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By TOM SHANAHAN
Part III: Scripted in Hollywood, unaware of South’s timeline
The 1980 Time quotes in Parts I & II, in retrospect, may have been the genesis of Bear Bryant mythology. Doors were open to more tales, although oddly enough the 1970 USC-Alabama myths began in Hollywood, not Tuscaloosa.
The original intent of 1970 USC-Alabama myth with Bryant inviting the Trojans to Legion Field in Birmingham was to aggrandize USC’s own dubious integration track record.
The Trojans of 1970 were still shedding the residue of schools that followed an unwritten quota for most the 1960s decade a half-dozen or so Black players on a roster. USC’s 1962 national championship team had only five Black players, the 1967 national title roster only seven. The 1970 team took the field at Legion Field in Birmingham with only five Black starters.
Most of the 18 Black players on USC’s roster were younger, having been recruited in the previous couple of years. In the late 1960s, segregation had ended at 77 percent of the major conference southern schools (ahead of Alabama) and unwritten quotas were erased.
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
No matter the origin, Alabama fans were quick to embrace a story that celebrates Bryant.
The final score of USC routing Alabama 41-21 and Cunningham running for 135 yards and two touchdowns were about the only truths from the game, but people believe the myth over reality. They believe Bryant scheduled USC to gain approval from his fans to allow him to recruit Black athletes. There is evidence, only conjecture.
They believe Bryant escorted Cunningham into the Alabama locker room to show his players what a “football player looked like,” even though Cunningham admitted in 2003 it never happened.
On scheduling the game, Don Yeager, author of 2006 book “Turning the Tide,” says Bryant’s coaches told him they were “unequivocal” in stating they believe Bryant did so with a purpose. Sylvester Croom was one of Bryant’s first Black players (1972-74) and former assistant coach (1977-86). In the 2019 ESPN film, Croom said, “I think he knew that. I can’t say that for a fact. But just knowing the man, and how he did things, coach Bryant did nothing by accident.”
Including maintaining indifference to integration longer than 77 percent of his southern peers?
Contradictions with evidence overwhelm the conjecture. Among many:
— Bryant had already recruited a Black athlete by the time USC arrived. Wilbur Jackson watched the 1970 game with the Alabama freshmen (the NCAA didn’t permit varsity eligibility for freshmen until 1972).
— A year earlier than Bryant recruiting Jackson, Alabama basketball coach C.M. Newton signed African-American Wendell Hudson in the 1969-70 school year. Nobody fired Newton.
— Deep South schools Auburn, Mississippi State and George Tech were among 23 of 30 (77 percent) major southern schools signing Black athletes prior to Bryant.
— Nowhere have Bryant or USC coach John McKay mentioned the game was arranged to manipulate Alabama’s fans, including in their respective 1974 autobiographies, “Bear,” and “McKay: A Coach’s Story.”
— Clem Gryska, a long-time Bryant lieutenant, says Bryant never scheduled a game to lose it.
“WAG THE DOG”
There is another bewildering hole in the storyline that has Alabama’s fans stunned their defense was run over by Cunningham.
They’re portrayed not only as bigots Bryant manipulated into allowing him to recruit Black athletes, they also seem to have never heard of three 1960s Black Heisman Trophy-winning Black running backs with speed and power: Ernie Davis, Syracuse, 1961; Mike Garrett, USC, 1965; and O.J. Simpson, USC, 1968.
John Papadakis, a 1970 USC linebacker who went on to a career as a bon vivant Los Angeles restaurateur, worked the magic of overcoming those question marks. He’s a Dustin Hoffman-like character from the movie “Wag the Dog,” having co-written a movie treatment titled, “The Turning of the Tide.”
The movie wasn’t made, but Papadakis’ fictional Cunningham locker-room scene has been widely accepted as truth. The legendary Bryant outfoxing his fans as the good guy has an emotional tug at the hearts of viewers distracting from the truth. Nearly a full page of dialogue is on page 142 of “Turning the Tide,” Yaeger’s book.
Papadakis’ script has Bryant instruct Cunningham to stand on a bench. Then Bryant tells his Alabama players:
“Gentleman, this ol’ boy, I mean, this man, and his Trojan brothers just ran your slow-motion asses right out of your own house. Raise your heads and open your eyes, this is what a football player looks like.”
