (1)
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Tyler  Martin
Tyler Martin


So there is a Showtime documentary called ‘Against the Tide’ that goes into previous USC/Alabama matchups. Watched it the other night with some family. Very fascinating