An April flood had gathered at the door, and when the door was opened, it came through with a swoosh, all at once: Ken (The Snake) Stabler cut more classes than he went to. Ken Stabler cut baseball practice. Ken Stabler did not show up for a baseball game. Ken Stabler's collection of speeding tickets was one of the grandest in the South. Ken Stabler cut football practice. When all this evidence came floating across the desk of Paul (Bear) Bryant, the Alabama football coach and athletic director, Bryant cut Ken Stabler. It was a move that left Alabama's 1967 football fortunes somewhat awash.
This was the second time in four years that Bryant had fired a star quarterback. In 1963 the suspended miscreant was Joe Namath. His offenses were more in the hell-raising line than Snake Stabler's, but Joe was also properly contrite. He mended his fences and ways, and in 1964 came back to lead Alabama to a national title. This spring when he heard Bryant had sentenced Stabler, Namath sent Snake a wire: "He means it."
Stabler is like Huckleberry Finn; he even looks like Huckleberry Finn. He has that sly old country-boy smile and he sirs you to death, and he says he sure is looking forward to making that trip to Florida to pitch against FSU, and then he doesn't catch the bus. The second week of June, Stabler came to see Bryant, and Bryant told him he might just as well go play pro baseball.
Bryant meant it, all right, and thus began Stabler's long, hot summer. Stabler moved out of Paul W. Bryant Hall, where the athletes live, and into Paty Hall, where he did not want to live. He got a job (on his own) stacking freight for a trucking company. He enrolled in summer school and made up five credit hours—one more than necessary. He wanted to play for Alabama, and by mid-August he had convinced Bryant, who reinstated him.
How much does Stabler mean to the Alabama offense? Well, with him at quarterback Alabama has won 11 in a row, including a 34-7 rout of Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl last New Year's Day. Last year Stabler set an SEC record for passing accuracy: 74 of 114 (for 956 yards). By the time the season was ending, Bryant was saying Stabler had "the best touch for long passing I've ever seen." What is more, Stabler can run. He led Alabama in rushing with 397 yards. Meanwhile, bodies that serve as Alabama's quarterback when Stabler does not are sophomores Scott Hunter and Neb Hayden, who are not ready to take the Tide to its accustomed heights, and junior Joe Kelley, who has ability but seemed to feel the pressure in the spring when Stabler was suspended.
Alabama graduated its top receiver, Split End Ray Perkins, so Bryant has moved Flankerback Dennis Homan (second to Perkins with 23 catches for 377 yards) to split end. He says the kind of things about Homan you would not believe from such a conservative voice: "Homan could be as good as Don Hutson." Bryant also has his finest group of runners since the 1961 championship team—Fullbacks Pete Moore, David Chatwood and Gene Raburn and Tailbacks Ed Morgan and Tommy Wade.
Unfortunately, this offense will be operating behind a largely untried line. Alabama lost six of its first seven offensive linemen. The only returnee is Guard Bruce Stephens, a five-year man who is of a brand that might be called Alabama Typical: small (195 pounds), fast and violent. The rest of the line is faceless and could take half a season to emerge. By then Alabama will already have played Tennessee and Mississippi.
What is to keep the wolves and Vols and Rebels from Alabama's door? The defense, naturally. If Bryant had coached Alabama's defense in 1865 the Federals would never have burned the campus. With no trace of regret—39-28 games are not his style—Bryant says, "It looks like we'll have to go back to playing some defense." Actually, Alabama never stops playing defense. Last year it led the nation in keeping feet out of its end zone. Ten opponents averaged only 3.7 points a game, six were shut out. From that defense, eight of 11 starters return. As always, the defense will be absurdly light and sudden-death quick. The starting defensive team will average about 196 pounds per man in an era when 260-pound linemen are commonplace. The middle of the Alabama line must be shored up, but Bryant is going to a four-man front line this year, with three excellent linebackers—Mike Hall, Wayne Owen and Bob Childs—and a rover (freelancing linebacker), David Bedwell. Ends Mike Ford and Charles Harris and Backs Bobby Johns (an All-America) and Dicky Thompson and Safety Man Mike Sasser already know what Bryant requires of defense-men, so if Alabama has to shut out its first, five opponents to stay unbeaten it just may.
No coach in the business comes close to Bryant's record in his nine years at Alabama. Eight times he has been in the nation's top 10. His teams have won three national championships. Ironically, he did not win it last year with an undefeated team that he considered his best. Privately he told Ted Williams this summer that he thought Notre Dame had better material and all that, but "we'd have beaten Notre Dame." This is a different season. Unless his offensive line comes on strong, the Bear may not care to contend that Alabama is No. 1. But if it does, the Tide may be better than ever.