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By TOM SHANAHAN
Part II: Bear’s second deception and something missing from 1980 “Time” story
Bear Bryant made a second deceptive quote in the Time 1980 article in addition to he wanted to be the Branch Rickey of football during his Kentucky coaching days, 1946-53.
“They told me no. So for years, I used to recommend all these great black players to schools up North.”
There are no names to validate Bryant’s claim. None. That’s considerably fewer than “all these great black players.”
The fiction Bryant steered players to Michigan State has been another example of an age-old media flaw. Print and electronic reporters read what someone else wrote and took turns spreading the legend of Bear Bryant as a benevolent segregationist. They didn’t check the facts.
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, passing off 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 and some white coaches that sent Black 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). They endured abuse – Texas fans waved nooses at LeVias — 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 ones 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
Bryant may have exploited an old joke told by Daugherty, the late College Football Hall of Fame coach who died in 1987. Daugherty loved telling a good yarn, and he was good friends with Bryant. Daugherty had often joked he “traded” Joe Namath, a white quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, in 1961, for Charlie Thornhill, a Black linebacker from Roanoke, Virginia, in 1963.
The story, though, has been pierced with enough holes to sink the Titanic.
Daugherty wanted Namath, but the school’s admission office informed him early in the recruiting process there was no way Namath’s poor academic record could gain admission. The storyline, as the myth has been told, continued with Daugherty informing Bryant that Namath was available. In return, Bryant directed Thornhill to Daugherty.
These are the facts from the horses’ mouths:
— In Namath’s 2012 HBO biography, he says he tried to gain admission to Maryland over the summer but when he failed, Maryland coach Tom Nugent informed Bryant. The Alabama coach, in his 1974 book, “Bear,” with John Underwood, also says Nugent informed him. Neither Namath or Bryant mentioned a role played by Daugherty.
— Thornhill’s family and Michigan State assistant coach Vince Carillot credited Roanoke white sportswriter Bob McLelland for tipping off the Spartans. Thornhill was the first Black player named the Roanoke area’s “Back of the Year,” thanks to McLelland’s lobbying. The Hotel Roanoke waived its segregation policy to allow Thornhill and his family to attend the Jan. 14, 1963 awards banquet.
The myth contends Bryant called Daugherty after he met Thornhill at the banquet, but there are four iceberg collision with that account.
First, Thornhill arrived at the banquet having already committed to Michigan State. It was printed in the Roanoke paper.
Second, Carillot added he had to convince Daugherty to offer Thornhill a scholarship. Daugherty had doubts about Thornhill’s 5-foot-9 height, but Carillot had seen Thornhill’s film. He also told Daugherty that Thornhill was built like an Olympic weight lifter without lifting weights.
Third, William “Nay” Thornhill, Charlie’s younger brother, said Bryant’s exchange with Charlie was limited to Bryant telling Charlie that Daugherty was a good man and he’d enjoy playing for him.
Fourth, Charlie, who died in 2006, never spoke of Bryant influencing his commitment, according to his son, Kaleb Thornhill, a former Michigan State linebacker who works in the Miami Dolphins’ front office.
You’d think if a man as legendary as Bear Bryant had changed the trajectory of your life, you’d tell a few people about it. Well, Charlie did discuss a man playing such a role — Bob McLelland.
All three Thornhill brothers, Waverly, Charlie and Nay, attended McLelland’s funeral.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED JOINED THE UNATTRIBUTED
Nevertheless, the Bryant “trade” anecdote continues to be regurgitated, including Sports Illustrated. The venerable magazine, without attribution, included the Namath/Thornhill trade fiction in a Dec. 27, 2004 issue. Namath was among several vignettes on athletes under the headline, “The Road Not Taken.”
The SI story included an unattributed quote that Bryant called Thornhill after the Jan. 14, 1963 banquet to inform him to expect airplane tickets in the mail to take a recruiting trip to Michigan State. However, Clifton Roaf, who was Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad passenger in 1959 out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, said he hosted Thornhill on a December, 1962 campus recruiting trip.
Years later, there was a claim from Bryant he sent a Black player to Johnny Majors at Iowa State, but Majors coached at Iowa State from 1968 to 1972. By 1968, Bryant was behind the times finding Black athletes.
