EIGHTH OF AN EIGHT-PART SERIES. The first seven parts are listed at the end of the story.
Although no one in the documentary says it, there seems to be a feeling that Southern Cal’s rout of Alabama was the shock that the University and a majority of the fans needed to support integration of the football program. But in fact, that same shock probably came the previous year when the Tennessee Volunteers, the team that Bryant always regarded as the Tide’s most bitter foe, thrashed the Tide 41-14 at Legion Field in Birmingham. (I know—I was there.) Two of the Vols’ best players—receiver Lester McClain and linebacker Jackie Walker—were Black. Why history has chosen to ignore this game and focus exclusively on 1970 Alabama-USC is a mystery.”
— ALLEN BARRA, THE ATLANTIC, NOV. 15, 2013
By TOM SHANAHAN
CHAPTER 1: THE VACCINATED MYTH AND FORGOTTEN PIONEERS
Covid-19 killed the 1970 USC-Alabama game’s 50th anniversary season opener that was scheduled for Sept. 5 at “Jerry World,” but folklore from a half-century ago remains vaccinated. The inoculation has worked without scientific evidence supporting the myths.
Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant remains celebrated as a blend of a White Knight and Svengali for orchestrating college football’s desegregation. He invited integrated Southern Cal as a game to lose before his bigoted fans at Legion Field in Birmingham. A loss untied his hands, allowing him to recruit Black athletes.
That’s the myth, anyway.
Older media and fans have been complicit. They love tales that cling to a celebrated, folksy coach who courted the media. Younger media don’t appreciate how recent was segregation; questioning Bryant doesn’t resonate with them. And without a challenge on a major media platform, the folklore, which ignores the reality of white privilege, lives on.
That continuation played out once again when ESPN aired a report on College GameDay to coincide with the game’s 50th anniversary date, Sept. 12, 1970. The report ignored Sam Cunningham has admitted Bryant never took him into the Alabama locker room. That story was formerly the foundation of the myth, propelling it into football lore, but it is now accepted as fiction by all sides. ESPN simply skipped over it. Explaining the Cunningham fiction opens doors to exposing more holes in the myth.
“There is more fiction in those 1970 USC-Alabama stories than anything. You’d think that’s when the SEC began recruiting Black athletes. I was almost out of school by 1970.”— LESTER McCLAIN, Tennessee
The fiction, born in late 1980s Los Angeles rather than Tuscaloosa, has been long regurgitated via print, film and word of mouth. The myths include premium network documentaries on HBO, “Breaking the Huddle” in 2008, and Showtime, “Against the Tide,” in 2013. ESPN’s series on the 150th college football anniversary films, included one on integration that promoted Bryant mythology.
Such stories ignore Bryant never discussed the “plan” in his 1974 book, “Bear,” with John Underwood, or in other interviews prior to his 1983 death. Bryant and the 1970 myth are shiny objects, and the media reacts like magpies to the shiny objects. The unvetted myth lives on unfairly at the expense of the true pioneers.
“There is more fiction in those 1970 USC-Alabama stories than anything,” said Lester McClain, Tennessee’s first Black player (1968-70) and the SEC’s first Black player to score a touchdown with six TD catches in 1968. “You’d think that’s when the SEC began recruiting Black athletes. I was almost out of school by 1970.”
The myth has been told so the reader or viewer envisions the nation swept up in a tide of enlightenment as Black athletes ran roughshod over all-white Alabama. That’s not what happened. There was no overnight buzz fueled by the modern 24/7 news cycle of Internet, cable and sports talk shows. It was a Saturday night game with no television audience. Game stories didn’t mention race or USC was integrated. Black athletes breaking ground in the South was old news by 1970. USC players admit they got on the plane and flew home, business as usual.
But when the myth took hold in the 1990s, it was told through the modern lens of cable TV and sports talk radio. The myth was deceptively told as if there was an overnight buzz. But because little was written about race in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, a vacuum existed for a myth created two decades later to fill.
The myth crafters were apparently unaware six SEC schools — Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi State, Auburn and Vanderbilt — had integrated by the 1970 season. In 1968, Southern Methodist’s Jerry LeVias scored 8 points in a rout at Auburn. He integrated SEC end zones with his score two years before USC played Alabama, Also, in 1968, Tennessee’s Lester McClain scored six touchdowns. In 1969, Kentucky’s Wilbur Hackett was the first SEC Black team captain. And since Tennessee was a bitter Alabama rival, the Volunteers’ 1969 rout of the Crimson Tide should be viewed as creating more of a stir than a non-conference 1970 game against USC.
There already had been turning points to open hearts and minds.
Ernie Davis ran over the nation as the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961.
Michigan State played Notre Dame in the 1966 Game of the Century before a record TV audience of 33 million on Nov. 19, 1966, at Spartan Stadium. Fans saw Notre Dame line up with one Black player, Alan Page. Michigan State lined up 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains and a Black quarterback. Michigan State was the future. Notre Dame was the past.
The 1970 USC-Alabama mythology puts the cart (the Sam Cunningham fairy tale) ahead of the horses (the true 1960s pioneers). Something else that doesn’t fit the myth: One year later, Alabama, with 21 of 22 starters white players, defeated No. 5-ranked USC and Cunningham 17-10 at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.
By 1970, teams were copying Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s model from the Game of the Century.
Auburn, Alabama’s in-state rival, integrated a year earlier than the Crimson Tide with James Owens. Auburn officials and teammates freely admit in retrospect they should have done more to support Owens in his struggle. Backfield mate Terry Henley became a lifelong friend.
“It was a learning curve for me, the players and the coaches,” Henley said. “I was raised in an all-white community.”
The Alabama fairytale not only lacks a Bryant moral reckoning for dragging his feet until dressing his first Black player in 1971, it misleadingly celebrates him as a crusader in a decade after history passed him by.
The timing is right to reexamine Bear Bryant mythology — at least for anyone outside of Bryant hagiography. More Americans are open to understanding social injustice and systemic racism following the death of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody.
McClain and Owens are among the true 1960s pioneers dispossessed of their place in history. A quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Maraniss justifies examining heir careers: “History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”
Others are Southern Methodist’s Jerry Levias, Maryland’s Darryl Hill and Kentucky’s four desegregation horsemen, Nate Northington, Greg Page, Walter Hackett and Houston Hogg. Among the coaches who acted long before Bryant were Maryland’s Tom Nugent and assistant Lee Corso, SMU’s Hayden Fry, Kentucky’s Charley Bradshaw and Auburn’s Shug Jordan with assistant Jim Hilyer.
The University of Houston wasn’t a Southwest Conference member when Bill Yeoman recruited Warren McVea as the school’s first Black player as a freshman in 1964, but the Cougars’ success gained Houston entry into the SWC by 1976.
The South’s early pioneers had their stage set by Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad. His 1960s teams formed college football’s first fully integrated rosters. The Spartans were a beacon in the South; he reached out to southern Black high school coaches.
