First in a series. The links to parts II, III and IV are found at the end of Part I.
By TOM SHANAHAN
The famed Time photographer, positioned behind a clear glass writing board, snapped frames as Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant drew X’s and O’s. The southern football god, wearing his iconic houndstooth hat, captured on film.
Neil Leifer’s photo graced the cover of Time magazine’s Sept. 29, 1980 issue. The headline with bold type: “SUPERCOACH.”
The camera saw through the glass board to expose the wrinkles in Bryant’s face, but the Time writer, B.J. Phillips – like so many print and electronic media members before and continuing into the 21st century – never saw through Bryant’s cosmeticized past on segregation.
Bryant was profiled as a man who lived life as a 19th-century Jim Crow southerner, yet magnanimously adapted to the social issue of the 20th century. Time’s misleading premise perpetuated an age-old media flaw. One story from a national outlet gathers attention. Other writers regurgitate the storyline.
Three premium networks have joined the ink-stained wretches with indulgent pieces on Bryant hagiography, HBO’s “Breaking the Huddle,” 2008; Showtime’s “Against the Tide,” 2013; and two ESPN films, 2019 and 2020.
BEAR BRYANT MYTHOLOGY
NOTE: Why is a story examining Bear Bryant’s poor integration record important all these years later?
Put simply, celebrating Bear Bryant mythology became a cottage industry at the expense of the true 1960s pioneers. They have been reduced to footnotes, disposed of their place in history. Books and films profit off the 1970 USC-Alabama game myth, spreading fictional roles Bryant played to embellish the significance.
The true 1960s pioneers were 1) Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty and his players that were college football’s first fully integrated rosters; 2) the network of southern Black high school coaches that sent Daugherty players during segregation because they trusted him; and 3) the first Black players at southern schools such as College Football Hall of Famer Jerry LeVias at SMU (1966-68). Michigan State was envied as a welcoming environment, but LeVias and trailblazing southerners endured abuse in the late 1960s while clearing a road to make the 1970 USC-Alabama game possible.
It has been my experience, through freelance pitches, major media platforms fear challenging the established legend of Bear Bryant. Editors are content – even one that told me Bear Bryant gets too much credit — with revisionist history that has gilded Bryant’s image, no matter the gaping holes in the tale.
— TOM SHANAHAN
Time’s reflective piece on Bryant’s storied career appeared two seasons prior to his last game, the Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29, 1982, and his death, Jan. 26, 1983. The story focused on the wins and overlooked a grim record on college football integration. Bryant dragged his feet with all-white teams until 1971 – eight years after his campus desegregated and considerably slower than his southern colleagues.
Six of the 10 Southeastern Conference members dressed Black athletes prior to Bryant. Two of the six were Deep South schools, Auburn and Mississippi State. And 60 percent was a low number for the South overall.
Among the other two major southern conferences, Bryant trailed all nine in the defunct Southwest and 5-of-8 in the Atlantic Coast. That’s 70 percent (20 of 27). If Georgia Tech – an SEC member until dropping out in 1964 — is factored in, that’s 21 of 28 (71 percent). Add in two current ACC schools that were independents in 1970, Virginia Tech and Miami, and it jumps to 77 percent (23 of 30)
The coaches beating Bryant to the 20th century included a prodigy, Texas A&M’s Gene Stallings, who signed an African-American player two years ahead of his old boss, in 1968. The same Gene Stallings who said in 1965 he didn’t believe Black and white athletes could get along in a locker room.
Bryant remained in his shell while Auburn coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan – his coaching buddy and instate rival – stuck out his neck. Jordan signed James Owens as a southern pioneer in 1969. Nobody fired Jordan for defying Jim Crow.
College football integration was fait accompli by the time Bryant got on the bus, but the facts don’t matter when celebrating Bryant. The indulgent 2013 Showtime film — narrated by USC alumnus/Hollywood star Tom Selleck for a veneer of credibility — erroneously stated, “It wasn’t as if Bryant and Alabama stood alone. Nearly all of the SEC schools were equally slow to integrate.”
