SMITH COLUMN: Three peat

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, January 25, 2023

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There will always be interesting vignettes in sports histories, some current, but most of them retold with a new perspective as a fragile world turns.

When the Coaches All-America game was played in Atlanta in the sixties, I was fortunate to spend time with the elite coaches of the era who were picked to coach in the game. John McKay, then at Southern California, was a regular for a couple of summers and so was Joe Paterno of Penn State.

Bob Devaney of Nebraska had just gotten established at Nebraska and brought along his top assistant, Tom Osborne, who would succeed him in Lincoln.

Osborne was Devaney’s choice to take his place following the 1971 season which concluded with the Cornhuskers winning their second consecutive national championship.

Devaney, also Nebraska’s athletic director, had announced he would retire following the ’71 season. However, Devaney knew the history, that there had not been anyone to win three consecutive national titles since Minnesota in 1934-35-36. So, Devaney, who had a close and engaging rapport with Osborne, asked his loyal assistant if he would hold off on becoming head coach for one more season and allow Devaney to try win a third consecutive national title.

Osborn was compatible with the plan and with all parties in agreement, he succeeded Devaney a year later. Nebraska, with Osborne’s august reputation, expected elevated success to continue. The Cornhuskers were outstanding still, but for a while, it appeared that Osborne might not win a national championship. He ultimately won three (’94, ’95 and ’97), but it took eleven years. Osborne won 9 games or more annually for 25 seasons.

The first year that the Associated Press picked a national champion was in 1936 which means the Golden Gophers only wire service championship was the year the AP initiated its voting process. United Press, which later became UPI after merging with the International News Service, began selecting a collegiate national champion in 1950.  Army lays claim to a three-peat but that has been considered suspect by many. In addition, it was the war years when the rosters were sorely lacking in talent. The Black Knights won the AP poll in 1944 and 1945 and, according to the Internet, were retroactively declared national champions in 1946 years later by several selectors.

Coaches have often considered sportswriters and broadcasters as unqualified selectors. Granted, writers and broadcasters are not schooled in X’s and O’s, but my view is that coaches are the worst possible selectors. Why?

Because they have to vote defensively and there is considerable prejudice in their thinking. For example, if Ohio State and Michigan are undefeated late in the season in a given year, neither coach can possibly give their main rival a fair shake. Coaches obviously know more football than writers, but external factors get in the way when they vote.  

In 1990, you may remember there was a split vote with the AP selectors choosing Colorado, which beat Notre Dame 10-9 in the Orange Bowl with the Associated Press picking the Buffaloes as the No. 1 team.

Georgia Tech won the UPI Coaches Poll.  Bobby Ross, the Tech coach, a fine person and a terrific coach, was popular with most coaches.  Bill McCartney, the Colorado coach had become a religious zealot and was considered a hypocrite by many coaches which certainly was a positive for Ross when the coaches voted.

This is not to debate whether Georgia Tech was deserving but to point out how fallible the coaches can be in such circumstances.   Fortunately, there is no question today about the validity of the national champion unless you want to take issue with the judgment by the playoff committee.

Go back to the week of the Georgia-Tennessee game last fall. Georgia’s depth, and offensive and defensive acumen didn’t strike a nerve with the committee. Tennessee’s high-powered offense did, however, a reminder that you can’t take the human element out of human selectors.

Now Georgia has an even bigger target on its back as all the talk from now until the dust settles on the season of ’23 will be, “Can the Bulldogs pull off a three-peat?” And unseat Minnesota as the last team to capture three consecutive titles?

Obviously, it is possible, but not probable.  

However, the view here is that if anybody can, Kirby can.