They laid the tracks to the Underground Railroad that brought 44 southern Black players to East Lansing from 1959 to 1972. The passengers included College football Hall-of-Famers Bubba Smith, George Webster, Clinton Jones and Gene Washington as well as the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Hackett (1968-70) was an SEC All-Sophomore pick and the SEC’s first Black team captain (1969). He had dreamed about playing for Daugherty until Kentucky desegregated. He was pleased with HBO’s representation of Kentucky’s pioneering contribution but not the film’s overriding theme.
“I was very disappointed with the way they portrayed Bryant,” Hackett said. “I have the utmost respect for him as a football coach, but what they showed was totally wrong. They wrote it as if Bear Bryant desegregated the Southeastern Conference.”
Hackett added when he saw a similar CBS story a few years ago, he telephoned the network to offer his correction. No one called back.
“People today do not realize the price and pain that was paid by an individual that broke barriers in segregation.”— Jerry LeVias, SMU
Hackett, from Louisville, took two recruiting trips, a campus visit and attending the 1966 Michigan State-Indiana game in Bloomington.
“I met Duffy and spent some time with him; he was a great man,” Hackett said. “He made me feel like Michigan State was the right place for me. He was open and genuine. I loved my time there; the people were so nice. Duffy was so genuine about recruiting African-American athletes. I spent time with Bubba and Webster and other guys. Bubba was as big as a house.”
But with Kentucky opening its doors by the time he graduated from high school, he acquiesced to his parents wishes he stay closer to home.
LeVias (1966-68) was the SWC’s first Black scholarship football player. When SMU opened its 1968 season at Auburn, LeVias and his two Black teammates were booed. Nevertheless, LeVias integrated SEC end zones with a touchdown and a two-point conversion in a 37-28 win. Similar to overlooked Tennessee at Legion Field in 1969, LeVias scored two years before USC visited Birmingham.
When LeVias took the field at the University of Texas’ Memorial Stadium in 1966, Longhorns fans waved nooses at him. They thought it was funny. Texas didn’t have a Black football player until the 1970 season — one year prior to Bryant’s foot dragging. LeVias also played at game at TCU under a death threat with FBI protection.
“People today do not realize the price and pain that was paid by an individual that broke barriers in segregation,” said LeVias, a College Football Hall of Famer who played six NFL seasons.
Bryant was a winning football coach, perhaps the greatest, that earned his statue for six national titles at Alabama. But the Bear Bryant that was silent in the dark times of 1950s and 1960s failed as a leader — the conclusion of Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam in a 2002 ESPN article.
THAT Bear Bryant is a Confederate statue that needs to be tumbled.
In 1961, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner, exposed Bryant as a man dismissive of segregation as an issue outside of the South.
Murray’s trip to Birmingham was prompted by rumors Bryant was working behind the scenes to have No. 1-ranked Alabama replace the Big Ten champion from claiming its annual berth to the Rose Bowl. Bryant had support from his World War II buddy, Admiral Tom Hamilton, who was then commissioner of the Association of Athletic Western Universities (forerunner to the Pac-12 sometime referred to as the Big Five). A lapse in the contract between the AAWU/Big Five) created the loophole pushed by Bryant and Hamilton.
However, UCLA’s Black players, led by future NFL player Kermit Alexander, began to say behind the scenes they wouldn’t take the field against Alabama. Murray asked Bryant for a comment the day before the Georgia Tech-Alabama game in Birmingham. Bryant said he had none – nor does “the university I’m sure.”
It might be the only time Bryant said no comment.
Then, some Alabama reporters in the room turned and glared at Murray. He quoted one saying, “Tell them West Coast N-lovers to go lick your boots, Bear.” (See Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30, 1961.)
With Murray’s reporting, the NAACP Los Angeles chapter became involved. Rose Bowl officials stopped listening to Bryant and Hamilton. If Murray had not traveled to Birmingham, we wouldn’t know Bryant’s true feelings — a lack of empathy. But in the pre-social media and cable TV era, the Bryant/Hamilton attempted coup was largely a local story without national legs.
Five years ago, I quoted Alexander when I interviewed him during the time Missouri’s football team successfully executed a threatened boycott of a game over a campus racial issue. Alexander, who said he was proud of Missouri’s players, explained the UCLA protest: “If we can’t play on their field in Alabama, why should they be able to play on our field in Pasadena?”
But the moment faded into history. Bear Bryant’s growing mythology allowed him to sidestep the controversy. He has been deceptively dressed instead as an integration leader.
It took Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement to pressure a resistant southern culture, including its revered college coaches, into change.
“I reiterate what I said on the (2019 ESPN) documentary,” Lane Demas wrote in an email: “Alabama football integrated because an organized, sustained movement of Black Americans nationwide forced it to, against its will. That’s the only answer that makes sense if you study the broader historical context.”
Demas, a Central Michigan University history professor with a Ph.D from UC Irvine, authored the 2010 book, “Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football.”
“The USC-Alabama story is in a long line of white myths that serve to deny Black people their agency in terms of changing America,” Demas added. “Focusing on figures like Branch Rickey or Bear Bryant create narratives in which it is ultimately white people who make cautious, thoughtful, calculating decisions to create change and integrate on their own terms. They become the agents of change, not Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or the thousands who struggled in the streets.”
Folklore, certainly, is Americana, but Daniel Boone’s legend credited the authentic Kentucky frontiersman — not a tenderfoot that never “Kilt A Bar.” Bryant was a tenderfoot until the 1970s. Another excuse Bryant’s apologists offer was Alabama’s avowed racist governor, George Wallace, wouldn’t allow him to recruit Black athletes. But Wallace was out of office by Jan. 16, 1967. Bryant’s 1967, 1968 and 1969 recruiting classes were all-white.
The revisionist history also overlooked a 1967 quote from SEC commissioner A.M. Coleman. Kentucky professor Derrick White cites it in his book, “Blood, Sweat and Tears. Jake Gaither, Florida A&M Football and this History of College Black Football.”
“There’s no longer any ban, written or unwritten, on Negro athletes,” Coleman said on April 3, 1967.
The quote is used with context that Gaither and other coaches at Historically Black Colleges and Universities saw the future. They recognized their talent pool was being tapped by segregated White colleges finally opening their doors.
The myths also aggrandized USC’s role. Southern Cal has a long integration history, but the Trojans were among the status quo in the 1960s, limiting their rosters to a half-dozen or so Black players. USC, despite the diverse talent pool of Los Angeles, had only five Black players on its 1962 national championship team, seven on its 1967 national title roster.
Minnesota was another example of an integrated national champion with few Black athletes in 1960.
Daugherty’s mix of Black and White athletes from his Midwest base had set new standards for African-American recruits prior to the Underground Railroad gathering steam.
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.” That total included only five of Daugherty’s total of 44 Black recruits from the South between 1959 and his final season, 1972.
The Spartans were fully integrated prior to the focus on the 1965 and 1966 national championship teams. A tipping point moment was the 1966 Game of the Century matching Notre Dame’s one Black against Michigan State’s 20. The 33 million fans watching on TV was more than Super Bowl I two months later.
The nation noticed. In the five years from 1967 to USC’s next national title in 1972, the Trojans total grew from seven to 23 Black players. By Notre Dame’s next two national titles in 1973 and 19777, the Irish’s Black players numbered 10 and 13, respectively.
