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Myths behind 1970 USC-Alabama overlook Oklahoma and Greg Pruitt

PHOTO: Oklahoma’s Greg Pruitt


Piece by piece, year by year, holes are punched in revisionist history that was created to hide Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s silent voice on the issue of his times, segregation.

Closer examination of Bryant’s record allows a judgment as to whether the preeminent coach of the South was on the right side of history. He was not.

After all, leaders in sports have long outpaced society.

Many Bryant myths are based on the oversimplification of the 1970 USC-Alabama game that has been erroneously portrayed as a pivotal moment in college football’s integration.

The false narrative suggests Bryant was a sly fox scheduling USC as an integrated opponent in the opener. He supposedly wanted “to lose” the game and thus shame Alabama’s bigoted fans into “allowing him” to recruit African-American athletes.

The myths and fiction conveniently benefited both schools, embellishing USC’s role and obfuscating the reality Bryant dragged his feet.

Actually, Oklahoma was the ninth integrated roster Alabama faced in the 1970 the season finale, played in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. At the time, five of the 10 Southeastern Conference members in 1970 had previously integrated their rosters ahead of Alabama and Vanderbilt, the sixth and seventh SEC schools, in 1971. Among the SEC, ACC and Southwest Conference, it was 18 integrated of 26 schools.

In the 1970 opener, USC’s Sam Cunningham, a black fullback, ran 12 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns to beat Alabama 41-21 on Sept. 12, 1970, But Cunningham was no more a turning point for Alabama enlightenment than was Oklahoma’s Greg Pruitt, a Black halfback from Houston, who scored two touchdowns on runs of 58 and 25 yards among eight carries for 97 in a 24-24 tie on Dec. 31, 1970.

To state otherwise is to believe President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Civil Rights Act was the turning point to Martin Luther King’s movement. The pivotal moment was a decade earlier when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott that King led.

Or another earlier moment was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling on school desegregation. All of the SEC campuses, according to federal law, had desegregated their student bodies prior to the football programs that were led by Bryant and other influential southern coaches such as Ole Miss’ Johnny Vaught (Ole Miss desegregated under a new coach the first season after Vaught retired, similar to Frank Howard at Clemson). 

In the Astro-Blue Bonnet Bowl, Oklahoma had four Black starters with 11 Black players on the roster. Of the seven backups for the bowl game, five had career starts. The 1970 recruiting class numbered an additional seven Black freshman, but NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972.

“Prentice Gautt was Oklahoma’s first black player in 1956, but after that there were only two or three black players on the team,” said Mike Brooks, an Oklahoma football historian. “Then there were four or five. It wasn’t until later in the ’70s that the team began to get to be 40 or 50 percent Black.”

The 1970 Trojans, despite their long history of integration, had similar numbers to Oklahoma with five Black starters and 18 Black athletes. But of the five Black starters, only running back Clarence Davis, a junior college transfer, was from a Los Angeles-area high school (LA Washington) despite Southern California’s population and diversity.

Davis attended East Los Angeles JC out of LA Washington High. The other starters were Cunningham, Santa Barbara; quarterback Jimmy Jones, Pennsylvania; linebacker Charlie Weaver, Richmond, Calif.; and defensive end Tody Smith, a Michigan State transfer from Beaumont, Texas.

USC was not model of a fully integrated roster in 1970, a foundation of the myths Bryant invited USC to Birmingham to show his fans the future.

The fictional narrative begins with the NCAA permitting an 11th game in 1970 and Alabama adding USC. A biting line from Los Angeles “Times” sports columnist Jim Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was Alabama had finally “joined the Union” 105 years after the Civil War.

Significantly, Alabama already had seven integrated southern schools representing confederacy states scheduled before USC was added and Oklahoma was the bowl opponents. Those schools were ahead of Bryant — not led by Bryant.

They were, in order, Virginia Tech, which integrated in 1970; Florida, 1970; Tennessee, 1968; Houston, 1965; Mississippi State, 1970; Miami, 1968; and Auburn, 1970. Those schools’ coaches drove the integration bus; Bryant was hailing a ride.

The fiction that USC-Alabama was a pivotal moment has its roots with the imaginations of former USC linebacker John Papadakis and author Keith Dunnavant.

Papadakas tried to write a movie script. The script never developed into a movie, perhaps for the dubious dialogue. On Page 142 Yeager devotes nearly a full page with Papadakis’ fictional account of Bryant taking Cunningham into the locker room. Papadakis quotes Bryant belittling his players, telling them Cunningham, “ran your slow motion-asses right out of our own house.” The demeaning words explain why Alabama’s players were miffed, stating Bryant would never embarrass his players in that manner. The dialogue might have fit Bull Connor in 1963 but not Bryant in 1970.

Dunnavant, an author, is a Bryant apologist that has tried to claim northern schools refused to travel to Alabama. That dubious contention — Michigan State played at North Carolina in 1964, Indiana at Texas in 1965 — also ignores Bryant wasn’t willing to cross the Mason-Dixon Line.

To understand Bryant was oblivious to the times, recognize that that prior to the expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium on the Tuscaloosa campus, Alabama typically played half or more of its home games at Birmingham’s Legion Field, “The Football Capital of the South.”

In those days, Birmingham was called “Bombingham” for attacks on Black homes and churches. Four little girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing on Sept. 15, 1963 — three months after Alabama’s campus was integrated.

Joe Namath, Alabama’s quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pa., has said he was watching with pride as the federal government forced Alabama racist Gov. George Wallace to back down from the Foster Auditorium schoolhouse door, allow the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood on June 11, 1963. Malone was Alabama’s first Black graduate in 1965 — six years before the football varsity roster listed a Black player.

