Shortly after Steadman Shealy had quarter-backed Alabama to its 24-9 Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas, he lay sprawled across a bed in Room 2453 of the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans watching Ohio State and USC in the Rose Bowl. Crowded around him were his mother, father, girl friend, sister and brother-in-law. As best they could figure it, they were rooting for USC to win, but just barely. Mainly, the room was quiet. But late in the game, when USC's Charles White dived over the goal line to tie the game 16-16, Shealy suddenly leapt to his feet. "Whooeee!" he shouted. "Now, miss the extra point! No, wait! I don't know! Is that good? Or bad?"
Normally Shealy is not one to be confused. An education major, he ranks in the top 1% of his class. To date he has won two postgraduate scholarships, election to Kappa Delta Pi (an education honorary society) and induction into Omicron Delta Kappa (leadership). He is an outspokenly devout young man who holds office in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. No, Shealy isn't lacking at all in self-assurance. But in his two previous seasons at Alabama the Tide had scored big Sugar Bowl wins and a shot at the national championship. In 1978 AP's poll of sportswriters and UPI's poll of college coaches had dashed Shealy's hopes. A year ago, when 'Bama upset Penn State, which was ranked No. 1 going in, it got the AP's No. 1 spot but not UPI's. Now another national title was up to the voters, and two of the three finalists were in the Rose Bowl. "Who knows what those people are thinking," said Shealy.
At the moment they had to be thinking Alabama. Before a record Sugar Bowl throng of 77,486 in the Superdome, Alabama had gripped a young but highly talented, sixth-ranked Arkansas team by the lapels and never let go. In the first half Arkansas faced six third downs, and on each occasion 'Bama's defense, tops nationally, dug in its cleats and emphatically said no. On those six critical plays the Hogs' net gain was zero. At halftime the Tide led 17-3. By then, too, 'Bama's Major Ogilvie had blasted for two touchdowns, carried a punt return 50 yards and nailed down the MVP award. Which was a bit of a shame because, if there was a back as explosive as USC's White playing on New Year's Day, it was Ogilvie's running mate, Billy Jackson. All Jackson did was zip away from the Razor backs on breathtaking runs of 35, 15, 14, 11 and 11 yards and finish up with 120 yards on a mere 13 carries.
But what truly crushed Arkansas was the performance of Don McNeal, Byron Braggs, E. J. Junior and the rest of Alabama's splendid defense, which had given up an average of just five points per game in 1979. Although the Razorbacks' Kevin Scanlon did complete 22 of 39 passes, he said later that he was left on his feet after only two of those throws. Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz summed the day up best when he said, "Alabama's offense is fourth best in the nation, and it's the team's major weakness."
For one brief moment in the second half it looked as if there might be a ball game. Arkansas had just marched 80 yards for a touchdown, cutting Alabama's lead to 17-9. Then, with 13 minutes to play, the Hogs downed a perfect Bruce Lahay punt on the Alabama two. But Shealy handed off to Steve Whitman for six yards and then pitched to Ogilvie for seven and a first down. On the next play Shealy was deep in the grasp of two Hog defenders, but he managed to make a last-second pitch to Jackson, who turned the right side and continued on for 35 yards to the 50. Five plays later 'Bama was on the Arkansas 12, third-and-11. Expecting either a pass or a sweep, Arkansas chose to blitz, shooting its linebackers to the outside. Shealy took the snap and handed to Whitman, who sprung straight up the middle and outran his pursuers to the goal line. From then on, Alabama players were anxious only about getting to a TV set.
Afterward, Holtz allowed that all season long he had voted Alabama No. 1 on his UPI ballot and that, regardless of what might happen in the Rose Bowl, he would do so again. "Little did I realize," he said, "that the best team in the country would play an almost perfect game."
In the Alabama locker room, players cut loose with predictable chants of "We're No. 1." But compared to last year's wild Sugar Bowl celebration, the mood was almost somber. "That's because last year everybody played some and today the regulars played just about every down," said E. J. Junior. "We're too whipped to party." Even Bear Bryant looked tired. The victory was his 296th, bringing him to within 19 of Amos Alonzo Stagg's alltime record. And a wire-service national title would be his sixth, two more than for any other coach. Still, he was anything but effusive. "I don't want to talk about polls," he said. "I just want to vote." Somebody asked him if, rather than vote, wouldn't he like to play the Rose Bowl winner for the national championship?
"Hell, no," Bryant said. "I want to head home and go fishing."
Back at the Hyatt, Shealy pondered the same question. After a pause he said, "I know I'd sure be anxious to play if the voters make us No. 2."
As Shealy and his family took in the closing seconds of the Rose Bowl on TV, a final crisis for 'Bama suddenly arose. Leading 17-16 with 1:11 to go, USC stopped Ohio State on the Buckeye 20 and took possession in position to score once more. Another touchdown would mean an eight-point victory, which just might swing some AP and UPI votes. All of a sudden, Shealy's mother Peggy yelled, "Stop 'em Ohio!"—it was an outburst that stunned everyone present. "Isn't this crazy!" she cried. "I've never changed sides so fast in my life! Do I need this?"
But the clock ran out with USC on the four. "Perfect!" Peggy screamed. Seconds later the phone rang and a caller blurted out, ' "Bama's No. 1 and Charlie White's No. 2." Steadman Shealy laughed. Two days earlier he had told a circle of reporters, "If it pleases God for us to be No. 1, that's great. But if the Lord has a better plan for us, we'll just pick up the pieces and go home." But now he craved it. "We'll see," he said.
With classes out at Tuscaloosa and no urge to linger in New Orleans for a last round of parties, Shealy elected "to spend time with my girl friend and the Lord." They drove to his grandmother's house in Madison, Miss. There, the next night, Shealy got the good word: Alabama No. 1 in both polls, with USC second, Orange Bowl victor Oklahoma third and Ohio State fourth. "It's joyous," he said. "Praise the Lord!" And Ogilvie and Jackson and a defense that impressed even the pollsters.