In a startling verdict that evoked pained growls from Alabama Coach Bear Bryant and a rolling tide of indignation from enraged Alabama fans, the United Press International panel of 35 coaches yesterday voted the University of Southern California its version of the college football national championship.
The Assolciated Press will announce its final rankings and choice for the mythical national title today, based on a poll of 68 writers and broadcasters across the nation Debate on the merits and conclusions of both polls is sure to ensue.
USC (12-1) -- which won the Rose Bowl over Michigan Monday by the margin of a disputed touchdown, 17-10 -- and Alabama (11-1) -- which ended previously top-ranked Penn State's 19-game winning streak, 14-7, in a Sugar Bowl game that most people though was for the national title -- each received 15 first-place votes in the final UPI poll.
The other five votes for No. 1 went to Oklahoma (11-1), which avenged its only defeat by beating Nebraska, 31-24, in the Orange Bowl.
But Southern Cal garnered more secondplace votes than Alabama and finished with 496 points to the Crimson Tide's 491 in the coaches' balloting, the closest since Notre Dame edged Michigan State by five points for the UPI title 12 years ago.
"My heart bleeds for our players," said Bryant, 65, the winningest active college head coach with 284 victories in 34 years, when told of the decision of the panel of coaches, of which he is a member.
Oklahoma finished third with 467 points. Penn State (11-1) fourth with 424. Michigan (10-2) was fifth, while Cotton Bowl champion Notre Dame (9-3) and Gator Bowl winner Clemson (11-1) tied for sixth. Nebraska (9-3), Texas (9-3) and Arkansas (9-2-1) completed the Top 10.
Southern California Coach John Robinson proclaimed his team the legitimate heir to the throne after its controversial Rose Bowl victory on the basis of a 24-14 victory over Alabama the third week of the season -- in Birmingham, no less. Ultimately, UPI's panel of coaches evidently shared his reasoning.
But there is an obvious inconsistency of logic in this final ballot as well. The same coaches voted Penn State No. 1, Alabama No. 2, and Southern Cal No. 3 four weeks ago, at the end of the regular season. Then, on New Year's Day, Alabama produced an inspired defensive effort to whip Penn State more convincingly than USC beat Michigan. So how did the Trojans jump ahead of the Crimson Tide?
That is what outraged Alabama partisans, who suspect an anti-Southern bias and jealousy of the legendary Bryant among his coaching peers, were asking yesterday.
"The UPI board of coaches demonstrated a lack of consistency with this vote, as their No. 1 and No. 2 teams played in what the vast majority of the public viewed as the national championsjip game," said Bryant in an unusually strong criticism. Usually this Bear takes such matters philosophically.
"Other than that, all I can say is that we've won a hell of a lot more games than we have popularity contests recently."
Many Alabamans felt left out in the cold for a second straight year.
A year ago, Texas was ranked No. 1, Oklahoma No. 2, and Alabama No. 3 going into the holiday orgy of bowl games. Texas was routed by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and Oklahoma by Arkansas in the Orange Bowl, while Alabama mauled Ohio State, 35-6, in the Sugar Bowl. But when the final rankings came out, both UPI and AP had Notre Dame vaulting from fifth place to the nationa championship, with Alabama coming in second.
When yesterday's results were announced on WACT Radio in Tusca-loosa, the station's switchboard immediately was flooded with irate calls.
Announcer Sam Hart reported these reactions to the UPI poll from the first callers to get through on his phone: "Bunch of crooks"... "Not at all fair"... "Awful"... "A dirty rotten shame"... "Rooked again"... "Nonsense"... "It's a carryover from the Civil War."
Hart said that when the results came over the station's teletype machine, "We were all disappointed to the point where you probably couldn't print what we said... You're going to hear a lot of dirty jokes coming up North."
Added Don Hartley, sports director of WACT, which carries Auburn footbsll games but gives intrastate rival Alabama extensive coverage: "Last year was bad. This year is twice as bad."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Alabama students contacted in their dormitories by The Washington Post:
"God dang, you're kidding," grumped Bob Isola, a varsity wrestler from Orlando, Fal., when informed of the UPI poll. "USC didn't impress us against Michigan. Alabama is a lot better, and proved it by stopping Penn State on the goal line," he added, referring to the Crimson Tide defense rising to stop the Nittany Lions twice from the one-yard-line in the fourth quarter.
"I was surprised to hear it. I'm probably prejudiced, but we beat the No. 1 team, so why can't we be No. 1?" wondered Keith Barnhart, a freshman business major, also from Orlando.
"I think it's a lot of... like last year," opined John Muldoon of Chicago.
"There is just no way you can fairly decide a national champion unless there is a national playoff," said David Hanna, a defensive tackle who missed this season with an injury. "What Alabama has to do to win the national title is beyond me. We'll never get it. We beat the better team and we don't move up. It's a joke. What should count is who wins at the end."
A UPI story from Tuscaloosa reported: "Within minutes of the release of the poll, telephones began jangling in UPI bureaus throughout the South. Some callers were apoplectic; others seemed bewildered when told the teams were selected not by the wire service itself but by coaches, including Southern coaches."
"We're gonna do something," UPI QUOTED ONE UNIDENTIFIED CALLER AS BELLOWING. "I don't know what we're gonna do, but this has got to stop. Every damn year they find some way to take it away from us. We're gonna take care of those damn Yankees."
Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said he "had kind of expec ted" Alabama to win top ranking in the UPI poll. "But Oklahoma is as good as USC and Alabama is as good as USC," he said.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Robinson was pleased. "I'm wure there are a great many deserving teams," said the USC coach, "but this is a great thing for us, a great reward for a team."
He reiterated that, during the season, the Trojans beat not only Alabama, but Notre Dame, Standford (victor over Georgia in the Bluebonnet Bowl), UCLA (which tied Arkanseas in the Fiesta Bowl), and Michigan State, which tied Michigan for the Big Ten Conference championship but was ineligible for postseason competition because it is on NCAA probation. USC's only loss was to Arizona State, 20-7.
"Our team started without any illusions. It was the most ambitious schedule ever undertaken by a USC team. We were fighting for our lives from the first game. Every game was on which USC runsing back Charles as we went," Robinsonsaid.
Asked about the controversial winning touchdown in the Rose Bowl, in which USC running back Charles White was credited with scoring even though television replays showed that he had fumbled before reaching the goal line, Robinson said:
"Obviously, it had no effect on the ratings. Everyonke is aware that controversial calls are made. I know it was a disappointment from Michigan's standpoint."
Meanwhile, angry Alabama fans can take some measure of solace from the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame, which has decided to present the MacArthur Bowl -- symbolic of its version of the national championship -- to the Crimson Tide in ceremonies in the spring.
There is no definitive national chamionship, of course, but that doesn't make the mythical honor any less eagerly sought. The wire service polls have the most impact because of their widespread exposure and the national, quasiofficial makeup of the panels that vote them.
The Associated Press poll carries the weight of seniority, dating of 1936. If Alabama is not No. 1 when it is released today, expect the South to rise again in anger on behalf of Alabama and its wounded Bear.