Alabama’s players scoffed at the dialogue, saying Bryant would never embarrass them that way. Not to mention “his Trojans brothers” and “raise your heads and open your eyes” sounded more like something Papadakis dreamed up than the downhome Bryant’s words.
In reality, it was Bryant who needed to learn what a Black “football player looked like.” Alabama’s high schools had desegregated by 1968. Some of Alabama’s younger players on Bryant’s 1970 team had played with and faced Black athletes.
Papadakis was likely unaware Alabama’s high schools had desegrated three years ahead of Bryant’ roster.
Cunningham first admitted the locker room scene never happened in a 2003 story by Neal McCready of the Mobile Press-Register prior to USC’s 2003 game at Auburn. He explained he got caught up in a story that took on a life of its own.
In the 2008 HBO film, Cunningham danced around the locker room question. In the 2013 Showtime film, he admitted it never happened, but the editors glossed over his comment. The overall theme remained casting Bryant as a crafty crusader. The Bryant myth sells.
In a 2020 ESPN film, an E:60 story narrated by Jeremy Schaap produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1970 game, the Bryant/Cunningham locker room story was simply omitted.
The linchpin to the entire story’s nationwide spread was ignored.
In a sad commentary, portraying Cunningham bare-chested standing on a bench was viewed humorously despite the racial overtones of a slave market. Another slice of misplaced humor was a quote from former Alabama assistant Jerry Claiborne. He said, “Sam Cunningham did more for integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King in 20 years.”
King earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. His work was the backdrop to Michigan State’s example that led to 77 percent of major conference southern schools with integrated teams by 1970. The abuse those early pioneers in the South endured — Texas fans waved nooses at SMU wide receiver Jerry LeVias — cleared the path to make the 1970 USC-Alabama game possible.
Ken Burns, the awarding winning filmmaker whose documentaries appear on PBS, was on a recent Zoom call with the National Sports Media Association. In a discussion about his latest documentary, “Ali,” to air on PBS in four parts, Sept. 19-22, Burns discussed the task of unraveling existing stories while researching a project.
“We tend to resort to conventional, superficial understandings, tying things into a bow,” Burns said.
In George Orwell’s book “1984,” he wrote, “If there is no one with the power to call out a lie as a lie does it end up ceasing to be a lie?”
How did Orwell know what about college football myth decades later?
BRYANT’S OUTDATED SMALL, SCRAPPY TEAMS
Scott Hunter, Alabama’s 1970 senior quarterback, made another point beyond denying the Cunningham locker room scene took place. He said USC’s dominance wasn’t about race.
“The black players were bigger, stronger and faster and the white players were bigger, stronger and faster,” he said in the Showtime film. “And if they had any polka dotted players, they were bigger stronger and faster.”
The Showtime editors gloss over that quote. They don’t mention USC could have had only three Black starters. Defensive end Tody Smith was a transfer from Michigan State. Charlie Evans, a white player who played four years in the NFL, was the returning starting fullback until Cunningham was named the starter in the final days of fall camp.
Also omitted was Evans ran over Alabama as well, scoring one of USC’s touchdowns. Cunningham and Evans both ran behind five white offensive linemen, four of them first-year starters. The 1970 USC-Alabama myth has been otherwise told as a scene out of the 1978 movie “Animal House” with the line, “The Negros took our dates.”
Bryant’s 1970 team was overpowered because he was slow to transition from the “small, scrappy teams” of single-platoon football to the 1964 rule changes that allowed two-platoon football. In single-platoon football, bigger players couldn’t stay on the field 60 minutes.
Bryant still won in 1964, 1965 and 1966 playing only segregated opponents, but failing to adapt to the size of the game caught up to him by 1969, a 6-5 record, and 1970, a 6-5-1 mark.
Size was overlooked when Alabama’s 1966 team finished 11-0 and ranked No. 3 to No. 1 Notre Dame (9-0-1) and No. 2 Michigan State (9-0-1).
Bryant’s All-American offensive tackle in 1966 was Cecil Dowdy, a 6-foot-1, 202-pounder. Alabama fans to this day claim Bryant’s 1966 team was a victim of reverse racism. The claim ignores the Irish and Spartans were bigger and faster than Dowdy and his smallish teammates.
