College football’s integration birther lie spreading to 1972 in new USC project

College football’s integration birther lie spreading to 1972 in new USC project

PHOTO: The national media continues to portray Bear Bryant (L) and John McKay as college football integrations leaders. In reality, they were the 1960s status quo — Bryant’s segregated teams in the South and McKay’s teams limited to a half-dozen or so Black players.

By TOM SHANAHAN


I recently used Twitter to query Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss about his book, “Barack Obama: The Story,” and media coverage of the birther lie. I noted his book thoroughly detailed the 44th President’s Hawaii years.

Did the media fail to properly dispel Donald Trump’s birther lies?

Maraniss’ reply cautioned me that the media was “an amorphous and meaningless term.” He added reporters called out the lie but the right wing nevertheless kept it alive.

I get it, and he’s a lot smarter than me, but I’ve stumbled across another example of the media regurgitating a false premise enough times to be complicit keeping it alive. In this case, I’m referring to a documentary mistakenly claiming USC’s 1972 team led college football integration.

It’s a hollow claim that sounds like nothing more than an update of turning the 1970 USC-Alabama into a myth that has been long embellished and regurgitated by USC backers and Bear Bryant apologists. College football integration was fait accompli by 1970 — and certainly 1972.

The story in “Deadline,” a Hollywood news site, centers on the success of the documentary, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” The film on San Francisco police framing the wrong guy led to a new venture: “Black and White: The Greatest Team That Almost Never Was.”

Here’s the problem with the latter project: You got the wrong school! 

They’re framing – as in filming – a team with 20-some Black players that won a national title while attempting to pass it off as breaking barriers. Sorry, but it was done before — seven years earlier by Michigan State. And then the Spartans did it again a year a later.

Football coaches copy what wins games. Coaches, USC’s John McKay included, began to copy the Duffy Daugherty pioneering model.

In 1962, the Associated Press reported Michigan State’s 17 Black athletes formed “the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football.” Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty assembled college football’s first fully integrated rosters with his 1960s Underground Railroad teams.

The Spartans’ rosters, highlighted by back-to-back national championship teams in 1965 and 1966, featured Black athletes escaping the segregated South for opportunity. They joined the Spartans’ historically Midwest-based rosters that had produced Black and White All-American players from Michigan factory towns. The numbers grew to the 20s by the mid-1960s. A standard was set that other schools, including USC, soon followed.

Before you assume, with a 2021 viewpoint, 17 Black players in 1962 wasn’t many, understand context. USC was among the 1960s status quo. The Trojans numbered only five Black players on their 1962 national title team, seven on 1967 national title roster. In an area as populated and diverse as Los Angeles, that’s mind-boggling.

Also realize the Black athlete WAS NOT a college football revelation when USC’s 1972 team took the field, featuring stars such as senior fullback Sam Cunningham and junior receiver Lynn Swann. Not only were the 1962 Spartans steaming down the tracks, clearing paths, a year earlier Syracuse halfback Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Cunningham was a 10-year-old fifth grader in Santa Barbara when Davis was honored in New York, a day that included meeting President John F. Kennedy. Two years later, Swann was 11 and a sixth grader in northern California when Michigan State halfback Sherman Lewis was Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad All-American player. Lewis, who was from segregated Louisville, Kentucky, finished third in the 1963 Heisman voting. Ernie Davis, not Sam Cunningham, opened that door.

Duffy Daugherty’s Michigan State Underground Railroad teams were a decade ahead of USC and John McKay and a century ahead of Alabama and Bear Bryant.

Here are four paragraphs from the “Deadline” story followed by my rebuttals, although I don’t blame the writer. He was fed regurgitated information the national media has gushed over without vetting for decades — like some kind college football integration birther lie.

Jimmy Raye, the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, and head coach Duffy Daugherty in the 1966 season at Spartan Stadium.

2nd paragraph: “The consensus National Champion was so dominant, colleges across the country — even in the Deep South — scrambled to integrate their own teams by recruiting black players.”

Facts: a) Maryland recruited Darryl Hill as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s first Black player in 1962; b) Houston, then an Independent, signed Warren McVea as its first Black player in 1964; c) Southern Methodist signed Jerry LeVias, a College Football Hall of Famer, as the Southwest Conference’s first Black player in 1965; d) Kentucky signed the Southeastern Conference’s first two Black players in 1966 and two more in 1967 (there is a statue of the foursome on campus); e) all 10 SEC schools – with campuses in the Deep South — were integrated by the 1972 season. 