Today’s national champions are well past 50 percent Black and other minority athletes.
In addition to complicity of the older and younger media supporting Bryant myths, a third group of media and fans remains unaware, leaving them vulnerable to taking their turns regurgitating and spreading. It’s as if baseball fans were unaware of Jackie Robinson.
That actually happened. In 1990, a Sport Magazine survey revealed many Black pro players either didn’t know about Robinson or knew little of him. Major League Baseball addressed the issue on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color line. It has continued the annual celebration of an American hero.
Today’s college football players stand on the shoulders of the true 1960s pioneers. Can they be reintroduced similar to Robinson? Or has Bryant mythology forever reduced the ground-breakers to footnotes?
Allen Barra’s 2013 question about historical recognition never granted 1969 Tennessee-Alabama remains unanswered. It reaffirms a Hollywood axiom from the 1962 movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
CHAPTER 2: THE FAIRYTALE
The plot begins with Bryant scheduling USC shortly before the season as Alabama’s 1970 opener. A January 1970 NCAA ruling permitted adding an 11th game.
USC routed the Crimson Tide 42-21 on Sept. 12 before 72,175 fans at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama’s second home labeled “The Football Capital of the South.”
That much is true. The rest of the tale has facts slide off it like football tailgate bratwurst in a Teflon pan.
To accept the myth Bryant needed a loss to USC for permission to recruit Black athletes is to believe the preeminent coach in the South was too timid to be a leader among bigots.
A more logical explanation is Bryant was content with the status quo. He didn’t care enough to use his power. As events unfolded only to be left in a void, myth crafters added a Black Prince, USC sophomore fullback Sam Cunningham. He ran roughshod with 12 carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns.
There was not “aha” moment after white fans saw Cunningham run over Alabama and bigots decided Black athletes are talented and deserve a chance. Maybe Syracuse’s Ernie Davis as the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961 was such a moment, but it wasn’t on a 1970 Saturday night in Birmingham. The game wasn’t on TV. Game stories were about the play on the field without mentioning race.
America wasn’t buzzing like a viral tweet about Sam Cunningham. It was two decades before Cunningham’s feat entered college football lore, propelled by the fiction Bryant escorted Cunningham into the Alabama locker room.
Black athletes in SEC games was old news by 1970. Five SEC schools had integrated by the 1970 season. In 1968, Southern Methodist’s Jerry LeVias scored 8 points in a rout at Auburn. In 1968, Tennessee’s Lester McClain scored six touchdowns. In 1969, Kentucky’s Wilbur Hackett was the first SEC Black team captain. And Tennessee’s 1969 rout of Alabama created more of a stir as SEC rivals than a non-conference 1970 game against USC
To accept Cunningham spurred Bryant overlooks Wilbur Jackson as Alabama’s first Black recruit. Jackson watched the 1970 USC-Alabama game from the stands with the freshmen team (NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972). It also overlooks Bryant tried to recruit Frank Dowsing as Alabama’s first Black player in 1969, according to a story Andrew Maraniss wrote in 2017 in “The Undefeated,” but he lost the recruiting battle to Mississippi State.
The fable reached a crescendo when Bryant was said to invite Cunningham, stripped to his football pants and built like a Greek god, into the Alabama locker room. Bryant had the conquering hero stand on a bench, telling his players, “This is what a football player looks like.”
Bryant’s athletes were miffed upon hearing the myths. They not only told Mobile Press-Register sportswriter Neal McCready it never happened, they added Bryant wouldn’t embarrass them.
Cunningham, unwittingly swept up in the myth, played along until a 2003 interview with McCready. He was writing a 1970 retrospective prior to USC returning to the state to play Auburn in a season-opening Top 10 matchup.
“I made a lot of phone calls, but I finally talked to him,” said McCready, who is now publisher of Rebel Grove, the Rivals.com site for Ole Miss. “It was a fascinating conversation. He couldn’t have been nicer, but he wasn’t comfortable talking about it. When I asked about the post-game, he was almost sheepish. He finally admitted it was a myth. He definitively told me it did not happen.”
That was straight from the Thoroughbred’s mouth 17 years ago.
Cunningham danced around the question in HBO’s 2008 “Breaking the Huddle,” but he denied it in Showtime’s 2013 “Against the Tide.” ESPN’s 2019 “Integration” film and 2020 report didn’t ask him the question, even though the Cunningham fiction fueled the Bryant mythology. To ask the question exposes the myth.
The late Clem Gryska, a trusted Bryant assistant coach and later executive at the Paul “Bear” Bryant Museum, scoffed when asked multiple times in print and video interviews. He said his boss never scheduled a game to lose it.
ESPN senior writer Ivan Maisel says of the scheduling scheme in a 2019 ESPN film, “… I’m not sure anybody knows.”
The Cunningham locker room tale is more disturbing for another sin beyond it’s falsehood. The myth crafters — and those gleefully retelling it — failed to realize depicting a Black man on a platform was reminiscent of the slave trade.
Murray attended the 1970 game nine years after his1961 stories exposed Bryant. The headline to Murray’s 1970 column was, “Hatred Shut Out as Alabama Finally Joins the Union.” In a 2002 ESPN article, Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam wrote Bryant “was very late to the dance.” The headline: “Just a coach, not a leader.”
CHAPTER 3: THE TENNESSEE WALTZ
As Allen Barra noted in his 2013 The Atlantic article, the myth ignored Tennessee routing Alabama 41-14 on Oct. 18 before 72,443 at Legion Field. An Alabama loss in the 52nd edition of the “Third Saturday of October” rivalry cut deeper than losing to a California school.
McClain caught one pass for 12 yards, but linebacker Jackie Walker, another Tennessee pioneer, thrust a dagger early, returning an interception 27 yards for a touchdown. Tennessee myth crafters, if they wanted to create fiction, could have beaten USC’s mythmakers to the punch. They could have had Jackie Walker paraded by Bryant and educating Alabama’s bigoted fans.
“Jackie Walker was a great player,” said McClain of his Tennessee Hall of Fame teammate that died in 2002. “He still has records.”
Walker’s pick was among five career touchdown returns, a total that shares an NCAA record. His five picks are missing from NCAA listings, an oversight venerable Tennessee historian Bud Ford said he is in the process of rectifying. Walker, who is on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot, was a two-time All-American linebacker and 1971 team captain.
The six SEC programs that integrated ahead of Bryant were Kentucky (1967), Tennessee (1968), Florida, Mississippi State, Vaderbilt and Auburn (1970). Alabama brought up the rear with Vanderbilt in 1971 and the last three holdouts in 1972, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi.
“A few years ago, I watched a CBS show about Bear Bryant and the USC game,” Hackett said. “I called CBS to correct them, but nobody called back.”
Believing Bryant simply flicked a light switch denigrates Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights battles dating to the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56) through bloody encounters with police brutality in Birmingham (1963) and Selma (1965).