The Notre Dame defense featured two College Football Hall of Famers with Alan Page (6-4, 245) linebacker Jim Lynch (6-1, 235). The Spartans also had two Hall-of-Fame defenders, Bubba Smith (6-7, 285) and George Webster (6-5, 235).
Jerry West, Michigan State’s All-American offensive tackle in 1966, says Alabama would have been in for a long day if the teams had played.
“I was a 218-pounder, and I didn’t want to block Bubba,” West said. “Alabama’s 202-pounders wouldn’t have wanted to block him, either. Bubba, you had to go low to block; you couldn’t keep up with him strength-wise. George was impossible to block. You just hoped you could hit him.”
When the Spartans and Irish played, Page was on the opposite side of West, but West said he saw enough of Irish defense to add, “Alabama’s 202-pounders would have had trouble with Notre Dame, too.”
West supported those thoughts based on the North-South Shrine All-Star Game in Miami his senior year. West, Smith and three other Spartans played. Alabama wasn’t there, but West noted, “None of those southern guys could touch Bubba.”
In the 1967 NFL draft, Notre Dame had eight draft picks, three in the first round. Michigan State also had eight, with four first rounders among the first overall eight picks (1st, Smith; 2nd, Jones; 5th, Webster; 8th, Gene Washington).
Alabama had one late first-rounder with four overall. Running back Leslie Kelley, 26th in a 26-team league, never made a Pro Bowl. Dowdy was a ninth-rounder who was soon out of the league.
In the 21st century, Alabama’s coast-to-coast, all-star rosters dominate the NFL draft. Imagine the hypocritical reaction of Alabama fans today if a team with a paltry list of draft picks was named No. 1 over the draft heavy Crimson Tide.
THE POT CALLS THE KETTLE BLACK
Another masterful “Wag the Dog” script writing was Bryant and his fans raising a reverse racism claim. Bryant made it in his 1974 book, “Bear.”
Alabama author Keith Dunnavant has carried a megaphone for the reverse racism claim to the platforms HBO, Showtime and ESPN films have provided him.
“In 1966, Alabama was the only undefeated untied team in the country and yet they finished a controversial third,” Dunnavant said in the Showtime film. “It’s the only time in college football history the two-time defending national champion has gone perfect and not been awarded the national title.”
Dunnavant, though, overstated Alabama’s 1964 and 1965 dominance. The 1964 and 1965 titles were both split with other schools (Bryant’s first national title in 1961 also was split, with Ohio State). The NCAA recognizes four official national title organizations: Associated Press (writers), United Press International (coaches), Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.
Here were the results for that three-year stretch:
— 1964: Alabama (10-1-0) won the AP and UPI titles, while all-white Arkansas (11-0-0) won the FWAA title and Notre Dame (9-1-0) the NFF crown.
— 1965: Alabama (9-1-1) won the AP national title, while Michigan State (10-1-0) claimed the UPI and NFF championships. Alabama and Michigan State shared the FWAA co-title.
— 1966: Notre Dame (9-0-1) won the AP, UPI, FWAA and shared an NFF co-title with Michigan State (9-0-1).
A simple formula can be used to rank the title teams over the 1964, 1965 and 1966 stretch with one point for each title for a total of 12. Notre Dame finished with 4.5 points, Alabama 3.5, Michigan State 3.0 and Arkansas 1.0.
When the combined season records from the title seasons are added, here are the win-loss totals and percentages:
— Michigan State: 10-1-0 plus 9-0-1 = 19-1-1, 90.4 percent.
— Notre Dame: 9-1-0 plus 9-0-1 = 18-1-1, 90.0 percent.
— Alabama: 10-1-0 plus 9-1-1 = 19-2-1, 86.3 percent.
That’s hardly Alabama as a clear-cut defending two-time champion, but the age-old media flaw strikes again. Charles Davis, formerly of Fox but now with CBS, echoed Dunnavant’s perceived slight of a two-time champion in the 2019 ESPN film.
And here’s another way Dunnavant shades the truth without, something Davis may not have realized when he echoed Dunnavant’s summation.
In the 1964 season, Alabama finished the regular season ranked No. 1 by the AP and UPI poll, but the Crimson Tide lost to No. 5 Texas Orange Bowl. However, bowl games didn’t factor in the equation. National champions were crowed at the end of the regular season. Otherwise, Alabama (10-1-0) likely would have been knocked from its No. 1 perch by No. 2 Arkansas (11-0-0), which beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl.
