About this time in 1970, a number of young men were anticipating the start of their first football season at Alabama. That freshman class—which would play as a freshman team in those days before freshmen were eligible for varsity play – would be part of an outstanding turn-around for Crimson Tide football.
This weekend, that group will have what has become an annual summer reunion at the Lake Martin home of Steve Sprayberry, an offensive tackle -- which is what one would expect of a Sylacauga native who reported to Alabama at whopping 6-1, 185 pounds. (By his senior year in 1973, his second season as a starter, he was up to 225.)
The group gave some indication of good things to come in their varsity careers with a 5-0 freshman record, wins over Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Auburn. Paul Spivey was the rushing leader and Gary Rutledge the quarterback.
The group came to Alabama when Coach Paul Bryant’s Tide seemed to be ebbing, a 6-5 record in 1969 when they were recruited, a 6-5-1 mark in 1970.
But things turned for the better. To be sure, the freshmen got some help as Alabama opened the 1971 season with an upset of Southern Cal in Los Angeles and went on to an 11-0 regular season record. Men like Johnny Musso, John Hannah, Jim Krapf, Buddy Brown, and Terry Davis on offense and Tom Surlas, Jeff Rouzie, Robin Parkhouse, and Steve Higginbotham on defense were the stars of that first Bama wishbone team.
The 1971 team won the Southeastern Conference championship and played for the national title against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, but that Cornhuskers team – considered one of the best of all-time college squads – handed the Tide its only loss.
The 1972 team also won the SEC Championship and finished 10-2, while the 1973 squad was 11-1, conference champion, and selected as the national champion in the Coaches Poll conducted by United Press International and still based strictly on regular season play.
The record in those three years was 32-1 in regular season play.
There were 31 men on the 1970 freshman roster, including history-making Wilbur Jackson, the first African-American on Alabama football scholarship. Jackson was signed as an end, but moved to halfback in the wishbone.
In those days, the list of Alabama freshmen included only five positions – end, lineman, linebacker, back, and kicker.
Many of them would become stars and starters for Bama over the next three years (and for a few who were redshirted into 1974).
Those on that 1970 signing roster who were still participating in the 1973 national championship season (though often at positions other than those for which they signed) are:
Ends Wilbur Jackson, Rand Lambert, David Watkins; linemen Steve Patterson, Skip Kubelius, Mike Raines, John Rogers, Steve Sprayberry, Rick Rogers; linebackers Noah Dean Miller, Rony Robertson, Chuck Strickland; backs Jimmy Dale Dawson, David McMakin, Gary Rutledge, Paul Spivey; kickers Bill Davis, Greg Gantt.
The reunion will also include a few players from other signing classes who played with the 1970 group.
Also attending will be men who coached them, Jimmy Sharpe, Jack Rutledge, and Bill Oliver; Gary White, who was director of Bryant Hall, where the players lived; and a man who was not much older than the incoming freshmen in 1970 and in his first year as assistant sports information director, Kirk McNair.