Turning the ‘Tide
By all accounts, when John McKay and his USC Trojans whipped Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide 30 years ago, on Sept. 12, 1970, the night was hot and sultry.
The weather in Birmingham, though, is about the only thing everyone agrees on about that night. That and the final score: USC 42, Alabama 21.
Everything else, even the statistics racked up by the Trojans’ ground attack, has been disputed or distorted by amateur sociologists and media alike. That’s what happens when myth and reality collide.
Even so, that USC-Alabama game remains one of the most heralded in college athletics, compared by many to the famous basketball game between Texas Western--now Texas El Paso--and Kentucky for the 1966 NCAA title. In that game, Texas Western’s all-black starting five upset Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team, forever changing college basketball.
Four years later, when the Trojans went down to Dixie, they were the first fully integrated team to play in Alabama. USC was led by an all-black backfield of quarterback Jimmy Jones, running back Clarence Davis, and fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, whose nickname described his thunderous running style.
College football in Alabama--and in the South--was never the same.
As former Bryant assistant coach Jerry Claiborne noted, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years.”
Jimmy Jones, among the first wave of Division I black quarterbacks, put it more succinctly: “It was no ordinary day.”
Somewhere between hyperbole and understatement lies the truth about a game that, 30 years later, provides a window through which to view the South’s racist past and its uneasy transition to integration.
In 1970, USC reigned as the powerhouse of the West. The Trojans had appeared in four consecutive Rose Bowl games, having won two of them, and had two recent Heisman Trophy winners, Mike Garrett in 1965 and O.J. Simpson in 1968. The team had gone undefeated at 10-0-1 in 1969, and was riding a 21-game regular-season unbeaten streak.
Before the season, McKay had high hopes that USC would return to the Rose Bowl. He boasted that his entire starting backfield was returning, and claimed that his defense was equal to that of the vaunted ’69 “Wild Bunch.” At least one publication believed him. In its preseason poll, Playboy picked the Trojans to finish first in the country.
Alabama, meanwhile, had excelled in the first half of the 1960s, winning national titles in 1961, ’64 and ’65. In a state where college football was a form of secular religion, Bear Bryant was the messiah. Once described by Jim Murray as “200 pounds of wrinkles, looking like a walking laundry bag,” Bryant had transformed platoons of “skinny little white boys” into perennial winners.
“He was a hell of a coach, of course, and he came at the right time,” says Taylor Watson, curator of the Bryant Museum in Birmingham. “The state was going through some serious problems and self-esteem was bad. Coach Bryant told his players to ‘Work hard and do what I say, and we’ll win.’ And we did.”
Many outside the region saw Alabama not as a football powerhouse but as a racist stronghold. In 1963, Gov. George Wallace had made his defiant “stand in the schoolhouse door,” vowing to prevent blacks from enrolling at the university. That same year, four young African American girls were killed when their church was bombed. T. Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s police commissioner, gained national notoriety for using fire hoses and unleashing attack dogs on civil rights protesters.
Southern black athletes had two choices: They could attend predominantly black colleges, such as Grambling or Florida A&M;, or integrated schools in the North and West. The University of Alabama was decidedly off limits.
Bryant’s defenders have argued that the legendary coach cared more about wins than skin color, that he wanted to integrate but couldn’t because Wallace controlled the university system. They maintain that Bryant had tried, in vain, to integrate Kentucky when he coached there in the ‘50s.
They note that the Tide played integrated schools, including Penn State in 1959, in the Liberty Bowl, and later Nebraska and Oklahoma.
“I don’t know if he could have integrated earlier,” says former Alabama basketball coach C.M. Newton. “Wallace was still the governor, Bryant was just a football coach. That’s a hell of a difference in power.”
Says Clem Gryska, a former assistant under Bryant, “The political climate in the state wasn’t right.”
Others have disputed that, noting that Bryant was so revered that he could have--and should have--challenged Wallace.
“Given the Bear’s surpassing popularity, he had it within his power to assume a burden of leadership,” wrote Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated. “Yet he held back on race and let other--and less entrenched--Southern coaches stick their necks out first.”
Bryant deflected such criticism, claiming in his autobiography, “The time wasn’t ripe.” But he changed his mind in the late 1960s as his teams stumbled, going 8-2-1 in 1967, 8-3 in 1968, and 6-5 in 1969. His “skinny little white boys” were no longer good enough.
“Coach Bryant was very smart and very shrewd,” Newton says. “He saw good black players leaving the state. . . . Frankly, he wanted to win national championships.”
Public opinion was also turning against Wallace. The Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, in part as a reaction to what journalist Howell Raines once described as “Wallace-condoned police attacks,” and the Voting Rights Act had been passed in 1965. And, ever so slowly, black students were finding their way into the schoolhouse.
