Book Review - The Missing Ring

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Posted on : 12/17/2012 07:00:00 AM | By : Dann | In :

It was not my original intent to visit this year's college football national championship game, but it seems that circumstances have led us back to a repeat of the 1966 season where Notre Dame edged out Alabama.  The controversy surrounding the selection of Notre Dame that year is documented in "The Missing Ring", written by Keith Dunnavant.

So my recent reading of this book is certainly timely.

I think it is fair to put the weakest part of this book up front.  The author is a "homer"; a graduate of the University of Alabama.  A man who received some modest assistance during his time at Alabama from Paul "Bear" Bryant.  He writes about the 1966 Crimson Tide team that narrowly missed achieving a phenomenal three national collegiate football championships in a row.  While I think it is obvious that his relationship with Alabama fueled his passion for researching this book, I think it is also fair to note that his history with Coach Bryant and his time at Alabama may...or may not...have affected his perspective.

"The Missing Ring" arrived in my book pile a few years ago for no discernible reason.  Such was the sales job performed by whoever prepared the book cover.  The fact that it was in a bargain books bin probably helped.

Mr. Dunnavant begins his story with the training camps and recruiting efforts of 1965.  The image he creates of training camp is one of a crucible where boys are forged into men via discipline and rigorous exercise.  It is a place where one imagines "character" as oozing from the walls and seeping into the skin.  The garbage cans kept in the team's gym as receptacles for athletically induced regurgitation served double duty establishing the mood for the facility as well as yet another bonding experience for the athletes.

The theme that Mr. Dunnavant reiterates time and again are how Coach Bryant expected effort, achievement, and unswerving loyalty to the program which in turn produced the sort of young men that he could then mold into national championship caliber teams.  The sole weakness of "The Missing Ring" is the persistent return to this theme after it had been adequately addressed in the initial chapters of the book.

The story continues with views into the personal lives of various Alabama players of that era.  Imagine my surprise to discover that Kenny Stabler had played for the Tide.  I watched many of his professional football performances on Sunday afternoons as a young lad.  The story of his youth and his time at Alabama was quite interesting.  See the book for details.

When it gets down to it, Mr. Dunnavant's case on behalf of the 1966 Crimson Tide comes down to two essential elements; the reaction to racism in the state of Alabama and disproportionate enthusiasm within the sports media for Notre Dame.

The civil rights struggles in Alabama were deep and bloody.  Anyone with a passing sense of American history understands that the white political leadership was in the middle of making their last stand against progress for everyone in general and black Alabamans specifically.

The continuing specter of segregation caused many across the country to take a rather dim view of southern states in general and Alabama in particular.  This presence of this perspective created a situation where the sports writers only needed the flimsiest of excuses to justify their national champion votes for another team; any other team.

The Notre Dame football program has been the long time beneficiary of positive press coverage.  This is a bit ironic given that during the 2012 season, the media constantly underestimated and dismissed Notre Dame's achievements on the field.  And yet the Irish will play for the national championship this year against...Alabama.

Mr. Dunnavant suggests that Coach Bryant was not pleased with segregation at Alabama.  He also suggests that the coach felt that opposing segregation at the university would harm his football program.  Coach Bryant's critics may justly criticize that stance as defending the comparatively unimportant health of a football program while sacrificing the far more important issue of civil rights for oppressed Americans.

Mr. Dunnavant suggests that the coach envisioned blacks playing at Alabama "some day".  In lieu of developing such valuable additions to his program, Coach Bryant apparently steered young black men to integrated programs where they could be successful.  In another small irony, one such young man ended up playing a role in the 1966 tie between Michigan State University and Notre Dame that year.

In any case, Mr. Dunnavant suggests that the media used the heightened racial tensions as an excuse to under-rate the 1966 Crimson Tide.

MSU nearly beat Notre Dame that year.  Perhaps the most controversial game on Notre Dame's schedule that year.  At the end, with time running out, Notre Dame elected to control the ball in pursuit of a tie rather than to play for the win; and potentially lose the game as well.  Notre Dame's coach apparently felt that the media would not penalize his team for a tie with the then #2 ranked team.  But they would penalize him for the loss.  He wanted the national championship more than he wanted to win that game.

The combination of the negative perspective of Alabama and the optimistic perspective granted to Notre Dame cost Alabama a third straight national championship;  their "missing ring".

The final piece of the puzzle in the story is the absence of any sort of playoff requirement at the end of the year.  At the time, the AP and UPI polls ruled the championship race.  A split between the polls resulted in co-championships.  One poll or the other may decide to declare a champion before the college bowl games or after.

It is one of the most compelling arguments for the current BCS system.  It remains a strong argument for a real, multi-game playoff system today.

I am unprepared to unquestioningly accept Mr. Dunnavant's narrative as the definitive truth.  But it is an interesting and well told perspective.

There are many golden nuggets of collegiate football history to be found within the pages of "The Missing Ring".  Enjoy.


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