The Integration of College Football Didn't Happen in One Game

An excellent documentary recalls USC's historic 1970 victory over the University of Alabama's all-white team, but doesn't dispel the enduring, aggrandizing myths about it.
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Paul "Bear" Bryant, featured in Against the Tide, in 1972. (AP)

The 1970 college football game between the University of Alabama and the University of Southern California may not truly be “the most important game in college football history.” But when the superb documentary Against the Tide suggests that it is, it’s hard not to want to agree.

Against the Tide, which premieres Friday night on Showtime, tells the story of a legendary game that almost didn’t happen. Before the 1970 college football season, the National Collegiate Athletic Association allowed colleges to add an extra game to their schedule, probably to increase revenues. Most schools set up matches with teams from smaller nearby colleges or other patsies in order to grab an easy win and a quick payday.

But Alabama’s head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Southern Cal’s John McKay, whose two teams had won half the national championships in the 1960s, made different plans. In April, Bryant flew to Los Angeles to meet his longtime friend McKay and set up a two-game series between the Crimson Tide and Trojans.

The first game would open their 1970 season and would be played on September 12 at Legion Field in Birmingham. Alabama was coming off a poor season under Bryant (they were 6-5) and was taking on, in USC, a team that some thought had a shot at the national title. And, far more significantly, Bryant was, for the first time, inviting an integrated team from outside the state to play in Alabama against one of the last schools in the country with an all-white team. That game would go on to change football in the South, in the National Football League, and in all of the country: The Trojans, with a black quarterback (Jimmy Jones) and two fine runners (Sam “Bam” Cunningham, who ran over the Tide for 13 yards, and Clarence Davis, who scored two touchdowns), humbled Alabama before a nearly silent home crowd and showed fans, spectators, and football authorities alike that integration was the future of football.

Against the Tide mixes documentary film clips with interviews and commentary to tell the story of the 1970 Alabama-Southern Cal as a landmark in the history of integration. The film features recollections from former Alabama players Joe Namath, John Hannah, Scott Hunter, and John Mitchell, former Southern Cal players J.K. McKay (son of Coach John McKay), Charles Young, and Sam Cunningham, and others, including, for perspective, former New York Times editor and Alabama native Howell Raines. The result is a rare combination of great sports commentary and relevant socio-political history—but too often, Against the Tide gets too enthusiastic about the game's mythology at the expense of the facts.

It’s difficult to imagine that Bryant scheduled the Alabama-USC game in order to lose it. But he surely knew when he made the arrangements that his smaller, slower team stood little chance against the Trojans. Bryant’s thoughts, it seems, were of the future. Bryant, the public would learn years after that game, had been pushing for integration of the University of Alabama football team for years but found himself up against a brick wall named Governor George Wallace, a University of Alabama grad famous for his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door”: an ugly occasion on which he tried to physically block black students from enrolling at the school. Bryant, whose winning teams had made him the most popular person in Alabama, was so determined that he threatened to run for political office—and though he did not say it, insiders were certain he could only have meant running for governor. He even invited Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and his wife for dinner in Tuscaloosa.

By the end of the 1960s, when Bryant and his staff had begun to reach out to the best black athletes, the top recruits wouldn’t even consider playing for the Crimson Tide. Alabama was even losing top football prospects within the state—like Davis—to out-of-state powers like Southern Cal.

But nothing less than the 42-21 trouncing that Southern Cal administered that day could have dragged Alabama’s diehard segregationists—some of whom, it was said, were on the University’s Board of Trustees—into the 20th century.

It did not, as one of Bryant’s former players, Jerry Claiborne, famously said, “do more for integration in Alabama in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King, Jr. did in 20 years.” But it did, as one Southern Cal player points out in Against the Tide, give the University of Alabama some religion when it came to recruiting football players. The next year, the Crimson Tide had a black varsity player: John Mitchell. Mitchell, the first black player to start for Alabama, later became the first black assistant coach at the University. Stories like Mitchell's began to crop up elsewhere in the South: Ozzie Newsome, Alabama’s All-American receiver in the mid-1970s, went on to become the first black general manager in the National Football League, and Sylvester Croom, a center, one of the first black stars Bryant recruited after the SEC game, later returned as an assistant coach at Alabama and, in 2004, became, at Mississippi State, the first black coach in the SEC. 

Against the Tide might be the best college football documentary I’ve ever seen. The footage of these players and coaches as the eager and enthusiastic men they were in 1970 is artfully juxtaposed with images of the older and wiser men they are today as they recall the game and the era, and it’s impossible not be moved by stories of Wallace making his “Segregration Forever” speech while Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed water hoses and dogs on demonstrators. And it’s equally moving to see the evidence of just how far we’ve come.

But as powerful as it is, Against the Tide does little to dispel some of the myths that have attached themselves to that famous game.

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 McLain and linebacker Jackie Walker—were black. Why history has chosen to ignore this game and focus exclusively on 1970 Alabama-USC is a mystery.

Against the Tide also suggests that segregation cost Alabama a national championship when the two-time defending champion Tide went 11-0 in 1966 and yet finished third behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, both of whom were 9-0-1. While Alabama may have lost some votes from the country’s more progressive sportswriters in the AP poll for fielding an all-white team that year, many of Bryant’s friends in the UPI Coaches Poll also voted the Tide third behindthe Irish and the Spartans. And in fact, in 1969 the unbeaten Texas Longhornswon the national title despite fielding an all-white teams, beating out an equally unbeaten and integrated Penn State.

And yet another myth, perhaps the hardest to kill, is that after the game, Coach Bryant went into the Trojans locker room, “borrowed” Sam Cunningham, took him to his beaten players, and said “Gentlemen, this is a football player.” The incident is mentioned in a documentary film made about Coach McKay, but the story is purely fictitious. It was also written into a movie script that was never produced, written by former Southern Cal players John Papadockis and Mark Mouska.

In Against the Tide, though, narrator Tom Selleck suggests that it may or may not be true: “Legend has it," he begins the story. But if it did happen, not a single member of either team or their coaching staffs has ever verified it. Including Cunningham himself, who has insisted for years that he has no memory of Coach Bryant saying such a thing.

The game also did not bring about the integration of the Alabama football team; that was inevitable months before when Bryant offered a scholarship to Wilbur Jackson, a running back from Ozark, Alabama, who was in the stands watching the USC game. (As a freshman, according to Crimson Tide football blog Roll Bama Roll, he was ineligible to play that year under NCAA rules.)

Nor, in fact, did the players need convincing, as Against the Tide implies. As the white former Tide quarterback Scott Hunter told me when I was researching my biography of Bear Bryant, “We had no problem with recruiting black players. I thought we put ourselves at a disadvantage by not having the best black players on our team. I don’t know anyone I played with who didn’t think we had been ready for some time.”

One fact that is not in dispute, however, is that the game marked a turning point in Alabama football. The late Craig Fertig, who had been a quarterback for the Trojans in the early 1960s and later became an assistant coach at his alma mater, recalled to me that after the game, “I walked with Coach McKay across the field where he shook hands with Coach Bryant. I swear, Coach Bryant had a smile on his face.

"His team had just gotten whipped by three touchdowns, and here’s the man who John McKay had always told me hated to lose more than any man on Earth, and he’s smiling. I’ll never forget what he said. He said, ‘John, I can’t thank you enough.’”

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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