The Namath portion of the “trade” also flies in the face of another Bryant claim.
In a 1967 interview on film that the Showtime documentary included, Bryant said he couldn’t find Black athletes academically and athletically qualified to play for him. At the end of the 1967 spring football, he had cut five walk-on African-American players.
Here was another missed moment by a man who claimed he wanted to be the Branch Rickey of football.
Imagine the broader statement of opportunity in a segregated state that Bryant could have made by keeping one of the Black players. Some people might cry Affirmative Action, but in those days, Bryant had 140-some players on his roster. Are we to believe there was a clear separation between the worst of those 140 white players and the best of the five Black players? Why couldn’t Bryant carry 141 players? That’s down to the seventh team. What’s the difference?
Bryant’s specious academic explanation for his all-white roster begs an answer how he could send a qualified Black athlete to Michigan State, the school that rejected Namath’s academic record, yet Namath was admitted overnight at Alabama.
Daugherty, always looking to deliver a punch line, has been exploited for another Bryant joke. In 1978, Daugherty was quoted at Bryant’s 65th birthday party stating he got out of coaching once Bryant began recruiting Black athletes.
That doesn’t add up.
Daugherty’s final recruiting class, in 1972, included six Black athletes from southern high schools. In 1972, six Black athletes from anywhere was more than entire rosters at southern colleges.
Daugherty’s problem was among the six, he didn’t find another College Football Hall of Famer like the four in his 1963 recruiting class, Bubba Smith, Beaumont, Texas; George Webster, Anderson, S.C.; Gene Washington, La Porte, Texas; and Clinton Jones, Cleveland, Ohio.
However, the 1972 class did include Otto Smith of Columbia, S.C., a two-time All-Big Ten player (1974 and 1976). Smith was first team in 1974, the year the Spartans’ upset No. 1-ranked Ohio State and Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.
Another one of the six was Tyrone Willingham of Jacksonville, N.C. He entered coaching as a Michigan State graduate assistant and went on to a pioneering career as a Black head coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
Willingham was recruited by Jimmy Raye. Daugherty launched the coaching careers of Raye and Sherman Lewis, establishing them among pioneering Black college and NFL assistant coaches. Daugherty hired Lewis, a 1963 All-American running from Louisville, in 1969 and Raye, his starting quarterback in 1966 and 1967, in 1971.
Daugherty pioneered chapters of opportunity on the field and with a whistle.
THE TIME COVER STORY IRONY
The 1980 Time story, when dusted off, ironically presented another instructional lesson on the birth of Bear Bryant mythology. Something was missing from the article.
In the 5,100-word Time opus, there was not a single word about the 1970 USC-Alabama game. Nothing about Bryant escorting USC fullback Sam Cunningham, an African-American, into the locker room. The myth contends Bryant wanted to show his players what a “football player looked like.” The scene proved fictional when Cunningham admitted in 2003 it never happened.
There was no Time summary in 1980 of how the crafty Bryant scheduled USC as a game “to lose.” The myth’s 1990s narrative was Bryant wanted a loss to convince his bigoted fans it was time to grant the most powerful coach in the South – who essentially had no boss – permission to recruit Black athletes.
Bryant’s apologists continue to point to the 1970 USC-Alabama game as the crowning moment of The Bear’s career.
So, how can there not be a single word in the Time story?
The magazine long has been a journalistic icon. Omitting the 1970 game and Cunningham locker-room parade would be akin to telling Martin Luther King’s life story without mentioning his “I Have a Dream Speech.”
But Time didn’t commit a journalistic fumble.
The explanation always has been overlooked: A 1980 story can’t include a narrative that didn’t exist at the time B.J. Phillips wrote the reflective piece.
The Bryant-Cunningham myth was crafted in the late 1980s in a small USC/Los Angeles circle. It began to leak out and spread wider in the 1990s. USC author Steven Travers lays out that timeline to the myth’s birth in his 2007 book, “One Night, Two Teams.”
Once the myth spread, the reason it worked was people heard it played to a 1990s sports media sound track. They imagined America talking about the game on Sunday morning cable TV shows. And sports talk radio hosts celebrating Bryant daily for his genius.
But that’s not what happened.