Darryl Hill integrated the Atlantic Coach Conference with Maryland in 1963, LeVias and Baylor walk-on John Westbrook led the SWC in 1966 and Kentucky’s Nate Northington broke down the SEC door in 1967 (Greg Page enrolled with Northington in 1966, but he died from a spinal injury suffered in a 1967 preseason practice). Hackett and Houston Hogg followed a year later.
Regurgitated stories gloss over Bryant stating on film he couldn’t find an academically qualified Black athlete in the 1960s. Not one. Such excuses ignore Bryant used his power to get players he wanted into school.
Alabama legendary quarterback Joe Namath (1962-64) was admitted after Bryant learned from Maryland coach Tom Nugent that Namath had been denied admission. Namath was previously denied admission at integrated Michigan State.
‘The simplicity of Bryant’s scheme also belies the difficulty of staging a trigger to a tripwire moment in time.
In 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem as a protest to police brutality, but the message backfired on him. NFL owners and right-wing fans hijacked it and made it about dishonoring the military.
Kaepernick’s message was lost until the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Black Lives Matter awareness was triggered, but no one foresaw Floyd’s tragic death spurring national and global moments.
CHAPTER 4: DENIGRATING MLK
In 2020, the FBI investigated as a hate crime a noose found hanging in Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s speedway garage. MLK’s Civil Rights movement eventually brought about that kind of awareness.
But Texas fans waving nooses at LeVias in 1966 wasn’t enough. The FBI waited for a credible death threat.
LeVias received one for SMU’s game at Texas Christian, and FBI agents escorted LeVias to and from Carter Stadium. During the game, they scanned the crowd for a sniper, while LeVias’ teammates stood away from him on the sideline.
Throughout LeVias’ career he relied on words from King. When MLK spoke at SMU in the spring of 1966, a private meeting was arranged by SMU president Willis Tate and football coach Hayden Fry.
“We talked before he went on stage,” LeVias said. “He told me, ‘This is the thing I want you to remember … always keep your emotions under control.’”
LeVias repressed anger to respond to cheap shots. Without that advice he might have lashed out, possibly ending his SMU career and closing doors a few more years for future African-Americans.
MLK cleared paths for opportunities, but his work has been overshadowed by a flippant quote from former Alabama assistant Jerry Claiborne (1958-60): “Sam Cunningham did more for Civil Rights in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
In one of many versions of the myths, Claiborne is portrayed as Kentucky’s head coach. In 1970, he was the head coach at Virginia Tech, the same year John Dobbins was the Hokies’ first Black scholarship football player.
Claiborne’s comment dismissed King and the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965. It’s as if President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Bryant, McKay and Cunningham to the White House for the signing ceremony, while King was left at home.
The quote also overlooked simple math: King lived only 13 years between the Montgomery bus boycott and his 1968 assassination in Memphis. But Claiborne’s quote keeps finding its way into stories and films.
ESPN again avoided correcting history with its Sept. 12, 2020 feature that ignored the Cunningham fiction. It dubiously trotted out before cameras John Papadakis, a USC linebacker (1970-71) and bon vivant Los Angeles-area restauranteur good with telling a tale.
Papadakis and USC assistant coach Craig Fertig had speculated in “Against the Tide” Bryant smiling after the game upon shaking hands with McKay demonstrates Bryant had a sly plan to outfox his fans. Overlooked by that assumption was USC had the game in hand by the second quarter. McKay substituted liberally, beginning in the third quarter.
Bryant would have been a Bobby Knight-like maniac to still have an unsportsmanlike temper raging over an hour later when he shook hands with his old friend. Maybe Bryant was smiling because he was grateful McKay took it easy on him.
Another reason to doubt Papakakis was revealed on Page 368 of Barra’s 2005 book, “The Last Coach.” Barra noted Papakas tried to sell a screen play he wrote, “The Turning of the Tide.” Papadakis’ movie wasn’t produced, but Showtime’s “Against the Tide” trumpeted a similar title. USC alumnus/actor Tom Selleck provided the voiceover, adding a veneer of credibility.
“I still believe the Cunningham story is not about celebrating Cunningham or USC, nor is it even really about celebrating Bryant or Alabama,” Demas wrote in his email. “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.’ ”
USC Cinema and Media Studies professor Todd Boyd, who has a Ph.D from Iowa, says in the ESPN 2019 film Bryant and other southern coaches were comfortable winning with all-white teams until the Civil Rights dynamic forced change.
Yep- and that’s most obvious and transparently contradictory mythology generated to both clean up and raise up Bryant beyond any progressive status and stature he actually deserves given his true coaching biography and history- more like dragged into desegregation than leading. https://t.co/Qh6jNroXbO— Dr Harry Edwards (@drharryedwards) July 6, 2020
Dr. Harry Edwards, a Professor Emeritus of sociology at Cal and a Civil Rights activist dating to the late 1960s, points out southern schools recruited Black athletes, but they continued to fly Confederate flags and symbols.
CHAPTER 5: 1970 ALABAMA MYTH BORN IN LATE 1980s — IN L.A.
By 1970, SEC integration was fait accompli.
The six SEC football programs that desegregated ahead of Alabama were Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi State, Auburn and Vanderbilt. The four stragglers were Alabama (1971) and the final three in 1972, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi. The floodgates that Bryant’s apologists say he opened had already flowed.
Alabama was the last of the SEC campuses to integrate, in 1963. Alabama football was the seventh and seventh conference schools to recruit a Black football player in 1970 and have him take the field in 1971 (NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972).
Only Georgia, LSU and Mississippi waiting another year, 1972, prevented Bryant from ranking tied for last in the nation. By 1970, 21 of the 27 members of the SEC (10), Atlantic Coast (8) and defunct Southwest (9) dressed Black players ahead of Bryant’s enlightenment.
USC-Alabama 1970 game stories published the next day were about a one-sided loss — without mentioning race or any suggestion of a Bryant ploy to create and Alabama awakening. In those days, sportswriters had free rein to the locker room. If Bryant had escorted Cunningham to the Alabama locker room, they would have witnessed and reported it
Jim Murray of 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 headline: 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.”
Bryant, in his book, criticized Murray for linking Alabama to the KKK. Murray’s primary point was merely pitting segregation vs. Democracy and the U.S. Constitution.
Walter Cronkite’s CBS cameras weren’t in Birmingham that 1970 night as they were in 1963. CBS and other networks exposed the brutality of Bull Conner and the Birmingham police attacking non-violent protesters. That enlightenment for viewers pushed forward the Civil Rights movement.
The coach never addressed the state’s Black fans, explaining a new world was open to them. USC players say 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 two former McKay assistant coaches were still around the program and smitten with telling the story. Fertig was a Fox analyst for USC games (1992-2003) after his coaching days; Marv Goux upon retirement was active in the Trojan Club throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Fertig claimed in Showtime’s documentary McKay received a mysterious phone call from Bryant, asking to meet at a Los Angeles International Airport hospitality room. That’s where the scheme was revealed, Fertig dubiously contended. 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 ploy to manipulate Alabama’s fans.
Travers also acknowledged USC broadcaster Tom Kelly began to repeat the myth 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.
Five decades later, the national media still fails to do its homework.
Is it odd that neither Bryant or McKay mentioned in the biographies, coincidentally published in 1974, Bryant’s supposed grand plan? Or is the simple explanation it never happened?
