Dynasties of college football

  • ESPN.com staff | December 24, 2012

Introduction

Alabama is attempting to do what no program has done in the BCS era: win a third national championship and cross the threshold to become a dynasty. It has been 15 years since a program -- Nebraska -- last did so.

And now Nick Saban has brought the Crimson Tide to the precipice of matching the Cornhuskers. Alabama, with a defeat of Notre Dame in the BCS title game, would become the first team to win a third national title since the BCS began in 1999.

That third crystal football is the key that will unlock the door to the pantheon of college football. We have identified seven dynasties that have ruled the sport in the modern era.

To read the rest of Ivan Maisel's story on dynasties, click here.

Minnesota (1936-41)

Minnesota

Coach Bernie Bierman

Bierman undoubtedly deserves a place in the pantheon of elite college coaches. He guided Minnesota to six Big Ten championships, five national championships and five undefeated seasons. His Gophers won league titles in four of five seasons between 1937-41, going 8-0 in each of the final two years. Bierman had average results in early stops at Montana and Mississippi State before guiding Tulane to a 28-2 mark between 1929-31. He then returned to his alma mater at Minnesota and cemented a Hall of Fame career. Bierman once said he "never made an emotional speech" in his life. Judging by how much his teams won, he had no need to. -- Adam Rittenberg

RB Bruce Smith

Smith earned the respect and adoration of Gopher fans as much for his toughness as his incredible production. He often played through pain, thanks to a bum knee, and led Minnesota to consecutive undefeated, national championship seasons in 1940 and 1941. Smith built a reputation as a clutch player in 1940, scoring three game-winning touchdowns, including an 80-yard reverse to beat Michigan. He triggered Minnesota's single-wing offense in 1941 and became the first and only Gophers player to win the Heisman Trophy. Smith received the award two days after the Pearl Harbor attack and delivered one of the more memorable acceptance speeches in Heisman history. -- Adam Rittenberg

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Why it started? If the AP poll had launched a few years earlier, Bierman's Minnesota teams would have sat atop it. The Gophers went 8-0 in both 1934 and 1935, and claimed a NCAA-record third consecutive national title in 1936. Although Minnesota's title streak ended the following year, it continued to dominate the Big Ten with consecutive championships in 1937 and 1938.

Why it ended? The incredible stretch included two more national titles (1940, 1941) before Bierman enlisted in the Marines in January 1942 to serve during World War II. He returned to coach Minnesota in 1945 but never reclaimed the same dominance at the school.

Did you know? Bud Wilkinson, who would go on to coach his own dynasty at Oklahoma, quarterbacked the Gophers from 1934 to 1936. --Adam Rittenberg

Notre Dame (1943-49)

Minnesota

Coach Frank Leahy

In some ways, Leahy was just continuing what he had helped start at Notre Dame. He played tackle on Knute Rockne's final two teams, both of which were national champions, in 1929 and 1930. As Fordham's line coach from 1935-37, he coached the Rams' famed "Seven Blocks of Granite" before a stint as Boston College's head coach gave way to the Notre Dame job in 1941. Like every story with a famous Irish coach goes, Leahy won it all in his third year, in 1943, before entering the Navy the next year. His return in 1946 ignited a stretch of three national titles in four years. -- Matt Fortuna

QB Johnny Lujack

Like his coach, Lujack left for the Navy for two seasons, after leading Notre Dame to the 1943 national title as a sophomore quarterback. Like his coach, he returned in 1946, just in time to lead the Irish to consecutive national titles, earning consensus All-America honors in both campaigns. Lujack became Notre Dame's second Heisman Trophy winner in 1947, winning Associated Press male athlete of the year award as well. He starred at halfback, punter and defensive back along the way, though his legacy will always be that of one of the best T-formation signal-callers in college football history. -- Matt Fortuna

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Why it started? Leahy's hiring at Notre Dame can be seen as where the program began to rise again. After going 20-2 and winning the 1941 Sugar Bowl while coaching Boston College, he went a combined 15-2-3 in his first two years with the Irish.

Why it ended? Notre Dame went 4-4-1 in 1950. The four losses that season were more than Leahy had in his seven previous seasons at Notre Dame combined (three).