Southeastern Conference teams started to recruit black athletes. Nat Worthington played briefly on Kentucky’s football team in the fall of 1967, and Vanderbilt’s Perry Wallace became the SEC’s first black basketball player in 1967-68. By 1970, wrote former Times sportswriter Dwight Chapin, black athletes were enrolled at eight of the 10 SEC schools.
Without fanfare, Bryant changed his stance. As the school’s athletic director, he allowed Newton to recruit black players for the basketball team. In 1969, Wendell Hudson became Alabama’s first black varsity athlete.
“When he hired me, I asked him if there were any restrictions on recruiting,” Newton says. “He said no.”
Bryant’s attention, however, never strayed far from football. In the fall of 1969, he dispatched assistant coach Pat Dye to Ozark, Ala., where Wilbur Jackson was turning heads as a wide receiver at Carroll High. After meeting with Dye, then with Bryant, Jackson agreed to attend Alabama in 1970.
Jackson, now 48, says that breaking Alabama’s football color barrier never came up during his recruitment.
“Coach Dye never said anything along that line,” he says. “Maybe he said something to my mom and dad. . . . When I was being recruited, Coach Bryant took me aside and told me that if I ever had a problem, to come see me and I’ll take care of it. I never had a problem.”
USC and Alabama hadn’t played each other since 1945, when the Tide beat the Trojans in the Rose Bowl game, 34-14. The teams weren’t scheduled to play each other as late as 1969, but in January 1970, the NCAA decreed that, for the first time, teams could schedule 11 regular-season games. Universities scrambled to fill their dance cards, waving lucrative appearance fees to entice opponents.
Pat Putnam reported in Sports Illustrated that McKay called Bryant and suggested their teams meet. In a recent interview from his home in Tampa, Fla., McKay said that Bryant had called him and asked to play.
“I thought it would be a bad idea because I thought we would beat them,” McKay said. “He talked me into it.”
Which coach made the first call may not seem significant, except for one point. Long after the final whistle, some observers theorized that Bryant had made the overture because he knew he was going to be beaten by a powerful, integrated team. They argue that Bryant wanted to demonstrate to his rabid fans that the only way to win was to recruit black athletes.
John Papadakis, the starting middle linebacker for the Trojans that night, has studied the game because he hopes to make a film about it.
“Everything Bryant did was calculated,” says Papadakis, who owns a restaurant in San Pedro and whose son, Petros, plays tailback for USC. “He had already started to recruit black players, but he had to get them accepted. And USC, with its superb black players, was a feast for the eyes.”
Once the game was arranged, McKay broke the news to his players during spring practice. According to Papadakis, the late Tody Smith, a defensive end, went out and bought a gun.
“He got it for self-protection,” Papadakis says. “He was from Texas and had seen some things.”
Quarterback Jones, now a minister living in Harrisburg, Pa., remembers hearing a rumor about Smith buying the gun, but says he can’t confirm it.
“I don’t recall us making it a big issue, though we had some concerns about safety,” he says. “We were aware that we were the first integrated team to play them at their place. It was added incentive for us, as I’m sure it was incentive for them. We knew the history of the South. It meant a lot to us to be successful.”
On Friday, Sept. 11, the team traveled to Birmingham. According to the Times’ account of the game, a high school band playing, variously, the Trojan fight song and “Dixie” met the players at the airport.
“We knew we were in the South,” Jones says. “People looked at you differently. I don’t recall anyone calling us the N-word, but they used their own slang: ‘Look at them nigras.”
Papadakis remembers being in his hotel room when several kids knocked on the door.
“They said, ‘Could we look at the USC . . . ?’ ” he says. “I was rooming with [linebacker] Kent Carter, and I said, ‘I’ve got one here.’ Two boys and a girl came in, and one of the boys walked over and touched him. Kent took his hand, ran it down his face and said, ‘Black is beautiful.’ ”
That night, McKay and other USC officials attended a birthday party for the 58-year-old Bryant. The next evening, before a sold-out crowd of 72,175 at Birmingham’s Legion Field, USC entered the fray.
“Coming into the stadium, we heard things like, ‘Bear’s gonna get you,’ ” McKay recalls. “Some of the players said they heard other things, but I didn’t.”
“We were treated respectfully,” Jones says. “No one in the stands said anything overtly racist--it was more of a gawking kind of thing. On the field, I think a couple of linemen heard the N-word in the heat of the game, but they were isolated incidents.”
The Trojans got off to a quick start as Cunningham “scattered tacklers around like confetti,” according to Jim Murray. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound sophomore ran wild in the first quarter, scoring on runs of 22 and four yards.
“Sam was a big guy with a tremendous start,” McKay recalls. “If I didn’t recognize his talent, I should’ve got out of coaching.”
At halftime, USC led, 22-7. The Trojans extended their lead to 32-7 in the third quarter, and the rout continued into the fourth quarter, when McKay pulled his starters.
With his smashing collegiate debut, Cunningham emerged as the game’s star. Unwittingly, however, he also became the object of exaggeration. In 1978, a Washington Post reporter wrote that Cunningham had gained 230 yards and scored three touchdowns in the game. Those statistics were repeated by other Post writers in 1983 and 1990.