If Mark Twain were alive today as a college football fan, he might have said, “There are lies, damn lies and conjecture.”
But if there had been a kernel of truth to myth, the USC player for Bryant to educate his bigoted fans was USC quarterback Jimmy Jones. Unlike Cunningham, Jones was a returning starter that made a Sports Illustrated cover in 1969.
In 1970, Condredge Holloway was a highly recruited senior quarterback at Lee High in Huntsville, Alabama. Holloway has said Bryant told him Alabama wasn’t ready for a Black quarterback and he only recruited him as a defensive back.
Holloway, instead, made history at Tennessee as the SEC’s first Black quarterback (1972-74). Holloway was embraced in a neighboring state that had its share of bigots.
Bryant’s words to Holloway need to be weighed against him when speculating on his mindset in 1970. To accept he feared the alumni has been a specious excuse for too long.
In 2006, Papadakis was selling the USC/Alabama/Sam Cunningham mythology in a book with bestselling author Don Yaeger and Cunningham, “Turning of the Tide.” Yeager, to his credit, cites McCready’s 2003 reporting that exposed the Bryant/Cunningham locker room tale as fiction.
However, on Page 142 Yeager devotes nearly a full page with Papadakis’ fictional account of Bryant taking Cunningham into the locker room. Papadakis quotes Bryant belittling his players, telling them Cunningham, “ran your slow motion-asses right out of our own house.”
Did they think that cast Bryant in a progressive light? The demeaning words in the fictional dialogue explain why Alabama’s players were miffed, stating Bryant would never embarrass his players in that manner.
Alabama players such as then-sophomore John Hannah had already played with Black athletes once his high school in Albertville had desegregated. It was Bryant that needed to learn Black and White athletes could co-exist.
Hannah and Cunningham were later teammates with the New England Patriots. If Cunningham visiting the Alabama locker room had been a true story, they could have been expected to “yuk up” old times between the early 1970s and the birth of the myth in the late 1980s.
They didn’t — because it didn’t happen.
Alabama/Bryant authors Keith Dunnavant and Don Keith also rely on conjecture in their books and film appearances. They ignore Bryant, in his 1974 book, never mentioned or hinted at the plot.
In the pre-Internet age, stories about LeVias, Hackett, McClain, Owens and other pioneering SEC Black athletes were limited to their local media markets. Anyone in Los Angeles dreaming up a myth was likely unaware of the numerous integration steps – including Tennessee’s 1969 rout at Legion Field — that had taken place outside of Bryant’s realm.
The void allowed them to create an oversimplified view of the changes taking place in the South and SEC that were outside national attention.
Travers, when asked where he stands in 2020 on the Cunningham locker room parade, wrote in an email, “it is a myth.” He added: “Very early I knew it was untrue and wrote it, and at least in SC circles debunked a decades-old story and took some heat over it.”
Travers’ email added Fertig exaggerated the Cunningham story and Papadakas, “eventually backed off on the story.” But he stands by the theme, “USC/McKay was the perfect conduit.”
In an email, Yeager was dismissive of any suggestions the true pioneers were harmed, despite what McClain and Hackett stated. He wrote “no one suggested Bryant’s efforts changed ALL of college football … but it did change the game in the South. It would be a stretch to say others were harmed by the USC-Alabama story just because they did it earlier.”
Yeager’s statement doesn’t accept the true pioneers have been reduced to footnotes over a story based on a false premise. His statement doesn’t accept what LeVias, McClain, Hackett and Owens and others endured clearing a path to the 1970 USC-Alabama game.
Why Bryant has been celebrated for waiting until 1970 to recruit a Black player is an unanswered question. Speculation Bryant needed McKay in 1970 also overlooked Bryant and Daugherty were good friends. Daugherty took Michigan State on the road to play at segregated North Carolina in 1964, the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Two Michigan State sophomores on the team, George Webster and Jimmy Summers, starters on the 1965 and 1966 national championship teams, were from South Carolina. But they told their parents to stay home for fear of how they would be treated.
Dunnavant makes an unsubstantiated claim in HBO’s Breaking the Huddle that Bryant tried to schedule an integrated team to play at Alabama in the 1960s. He singled out Boston College for some reason. He never mentions Michigan State’s trip to North Carolina, which was played without incident on the field or in the stands, but the Boston College claim helps sell the Bryant fiction.
Yeager added he interviewed all of Bryant’s then-living the assistant coaches and, “they were unequivocal that he was always intentional in efforts, especially re: scheduling. No one believes it was an accident that he chose an integrated team to come when the opportunity presented itself.”
Yeager added sarcastically in the email to me he was sorry his version doesn’t fit my narrative. It smelled of “Do you know who I am?” It also failed to recognize he and other Bryant apologists have long played with the facts to create their narrative around a false premise.
It also overlooks the flipside of the contention Bryant “was always intentional in efforts.” What does that say about him waiting eight years after the campus desegregated in 1963 to integrate his football team? Or that he waited until after five other SEC schools integrated, including bitter rival Tennessee and in-state rival Auburn.
That side of Bryant has been conveniently overlooked to fit a false narrative created 20 years after the game. Bryant was late to the dance, but his apologists deceptively try to pose him as a leader.
CHAPTER 7: Revisionist history from General Lee to Coach Bryant
USC’s 1970 team started only five Black players: Cunningham, Jones, tailback Clarence Davis, linebacker Charlie Weaver and defensive end Tody Smith.
John McKay’s team didn’t resemble Grambling, the Historically Black College and University football powerhouse, another element the myth falsely exploits. USC’s five Black starters were only three more than Tennessee at Alabama in 1969 — or 17 fewer than Grambling. Smith was a transfer from Michigan State, so it could have been four Black starters.
Davis is portrayed as an example of Bryant recognizing the need to keep Alabama kids at home. Conveniently skipped over, though, was the fact Davis moved away from Birmingham at age 11. He graduated from Washington High in Los Angeles. He played at East L.A. Junior College before transferring to USC.
Of the five 1970 Black starters, only three are from California high schools, and Davis was the only from the Los Angeles-area. Cunningham was from Santa Barbara, 100 miles north of the USC campus, and Weaver from Richmond in northern California.
Jones was recruited out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Smith’s hometown was Beaumont, Texas. Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty steered Smith to McKay and USC. Smith had arrived in East Lansing in 1966 when his brother Bubba was a senior All-American defensive end and freshmen were ineligible by NCAA rules. He played as a sophomore, but he had a falling out with Daugherty in that 1967 season. Daugherty, who was good friends with just about every coach, had a meeting with Smith after the season.
“The story we heard,” said Michigan State defensive lineman Pat Gallinagh, an Academic-All-American in 1966, “was Duffy asked Tody where he would have gone if not Michigan State. Tody said USC. Duffy told his secretary to get John McKay at USC on the phone.”
Smith sat out 1968, according to NCAA rules, and starred for the Trojans in 1969 and 1970.
Gallinagh added, “We also heard Tody caused enough problems McKay later told Daugherty, “You can have him back.”