Did you know? In addition to the Ireland Trophy, the winner of the Notre Dame-Boston College game receives the Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl, as Leahy coached both schools, which are the only Catholic FBS institutions. --Matt Fortuna

Oklahoma (1950-56)

Minnesota

Coach Bud Wilkinson

In 1945, the OU regents decided football was the path to repair the state's dust bowl image. All they needed was the right coach. OU flew in Jim Tatum, who brought a prospective assistant with him to the interview. The regents came away so impressed with the assistant, they offered Tatum the job on the condition Bud Wilkinson be part of the staff, too. Tatum left for Maryland after one year, Wilkinson took over and the OU dynasty was full steam ahead. By the time Wilkinson retired, OU had won three national titles and held the longest winning streak in college football history. -- Jake Trotter

QB Jimmy Harris

The Terrell, Texas, native didn't have the strongest arm or the fastest feet. But Harris had a champion's confidence that came to personify the Wilkinson era. The Sooners won 47 straight games from early 1953 to late 1957, and Harris quarterbacked 25 of those wins while leading the Sooners to a pair of national titles. Harris' prowess also helped convince Wilkinson to expand his recruiting south of the Red River. Before Harris' senior year, OU had produced just two All-Americans from Texas. Since, Texas recruits have become the lifeblood of Sooner football. -- Jake Trotter

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Why it started? By hiring veterans Tatum and Wilkinson, the Sooners had two coaches who could recruit fellow World War II vets, many of whom had four years of eligibility remaining. Almost overnight, OU jumpstarted its football program with these players, which set the foundation for the dynasty.

Why it ended? Even after Notre Dame finally ended the streak, the Sooners still went 10-1 in '57 and again in '58. But coupled with Texas' rise under Darrell Royal, OU's talent level began a gradual dip that would last for a decade.

Did you know? Over a five-season span, Notre Dame was the only program to topple the Sooners. The Irish bookended OU's winning streak with victories in '53 and '57. --Jake Trotter

Alabama (1961-66, 1973-79)

Minnesota

Coach Bear Bryant

Bryant was fond of saying that, "Losing doesn't make me want to quit, it makes me want to fight that much harder." At the University of Alabama, Bryant didn't suffer through too many losses. It's remarkable that over a 25-year career in Tuscaloosa he lost just 46 games, an average of about two per season. It's one of the reasons Bryant is the most revered football coach in Alabama history, and among the top coaches in the history of college football. His record at UA speaks for itself: 232-46-9. He won an SEC record 146 games, 13 conference titles and went 12-10-2 in bowl games. His six national championships are tied for most in college football history. -- Alex Scarborough

QB Joe Namath

In 1964, Broadway Joe cemented his legacy at Alabama. Then known as Joe Willie Namath, the Pennsylvania native won Coach Bryant his second national title at UA. Namath was named the most outstanding player of the 1965 Orange Bowl, passing for two touchdowns and 255 yards on a gimpy leg. It was the end of a college career that yielded a 294 record and three bowl appearances. He set single-season records in his first year as a starter and, by the time he left for the NFL, he had set school records for pass attempts, completions, yardage and touchdowns. -- Alex Scarborough

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Why it started? Like so many dynasties, Alabama's run was defined by the man in charge. Bryant was revered for his brand of hard-nosed football, but he won by recruiting and developing well, too. The 1960s produced legends such as Namath, Billy Neighbors, Ray Perkins and Kenny Stabler.

Why it ended? The Bryant dominance spanned two decades as Alabama won a second set of three titles in the 1970s, capping the 1979 season with a 12-0 record. Bryant would coach three more seasons before retiring in 1982 after an 8-4 season. He would die four weeks after announcing his retirement.

Did you know? Upon his retirement, Bryant was Division I's all-time winningest coach with 323 wins, 232 of them at Alabama. -- Alex Scarborough

USC (1967-74)

Minnesota

Coach John McKay

As witty as he was successful, McKay once said this about recruiting his son to USC: "I had a rather distinct advantage. I slept with his mother." At USC, he amassed a 127-40-8 mark while winning four national championships, nine conference titles and three undefeated seasons. The Trojans went to nine bowl games under his watch and won five Rose Bowls. A 1988 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, McKay also coached two Heisman Trophy winners and numerous All-Americans. He later went on to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for nine seasons. -- Kevin Gemmell

QB Pat Haden

USC's current athletic director was also one of its most productive quarterbacks. He played in three Rose Bowls (was co-MVP in 1975) and helped the Trojans to the 1972 and 1974 national championships. The Rhodes Scholar still ranks 14th on USC's career passing list with 241 completions and 15th in total offense (3,802 yards). He went on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the seventh round of the 1975 NFL draft where he played from 1976-1981. He was the team MVP of the 1974 squad. -- Kevin Gemmell

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Why it started? USC won four national titles under Howard Jones from 1925-1940, so the program already had a successful pedigree, but it had not won a Rose Bowl since 1953. Enter McKay, who was exceptional at coaching and recruiting, and a perfect fit for the program.

