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.
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. 

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

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