There was no next-day buzz. The Saturday night game wasn’t on TV. Race wasn’t mentioned in game stories. There was no cable TV in 1970 to spread a non-existent buzz. The modern sports talk radio genre of the 1990s wasn’t around in 1970.
Cunningham’s national profile the remainder of the 1970 season was simply as a promising sophomore fullback. He gained 135 yards at Alabama, but only 353 in the final 10 games. His season total of 488 didn’t make the All-Pac-8 team.
And the 1970 Trojans weren’t a juggernaut. They finished 6-4-1 overall, 3-4 in Pac-8 play and without a bowl bid.
Also, understand the 1980 Time piece wasn’t alone omitting a non-existent narrative.
In 1991, Leo Ticheli Productions in Birmingham, Alabama, produced a retrospective documentary on Bryant’s life, “The Legacy Lives.” The script was written by the Al Browning, who covered Bryant’s teams for the Tuscaloosa News. Browning, who died in 2002, and Bryant were close friends. When Bryant died in 1983, Browning served as the media liaison for the family.
The indulgent film thoroughly covered Bryant’s coaching career, including ballads set to music. The run time was 1 hour, 42 minutes.
There was not one word about the 1970 USC-Alabama game. Nor Cunningham. Or the locker room. Nothing.
A close friend of Bryant wouldn’t omit a narrative that portrays The Bear as a crusader. He’d highlight it. But Browning, like Time, didn’t fumble the Sam Cunningham story.
Browning did, however, omit Bryant was sued on July 2, 1969 by the Alabama’s Afro-American student association for failing to recruit Black athletes. The lawsuit provides another gaping hole in Bryant’s deceptive 1980 claim he sent Black athletes northward.
In depositions taken by Civil Rights attorney U.W. Clemon, Bryant repeated what he had said on film in 1967 that he was unaware of Black athletes qualified academically and athletically to play for him. Clemon added he was prepared to show Alabama’s Black high school coaches said Bryant had no interest in their players.
But the Bryant lawsuit went away when Alabama suddenly found Wilbur Jackson of Ozark, Alabama, in the 1970 recruiting class.
In a 2019 ESPN film, Alabama author Keith Dunnavant makes an unsubstantiated claim Bryant had been searching for the right player – as if he undertook a Rickey-like search for Jackie Robinson.
Dunnavant’s claim overlooks the many Black athletes from the South who would have met Bryant’s standards. They were playing above the Mason-Dixon Line or they were pioneers signed by one of the 77 percent of southern coaches who were more progressive than Bryant.
The more likely explanation: As a junior in 1968, Jackson played at segregated D.A. Smith, a school Bryant didn’t recruit. As a senior in 1969, Jackson played at integrated Carroll High, a school on Bryant’s path.
Auburn found James Owens when Fairfield High desegregated his senior year in 1968.
A major difference, though, has been Auburn officials admit they failed to properly support Owens as the only Black player on a white campus. They established the James Owens Courage Award, presented annually to a current or former player who displayed courage in the face of adversity.
Alabama makes no apologies. It celebrates a man who dragged his feet on integration.
FRANK DEFORD GAVE SAM CUNNINGHAM ONE SENTENCE
Time’s sister publication, Sports Illustrated, also published a Bryant opus at the end of his career, a 7,100-word cover story in the Nov. 23, 1981 edition.
The sportswriter giant Frank Deford, a master of long form stories, was the author. He gave Cunningham’s impact on college football one sentence. There was nothing about the wily Bryant scheduling USC as a game to lose. Nothing about the locker room.
“Only after Southern Cal and Sam (Bam) Cunningham ran all over the skinny little white boys in a 1970 game, only when it was evident that the Tide couldn’t win any longer lily-white, only then did The Bear learn his civics.”
Deford’s sentence doesn’t celebrate a Bryant awakening. Deford’s sentence condemned Bryant for waiting until the 1970s. On Bryant’s lack of leadership, Deford added, “It is consistent that the one knock against him as a coach is that he has never had the faith or the daring to be innovative.”
I’ve have researched college football integration since 2012 when I began to work on this book published in 2014:
“Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the integration of college football” Foreword by Tony Dungy.
I will put my research on Michigan State’s leading role and the 1970 USC-Alabama game’s myths and fiction up against anybody, anytime, anywhere.
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