Why it ended? It didn't really end in 1974. After going 8-4 in 1975, John Robinson took over and kept on winning. The Trojans split a national title in 1978 and finished No. 2 in 1976 and 1979.

Did you know? On Sept. 12, 1970, USC became the first fully integrated team to play in the state of Alabama. The Trojans ran over the Crimson Tide 42-21, with all six TDs being scored by black players. That 12-0 squad defeated five teams ranked 18th or higher by an average of 22 points. -- Ted Miller

Miami (1983-1992)

Minnesota

Coaches Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson

Three coaches, two undefeated seasons, four national titles (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991). Miami's dynasty began under Schnellenberger, and by his fifth and final season, in 1983, Miami had won its first national title. Led by freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar, the Canes upset Nebraska, 31-30, in the Orange Bowl to punctuate an 11-1 season and a No. 1 spot in the polls. Jimmy Johnson continued that success, and in 1987, Miami went undefeated in winning its second national title. The Dennis Erickson era featured two more national titles for the program, as Miami went 11-1 in Erickson's first season, and then went undefeated in 1991, winning the Associated Press national title. -- Heather Dinich

WR Michael Irvin

Very few players symbolize swagger like Irvin. In 1987, he made one of the most memorable plays in school history and was instrumental in the Canes winning the national title and finishing undefeated under Jimmy Johnson. Against rival Florida State, Irvin scored on a 73-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Steve Walsh for the lead with 2:22 remaining. It was all Miami needed to hold off the Noles, 26-25. During his time at Miami, Irvin set school records for career receptions (143), receiving yards (2,423) and touchdown receptions (26). He went on to be a three-time Super Bowl champion and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. -- Heather Dinich

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Why it started? Schnellenberger recognized all the talent around him in South Florida, and decided he would start recruiting athletes at every position on the football field. That meant speedy athletes everywhere, revolutionizing not only Miami, but college football in general.

Why it ended? Miami had real problems continuing on with its Quarterback U. tradition. A host of NCAA rules violations committed during Erickson's tenure sent Miami spinning. In 1995, the NCAA charged Miami with a lack of institutional control, took away 31 scholarships, imposed a bowl ban and put the program on three years' probation.

Did you know? All five Miami starting quarterbacks during this era -- Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Steve Walsh, Craig Erickson and Gino Torretta -- played in the NFL. -- Andrea Adelson

Nebraska (1994-97)

Minnesota

Coach Tom Osborne

It sounds funny to say now, but Tom Osborne used to be criticized for not winning the big game. He had the unenviable task of following Nebraska legend Bob Devaney, who won two national titles before retiring in 1973. Osborne never had a season with fewer than nine wins, but he suffered some high-profile losses against Oklahoma early in his career and fell short in the 1984 and 1994 Orange Bowls with national titles on the line. When he finally broke through, he did so in a huge way, leading the Cornhuskers to three national championships in four seasons, going 49-2 from 1994 to 1997. -- Brian Bennett

QB Tommie Frazier

Tommie Frazier was named the MVP of three straight bowl games in which the national title was on the line, and he led the team to back-to-back national championships in 1994 and 1995. Frazier repeatedly rose to the occasion on the grandest of stages, memorably powering the Huskers to a comeback win over Miami in the 1995 Orange Bowl despite missing the previous seven games with a blood clot. His 75-yard touchdown run the following year against Florida is remembered as one of the greatest plays in Nebraska history. He finished with a 33-3 record as a starter. -- Brian Bennett

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Why it started? From 1987-93, Nebraska met either Florida State or Miami in a bowl six times -- and lost all six. Nebraska bludgeoned people in the regular season but couldn't match the Florida schools' speed in January. Osborne changed his approach and put more speed on the field, epitomized when he recruited Frazier out of Bradenton, Fla.

Why it ended? Osborne retired after his third and final title following the 1997 season. His handpicked successor, Frank Solich, won 42 games his first four seasons but couldn't recapture the magic and was fired after a 9-3 season in 2003.

Did you know? The 1995 Cornhuskers outscored opponents 638-174 and beat four teams that finished in the AP Top 10 by an average of more than 30 points each. They averaged 399.8 rushing yards per game. -- Brian Bennett

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