No, Bryant was almost alone, and his place was on the opposite side of the 77 percent of coaches on the right side of history. Selleck needed to send those two sentences back to rewrite.
BEAR BRYANT’S SELF-PROMOTING BRANCH RICKEY CLAIM
Bryant hagiography focuses on his Alabama career (1958-82), but Time gave him latitude to reach back to his days coaching at Kentucky, 1946-53. Bryant offered a self-promoting and deceptive quote on his integration attitudes.
“I wanted to be the Branch Rickey of football when I was at Kentucky,” says Bryant.
It was a disingenuous comment. Rickey was the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager that defied Major League Baseball, signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 to beak the color line. Howell Raines, an Alabama alumnus and former executive editor of the New York Times, said in the 2013 Showtime’s documentary he can’t remember Bryant ever speaking up on segregation. Raines faulted him for his reticence.
If Bryant was a victim of having his hands tied at Kentucky, why wasn’t he Branch Rickey at Texas A&M (1954-57)? The Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education to end segregated schools in 1954. He had the law of the land on his side by then.
Why wasn’t he Branch Rickey at any time his first 13 seasons at Alabama (1958-70)? President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts. An Alabama Black male could look forward to voting but still couldn’t play for Bryant.
Bryant’s apologists – and they are Roman legions — blame Alabama racist Gov. George Wallace, but Wallace was out of office by Jan. 17, 1967. Bryant’s fall 1967, 1968 and 1969 recruiting classes were all-white.
Bryant’s Time quote also ignored the “gentleman’s agreement” that required northern schools to bench their Black athletes when they played a segregated southern opponent. Bryant and the gentleman’s agreement collided with progress when Kentucky and Michigan State met twice in a home-and-home series, 1946 and 1947.
Michigan State, shamefully, left behind Horace Smith, an African-American backup halfback, when coach Charlie Bachman took the Spartans to Kentucky for a Nov. 2, 1946 game in Lexington. When speculation mounted over Smith’s status for Kentucky’s return game on Oct. 25, 1947 in East Lansing, Bryant, at best, remained silent.
At worst, Bryant may have staged a small sideline protest over Smith’s presence in uniform.
DID BEAR BRYANT PROTEST HORACE SMITH?
Ray Uribe, Smith’s long-time friend, claimed Bryant’s Wildcats delayed taking the field for the 1947 game with Smith in uniform. Uribe was quoted, upon Smith’s death, in a 2006 obituary in their hometown Michigan newspaper, the Jackson Citizen-Patriot. Uribe, who died in 2013, cited Smith’s anguish over the 1946 and 1947 games.
Former Jackson great dies
Oct. 6, 2006
By Mike Pryson
Ray Uribe of Jackson remembers a Saturday in October 1947 when the
University of Kentucky football team staged a protest on the sidelines
at Michigan State University.
That protest was over Spartans’ halfback Horace Smith of Jackson, the
team’s only black player.
“They wouldn’t come on the field,” said Uribe, a friend of Smith’s in
high school and college. “It took quite a while before they agreed to
play the game.”
The facts of that afternoon remain unclear for the simple reason the mainstream media avoided race in sports stories. Chris Lamb, a professor at Indiana University Purdue University of Indianapolis, examined the subject in his 2004 book, “Blackout.” He details the lack of coverage surrounding Jackie Robinson’s first spring training with the Dodgers, in 1946.
“This was standard operating procedure in the mainstream press,” Lamb said. “This was true in both the South and the North. It was worse in the South where newspapers had policies against publishing photographs of Blacks. Northern sportswriters gave their support for segregation by remaining silent on the issue. Baseball or society could not have maintained the color line as long as it did without what one Black sportswriter called, “The Conspiracy of Silence.”
The disgraceful custom left the first draft of history of the Kentucky-Michigan State games to be written by the Michigan Chronicle, a Black weekly newspaper based in Detroit. To understand the story’s moving parts and many names spanning two seasons requires chronologically digging into the Chronicle stories on microfilm.
