If you’ve been following my “Overlooked” series in “The Main Read” on Bear Bryant mythology dispossessing the true 1960s pioneers of college football integration, you jump can read here or click on the the full story and scroll down.
Photo: Jim Murray’s Los Angeles Times column, Sept. 13, 1970.
CHAPTER 5: ALABAMA 1970 MYTH BORN IN LATE 1980s — IN L.A.
By 1970, SEC integration was fait accompli.
So much Black talent had found opportunities in football programs throughout the nation — including Deep South schools Auburn and Mississippi State — the floodgates Bryant’s apologists claim he opened had already been flowing.
Alabama had a history of riding in the back of the bus as the state’s flagship school and a football program. It was last of the SEC campuses to integrate, in 1963. Alabama football and Vanderbilt football were the sixth and seventh of then-10 conference schools to recruit a Black football player in 1970.
Game stories published after the 1970 USC-Alabama were about a one-sided loss — without mentioning race or a hidden Bryant ploy. In those days, sportswriters had free rein to the locker room. If Bryant had escorted Sam Cunningham to the Alabama locker room, they would have witnessed and reported it. That’s what the late-1980s myth crafters overlooked.
Only Jim Murray in the LA Times referred to Bryant being dragged into the 20th century. His column the next morning, Sept. 13, 1970, began this way under the headine: Hatred Shut Out as Alabama Finally Joins the Union.
BIRMINGHAM — “OK, you can put another star on the flag.
“On a warm and sultry night when you could hear train whistles hooting through the piney wood half a country away, the state of Alabama joined the Union. They ratified the Constitution, signed the Bill of Rights. They have struck the Stars and Bars. They now hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal in the eyes of the creator.
Murray’s sharp wording explained the backstory had nothing to do with Bryant as magnanimous; it was about Alabama’s bigoted fans no longer hating Black players on a football field.
TV coverage had much to do with Civil Rights progress. American TV network cameras awakened America, exposing Alabama police beating non-violent protesters in Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965.
But there was no TV for 1970 USC-Alabama. The only way to follow the game outside of the stadium was on the Alabama radio or USC radio networks. Americans didn’t wake up Sunday morning having Walter Cronkite enlighten them.
There was no reckoning from Bryant in the next day’s papers. The coach never addressed the state’s Black fan, explaining a new world. USC players have said in documentaries they played the game and flew home. Change in the air wasn’t discussed.
USC author and alumnus Steven Travers, to his credit, in his 2007 book, “One Night, Two Teams,” traced the folklore’s origins to the late 1980s and the USC football office
On Page 298, Travers writes McKay was “probably embellishing” when he said he helped Bryant. McKay left for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976, but word-of-mouth grew the story.
Two former McKay assistant coaches were still around the program and smitten with telling the story. After his coaching days Craig Fertig was a Fox analyst for USC games (1992-2003); Marv Goux upon retirement was active in the Trojan Club throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Fertig dubiously claimed in Showtime’s documentary that McKay received a mysterious phone call from Bryant, asking to meet him at a Los Angeles International Airport hospitality room. That’s where Fertig claimed the scheme was revealed. However, in the same film McKay’s son, J.K., says Bryant and his father spoke frequently on the phone and took long golf vacations to Palm Desert.
In a 2000 Los Angeles Times interview, McKay said the 1970 Alabama game was arranged over the phone. He doesn’t reference a furtive trip to the airport or a plan to manipulate Alabama’s fans.
Travers also acknowledged USC broadcaster Tom Kelly began to repeat the myth publicly in 1987 as he promoted a USC video, “Trojan Video Gold.” Then Travers stated the Long Beach Press Telegram’s Loel Schrader was among the sportswriters that printed the story.
All of the above L.A. figures are deceased, with the exception of Cunningham and Travers. Cunningham admits the parade was fiction; Travers acknowledges it didn’t happen.
Five decades later, that doesn’t slow a captivating tale, fiction or not, from propelling the story with a blind assist from a national media failing at homework.
Check back in next couple days for Chapter 6
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