10th paragraph: “… coach John McKay’s decision to change recruiting tactics altered major college football.”

Facts: Daugherty’s 1965 Spartans won the United Press International (now USA Today) national title with 23 Black players and 10 Black starters. His 1966 Spartans featured 20 Black players and 11 Black starters. The National Football Federation named Michigan State co-champions with Notre Dame, which had only one Black player, Alan Page.

McKay’s “decision” was no different than Notre Dame’s upon Ara Parseghian’s arrival in 1964 — a catch-up game with Daugherty. McKay had been riding in back of the integration bus with the 1960s status quo – only a few rows in front of his friend’s segregated program. Bryant was comfortable with segregated teams until 1971, eight years after Alabama’s campus desegregated on the day racist Alabama Governor George Wallace backed down from the schoolhouse door.

McKay reveals a story on himself about USC’s slow path to fully integrated rosters in his 1974 book, “McKay: A Coach’s Story.” Author Don Yaeger repeats McKay’s story on Page 105 of his book, “Turning of the Tide,” a 2006 publication that perpetuates 1970 USC-Alabama myths borne of conjecture more than facts. McKay vaguely mentions the father of a Black prospect had asked him if USC’s lack of Black players indicated prejudice.

“I admitted USC had a lapse for many years before I got there,” McKay says in the book, “but said I could prove that throughout the country there were few or no blacks playing for major universities.”

McKay’s 1967 roster with seven Black players was his eighth USC team – two full cycles of graduating classes. As for McKay’s claim to prove there were “few or no Blacks playing,” he must have missed USC’s 1964 trip to East Lansing when the Spartans beat his then-No. 2-ranked Trojans, 17-7.

Daugherty’s fully integrated roster included four promising sophomores, Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington and Clinton Jones, who were on their way to history as the College Football Hall of Fame’s first four Black players from the same class.

On Michigan State’s 1964 freshman team (the NCAA prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972) were two more recruits starting out on their trailblazing paths: Quarterback Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., and fullback Bob Apisa of Honolulu, Hawaii. Raye was the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title as a sophomore backup in 1965 and junior starter in 1966. Apisa was the first Samoan All-American player.

12th graph: “… USC’s moves that included starting Jimmy Jones, one of the first black quarterbacks in a major program, changed the game. To say Jones was great is an understatement. He was part of the first all-black backfield in major college ball.”

Facts: Raye’s Black quarterback milestone has been recognized by the National Football Federation. His inspiration was Minnesota’s Sandy Stephens, the first Black quarterback to win a national title, in 1960, as a recruit out of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Duffy Daugherty with Michigan State’s 1966 team captains as voted by the players, Clinton Jones (26) and George Webster (90).

Jimmy Jones was from Harrisburg, Pa., and is by all accounts a great guy, but he walked through doors opened for him by Stephens and Raye. He wasn’t even a pioneer from his home state.

Raye also led the first all-minority backfield in 1966 with Black halfback Clinton Jones of Cleveland, Ohio; Black halfback Dwight Lee of New Haven, Michigan; and Apisa. Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo, a Polynesian Football Hall of Famer along with Apisa, and others have long credited Apisa as the Godfather of Polynesian football. He launched the wave that permeates all of football.

In 1966, Michigan State’s players voted Clinton Jones and George Webster as team captains, the first pair of Black captains without a white teammate sharing the leadership role.

13th graph, quoting Eterne Films CEO Steve Riach: “They (USC) went down to Birmingham, Alabama, in a game set up by John McKay and Bear Bryant, who knew that in order for the South to integrate in college football, something dramatic needed to happen,” Riach said. “They set up a game in 1970, when each had an open date on their schedule. USC’s integrated team demolished Alabama, and gave Bryant what he needed for change. They had no black players, and the majority of teams in what we know today as the Southeastern Conference were not integrated at all.”

Facts: Bryant’s first Black player watched the 1970 USC game from the Legion Field stands with the rest of the Alabama 1970 freshmen team while waiting their turn in a year on the varsity.

Half of the SEC was integrated by 1970: Kentucky (1966), Tennessee (1967), Florida (1969), Mississippi State (1969) and even Alabama’s in-state rival, Auburn (1969). Auburn signing James Owens had more to do with Bryant recruiting his first Black athlete than scheduling USC.