MICHIGAN STATE’S OWN FAILURES
In the 1946 season’s third game, Horace Smith was withheld from playing against Mississippi State on Oct. 12, 1946 at Macklin Field (renamed Spartan Stadium in 1957).
Michigan State officials explained Smith was out with bruised ribs. The Chronicle, seeking further comment on Smith’s injury, wrote the university was “unavailable for a statement.”
The Spartans’ next game was Oct. 19, 1946 at Penn State, a 19-13 victory. The Chronicle noted Smith played “brilliantly.” The Michigan State box score, unearthed by Paulette Martis in MSU’s Athletics Communications office, shows Smith ran three times for a net 20 yards, completed his only pass attempt for 32 yards (halfbacks often threw in the 1940s-styled offenses) and caught two balls for minus-3 yards.
On Oct. 26, Smith again played in an 18-7 loss to Cincinnati at home.
November 2 was the ill-fated trip to Kentucky, a 39-14 Wildcats romp.
On Nov. 9, Smith was back in the lineup when the Spartans traveled to No. 11-ranked Michigan. Smith accounted for the Spartans’ only score in a 55-7 loss. He threw a touchdown pass to Frank Waters (yes, the same Frank “Muddy” Waters who was Michigan State’s head coach, 1980-82).
In the 1946 season’s final three games, Smith played in wins over Marquette, Maryland and Washington State. Smith’s final numbers in a 5-5 season were 13 carries for 55 yards, 2-of-3 passing for 104 yards and one touchdown and four receptions for 23 yards. He returned five kickoffs for 110 yards.
The season also ended with Bachman resigning, ending his 13-year tenure.
When Michigan State hired Clarence “Biggie” Munn, Chronicle sports editor Bill Matney wrote activists took a wait-and-see approach. Bachman had a reputation for not wanting Black players on his team, but Munn had played with Black athletes at Minnesota (1929-31) and he had coached and faced Black athletes as both a Michigan assistant (1938-45) and Syracuse head coach (1946).
Additionally, the “gentleman’s agreement” was crumbling. Penn State canceled a Nov. 29, 1946 trip to Miami rather than leave behind its Black players. Nevada did the same for a Nov. 16, 1946 contest scheduled at Mississippi State. All-white Maryland played at Michigan State on Nov. 23, 1946 without holding the Spartans to the racist policy.
But in the 1947 season’s second game, Munn disappointed.
Smith did not play in the Spartans’ 7-0 win over Mississippi State on Oct. 4, 1947 at Macklin Field. The Chronicle asked Michigan Gov. Kim Sigler to investigate Michigan State for discriminatory practices. The Detroit branch of the NAACP also called for an investigation.
The next two weeks, Smith played in wins at Washington State, 21-7, and at home over Iowa State, 20-0.
BEAR BRYANT FUMBLED HIS BRANCH RICKEY MOMENT
As the Oct. 25, 1947 Kentucky-Michigan State game loomed, Bill Matney asked Kentucky athletic director Bernie Shively if the Wildcats expected Michigan State to again abide by the gentleman’s agreement.
“No comment,” Shively said.
Here’s where Bryant’s silence failed his dubious 1980 Time quote. As gameday approached, Bryant had a Branch Rickey opportunity served to him on a silver platter. He could have easily punted the controversy back to the Spartans.
He knew Michigan State was under pressure to play Smith. If Smith didn’t play, Bryant could have said he wasn’t to blame. Ask Michigan State what happened.
Matney’s preview article reflected the scrutiny on the Spartans. Matney quoted former Michigan State halfback Bob McCrary (1933-34), an African-American, who had been held out of a 1934 game against Texas A&M played in San Antonio.
Instead of blaming Munn for Smith’s 1947 Mississippi State benching, McCrary pointed to Lloyd C. Emmons, a faculty representative and Athletics Board Director for whom Emmons Hall was later named. Into the 1960s, such academic roles on campuses typically carried more weight than the athletic director or coaches.