Yaeger, on Page 105 of his book, cites quotes that McKay offered in his 1974 book, McKay: A Coach’s Story.” The father of a Black prospect vaguely referred to asking if the lack of Black players on USC’s roster indicated prejudice.
“I admitted USC had a lapse for many years before I got there, but said I could prove that throughout the country there were few or no blacks playing for major universities … “
McKay’s statement was untrue. He couldn’t prove anything like what he told the father, but Yaeger poses the quote in his book as validation. Yaeger fails to note three 1960s national championship teams, Michigan State with 23 Black players in 1965, 20 in 1966 and Ohio State with 12 in 1968, significantly surpassed USC’s numbers that McKay attempted to pass off as equal to any major school.
McKay was hired in 1960. That might explain only five Black players were on his 1962 roster, but he had eight recruiting classes under his tenure by the time the 1967 team had assembled with only seven Black players. Across town at UCLA, the Bruins numbered more than five Black players on their 1960s rosters.
That doesn’t mean McKay was “prejudiced.” It does suggest that McKay, like Bryant, was content with the status quo. As long as they were winning, they were oblivious to the Black community seeking opportunities, even if it was brought to their attention.
Throughout the Showtime film, Alabama coaches and fans comment on how Alabama’s all-white team was overmatched against USC’s bigger and faster Black athletes. It works for the narrative to explain why bigots suddenly valued Black athletes and extrapolate that Bryant manipulated them.
Left unsaid, though, was the same would have been true in 1966 if Alabama’s 11-0 all-white No. 3-ranked team had faced No. 2 Michigan State, with 20 Black players and 11 Black starters.
Michigan State’s 1965 and 1965 teams featured two college football’s greatest defenses, led both years by Bubba Smith and rover George Webster. They were College Football Hall of Famers and the first and fifth picks of the 1967 NFL draft. Smith was a 6-foot-8, 285-pounder and Webster 6-5, 230; both players were ahead of their time with the size and speed for their positions.
Alabama’s 1966 All-American offensive lineman was Cecil Dowdy (6-1, 202), a ninth-round NFL draft pick. Who was going to block Smith or Webster?
Notre Dame halfback Rocky Bleier, who went on to win four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers, has said when the Irish couldn’t block Smith, they ran away from him. The result was he suffered a lacerated kidney from a Webster tackle.
Although Alan Page (6-4, 245) was Notre Dame’s lone Black player, he was College and Pro Football Hall of Famer. Who on Alabama’s roster was going to block him?
Alabama fans have complained a half-century the 1966 Crimson Tide was a victim of reverse racism due to the Civil Rights movement for finishing behind No. 1 Notre Dame (9-0-1) and Michigan State (9-0-1). The Irish and Spartans played to a 10-10 tie in the Nov. 19, 1966 Game of the Century.
In the Showtime film, a quote from Jim Murray’s 1961 story was misrepresented, juxtaposed as if it was stated in 1966.
Left unsaid was by 1970 Alabama’s players, assistant coaches and fans accepted their players were smaller and slower. The same would have been true in 1966, but that doesn’t fit the 1970 Alabama narrative to obfuscate Bryant dragging his feet.
Bryant’s apologists were quick to embrace the myth no matter its L.A. origins nor how many holes have been punched in it. The myths direct attention away from Bryant’s silence during the Civil Rights movement. Southern-based historians have deceptively captured narrative favoring Bryant over true 1960s pioneers.
In the History Channel’s 2020 mini-series, “Grant,” the end of the third part includes a segment on how Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s legacy was distorted by the influential pro-southern historians in the early 1900s.
At the turn of the century, President Theodore Roosevelt said America’s three great heroes had been Washington, Lincoln and Grant. Military historians in the series detail how Grant outmaneuvered Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s depleted troops, forcing him to surrender.
But by the 1920s, pro-southern historians successfully shifted the narrative to “The Lost Cause” against northern aggression. The South fought for states’ rights, not to preserve slavery. They cast Lee as the noble general, Grant as a butcher, corrupt and a drunk.
“And so Confederates lost the Civil War, but they certainly won the war of myth,” author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates said in the documentary. “And Grant was on the wrong side of that myth.”
The Civil War, of course, is an apocalyptic battle. The 1970 USC-Alabama game was just a football game. But just as the southern strategy was to deceptively pose the Civil War as about “states rights,” the Alabama strategy was to portray Bryant kicking Jim Crow off his roster in 1971 as a victory pulled out of disgrace.
Focus on the 1970 USC-Alabama game and sprinkle in some fiction. Forget Jim Crow was on Bryant’s roster from 1963, the year the campus desegregated, until 1971. Eight years of posing as the winner, four more than the South’s military held on.
Unfortunately for the legacies of others, they were hugely successful.
They reduced to footnotes Duffy Daugherty, his Underground Railroad players and the pioneers at other schools such as Darryl Hill, Jerry LeVias, Wilbur Hackett, Lester McClain, James Owens.
CHAPTER 8: IGNORING ALABAMA’S GRASS ROOTS
The desegregation of SEC football began at the grass roots level – high school football.
Alabama’s high schools, under threat of losing federal funding, began to comply with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the late 1960s. To paraphrase Hemingway, it was a little at a time and all at once.
Some schools were ahead of others, but by the 1968-69 school year it was complete. It was the first year of statewide competition among Black and White athletes; the Alabama High School Athletic Association merged with the state’s Black schools governing body.
That was the tipping point for Bryant finally joining the right side of history.
College coaches – who previously drove past Black high school campuses – encountered African-American athletes upon visiting familiar recruiting haunts. Auburn was the first to see the open door — gaining Owens’ commitment — that Bryant had missed.
In the fall of 1968, Auburn assistant coach Jim Hilyer visited Fairfield High near Birmingham. He told head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan the Tigers should offer Owens a scholarship. Jordan gave the green light.
No one fired Jordan or Hilyer. Owens played on Auburn’s freshman team in 1969 and made his varsity debut in 1970. It wasn’t complicated. It was simple – for anyone willing to budge from the status quo.
Bryant’s apologists claim Jackson’s 1970 commitment capped a “search” to find the right player, but it’s a specious argument attempting to match Bryant with Branch Rickey’s search for Jackie Robinson. Jackson played his senior year at Carroll High, a desegregated school in Ozark, Alabama. It’s fair to wonder if Alabama finds Jackson if he was still at D.A. Smith, Ozark’s Black school that was closed.
In the fall of 1968, Alabama missed on John Mitchell at Williamson High in Mobile, Alabama. Mitchell was one of five Williamson High science team members that placed third in a state competition; all five were offered Alabama academic scholarships.
But Bryant’s “search” was unaware of Mitchell, a student-athlete that had earned a football offer from Grambling in addition to the Alabama academic scholarship. Bryant, searching for an excuse, had said on film in the 1960s he couldn’t find qualified African-Americans. “We haven’t so far found many, if any, who are academically and athletically qualified in both.” Bryant’s apologists view this comment as a part of his “search” rather than the condemning statement it actually represents.
The search as defense of Bryant was further discredited once McKay offered Mitchell a USC scholarship. McKay would have landed Mitchell had he not revealed Mitchell’s name and home state to Bryant when they played golf in the 1971 off-season.
