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December 23, 2012

Alabama's championship prophet

TUSCALOOSA | Corky Simpson's semi-celebrity status among University of Alabama football fans was how it all ended. The only sports writer who voted Alabama No. 1 in the nation on his Associated Press Top 25 ballot every week in the entire 1992 season - even in August, when the Crimson Tide was ranked ninth in the preseason poll - was celebrated in Tuscaloosa when UA validated his vote with a national championship.

What the former Tucson Citizen sports writer went through in the weeks preceding Alabama's 34-13 Sugar Bowl win over Miami, however, was anything but a celebration. Simpson's identity as the man who cast Alabama's sole No. 1 vote became public toward the end of the regular season, in November to the best of Simpson's recollection.

And it didn't take long for Miami Hurricanes fans to begin flooding his mailbox. It was all in good fun - nothing Simpson met with any concern or remembers with any regret - but it was the side of the story nobody saw but him.

"I knew it was just people who loved football. Nothing too serious. By that time, I wasn't going to back off," Simpson said. "The more abuse I took from Miami fans, the more inclined I was to stick with the Tide."

Hurricanes mascot Sebastian the Ibis sent Simpson an autographed photo with a not-so-endearing inscription.

"Some other guy from Miami faxed me a photo of his butt. He sat on a copier I guess, and sent me a fax of his rear end," Simpson said.

Even the AP employee who took Simpson's ballot by phone every week (in those pre-Internet days, that's how the ballots were cast), gave Simpson grief about being the only voter picking the Crimson Tide No. 1.

After the Sugar Bowl, Simpson was embraced by the Alabama fan base even more. He was in the January parade that was given for the team along University Boulevard. Coach Gene Stallings gave him a pocket knife that he still treasures, and showed him his prized collection of police badges. The Tuscaloosa mayor gave him a key to the city. An Alabama jersey, No. 1, of course, with his name on it still hangs in his closet today in Arizona.

A patron at the Houndstooth bar spotted him walking along the Strip on the day of the parade and pulled him inside.

"I could have had 20 beers for nothing," Simpson said. "Everyone in there wanted to buy me one. But I decided it wouldn't be a good idea. I told them I didn't drink beer, but thanks. They would have taken me out of there on a stretcher.

"It was probably the most to-do ever to happen about nothing in the history of the world. I was nothing but a footnote. A tiny little part. A side story."

Simpson credits former Birmingham sports writer Bill Lumpkin, who convinced Simpson at a sports writers convention before the season that the Crimson Tide could run the table if it could beat Tennessee on the road, for planting the idea for his bote. Once Simpson cast his preseason ballot for Alabama, he further decided to leave UA at No. 1 unless it lost, which never happened. It was Simpson's only year as an AP poll voter. He called the Associted Press in 1993 and told them he was "retiring undefeated."

Just like the team did.

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