HONOLULU — This was after the game, after the interviews outside the Alabama locker room, and after they'd turned off the Aloha Stadium lights Saturday night.
In the darkness, Alabama Coach Ray Perkins walked straight down the middle of the football field to a waiting bus and talked about the 1986 national collegiate football championship.
A lot of folks in Alabama think the Crimson Tide will have the kind of talent next season to win a national title. Of the 22 Alabama starters who suited up in Saturday's 24-3 win over USC in the Aloha Bowl, 17 return next season. And those same Alabama folks will tell you that quarterback Mike Shula, on a national championship team, would have a shot at the Heisman Trophy.
Walking briskly across the dark stadium field with his attache case, Perkins didn't seem to discourage talk about a national title net season.
"I approach it from a different viewpoint," he said.
"You can talk all you want about number of returning starters and talent you have, but the only thing that matters is what you do with those people. There will be two teams playing in the Orange Bowl next week for the national championship. Ask yourself, what did those two teams do to get to that position? So the question isn't, 'Do you have the talent to win a national championship? It's, 'Do you have the talent to put yourself in a position to win a national championship?'
"I will say I like our chances (of having that kind of season) as well as anybody's next year."
He stopped, and with a gesture for emphasis, said it again: "Talent . . . experience . . . high expectations: All that matters is how the team performs ."
Earlier, outside the locker room, three Alabama players talked freely about 1986, about great expectations and about USC.
"We'll be in a great position to do it (the national championship)," said junior Mike Shula, who called a conservative running game Saturday while completing 8 of 15 passes.
"I knew we could blow by them (USC) in the second half. I have a lot of confidence in our offensive line, and once we eliminated those first-half mistakes, we just took it right to them with basic plays.
"We'll savor this one awhile. We've had a good season. How many teams won nine?"
Jon Hand, Alabama's 6-7, 280-pound senior defensive tackle and All American, went a little further than that.
"We were five points from an undefeated season," he said. "We had a great season. But the players coming back next year will be good enough to have an even better one. Yes, they'll be good enough to win the national championship."
For a freshman, 170-pound running back Gene Jelks, the end was the beginning.
"To me, this game was the first game of 1986," he said. "We've talked about a national championship, not in real meetings, but just one-on-one, among ourselves. I think most of us think of a national championship as the goal next year."
For returning guard Bill Condon, the magic number is 5.
"For us to win a national championship next season," he said, "we need five new starters to come through for us--two at defensive tackle, an offensive guard a tight end and a linebacker. If that happens, we'll have a shot at it."
One of the 1986 Alabama kingpins will be a linebacker with a Hercules physique, Cornelius Bennett, a player whom Perkins calls "the Lawrence Taylor of college football."
Bennett said that defensive speed was the key in shutting down USC's offense, which was limited to 197 total net yards. The Trojans' 61 yards rushing was the lowest total since they were held to 49 by South Carolina in 1983.
"They had a big offensive line, but they didn't bother us," Bennett said. "Our defensive speed took control of the game. And we worked on those USC sweeps awful hard in practice."
Several Alabama players said that Perkins read the riot act at halftime, after the two teams had struggled to a 3-3, penalty-strewn first half. No one, however, would divulge what was said.
"He got a little harsh," Bennett said. "The paint didn't peel off the walls, but he was a little harsh. I'd rather not say what he said."
Perkins, normally stone faced, cracked a grin and said: "Let's just say I'm a great halftime coach. No, we told them to do three things and they did all three beautifully. I'm very happy at how our kids came out and turned things around in the second half.
"First, we told them to stop making mistakes. Second, we told them no to lose their concentration and composure over the officials' bad calls. Third, we told them to get physical with USC.
"That (the first half) was the worst first half of football in any game I've ever been associated with in my life, and I include our team, USC and the officials."
Perkins had this comment on his team's 9-2-1 record: "I felt last August we had the material to win nine. So I'm pleased (with the season) . . . but not satisfied. This game will help us for next year."