Bryant subsequently asked an Alabama alumnus in Mobile, Judge Ferrill McRae, to call every “Mitchell” in the phone book until the prospect was found. Mitchell flipped to Alabama. He started the 1971 season opener as a junior, making him officially Alabama’s first Black player; Jackson was a sophomore backup.
So much for Bryant’s “search.”
He also overlooked two future NFL players – if not other Division I athletes. Ken Hutcherson of Anniston High was a senior in 1968. He attended Livingston (now West Alabama) on his way to a three-year NFL career. John Stallworth was a senior in 1969 at Druid High, Tuscaloosa’s pre-dominantly Black high school in Bryant’s backyard. He went to Alabama A&M and on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In documentaries and sports reports Dunnavant and Howell Raines, an Alabama native and former executive director of the New York Times, are trotted out to defend Bryant. They cherry-pick opinions from a southern perspective.
Raines, unlike Dunnavant and other Bryant apologists, faults Bryant for not speaking up sooner. But Raines also covers his bases, ambiguously defending Bryant. He speculates the coach didn’t want to get down in the mud with a racist governor.
That overlooks Wallace’s was in office from Jan. 14, 1963 until January, 16, 1967. Bryant’s subsequent fall recruiting classes of 1967, 1968 and 1969 were all-white. Three years was plenty of time for the mud to dry up and allow Bryant to take 20th-century stance.
CHAPTER 9: THE MYTH’S BIRMINGHAM WHITEWASH
What better setting for a Bryant parable than to overcome hate-filled Birmingham? But Bryant failed to lead “Bombingham” out of its rubble.
On Aug. 28, 1963, MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. The Ku Klux Klan responded on Sept 15 with a bomb planted at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing “Four Little Girls.” CBS reporter Harry Reasoner said on TV, “No one has been charged with the bombing of the church, no one has been convicted for any of the more than 50 bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham.”
Korean War veterans that learned explosives fighting for Democracy on foreign soil set off the white terrorists attacks on American citizens.
The nation’s efforts to move forward from its racist past requires a reckoning. George Wallace, in 1979, apologized for his racism. This is the difficulty with celebrating Bryant for waiting until 1970 to recruit a Black athlete, especially with the false pretense of the 1970 USC-Alabama game fueling it.
Bryant’s 1974 book includes a disturbing tone-death passage on Page 269 that suggests integration meant little to him in 1963 or with more than a decade to reflect on an infamous day in University of Alabama history.
June 11, 1963 was the day Wallace stood in the Alabama schoolhouse door to block the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood. Bryant referenced it in his book, describing himself having meal at a Chicago airport prior to a connecting flight. He left “a generous” $20 tip, but the waiter chased him down, telling him he didn’t want his money.
“He was a white guy, too,” Bryant wrote in the book. “I put the money back in my pocket. If he wanted to cut off his nose to spite his face, that was alright with me.”
Bryant didn’t “get it” that day in 1963 nor with the passage of time. And that’s to say nothing of John Underwood writing the anecdote as if it was worth a chuckle over how Bryant was the sly fox pocketing tip money.
Bryant’s apologists claim he changed the hearts and minds of Alabama’s bigoted fans overnight with the 1970 USC-Alabama game. If that were true, Bryant deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. However, his own heart and mind remained unmoved. He took years to comprehend the opportunities he denied African-Americans and to understand he was on the wrong side of history.
Alabama 1960s football retrospectives in the media focus on Bryant’s teams as the only pride white Alabama fans had in their state. They don’t ask why Bryant couldn’t lead like Maryland coach Tom Nugent signing Darryl Hill in 1962; SMU coach Hayden Fry, Jerry LeVias, 1965; Kentucky coach Charley Bradshaw, two Black players in 1966 and two more in 1967; Tennessee coach Doug Dickey, Lester McClain, 1967; and Auburn’s Shug Jordan, James Owens in 1969.
USC was added to an Alabama regular season schedule as one of nine integrated opponents. Seven were southern schools (Virginia Tech, Florida, Tennessee, Houston, Mississippi State, Miami and Auburn). Oklahoma made the final count nine out of 12 in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl (24-24 tie).
Alabama’s bridge to an integrated scheduled had already been crossed by the time USC arrived at Legion Field.
The 2019 ESPN film included misleading conjecture from Michigan author John Bacon and others Bryant was “tired” of losing to Black athletes. They cite Alabama’s slump from 1966 (11-0) to 1969 (6-5) as an impetus, but it’s a misleading theory.
Bryant’s 1967 team was 8-2-1 and ranked No. 8 in the nation. The Crimson Tide didn’t face an integrated opponent.
The 1968 club was 8-3 and ranked No. 17. It lost to integrated Tennessee with two Black players, but it beat Miami with one Black player, Ray Bellamy. It lost to integrated Missouri in the Gator Bowl.
The 1969 team was 6-5. Three of Alabama’s four regular-season losses were to all-white teams (Vanderbilt, LSU and Auburn). The fourth regular season loss was to SEC champion Tennessee, 41-14. The fifth loss was in the Liberty Bowl to integrated Colorado, 47-33.
In other words, Bryant’s three teams prior to scheduling USC were 1-2 against integrated opponents in the span of 33 games. That’s hardly a coach exasperated with losing to Black players, but that’s part of the mythology to protect Bryant’s poor record on integration.
Bacon’s cavalier summation also overlooks Alabama went 11-1 in 1971 despite only one Black starter and two Black players. Alabama beat nine integrated teams: USC, Southern Mississippi, Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Houston, Mississippi State, Miami and Auburn.
It’s was the Civil Rights movement and Bryant’s hypocrisy on integration that finally got him on the bus.
Bryant’s many apologists, including those in the media provided platforms by outlets, are entitled to their opinions to rationalize Bryant dragging his feet, but, to paraphrase American politician, sociologist, diplomat and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “not their own facts” at the expense of true pioneers.
CHAPTER 10: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD’S TRACKS
Michigan State’s 1960s teams with players from the segregated South led college football integration, so it’s fitting that Gideon Smith, Michigan State’s first Black player from 1913 to 1915, was from Virginia. He attended Ferris State (then known Big Rapids Industrial School) in a program that brought Black students from the Hampton, Virginia, area to Ferris before they transferred on to Michigan State, Michigan or other schools.
Michael Oriard, and author on college football and professor at Oregon State University, said in an ESPN film: “The fact that Gideon Smith started at Michigan state in 1913 — or Michigan Agriculture at the time – may be most significant because as the first (Black) player at Michigan state, he’s in a way the pioneer for the really astonishingly, exceptionally integrated Michigan State teams of the 50s and the 60s.”
Daugherty’s passengers headed on his Great Northward Football Migration represented 10 of 13 southern states – all but Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland.
His chief engineer for the Underground Railroad among southern Black high school coaches was Willie Ray Smith Sr., a Texas high school coaching legend for 33 years with 235 career wins and two Black state titles. His final 18 were at Charlton Pollard in Beaumont, near Houston.