As for something dramatic happening at Alabama, that took place a year earlier when Tennessee’s integrated 1969 roster routed Bryant’s team at Legion Field, 41-14. Tennessee Black linebacker Jackie Walker intercepted an early pass and returned it for a touchdown. The rout was on. In a 2013 “Atlantic article,” writer/author Allen Barra wrote of Tennessee’s romp, “Why history has chosen to ignore this game and focus exclusively on 1970 Alabama-USC is a mystery.”

Put simply, 1970 USC linebacker John Papadakis made up the story about Sam Cunningham and the Alabama locker room to sell a movie script. The Cunningham fiction is the foundation of the myth that propelled into regurgitated media stories. The movie was never made in part over infighting over what was true and was not true. I know that from someone involved.

Another pre-1970 SEC turning point doesn’t involve Alabama nor USC. Kentucky linebacker Wilbur Hackett made the All-SEC sophomore team in 1968 and was the SEC’s first Black team captain in any sport in 1969.

Riach has apparently watched too many misleading HBO, Showtime and ESPN documentaries or read too many books by Bryant apologists and USC backers embellishing the impact of the 1970 USC-Alabama game. All of those features and books are too quick to crown Bryant and McKay as white heroes, dismissing the contribution of Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement to force Bryant to join the 20th century.

Lane Demas is the author of “Integrating the Gridiron. The Central Michigan University Ph.d history professor says a story that celebrates Bryant without mentioning the toils of Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement that began in 1955 in Mobile, Alabama, is revisionist history.

“I still believe the Cunningham story is not about celebrating Cunningham or USC, nor is it even really about celebrating Bryant or Alabama,” Demas said. “It’s one of many white stories that emerge in the South during the 1970s that were meant to denigrate King, the countless marches and protests, the student sit-ins, and even the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and US Supreme Court. The ultimate point of the Cunningham-Bryant myth is ‘see, we didn’t need any of that other stuff.’ “

Integration doesn’t happen overnight with one game that wasn’t on TV. Bryant didn’t wake up one morning, look around and realize, “Huh, the Civil War was over.”

It’s a gradual process, a slog, to open minds. Daugherty’s leadership represented and projected that onto TV screens. A record TV audience of 33 million watched the 1966 Game of the Century — more than Super Bowl I two months later. They saw a glaring contrast between Michigan State’s 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, a Black quarterback and two Black captains comparted to Notre Dame’s solitary Black athlete.

Daugherty had instrumental help, too. He never sought nor is he portrayed as a white hero story. Southern Black high school coaches, recognizing Michigan State’s integrated history from 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowl victories on TV, began sending Daugherty their players. They laid the tracks to the Underground Railroad.

The first passenger was Clifton Roaf, arriving in 1959 from segregated Pine Bluff, Arkansas. His high school principal and coach reached out to Daugherty. Roaf suffered a knee injury in spring football his freshman year and never played a down, yet he said he remained “indebted” to Michigan State for his education. He returned home to an underserved community, calling himself a “country dentist.”

The chief engineer boarding passengers was Bubba Smith’s father, Willie Ray Smith Sr. He coached 33 years at three Black Texas high schools during segregation. He sent nine players from the Houston area to Michigan State between 1963 and 1967.

If you don’t believe me, read David Squires’ piece on Nov. 8, 2016 in “The Undefeated.” Squires interviewed Jimmy Raye and wrote about my book with Raye on Daugherty and the Underground Railroad, “Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans integration of college football.”

Squires posted on Twitter: “Every player should read Raye of Light.”

Then read more of my research from a story with a plethora of facts about the true 1960s pioneers. You’ll learn 1970 USC-Alabama mythology also irritates LeVias, Hackett and Tennessee’s Lester McClain – among others. They’re African-Americans who lived segregation. I’m just a white guy writing about it.

One more note from me on Maraniss: I’ve long used a quote from him beneath the signature on my emails: “History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”

To Duffy and his Underground Railroad players: “I’m trying, but it’s hard when you’re up against a pesky birther lie.”

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NOTE: I’ve researched this subject matter since 2012 and will put my information up against anybody, anytime. At one time, I believed the Alabama myths. Then I did my research and realized it doesn’t add up.

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Follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

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