But Bryant was tone death then as well as a decade-plus later when his 1974, book, “Bear,” written by John Underwood. He tells a story of grabbing something to eat at Chicago airport before catching another flight. He left “a tip that was more than I could afford,” but the waiter chased him down and gave it back to him saying he “didn’t want his money.”

Bryant’s reply as stated in the book: “He was a white, guy, too. I put the money back in my pocket. If he wanted to cut off his nose to spite his face, that was alright with me.”

Maybe he didn’t understand in 1963m but he still didn’t 11 years later? Why is Bryant celebrated for waiting until 1970 to integrate his program?

Bryant failed as a leader in turbulent times, David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winner that covered the Civil Rights movement early in his career, noted in his 2002 ESPN story on Bryant, “Just a coach, not a leader.”

The 1970 USC-Alabama was played at Legion Field, and the post-game fiction included Bryant parading Cunningham, stripped to the his football pants, around the Alabama locker room supposedly to show his players as an example of what a football player looked like. Aside from Papadakis ignorantly painting an image of an auctioneer taking bids on a slave, it never happened.

Alabama’s players had disputed the story once the myth spread many years later from the West Coast. Neal McCready of the Mobile (Ala.) “Press-Register” spoke with the Alabama players, including quarterback Scott Hunter, and wrote about it in a 2003 story before USC played at Auburn.

For years the myth grew with Cunningham playing along. Eventually, though, he hinted it didn’t happen quite like that. Finally, Cunningham admitted in a 2013 Showtime documentary, “Against the Tide,” it never happened at all.

There is no more truth to the Sam Cunningham moment with Bear Bryant than there is to the moment fictionally depicted in the he 1993 movie “Rudy” that portrays Notre Dame’s players turning in their jerseys one-by-one on coach Dan Devine’s desk as a protest if the Rudy Ruettiger wasn’t permitted to dress for the season finale. Joe Montana, a Notre Dame quarterback, has publicly stated it never happened. 

Another problem with the Papadakis/Dunnavant narrative is Bryant never spoke of it between 1970 and his death in 1983, including in his 1974 book. Also, one of Bryant’s closest assistant coaches, Clem Gryska, repeatedly denied the game was scheduled as one to lose with a message to the fans. He passed away in 2012.

Wilbur Jackson, who was Alabama’s first black recruit, had already signed a scholarship offer at Alabama before the 1970 USC-Alabama game. He was a freshman in in the fall of 1970, but he watched the USC game from the stands; NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972.

Bryant recruited Jackson after Alabama high schools began to desegregate in the late 1960s. Jackson was a junior in the fall of 1968 at all-black D.A. Smith High. The school closed prior to the 1969-70 school year, and Jackson played his senior year at desegregated Carroll High in Ozark, Ala.

That fact begs this question: What if high school desegregation in Alabama had been delayed another year or two? It is fair to speculate Bryant would not have recruited Jackson if he had been still playing at Ozark’s all-black school?

As for Oklahoma’s 1970 roster, the “two or three” or “four or five” black players Brooks cited were typical numbers throughout the nation prior to the 1970s, even at schools with a long history of integration.

Michigan State’s 1966 national championship team under Duffy Daugherty, a College Football Hall of Fame coach, featured 11 Black starters and 20 Black players on the roster.

The Spartans knocked down barriers that had limited Black players to certain positions and unspoken quotas. Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first black starting quarterback to win a national title in 1966. Rover George Webster and halfback Clinton Jones were the first pair of black captains voted by their teammates without sharing the role with a white teammate.

Daugherty’s contribution was noted in a segment of the 2019 ESPN series on the 150th anniversary of college football. Numbers from 1960s national championship rosters explain how far ahead of the nation was Michigan State.

In 1960, Minnesota won the national title with five black players. In 1966, Notre Dame lined up one black player (Alan Page) against Michigan State in the Game of the Century that ended in a 10-10 tie. In 1967, USC won the national title with seven Black players, but following Michigan State’s lead, USC’s number increased to 23 by the time of its next national title in 1972.

As for the theory Bryant scheduled USC as a game to lose, Cunningham was a sophomore who earned his starting role shortly before the opener. When the game was scheduled, there was no way to know Cunningham, ineligible as a freshman in 1969, could influence the outcome and Alabama’s bigoted fans.

In Alabama’s 6-5-1 season, the Tide went 5-3-1 against integrated rosters. The Crimson Tide lost to USC, Tennessee and Auburn before the tie with Oklahoma. Alabama beat Virginia Tech, Florida, Houston, Mississippi State and Miami. Of the three SEC rosters that were still all-white in 1970, the Crimson Tide beat Vanderbilt but lost to Ole Miss and LSU. Alabama was ranked No. 19 as late as Nov. 7 until a loss to No. 11 LSU.

Alabama and Vanderbilt were the sixth and seventh SEC schools to integrate in 1971. Ole Miss, LSU and Georgia were the last holdouts until 1972.

A difference in the 1970s stories of Cunningham and Pruitt was Pruitt didn’t have a teammate write a fictional script decades later. Another was Oklahoma head coach Chuck Fairbanks didn’t require an apologist. He had been a Michigan State player (1952-54) influenced by the Spartans’ integrated history under head coaches Biggie Munn (1947-53) and Daugherty (1954-72).

Don’t believe 50th anniversary stories about the 1970 USC-Alabama game that might be dreamed up in the upcoming season.

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