On gameday, a record crowd of 26,997 turned out to see the Spartans play No. 14-ranked Kentucky at then-26,000-seat Macklin Field. The Wildcats were led by George Blanda, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and kicker.
The Horace Smith suspense ended when Munn called his backup halfback over to him to relay a play to the huddle. Smith finished the game with two carries for 11 yards and one incomplete pass, although in a four-back offense he could have been on the field for many more snaps as a blocker.
Kentucky won the contest, 7-6, thanks to Blanda kicking the decisive PAT. Michigan State trailed 7-0 when George Guerre, the team’s leading rusher, scored on a 9-yard run, but the extra-point was blocked.
Smith was mentioned in the Chicago Tribune game story, but only because he was erroneously cited for throwing an interception in the end zone. The Kentucky-Michigan State box score shows quarterback George Smith threw the interception. The Tribune story otherwise offered no context to Horace Smith’s presence – or race – on the field.
Adding context to Bryant’s failed Rickey moment was the 1947 Kentucky-Michigan State game took place shortly after the first integrated World Series concluded with the Dodgers taking the New York Yankees to seven games before falling. You couldn’t pick up a sports page without reading about Jackie Robinson transforming history through sports.
Why wasn’t Bryant inspired at the very least to speak up on Horace Smith’s behalf?
A better Bryant/baseball comparison than Rickey was Tom Yawkey, the Boston Red Sox owner. Boston was the last franchise to integrate, in 1959; Bryant was one of the last coaches to provide equal rights in college football.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE FACED DOWN RACISM
The Chronicle’s next issue, Nov. 1, 1947, trumpeted the paper’s role with this headline: “Chronicle Cracks Bias on MSC Football 11.”
Matney added the Chronicle stayed on the story despite criticism from Black readers as well as the white public. He expressed dismay with Black readers for not understanding the importance of pressuring Michigan State to abandon the gentleman’s agreement.
Matney made no mention of the game starting late due to a Kentucky protest. If it happened and he didn’t write it, he may have been focused on patting himself on the back for facing down the Spartans.
Michigan State bounced back from the Kentucky loss to win their final four games, defeating Marquette, Santa Clara, Temple and Hawaii. The Spartans finished 7-2 in Munn’s first step toward winning a national championship, in 1952.
Smith led the 1947 team in scoring with 30 points on five touchdowns, although he was only fourth in rushing with 39 carries for 172 yards. Smith also completed one of two passes for zero yards, caught two balls for 57 with a TD, returned three punts for 125 and one kickoff for 17.
Smith gained a place in Michigan State football history as the first Black football player to face a segregated southern opponent, although it must be noted the school has failed to recognize him for his achievement overcoming adversity. He belongs alongside Gideon Smith, Michigan State’s first Black football player from 1913 to 1915, and Michigan State’s coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1960s teams that were college football’s first fully integrated rosters.
Daugherty’s 1966 team faced Notre Dame in a seminal moment in college football, the Game of the Century on Nov. 19, 1966 at Spartan Stadium before a record TV audience of 33 million. The Spartans lined up 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains, College Football Hall of Famers George Webster and Clinton Jones, and the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C. People watching on TV saw Black athletes accepted by their teammates and fans.
Gene Stallings may have been one of them, considering his change of heart from 1965 to 1968. Bryant apparently missed the game.
Oregon State Emeritus professor Michael Oriard, a college football scholar and former Notre Dame and NFL player, singled out Michigan State in a 2019 ESPN film on “Integration” that was part of a 150th college football anniversary series.
“The fact that Gideon Smith started at Michigan State in 1913 …,” he says, “may be the most significant because as the first Black player at Michigan State, he’s in a way the pioneer for the really astonishingly and exceptionally integrated Michigan State teams of in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Oriard’s insight aside, the 2019 ESPN film’s overall theme remained celebrating Bryant. And there was no mention of the history Horace Smith wrote against Kentucky and Bear Bryant. At best, he was silent, at worse he protested.
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