Smith sent Daugherty nine players, including three starters in the 1966 Game of the Century, his son Bubba, Charlton Pollard; Gene Washington, Baytown Carver; and Jess Phillips, Charlton Pollard
“Michigan State should be proud of what they did. Instead of sitting back and waiting for someone to tell their story, if I was a Michigan State recruiter in a living room with a kid’s family, I’d be saying, ‘Do you know the history of Michigan State?’”— Jerry LeVias, College Football Hall of Famer, six-year NFL veteran
Smith tried to steer Jerry LeVias of Beaumont’s Hebert High, but once SMU’s Hayden Fry recruited LeVias to break the SWC color line, LeVias said he opted for warmer weather closer to home.
“College football needed Duffy Daugherty and Hayden Fry to do the right thing,” LeVias said. “Michigan State should be proud of what they did. Instead of sitting back and waiting for someone to tell their story, if I was a Michigan State recruiter in a living room with a kid’s family, I’d be saying, ‘Do you know the history of Michigan State?’”
A story circulated for years Bryant had sent Charlie Thornhill, an All-Big Ten linebacker from Roanoke, Virginia, to Daugherty. Thornhill died in 2006, but his younger brother, William, said his Charlie had committed to Michigan State without Bryant’s involvement. They did meet when Bryant spoke at 1963 Roanoke football banquet, but Roanoke’s newspapers had already reported Thornhill’s commitment to the Spartans.
Although Minnesota’s 1960 national title team gained an Underground Railroad identity, Gophers coach Murray Warmath’s recruits were limited to contacts in North Carolina. Bobby Bell was from Shelby, Carl Eller Winston-Salem and Charlie Sanders Greensboro.
Illinois found Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell of Hot Springs, Arkansas, through Illinois alum Henry Britt, an Arkansas judge. Britt’s college roommate was Illini assistant coach Mel Brewer.
Michigan State’s 1966 transcendent roster sold integration on TV screens like Madison Avenue pitched products. Visibility is viability.
— The South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title was Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C. He was one of two Black starting QBs in the nation in 1966.
— Eleven Black starters — four on offense, seven on defense – not only represented half the lineup, it was more than entire rosters at other integrated schools.
— Four College Football Hall of Famers, Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington and Clinton Jones, marked a first for African-Americans from the same class.
— Two Black team captains, Smith and Jones, without a one of the captains a white teammate sharing the role
— The first all-minority backfield behind Raye, Jones, a halfback; Dwight Lee (Black), halfback; and Bob Apisa (Samoan), fullback.
— Apisa was college football’s first Samoan All-American. The Godfather of Polynesian Football from Honolulu launched the wave of Polynesians that permeates every level of the game. Daugherty’s Hawaiian Pipeline dated to the 1950s.
Daugherty had the backing of school president John Hannah (1946-69), whose integration efforts permeated the campus. Hannah was the first Civil Rights Commission chairman as appointed in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Documentaries on Bryant and the 1970 USC-Alabama game leave the impression Michigan State’s influence began with Daugherty recruiting Bubba Smith out of Texas on the 1965 and 1966 teams.
Dunnavant states — deceptively, sloppily or ignorantly — in the ESPN film that Michigan State was “… one of the most integrated programs in the country.” The misleading impression from a Bryant apologist overlooks that the AP reported Michigan State’s 17 African-Americans in 1962 was a record for major college football the same year USC had only five Black players.
Michigan State’s 1965 team had nearly five times the Black players on USC’s national 1962 roster. The 1966 Spartans’ had nearly three times USC’s 1967 title team. Both Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 teams had double the Black starters USC had among its 1970 starters, the team Dunnavant and Travers pose as the model of integration leadership. Dunnavant’s words obfuscate Bryant was missed the bus on integration progress, while Travers serves to aggrandize USC’s integration role.
HBO, Showtime and ESPN equally failed to capture a portrayal of Daugherty and other the pioneering southern school coaches driving the integration bus in the 1960s. The bus had left the station by the time Bryant tried to catch a ride.
CHAPTER 11: SHAPING THE FUTURE
The influence of Daugherty and his southern high school coaches as engineers continued onto to greater heights.
In the 1967 NFL draft, four of the top eight picks were Spartans: Smith No. 1, Baltimore Colts; Jones No. 2, Minnesota Vikings; Webster No. 5, Houston Oilers; and Washington No. 8, Vikings. Also unprecedented: six of the top 10 were Black.
The 1967 draft was the first combined NFL/AFL draft following the merger. In all, there were 10 Black payers out of 26 teams. A year earlier, there were only four Black players taken among 16 NFL and 10 AFL teams; two years earlier, three among 26 teams.
The increased number of Black players on college rosters Michigan State launched in the 1960s was trickling “up” to pro football.
“Duffy’s legacy has endured through our associations with him,” Raye said. “Because Duffy gave me the opportunity to come from North Carolina to Michigan State, I played in the limelight of a championship team with some the greatest players of in history of the game.”
Daugherty also launched coaching careers of Raye (1972) and Sherman Lewis (1969). Lewis was Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad All-American in 1963 when he placed third in the Heisman Trophy voting; Raye was the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title as a backup in 1965 and starter in 1966.
When Raye joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1977, there were only seven other Black assistant coaches in a 28-team league. He was one of the league’s first coordinators as the offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams in 1983.
Lewis remained at Michigan State until moving onto the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 1983. He won three Super Bowl rings with the 49ers and a fourth as an offensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers.
Lewis and Raye were college and NFL assistants for decades, rising to NFL offensive coordinators, but they were denied a chance as a head coach.
Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy considers Raye a mentor. Raye recruited Tyrone Willingham in Daugherty’s last class out of Jacksonville, N.C. Willingham played under Raye and Lewis until his own coaching career, breaking barriers as a Black head coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
“No. 1, they both deserved to be head coaches,” Willingham said. “The system malfunctioned not allowing them a chance.”
CHAPTER 12: HEROES AWAIT SALUTE
Colonel Jack Jacobs, a Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, provided an explanation on how some heroic stories become celebrated and others pushed to the corners. In Jacobs’ role as an MSNBC military analyst, he commented on an Afghanistan War Medal of Honor recipient. As the segment ended, the show’s host asked, how does someone win a Medal of Honor?
Jacobs explained first you have to do something. Then somebody that saw it has to write it up. And, finally, somebody at the top has to salute it.
The true 1960s pioneers continue to wait for their salute.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling biographer: “History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”
* * *
Research for this story dates to working om “Raye of Light,” published in 2014. I will put my research up against anybody regarding all of the above facts describing the 1970 USC-Alabama game as largely fiction aggrandizing USC’s role and obfuscating Bryant dragging his feet. Alabama’s campus was desegregated in 1963. Bryant waited until 1971 to do the same with his football roster.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @shanny4055
“History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”
— David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer
RAYE of LIGHT story of Duffy Daugherty and southern Black high school coaches, most prominently Bubba Smith’s father Willie Ray Smith, laying tracks to college football’s first fully integrated rosters. This was tipping point — don’t believe Bear Bryant/USC revisionist history. pic.twitter.com/3D8RqjMixO— Tom Shanahan (@Shanny4055) June 8, 2021