Dunnavant doesn’t mention that Alabama hypocrisy when he takes claim for the 1965 AP national title. The AP had decided to experiment for a year with voting after the bowl games, while UPI maintained the regular-season crowning with Michigan State No. 1.
The final regular season vote ended with No. 1 Michigan State, No. 2 Arkansas, No. 3 Nebraska and No. 4 Alabama finished the regular season ranked No. 4, but Michigan State lose in the Rose Bowl, Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and Alabama upset Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Without the experiment, Alabama is shut out of a 1965 national title.
The AP reverted to end of regular-season voting until changing to post-bowl season in 1968.
Actually, the only schools winning undisputed 1960s national title were USC and Texas. And they both did twice — the Trojans (1962, 1967) and Longhorns (1963, 1969). Maybe USC and Texas were the dominant programs of the decade.
Alabama’s reverse racism claims also overlooked the 1969 season. All-white Texas was not only voted national champion, the No. 1 Longhorns had to defeat No. 2 and all-white Arkansas Dec. 6, 1969 for the national title.
Don Keith, author of the 2006 book, “The Bear: The Legendary Life of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant,” comments in the Showtime film Alabama fans recognized their team was too small and too slow.
“There was certainly a lot of talk in the bars and barbecue joints around Alabama,” Keith said. ‘God, those Black guys ran all over our little defense.’”
If the physical mismatch was true of Alabama playing 6-4-1 USC in 1970, it stands to reason it also would be true if 11-0 Alabama faced the Notre Dame or Michigan State’s 9-0-1 teams in 1966. Michigan State College Football Hall of Fame running back Clinton Jones, a two-time All-American pick, might have been the Sam Cunningham of a 1966 Alabama-Michigan State game.
Jones was a 6-1, 206-pounder (bigger than Dowdy), an All-American track star, sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting and the second overall pick of the 1967 NFL draft.
ALABAMA’S SKEWED FACTS, 1967-1969
Another claim to the 1970 USC-Alabama myth was Bryant was tired of losing to Black athletes between 1967 and scheduling the 1970 game.
However, Bryant’s 1967 and 1968 teams continued to win with national rankings. Michigan author John Bacon was among those misleading viewers in the 2019 ESPN film with the “tired” claim.
The 1967 facts: Alabama finished 8-2-1 and ranked No. 8 in the nation without facing an integrated opponent. Both losses and the tie were against all-white rosters. Tennessee and Texas A&M beat Bryant and Florida State tied.
The 1968 facts: Alabama finished 8-3 and ranked No. 17. The Crimson Tide defeated two integrated schools, Virginia Tech and Miami. They lost to all-white Mississippi and two integrated schools, Tennessee and Missouri.
In 1969, three of the five losses were to all-white teams, Vanderbilt, LSU and Auburn. In other words, Bryant’s “small and scrappy” was exposed by both white and Black rosters alike.
By 1971, though, Bryant learned to adapt. He was, after all, one of college’s football’s greatest coaches – if not the all-timer. To compete against bigger opponents, he switched to a wishbone offense.
The 1971 Crimson Tide opened with an 17-10 upset of No. 5 USC in Los Angeles. Alabama had one Black starter, junior college transfer John Mitchell. Meanwhile, USC’s 1971 team had more Black starters than in 1970.
On offense alone there were six Black starters on offense alone. Jimmy Jones was a senior quarterback; Cunningham, junior fullback; Lou Harris, senior tailback; Lynn Swann, sophomore receiver, Edesel Garrison, junior receiver; and Charles Young, junior tight end.
Cunningham, Swann and Young were on their way to College Football Hall of Famers, but they lost to Bryant’s remodeled team with 21 white starters.
Embellishing Bryant’s integration role also overlooks his silence in the 1960s when African-American homes and churches in Alabama were regularly bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. The victims horrifically included “four little girls” at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, in 1963.
During Martin Luther King’s 1960s Civil Rights appearances, he often cited “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, wait on time.”
Lane Demas, a Central Michigan University historian that wrote the book “Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football,” says the 1970 USC-Alabama myth has been about discrediting MLK.
“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.’”
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.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055