Cunningham had a great game, but he gained 135 yards, not 230, in 12 carries and scored twice, not three times.
In 1992, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported that after Cunningham had ripped through Alabama’s defense, “Suddenly, it was clear to Bryant that signing black players was no longer an issue of conscience: It was now a matter of winning. That night Bryant told his closest friends that he would begin recruiting black players.”
Wilbur Jackson laughs when he hears that. He was in the stands that night, a ‘Bama freshman watching the game with his frosh teammates. They were ineligible to play because the NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to compete then.
“I don’t know why some people forget about me because I was already there,” says Jackson, who went on to a nine-year NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins. “We sat there and just enjoyed the day off after working our butts off training for several weeks.”
Still, the outcome of the game brought about change.
“There’s no question that the caliber of play changed Coach Bryant’s philosophy of recruiting athletes,” Newton says. “He basically said, ‘I want some guys who can play like those players. I don’t care what color they are.’ ”
Says Gryska, “It was enlightening. When they came up to the line to play us man to man, we thought it was going to be a piece of cake. But they covered us like a blanket. Inevitably, we had to get better athletes.”
Says Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, “The game dramatically underlined the point that if Southern schools, for whom football was so important, wanted to compete at the highest level, they would have to change.”
If Cunningham got most of the attention, tailback Clarence Davis emerged as an unsung hero. Davis rushed for 76 yards in 13 carries and scored on a 23-yard pass from Jones in the third quarter. The Tide faithful could only watch in frustration: Davis was a native son, but he and his family had fled the South.
“The biggest influence on Alabama fans was Clarence Davis, who had a heck of a game,” the Bryant Museum’s Watson says. “Coach Bryant knew he was missing out on great local football players.”
The win over Alabama was the highlight of USC’s season. Though they managed to tie Nebraska the following week, the Trojans finished 6-4-1 and watched Jim Plunkett lead Stanford to the Pac-8 title. Davis, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, was USC’s only offensive player to make the all-conference team.
Alabama went 6-5-1 in 1970. The next year, on Sept. 10, 1971, the Tide came to Los Angeles to play the Trojans. Wilbur Jackson was on the Alabama roster, but John Mitchell, a junior-college transfer from Mobile, became the first African American to play for Alabama.
Mitchell, who became an assistant coach under Bryant and now is an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was originally ticketed for USC.
According to McKay, as he and Bryant chatted after the 1970 season, McKay casually mentioned that he was recruiting Mitchell.
“Coach Bryant asked me about black players and how to treat them,” McKay recalls. “I said, ‘Treat ‘em like everybody else,’ and then mentioned I had a black student-athlete coming from Mobile. That was the last time I saw Mitchell. I didn’t think Coach Bryant would recruit Mitchell, but he did.”
McKay chuckles at the memory of being outfoxed by the Bear. “I forgave him, but I don’t forget.”
The ’71 game at the Coliseum was noteworthy for another reason. With the graduation of quarterback Scott Hunter, a drop-back passer, Bryant tinkered with his offensive scheme. Tutored by Texas coach Darrell Royal, Bryant installed the wishbone after spring practice in 1971.
“Rather than send someone to scout them, we asked them to send us their spring practice movies,” McKay says. “It was the same offense as before and we prepared for it. When they came out, they’re in the wishbone. They scored 17 straight points before we straightened that out, but we lost [17-10]. Afterward, Bryant said he was sorry.”
McKay sighs. Duped again.
In the 1970s, with ever-increasing numbers of black players at Alabama, the Bear duped everybody. The Tide went 11-1 in 1971 and was the winningest college football team of the decade, going 103-16-1 and winning three national championships. When the team went 12-0 in 1979, 16 African Americans started for Alabama.
Bryant became college football’s winningest coach, although his 323 victories were eventually eclipsed by Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, the patriarch of football at black colleges. The two legendary coaches became friends, but integration inadvertently contributed to the decline of football at predominantly black colleges.
“Integration did major damage to football at black colleges,” says Fred Whitted, author of “The Black College Sports Encyclopedia.” “The stronger programs stayed strong, but there’s been a major dilution of talent. Previously, Florida players--like Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith--would’ve played under [Florida A&M; Coach] Jake Gaither. Now they go to Florida State.”
That’s the final, ironic twist to this story. But for those who played in the game that started it all 30 years ago, the memory of having changed the course of history supersedes such concerns.
“I don’t think any of us knew at the time how important the game was historically,” Jones says. “The major thing was, we won the football game. For Americans to see that we accomplished this in the deep South, where blacks have been mistreated for a long time, was a major statement.”
Papadakis says, “Before, they believed that white was better. We changed their perception and showed what the truth is, that there’s parity between blacks and whites. The bigger winner is America.”
David Davis is a freelance writer from Los Angeles who specializes in sports.